Saturday, 18 March 2017

Highly Rated Pubs

With many pubs already facing difficult trading conditions, more misery is being heaped on the pub trade with huge rises in the amount of business rates to be paid following a revaluation exercise.  This can amount to as much as an extra 300% a year according to the Morning Advertiser. This could in fact be the last straw for many pubs and will certainly affect the viability of many more.

This is illustrated in my area by a tweet by Simon Crompton, owner of the Baum in Rochdale, a former CAMRA National Pub of the Year who revealed his charges would go up from £26,000 a year to £60,497.70 a year and those for the Healey Hotel, his other Rochdale pub which he leases from Robinson's, from £7,623 to £32,667.80.

Clearly such huge increases put business viability under severe strain. As remarked in the Morning Advertiser by another licensee, this time in London and facing a similar hike "We won’t have any pubs left".  Part of the problem is that rates are levied on turnover rather than profit and turnover in the licensed trade does not often give a true indication of viability as overheads are huge.  Rochdale On Line gives the exact breakdown of what this means for Simon's two pubs and for those interested in such things, it makes a good if sobering read.

The already hard life that independent operators have has just got harder and of course, in the end, the customer will be asked to pay.

I also urge you to follow the link to the Morning Advertiser. 

The Baum is Greater Manchester Pub of the Year. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Keep the Home Fires Burning

What has Admiral Lord Nelson got to do with Rochdale? Nothing it seems, other than I suppose being a national hero a long time ago.  So the Nelson Hotel in Rochdale, we can safely assume, is not actually connected to the one armed sea dog, but his likeness adorns the pub's sign nonetheless.  Until fairly recently the pub was run for many years, until his death, by a motor bike loving landlord who loved the TT races.  I often wondered as I went by on the bus, why the pub flew the Manx flag, but now I know.  Pubs can be interesting that way.

Anyway in pursuance of my endeavour of visiting (or visiting again in some cases) every Sam Smith pub in my CAMRA Branch area, I popped in on Wednesday night.  First problem was actually getting in. The door and passageway was blocked by an old geezer on a mobility scooter of bus like dimensions.  There was a bit of a stand off as we both considered the problem. He wasn't about to move and clambering over him would have been undignified, so I grabbed his handlebars and dragged him out onto the pavement.  Well I considered it, but he (somewhat reluctantly) turned his chair a little sideways and I scrambled around him with great difficulty and entered the inner sanctum.

It turned out to be quite a nice little boozer, with the bar facing you as you come in, a room on each side, one of which was nicely appointed, with a roaring fire and two old Asian gents, each dressed in a shalwar kameez, who appeared to have come in for a warm. Drinkless, they were arguing loudly in their native language. Kind of unusual even though this is a pretty Asian dominated area.  Inside the bar was another roaring open fire. Not often you see two in such close proximity. Even more so since there was only one other old codger within, soon to be joined by the door guardian who nearly ran his pal down as he reversed up the passageway into the bar, giving his companion's table a resounding knock as he did so. A few frank words in Lancastrian were exchanged, concluding with the traditional "Fuck Off."

No real ale here, so instead the somewhat 1970s illuminated plastic boxes favoured by Sams, showed three lagers, a mild, Keg Old Brewery Bitter and a cider.  I chose Double Four, but there wasn't any, so Taddy Lager it was, pleasant enough in its own way and a mere £2.20 a pint. Very reasonable for a 4.5% beer.

As I stood at the bar I surveyed the pub and decided I liked it. It was how pubs used to be and I reckon with a few in, it would be great fun.  I remarked to the barmaid who was busy putting more fuel on the fires that I wouldn't like her coal bill. Wisely she observed that as she was only the part time barmaid, that wasn't her problem. "Fair enough" I thought as I basked in the heat, taking in some rather good old photos of Rochdale and a decent tiled image of a sailing ship in the passageway.

Before I left my Asian companions did, and as I supped up, thanked the barmaid and departed, only the two old Rochdalians remained.  I could still hear them arguing as I walked down the road to the Regal Moon and Draught Bass.

I am pretty sure there is quite a step into this pub. God knows how the guy on the scooter got in.

This review here is worth a read. 

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Lots of Sam's

One of the things you can do on the background system to CAMRA's WhatPub, if you have the right permissions, is download all the data for your own CAMRA Branch area.  I gave it a go and did some number crunching, though I am fairly hobbled by being pretty unaccomplished at Excel.

Now I expected a lot of JW Lees and there is. They have a total of 86 of their pubs in our area.  What fascinated me though was the number of Sam Smith's pubs we have. No less than 30, most of which, if not all, must have been acquired by Sam's when they bought Rochdale and Manor Brewery in 1948 and closed it in 1968, though it continued to be a Sam's Depot until the seventies. (Funnily enough one of my friends from the Tavern worked at the brewery itself). I reckon we (Rochdale, Oldham and Bury Branch) must have one of  best concentrations of Sam's pubs in any CAMRA Branch area.  In fact our geographical area may well be the top one in the country, depending of course on how you choose to define such things.

Now like Mudgie I have quite a fascination for Sam's though unlike that esteemed commentator, I spend little time in them, apart from when in London and I want a cheaper pint - or just a good old fashioned boozer.  I have though met Humphrey Smith and briefly exchanged pleasantries with him - well I was pleasant and he was sarcastic - but it all counts.

Sadly though we have 30 Sam's pubs, only 4 sell real ale, which is a great pity, but the brewery is very careful about which pubs get cask. Too careful some might say and something we, CAMRA, must talk about. In fact it was querying the removal of cask from the Yew Tree that my odd encounter with Humph occurred, but I digress. It seems though to me that a bit of fun can be had by visiting the remaining Sam's pubs I haven't been to. After all they are mostly handy enough.

I'll let you know how I get on. It might take me a while though. I really don't get out enough.

I must write up my Christmas tour of a few London Sam's pubs at Christmas. I'm a bit behind on that one.

Trip Advisor has interesting reviews of the food at the Yew Tree. You can pick out Humphrey's failed centralising the food experiment easily enough. 

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Original and Best?

OK. That's Barr's Irn Bru, but when it comes to pilsner style lager, Pilsner Urquell is the one that begat all the others.  It has been the original since 1842 and the brewery makes much of its history. As for taste it describes the beer as refreshing, clean and balanced, but the beer is much more complex than that. Deeply satisfying to drink, it has rich malt, spicy hops, hints of toffee from the trademark diacetyl finish - one that most brewer's wouldn't want in a lager, but is there in this one by design - and a very smooth finish. It belies its modest strength of 4.4% and its natural carbonation makes it very easy drinking.

I was in London last week to see the Hockney Exhibition at the Tate and by good fortune it co-incided with an invitation by PU to visit the new Draft House in Plough Place and sample, under the tuition of  Beer Master Robert Lobovsky, the three different, approved pours that give different taste experiences. Along with Robert, Artisan Butcher Alex Sharp, talked about the prime Galloway beef cuts that we were to sample with each pour, fresh in tanks, unpasteurised and direct from Pilsen.

However this event wasn't about the taste of PU, as much as the mouthfeel and appearance of it, and there the complexity deepens. The head is absolutely paramount. The Czech classic Hladinka is a smooth, creamy serve, Na dvakrat has a crisp body topped with a thick foam and finally the Mliko is presented as virtually pure foam giving the most aromatic and sweet of serves.  It was all rather fun and the beers certainly did taste different. One interesting point to me was that the Hladinka pour is so reminiscent of the pour you get when a sparkler is correctly applied to well conditioned cask beer, with the head being formed at the bottom and the beer poured through it to keep it away from air. Think of that when someone carelessly pours you your next pint of flat cask.

Robert was a great host as was Alex. I did decline an offer to try pouring one myself. I doubt if it is as easy as it looks. Now my family comes from Galloway, so the meat was of particular interest and it was good to have an expert talk us through the cuts.  It was also good to bump into fellow invitees the Crafty Beeress and her husband and enjoy a couple of pints of PU afterwards with them.

So lessons learned - or in my case reinforced? Treat beer with respect and learn how to pour it properly and buy the best beef you can afford, even if it means less of it.

Tankovna beer is pretty widely available in London and elsewhere, particularly Albert's Schloss in Manchester which sells more than the rest of the UK put together. Thanks to PU for the invite.

The new Draft House has the same awful music as Seething Lane, but is a pretty good spot really.

Monday, 6 March 2017

It Didn't Happen

I often look at old blog posts to see what I was writing about years ago. A sort of  "On this day..." kind of thing.

On this day in 2009 I wrote about the Bull's Head in a village called Boreham Street which according to the BBC was being closed by Harveys. It is an interesting and detailed little piece by the BBC and just as relevant today with the same old reasons being given for closure.  Then six pubs a day were closing and now it is probably a fair bit less but still around three or four.

At the time Harveys hoped that a buyer could be found to keep it going as a pub, but said "Pubs have been adapting for the past 1,000 years, but to adapt as much as we've had to over the past few years is asking too much ................ The pub's been struggling for a few years now. We have to decorate every five years, and each time we do, it costs three years income - that's income, not profit." 

The article is still available on the BBC here and is well worth a read.  The whole sad story is laid out with a pointed reference to the fact that villagers bemoan  the loss of the pub but don't actually use it.  I finish my article by saying "You really do have to use it or lose it."

Reading my blog post again, I wondered what had happened to it. Eight years later would it be trading still? It seemed unlikely given what was said at the time, but I looked it up all the same. Amazingly it still is and even more amazing is that it is still owned by Harveys,  Judging by the website it is doing rather well which is good to hear.

What happened to change Harveys mind I wonder? Does anyone know?  Whatever it is, one thing still remains true. "Use it or lose it."

The pub is listed in the current Good Beer Guide and serves food every day. Looks all right too. It must be doing something right.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Thin Times Ahead?

Is it a sign of the times that London’s latest craft brewery is to focus entirely on low and no alcohol beer?  Nirvana Brewery Co, is a new craft brewery based in East London, is aiming to produce “great quality, full flavoured craft beers, but with low or no alcohol.”  Steve Dass, Co-Founder of Nirvana Brewing and said: “We want to create a range of alcohol free beers in a way without compromising on quality or taste. Ultimately, we want to produce a range of beers that can be enjoyed by those looking to cut down – as well as craft beer fans. The aim it seems is to target specialist craft bars etc in London and around the country.

 Interestingly the brewery mentions “We’ve already seen a huge rise of people wanting to drink non-alcoholic beer as part of a healthier lifestyle in both the UK and Europe.”  Now funnily enough I was reading yesterday in the German press about the fall of beer consumption, down by roughly a third since the seventies. “For years this number has slowly been going down,” Walter König of the Bavarian Brewers’ Association explained. As well as the fall off in lunchtime drinking Herr König mentions the public’s changed perspective on beer. "In people’s minds, beer is not healthy. Consuming anything that seems unhealthy has decreased… There is more health awareness, though with a false understanding - beer in moderation is healthy.”

The goes on to mention another aspect, not reflected in the statistics, is that more Germans are drinking alcohol-free beer. The nationwide German Brewers’ Association wrote in their annual report for 2016 that there are now about 400 different brands of alcohol-free beer - 50 more than the previous year. And every 20th litre of beer brewed in Germany is alcohol-free. So is Nirvana Brewery on to something?  The first thing to say about that is that Britain isn't Germany and it doesn't follow what happens there will happen here.  The history of no and low alcohol beers (NABLABS) in this country isn't exactly a glorious one. Frankly beers such as Kaliber and Whitbread White Label were pretty poor and nowadays while you may encounter the odd bottle of Beck's Blue or Clausthaler, you'd probably be advised to check its "best before" date before handing over your dosh.  You'll be just as unlucky if you fancy a low alcohol beer. When the Government reduced the duty on low alcohol beers it encouraged a rash of them, the vast majority of which lasted a few months before sinking without trace. That isn't to say that there aren't honourable exceptions, but you'll be unlikely to find them down your local.

The problem with low/no alcohol beers is that typically, they just don't taste very nice - ales taste thin and even German ones taste a bit odd when the alcohol is taken away.  The ambition of providing "a good quality craft beer that is full in flavour" as Nirvana hopes has proved to be a Will o' the Wisp for the industry as a whole. It would be a brave man that thought this will have a different outcome, though of course I wish them well. Nirvana aims to export their beer, but wait. Let's return to Herr König. "We can compensate for what’s not being drunk inland with export increases and alcohol-free beer,” he said. Looks like a fair bit of competition for Nirvana then.

Is history of NABLABS about to be overturned? Will this venture fly or are there thin times ahead?

I suppose that there are exceptions to the rule and one variable would be where you draw the line in deciding low in alcohol is low. 2%? 3 or more?  That will make a difference.  I still reckon that for no alcohol beer, there isn't a rosy outlook taste-wise. There will also be more possibilities if you drink at home rather than the pub though it will still be a hard find to source them. As usual, I talk from a pub perspective.

If you do want to take a punt on these kind of beers, the Independent and the Telegraph have some advice. Good luck.


Friday, 3 February 2017

A Different Version of Truth

Many of you will have read Mark Johnson's blog post on sexism and his "unfair" treatment at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival under the provocative title of "What Men Did Next".  The men in question being me and my good friend Graham Donning, Organisers of the said festival. In this hard hitting piece Mark explains how he was unfairly shut up when he wanted to ask the panel, which I chaired, that was discussing beery matters, for their views on sexism in the beer industry. It's a serious subject which Mark takes, well, very seriously.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

The underlying, implied but unspoken charge being that in objecting to his intervention that Graham and I are a couple of old unreformed sexists. Well we are over 60, so we must be mustn't we? Oh and of course we had chosen an all male panel, so guilty as charged.  Except it wasn't quite like that, but a little background first.  A bit of a case for the defence. Graham and I first met around 35 years ago at a Trade Union Education Seminar at what was then UMIST in Manchester. We have been friends from that day to this. We were both active trade unionists of long standing and both Chairmen of our respective branches, him in Barrow and me in Liverpool. The 1980's were a bit of an interesting time for trade unions and in Liverpool in the febrile Derek Hatton days, a lot was going on.  Of course representing members isn't all strikes and picket lines. It involved the mundane and the important, side by side. One of the things we sometimes had to do in those much less enlightened and male dominated times, was to represent female members who had been discriminated against on grounds of gender in cases such as lack of promotion, unfair treatment when needing to look after children, wishing to work part time or job share and other such instances of gender based bias.

That was the responsibility and it comes with the job. When you head up anything, when you represent people, you put your head above the parapet and lead. It doesn't bring you much thanks on a broad level, but that isn't the point.  The point is that from a very early stage in my adult development I was immersed in an organisation that rightly breathed and taught at courses such as the one mentioned above, the fundamental importance of gender equality. In short Graham and I have been involved in gender equality since before our accuser was born. And actually, we can prove it.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

Even during these days Graham and I were both involved in the Campaign for Real Ale and have been active in it ever since. We have been at the progressive end of the campaign for years and been responsible for many modernising changes. We have organised beer festivals galore and latterly - well for the last seven years large beer festivals such as the one in which Mark was stopped in his tracks. During that time we have tried hard to make the festival a forward looking one. We have tried to ban sexist materials and won't knowingly allow such stuff. We got rid of the T Shirt man and his dubious apparel, we have an active equality outlook and many of our bar managers and management team are women. We aren't perfect in an imperfect world, but we do what we can. We like to think that we get most things right given our background and we certainly always try.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

Of course though, in the real world things don't always work out. Mark scoffs at an all male panel and implies sexism again. Not that simple I'm afraid. It is fiendishly difficult to get such a panel together in the first place. One tends to look to people that you know will fit the bill and while I know lots of people in the trade, I don't necessarily know lots of people who are suitable and willing. I had one female brewer in mind, but she is no longer in the trade and I did put out an appeal on Twitter with no takers. Of course I could have done more, but funnily enough there are a million and one other things to do in organising a large beer festival. But for the record, I did try.

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

So why did I not allow Mark to put his reasonable question "What does the panel think about sexism within the beer trade?"    (or similar). The simple answer is that he didn't say that or anything like that when chosen (by me) to speak.  At the beginning of the debate, following on from last year's experience of speechifying from the audience on their pet subjects, I made it clear that the audience should only ask the panel a question and that speeches from the floor instead of questions wouldn't be allowed. Instead Mark related an incident about a pump clip that his girlfriend had found offensive and extremely upsetting. As his story went on, I cut him off as he hadn't asked a question, just as I had done with two others earlier.  As I understand it, Graham's intervention from the side was complaining that Mark hadn't drawn the incident to any organiser's attention when it happened on the Wednesday when it could have been dealt with.  (Wouldn't that have been reasonable? Confront the sexism when you come across it rather than days later?)  Mark ran from the debate, shouting many things as he stormed off, telling Graham who offered to discuss the pump clip with him, to "Fuck Off (or similar)."  Other words were uttered too, but not all decipherable.

 "Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

By the way, if I had been trying to gag Mark, I 'd hardly have invited him to put a question. I've chaired thousands of meetings and know how to ignore those I don't want to hear from. So why didn't I give Mark a second chance? There wasn't a chance to do so as this all took a matter of a minute or so - and there he was - gone. (I have to say that Matt Curtis did indeed grab a mike to say that sexism was a very important subject worth discussing as indeed it is - though I should point out that contrary to what is alleged,  Matt knew exactly who was on the panel well beforehand and raised no objections to it. Indeed he praised it.)

"Two male organisers of the festival decided that the four male panellists didn't need to discuss sexism in beer."

I've chaired enough meetings to know that unless you want the meeting hi-jacked, you may well have to curtail those that want to exercise a hobby horse even if that hobby horse actually does need a trot out.  That's the Chair's responsibility to the audience. As mentioned before I did that with two others who wanted to give speeches. They didn't ask a question of the panel either, but they accepted being told it wasn't allowed. Throwing a strop and unfairly implying it is due to sexism when you don't get your own way is as distasteful as sexism itself. This wasn't an attempt to stifle debate, but simply a response to a member of the audience ignoring the conditions set by the person who chaired the debate. Losing self control, storming out shouting and swearing is rank bad behaviour and more importantly, it doesn't advance the cause.

This was all most unfortunate, depressing and unanticipated. I hope I have recalled it correctly as it was over in a flash. I will say however that when people with a long and proud record of representing other are branded sexists in public, there is a need to put the record straight. 

I thought long and hard about writing this, but given the circumstances, I felt I had to. There's plenty more I could add, but this'll do.

The pumpclip instance is a hard one to have got wrong.  The fact that it is approved by a female brewer shows just what a minefield this area is. No we didn't spot it - our bad - but we don't order from many breweries on distasteful pumpclip grounds and have told them so. As I said, we are not perfect and can no more control volunteer staff to the nth degree, than we can change human nature. But we do what we can, while still trying to organise a massive beer festival.
Point of Information: I also met my partner of 30 years at a Trade Union Meeting in Preston.   

Friday, 27 January 2017

Too Many Breweries? Probably.

Before I was diverted from sitting on my arse doing sod all by Manchester Beer and Cider Festival (MBCF) - more of which soon - I put up a little poll about whether there are too many breweries in the UK.

Now I had a kind of idea that the answer would be "Yes" and indeed that proved the case with 57% of the respectable 103 respondents agreeing that there are. Only 28% thought that there aren't too many breweries with 14% undecided. most respondents have a pretty good interest in beer and pubs I imagine and likely a fair knowledge of the issues, so I'm reasonably confident that the result reflects a general feeling of unease about the seemingly unstoppable growth of new breweries in the UK.

While at MBCF I took the opportunity to ask brewers big and small what they thought. Tellingly they more or less all thought there are too many and a shake out is ahead. Not them of course though. It is hard to be sure, but with dog eat dog at the lower cask end, regional brewers as the squeezed middle and too many brewers chasing too few opportunities you can't help but think something must give. Whether you are big or small, one thing is for sure, if you have found a niche or market that suits you and makes you money, stick to it and nurture it.

And for those that aren't in such a happy place, better find one quickly or you might be heading for the rocks.

One thing though. Brewers are the most amazing optimists. They have a propensity to find a way round problems which is wholly impressive.

Oh. And you must make good beer. There is a feeling around that quality needs to be upped and the smart ones recognise that. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Live at MBCF (3)

Well it's all happening or happened here. A great crowd, fantastic beer and the two biggest days still to go. OK, my knees are knackered but today's highlights include a very tasty brekkie from Greggs - don't knock it you snobs - seeing loads of friends and my lass laughing a lot with cask beer in her hand - the wonderful apple and pork pies from the Crusty Pie Company, a very inadvisable hat photo and last, but by no means least, the couple who were chucked out for shagging in the toilets.

Now you may think the latter outcome was unfair and  I must admit the rules of the festival are silent about sexual intercourse in the privacy of trap one of the ladies - we'll learn from that one - but in fairness to the complainant, her pint, carefully placed on the floor of the adjacent cubicle while she did her business,  was knocked over by the vibrating wall of the trap next door. That was a step too far. This is a beer festival after all. You can't have rampant passion at the cost of someone's ale.The complaint was upheld and the miscreants ejected - albeit grinning widely.

This was a tricky situation, but looking at this as a whole, two very satisfied customers - albeit taking no further part in proceedings - can't be a bad thing. Please don't try this at home though. Keep your beer well away from such shenanigans.

I understand that the stewards called to this unpleasant scene decided to wait until events had reached their natural conclusion. Discrete or what?
Just been called to another Health and Safety incident. A guy fell off a chair while blowing up a balloon. "I'm alright" he said," but the balloon got away as I fell over."


Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Live from MBCF (2)

Two and a half hours to go before the Trade Session and it is looking good. Site teams are finishing some of the bespoke stuff like brewery bars, Bar Managers are getting pumpclips on, doing price signs, checking quality and much more. The place now has the appearance of a beer festival though there is some tidying up to do. Most of the food stalls have set up, beer judging has started and we are getting there.

Update. Events overtook me and it is now less than half an hour to opening. We are now though much more ready. Hi Viz off, hall inspection with Security passed. Health and Safety good to go.  We might even have a few hundred beers available

I need to go now. Duty calls, but I could do with a pint. Now less than 25 minutes!

Eventbrite - our ticket people - intervened. God they are complicated in many ways and hard to contact in every way.

Now 20 minutes to that beer.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Live From MBCF

Or the "Big Cold One" as it is now.  This is the first of a number of posts live from Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. If I have time of course.

Today is day three of set up and it is starting to look like a beer festival. The bars are mostly built, the beer is all up, cooling is starting to flow and there are fewer of the myriad of jobs left to do.  The odd thing is that it is the little things that take time such as signage, pricing and cask end cards and many more - such that these are the things you suddenly run out of time on. The food stalls have started to arrive led by the Crusty Pie Company, familiar to anyone who has experienced GBBF. The various brewery bars are being built, keg walls being set up, containers being shunted into cold stores and bottle fridges put in place. Foreign beers have arrived, the foyer is coming together and the cider lads have started grading the cider.  Now Cider grading is a mysterious tasting ritual driven no doubt by the need to ensure the cider producer knows what he or she is talking about when they describe the appley delight as dry, medium or sweet and points in between of course. I am assured that it is nothing to do with getting a head start on the supping.

I have been busy with various stuff including Health and Safety and a load of more mundane items as well as spending time with a university student who is studying Event Management. She seemed impressed by the scale of things. It is a big place.  Oddly she doesn't drink beer but says she is looking forward to trying some to see if we can change here mind.

We'll try and that reminds me. The membership stand is setting up too!

The photo shows the festival from the inside. Literally. Behind some of the many bars.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Sticking to the Knitting

Being a moaning man I've mentioned that over the festive period I've not been well. I'm still not 100% and one of the casualties in this has been beer. In the last four weeks I haven't really felt like drinking any and on the few occasions times I did, the after effects knocked eight bells out of me.  Not that I got particularly pissed or ill, but it made me even less inclined to have some the next day.  Fortunately that's receding.

Now I may have mentioned my local brewer is JW Lees. Or have I? Maybe  not. Well it is - or they are -  and it is that brewery that has provided me with liquid sustenance on the times when I felt like a beer and on Sundays when I went to my local to meet my friends even when I didn't fancy it.  Man does not live by Lemsip (or generic equivalent alone.)  Now I like Lees beer. Frankly, living where I do, if you don't like Lees then get out of town and while I have my ups and downs with the output - and who doesn't - over all the years I've lived here, despite my nearness to Manchester, it is still Lees I sup mostly. I'd guess these days around 4 in every 5 pints is one of John Willies. It is rarely a hardship.

Fortunately Lees Bitter is going through a bit of a purple patch. The beer is clean, bitter-sweet and moreish.  I had a couple of pints with Paul Wood, Lees Brewhouse Manager who lives near me last week and when I remarked that everyone was praising the beer at the moment, he replied that "the yeast is behaving itself". That apparently is the real secret. If the yeast is being a good lad, then your beer, if all other processes are followed precisely, will be as you intend. That bitter interspersed with the seasonal Plum Pudding - a brilliant incarnation of a perennial favourite - has sustained me, throughout my feeling unwell.  That and being in the company of people I know in my local and one or two others - all Lees pubs - where I do most of my supping. Much is said about wonderful micros, but when you just need good beer and good cheer, traditional breweries and their pubs have a lot going for them.  Their commitment and passion is every bit as strong as the feistiest new brewer and when you want to swoop a few well made, easy drinking beers, then there is little better.

At this year's Manchester Beer and Cider Festival there will be an Independent Family Brewer's of Britain Bar. I'm not sure how many we have, but certainly around 20. Don't overlook them amongst all the exotics and you know there may even be a surprise or two.

One surprise is cask conditioned Lees Harvest Ale, a cheeky little 11% number which is a bit of a cult beer in the USA. It is nearly always bottled, so a lot of a coup.

We'll also have Cloudwater's last cask production too. That might be a bit of a draw as well.

The photo is of course of JW Lees himself. John Willie to his friends. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Too Many Breweries?

Amid all the heat generated by Cloudwater's decision to abandon cask beer, one or two key points started to emerge. Firstly there was a not wholly - well maybe by no means - accepted allegation that certain brewers cannot make money out of selling cask beer and a secondary and sort of glossed over one that links to it, is that there are too many breweries seeking too few accounts.

Now let's start with the first one and its ancillary argument that cask beer is more expensive to produce. Well that does kind of fly in the face of what has been going on since keg beer was invented. Since that point, keg beer  - or rather brewery conditioned beer - whether it be from kegs or tanks has always been more expensive. Where the two are sold side by side keg beer is always more expensive. If it is proprietary lager or a national brand, it has always been more expensive and it still is.  Who can doubt that?  Just go into any pub and see for yourself.  I don't intend to go into the many variables that change that for individual breweries, but these will include, ingredients, kit, how tight the operation is run on one side and on the other side, to whom and where he or she sells their beer and for how much. Neither list is exhaustive.  Is there a degree of tradition in this? A kind of hangover from the past? I sort of doubt it. Keg beer was more expensive when we had the big six brewers and they didn't do that for no good reason. It simply cost them more to make it.  It is only traditional in the sense that it has always been like that - but for a good reason.

Does that still apply nowadays? Well yes it does and some reckon it shouldn't.  The argument goes roughly "if cask is a premium products, then why doesn't it command a higher price?"  Superficially one might agree, but it doesn't take long to demolish the argument. Cask beer per se isn't a premium product though some cask undoubtedly is. Some is more or less commodity and some is in between. Also there is no guarantee that what you buy will be sold in the sort of condition that would command a supplement. (In fact a lot of keg beer on presentation alone, shouldn't command a premium either but that's a different argument.) Cask beer is a much more perishable product than keg. It has to be "priced to go". If you want to see the argument taken apart, read this from Phil's Blog.  Special pleading by breweries who reckon their operation is different/ better/more exclusive don't cut much ice with Phil or indeed me.  This kind of sums it up for me: " 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."

I'd contend that is a persuasive point and that attempts to artificially raise the price of cask beer are doomed to failure. Thus it is that certain breweries look for a way round this by using their capacity to produce higher margin keg or - even better - small package beer - as this market is far less congested and margins still exist. This has legs - in the short term at least - as this is a less congested market. 

So back to the other side of this which is alleged over supply is pushing prices down.  There must be a degree of truth in this, but there are several flies in this ointment.  Even if we shake out some breweries, we can't guarantee to shake out the right ones. You only need to read Dave Bailey's Blog here to understand that isn't likely to happen. Nobody would suggest Dave is a bad brewer, but he is seemingly in a bad place. In the meantime, all the hobby brewers, regionals and nationals will undercut him and others. With nearly 2000 breweries, just how many would need to go to make the market a better place? Even if a third went, would that guarantee anything? I doubt it.  On the keg side there are uncomfortable times ahead. The big boys, using the craft beer companies that they have purchased are sniffing around. The multi nationals are loan tying lines left, right and centre. Strikes me things will get worse unless you really know your business, your market and your customers. One thing is sure. If you don't have a reputation for great beer, you are likely to be in trouble of some kind. Sadly, even if you do have such a reputation, there is no guarantee you'll survive.

Are there too many breweries? Probably. Would many fewer solve the underlying problems of brewing beer profitably in the UK? Probably not.  Beer wise, we live in interesting times.

As I started to write this, I realised I was tying myself in knots, so this is a truncated version just to get the main points across.

Please take the survey which is simple enough. I was going to do a binary choice of yes/no until I realised I don't really know myself.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Nothing Much to See Here. Move Along

I was woken yesterday by a tweet from a branch member to advise me that Manchester's Cloudwater Brewery was to cease brewing cask beer. Now my first thoughts were "Oh. Not sure I like that", but reading Paul Jones piece about why they came to this conclusion, I started to see the simple truth, varnished though it was by the usual red herrings about low prices, bloody CAMRA and poor cellarmanship. "We took the decision to make more money from the same production and had to really, as we don't make a profit currently".  My paraphrase, but who can blame them then? Certainly not me. A brewery has to make money and when you have limited capacity and bills to pay, using tank space for a low margin products when you can small package and keg beers for the same effort and make lots more money on them - then you can see the point - while not necessarily agreeing with some of the supporting "evidence."

Matt Curtis and Ed Ray (and maybe others) have given their thoughts on this and you can take your pick which one you go along with. Matt takes the view that it is mostly down to low prices commanded by cask beer in the trade and a more questionable claim that cloudy cask beer produced by Cloudwater is also a factor. (For my part most cask I have had from Cloudwater has been perfectly clear, but opacity is a divisive factor that inhibits some modern producers of cask beer. There is a resistance to non clear cask beer - rightly in my view -  so only one point deducted there.)  Matt's other point about pricing and discounting is true and he blames drinkers for this. I am not so sure that this stands up to scrutiny though, as discounting is driven by the sheer number of cask brewers - nearly 2000 - competing in a diminishing pool and having the advantage of progressive beer duty.  Publicans often buy on price alone and if the beer is no good, then there are plenty more to choose from. I'd contend that the punter is the victim of this discounting, not the source of it. Prices are dictated by what the pubs charge in a competitive market. The customer has little say at all and often has to endure some bloody awful beers.

Ed points out a couple of things in Paul's statement that he disagrees with. Firstly on price of cask beer and secondly on the notion that somehow it is CAMRA's fault. This idea that CAMRA demands cheap beer is a pernicious one, but it simply isn't true.  Many CAMRA members, like many other people are price concious and why shouldn't they be if living on a fixed income in retirement as many do? But it isn't some kind of edict from CAMRA Central and anyway, CAMRA members have much less influence on the trade that many imply.  Ed concludes "let's face it, this side of libertarian communism you can't get away from the need to make money."  Can't argue with that any more than "if you haven't got the money, you can't buy expensive beer." (My quote not Ed's).

I have a couple of points of my own to make. Firstly the business model set up by the brewery has not proved robust enough to sustain the brewery going forward. After a couple of years it  has had to be reviewed and changed. 23% of Cloudwater's capacity is cask beer, falling from 45% in their first year. Already it is clear that the switch away from cask though isn't to keg, but small package - cans in this case.  Keg production will remain roughly the same, so cask is being replaced by the most profitable part of brewing. Shrewd move if you can sell it.

Another point I'd mention is that while the Americanisation of some of the modern British Brewing sector has brought many benefits, it has also introduced to some extent, overheads and risks. It is expensive to tie up strong beer in wood. It is expensive to have a team of brewers playing around with recipes, it is expensive to spend time on collaborations, tap takeovers, Meet the Brewer and messing about with other brewing pals. Constant "innovation" is costly too.  Maybe these aren't luxuries or nice to haves in that niche, but it certainly carries risk and relies on gaining a place in the market amongst other breweries doing the same thing. It also relies on the willingness of the public to pay for these things in higher prices. There is still in the UK  a narrow appetite for fancy and limited beer releases as Paul bemoans in his piece.  Maybe we'll never queue for hours in the UK for such delights?  The UK isn't the US - and sometimes that has to be remembered.

So to sum up, Cloudwater want to leave a low return, thankless cask market for a fun, innovative and much more profitable sector of brewing. A less "All things to all men approach". We shouldn't moan or blame them. For them it is clearly the right decision. Even if some of the supporting arguments, aren't 100% persuasive, the money one is.  Fortunately there are plenty of smashing cask breweries to replace them. Of the 2000 breweries in the UK, I'd guess 95% brew cask beer.  It is business that's all and the gap will be filled imperceptibly.  It isn't the end of cask conditioned beer, or even the beginning of the end. The way you make money from cask is to distribute fairly locally, keep a tight grip of costs, gain a good reputation and stick to your knitting. Plenty know that and will succeed.

Paul Jones says "Cask beer should take pride of place in every bar and pub". He is right and equally he has every right to say - though he doesn't, "but sadly, it won't be our cask beer."  He isn't announcing the death knell of cask beer. He is just doing the right thing for his business, that's all.  Nothing wrong with that.

If my maths is right then Cloudwater sold on average 56 nines of cask beer a week.  Not a huge figure and slack that will easily be taken up.

There are however lessons to be learned, the main one being that in some cases, the most highly thought of modern breweries won't produce cask.  Maybe they just can't in the kind of world they inhabit.  Maybe they just don't get it due to American influence?

I'll also add that both Ed and Matt make valid cases. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Going Dutch

The news that Heineken is buying most of the tied pub estate of Punch Taverns has been written about on one hand as a great and confident nod to the future of the British pub and by by others as the return of the pre Beer Orders beer world.  Is either position really the case?

Ẁith the addition of 1900 pubs to its existing 1100 or so, soon Heineken will control over 3000 pubs and will apply, I assume, their rules to their new tenants. This will allow the tenants (in theory) access to a maximum of 176 cask beers, mainly chosen from big brewers.  On the contrary, one of the good things about Punch in their latter days was the ability of its tenants to buy from far and wide, mainly through SIBA, though of course, Punch did apply their mark-up to the end product invoice. This allowed access to hundreds of beers. Jeff Bell describes the process here for those interested in it.  As far as I know, Star Inns and Bars (Heineken's pub arm), allow no such flexibility. Indeed their tenants in my area tell me that far from being allowed access to the whole Heineken list, there is usually a much smaller list from which they must choose and requests for access to the bigger list, imperfect though it is,  are stonewalled by area managers.  One must assume that is done on grounds of profit, by Heineken purchasing and selling large volumes of a small amount of brands, led of course by their wholly owned offshoot, Caledonian Brewery.  It puts Star Inns and Bars tenants at a considerable disadvantage over rivals who are not so hidebound.

Now the Beer Orders have been long since revoked and funnily enough, Punch were in the process of really cleaning their act up - a process presumably approved of by Heineken, as they have stumped up £305 million to take control - but will this massive tie really be good for choice? Heineken are clearly aware of this concern and issued a statement to the London Evening Standard. Reading this rather bland and wishy washy set of "assurances" you may not exactly be reassured.  Lawson Mountstevens, head of Heineken’s Star Pubs & Bars UK estate, told the Standard: “Our plan is to keep great London pubs as high-quality venues."  He added: "Around 15% of the brands we sell in each of our existing pubs are not owned by us, so we use regional cask-ale brewers such as Fuller’s. I want to reassure sceptics that, subject to the deal for us buying the Punch pubs completing, we will aim to keep up this policy of selling a number of non-Heineken beers.”. 

Convinced? Me neither. A huge loss of choice will do nothing for the dog eat dog situation of over supply and may well see off quite a few brewers as markets close to them. In this respect we are indeed heading back to the closed markets pre Beer Orders. The Good Old Days?  For Heineken, maybe.

Heineken's boast of maintaining choice looks much less attractive of you look at it as Heineken selling 85% of brands they own in pubs.

To save you the arithmetic Heineken are paying an average of £160,000 a pub. Their partner,  Patron Capital will retain and run the 'Punch B' pubs of which there are 1,329 as well as TopCo. 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Decent Drop. Or Two

Frankfurt isn't exactly known as a beer paradise. It has a few brew-pubs of no distinction and actually, in the centre at least, not that many pubs at all, though there are one or two gems.  Having said that, it isn't all about beer in Germany and with E's brother in tow, we enjoyed a few days there a couple of weeks ago.

The plan was basically to visit at least two Christmas markets, a couple of churches and for me at least, to drink a bit of cider, known locally as apfelwein and a regional speciality which I've written about before.  There is almost always beer at German Christmas markets, but it is usually cheap and generic and as Frankfurt is home to Binding brewery, that was the beer of availability, though we did come across the odd Henninger tap, brewed also these days, by, well, Binding.  You can tell how much an area cares about its beer in various ways and one sure give-away is that where the name of the brewery isn't displayed on the tap, the "care about beer quotient" is low. That's Frankfurt. Or maybe the whole state of Hessen.  If you asked what beer they had, they answered "Ordinary beer and weissbier."

Now Binding Pils isn't bad. Technically perfect and all that, but boringly forgettable. We did stumble across a couple of decent boozers though. In one, just off the main market a fairly tipsy Santa was supping beer and gluewein and conversing loudly with a group of  boisterous, black and yellow bedecked Borussia Dortmund fans, there for the game against Eintracht.  He was still there, around three hours later when we came back to the market outside, but very much the worse for wear and still in his red and white suit. Whatever his duties were, they had clearly fallen by the wayside.  It was at this point I got a beer worth drinking. At a nearby market stall, I was offered a dark beer which was absolutely delicious. In third of a litre measures, this was lushly malty, aromatic  and fruity with a good alcoholic kick which gave a warming glow as the evening chilled. A bit of an enquiry later I found out that I was drinking Carolus, Binding's Doppelbock.  It was so good I had three which certainly sent me on my way rejoicing!  If you are in the neck of the woods at Christmastime, seek it out.

But what of the apfelwein I hear you ask? The mecca is Apfelhaus Wagner in Sachsenhausen. I wrote about it here in 2010 and it hasn't changed a bit. We enjoyed - or rather I did - a jug of the house  cider which was pretty good, though I recommend Apfelwein Dax for  a sheer no nonsense cider house which also sells beer in the shape of Brauerei Hoelzlein from Franconia.  The food is tremendous there too, but the boisterous, friendly atmosphere is pretty much unrivalled in the area. The cider is bloody good too. Go there.

One word of warning about the state of Hessen. It isn't very pubby at all. Wiesbaden with its lovely Dom (cathedral) is rescued by its Andechs owned Ratskeller but nothing else if the market was not in operation.  We called into Mainz too to visit the thousand year old and utterly entrancing Dom. A couple decent pubs there, but mainstream beer was the order of the day. Still, at least we found pubs.

Mind you, Mainz isn't in Hessen, but is the capital of the Rhineland Palatinate. Maybe that tells you something.

I chalked up three cathedrals in this visit. I recommend them all, but Frankfurt's is scarcely original due to the attentions of the RAF in 1944.  the same can be said though of the entire city centre. Go to Sachsenhausen. Wiesbaden was spared the bombing and is recommended for its architecture.  Mainz seemed ordinary enough but gets marks for its decent pubs and the outstanding red sandstone Dom.

 One other thing. The strength of cider is not stated in the pubs.  It seemed strong enough to me, but is mostly around 4.5% - 6% alcohol.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

What's In a Name?

When it comes to modern day mild, plenty it seems.  Many brewers of mild have changed the name of the product to something considered more appealing. One of the first I recall was Brains, whose famous mild was renamed "Dark".  Others have done so including my own local brewery, JW Lees whose award winning mild (GB Mild was Champion Mild of Britain) to Brewer's Dark in an attempt to widen its appeal, alas without much success if local volumes are anything to go by. Resisting this trend though is Joseph Holt whose name resolutely and defiantly remains as "Mild". But the point remains the same, that mild is in deep decline and even Holt's have succumbed to the trend. Where it would once have been unthinkable to go into a Joey's house and find no mild, now it is more or less the norm, though as in the case of JW Lees, stubborn, loyal  pockets of mild drinking remain.

Another factor which needs to be taken into account is that mild, whatever it is called, is sometimes only able to be presented in cask form because of the relative success of smooth dark beer, the volumes of which allow cask beer to be sold where it is still required and without which, there would perhaps be none at all. Smooth and cask beer in these circumstances have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, which is all to the good for us as likes a pint of mild now and then.

Now, oddly enough, this isn't a post singing the praises of mild, though readers of this blog will know I mention it now and then such as in this post. When the Landlady ran the Tavern, my local, she sold Lees Brewer's Dark as a standard beer, though sales weren't high, but our current landlord John sticks to smooth mild beer, while pushing the range of seasonals that Lees brew and, on occasion, the lesser known of Lees standard beers. This was the case last Sunday when on the bar appeared Lees's other mild, Supernova. Now this is a tweaked version of Brewer's Dark, but much fruitier and with a more complex taste profile. On the few times I see it, I buy it. It is lush.  John, our beloved landlord was pushing it for all its worth and it was interesting, in a packed pub, to see so many drinking it, both young and old, women and men.  Whenever I looked up from our table the pump was being cranked and it was good to see so many drinking it. I somehow doubt that if it had been "Brewer's Dark" it would have sold nearly as well. The name helped. A lot.

I believe many regular producers of mild (not all, before someone corrects me) have given up on the name "mild", but this shows that when you have a good beer, the name is attractive and you push it, mild can still sell. OK. It will never achieve the heights it once did, but a swoopable, dark, creamy, cask conditioned beer like this is low calorie, weak in alcohol and can add variety, a great drinking experience and attract itself to new customers.

Mild can sell, so don't overlook it. Two things though. An attractive name helps, but essential is that tight, creamy head.  Watery, flat beer is a general abomination, but much more so when it is dark. Sparkle dark beers, push them a bit and watch them fly out.
Brewers Dark  is a fine beer, but publicans reading this, try Supernova and sparkle it.  And readers please remember. Mild beer is for joyous gulping, not sipping.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

At the Margins

No, I haven't stopped blogging. It just seems like it. It is over three weeks since I did, but largely this is because CAMRA life has intervened in the shape of Rochdale Beer Festival - very successful thanks for asking - where I managed the bar and the beer - and of course looming on the horizon and giving off as much black smoke as a Russian aircraft carrier, is Manchester Beer and Cider Festival which for me, as Deputy Organiser, means lots of work, lots of prep and lots of coats to hold as differences of opinion rear their heads. Yes, your hero Tandleman is a peacemaker.  Oh and if I didn't have enough to do, I have just sent off our local CAMRA Magazine to the publisher and am awaiting the proof. It has been busy, busy, busy.

So what has caught my eye in between all this stuff? Well an article in the Daily Telegraph that's what.  Seems our chums in Fullers have been selling less beer and making more money. That's a good trick on one hand, though clearly not on the beer selling other. So how has this neat little manoeuvre been achieved?  Well it seems craft beer is the answer. Despite the total beer and cider sales falling by a rather alarming 4 percent, it seems that sales of craft beer have risen considerably and Fullers Beer Company has grown profit by no less than 8 percent against a background of a switch to higher end drinks. Also hidden in the midst of all of this is the observation that profits in tenanted pubs fell while those in managed pubs rose. This reflects a trend of breweries and indeed Pub Companies with tenanted or mixed tied estates switching their focus in bigger houses to management. This is just one more move away from the traditional model of pubs and beer that pertained for so many years and is significant.

So back to craft beer.  It isn't necessarily volumes of sales that are the salvation of Fullers profits, but a most basic of trading concepts.  It is all about margin. You can sell craft beer, especially in house produced craft beer such as Frontier for a bigger price.  Who'd have thunk that? If you actually produce that beer yourself and convince your customers of its worth, you can charge more for it without it actually costing you that much more to make. Once it is more widely understood that not only is craft beer attracting the more price insensitive customer, but you can make big money from it then you can actually see where the likes of ABInBev are going with their current policy of buying up craft breweries. Pennies are dropping all over the place.   Many of the smaller regionals are already going that way - think of Adnams as a good example and maybe even the likes of JW Lees will be selling beer in fancy 330ml cans to join the gaderene rush before too long?  How meaningful - if it ever was meaningful - is the term "craft" now?

And what about the purveyors of murk - sorry cutting edge breweries in their cold railway arches? Back to the niche I'm afraid.   That's their place in global brewing as the big boys circle. The times are changing.

I'll be writing about Manchester Beer and Cider Festival before too long. I'm going to tell you about the grub. You'll like it

When I get back from Frankfurt that is. Apfelwein anyone?

Friday, 28 October 2016

Restaurant or Pub?

Pub Curmudgeon is often banging on about pubs behaving like restaurants and instead of treating food as a supplement to drinking, they reserve all the tables to the detriment of customers who just fancy a pint or two. Mainly his complaints centre around questions such as "Are you dining with us today?" It's a fair point and it can be dispiriting if all the tables are set out for diners, with cutlery, menus and whatnot and have reserved signs on them, especially if the tables aren't occupied. Rightly, the German system of saying when a table is available until is recommended, but rarely seen in the UK.

A pub I used to frequent rather a lot is Lees Horton Arms, set under the motorway bridge in Chadderton and in quite a rural looking setting. It was always a really good, slightly upmarket, wet led pub and, when I first knew it, a Lees managed house with a legendary landlord, ex policeman Peter O'Neill though for many years after his time, a tenancy. I got to know a lot of the locals there and for quite a while, a gaggle of them used to come up to the Tavern for a drink on a Sunday, cementing relationships even more.  Two or three years ago, the pub was renovated, with a much loved side room becoming a dining area and a lovely new set of toilets built, replacing the somewhat tired ones.  The pub was given a modern look from its previous horsebrass forward incarnation, developed over years no doubt. New chairs and tables and various modern pictures and bric-a-brac together with a renovated kitchens, with proper home cooked food as opposed to Lees standard managed house menu, complete the picture. It's done rather well, if impersonally though a row of poseur tables in front of the bar creates a somewhat crowded look in front of the bar and jars somewhat.  Mudgie will be gratified to know bench seating mixes with other types and it seems to work well.

Knowing the place gets very busy and fancying having my tea out, last night I booked a table for me and E.  At six o'clock the pub was mobbed, with some of my old acquaintances still there, though relegated to a small corner of the bar, not spread out as they used to be. By far most of the customers were dining. This isn't the first time we have eaten here and the place was pretty full and everyone seemed to be having a great time. What of the beer? Fantastic quality Lees including on cask, that rarest of beasts cask Lees Mild in the shape of Brewer's Dark.  The Horton was always a bastion of cask mild and thankfully still is.  Four Lees beers in total, as well as Bohemia Regent. This was always a pub with plenty of locals and even though they have a little less space nowadays, they are still there and I dare say as it gets quieter later, many will still be coming in just for a drink. The food too, in generous portions, was delicious and the landlady, who I know from both here and the Tavern came over for a friendly natter, as did a few of my old drinking pals. I enjoyed myself immensely, for a great atmosphere, tip top beer and smashing food.

This seemed to me the best of both worlds in many ways and no doubt makes a lot more money than it did before and yes, I miss the place how it was, but this was really rather good and you can still buy a pint at the bar without the dreaded question.

It can work.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

When in Rome

Don't drink beer essentially. Apart from the fact that it is cripplingly expensive, it is piss poor. Rome is the home of Peroni and that's what you get everywhere near enough, except in these places that charge just as much for it as Peroni places, but give you something generic for the same price. And it isn't Nastro Azzuri, the premium stuff, but the weaker and poorer Rosso, a red label beer, not red in colour, but as poor a lager as you are likely to come across.  How much then? Generally for 0.2l, around €4 and upwards of €6 for 0.4 - and more if in a nice square. I was soon cured of it, even when offered in our hotel, in the happy hour, for half price. This is a "not worth it at any price" beer.  What about craft? Well, there was some, with un-named bottles sold at loony prices here and there. Far better to drink local wine and watch the world go by.

But that was old Rome. Tourist Rome in spades if you will. A walk across the river to the area of Trastevere does not bring any relief at all from the prices and it is still touristy, but you do find a little variety in mass produced lager.  You can safely ignore this though.  Why drink Morretti or Porretti when you can drink craft from the many little craft beer bars lurking in the pretty streets and on a sunny day, I was in the mood for a beer.  We repaired to the two bars which everyone tells you are a must.  Our first port of call was Bir&Fud, one of two bars in a quiet square in the back streets. Narrow and thin with three little tables at the front, this offers a veritable cornucopia of Italian brewed craft beers. The narrowness of the pub is offset by bigger rooms behind, but we sat outside in  the front while a gaggle of voluble Italian lads and a solitary lass scoffed beers and laughed a lot. My Hammer Brewery Saison was as good a beer as I'd had in a while - spicy, hoppy and very moreish - so good I had two - while Eileen liked her Italian lager, though muttered a bit about its haze.  The pub was quiet though and I reckon it might get a bit frantic there when busy, but we were greeted warmly enough, the beer was bloody good and, by Rome standards, cheap. Beers were mostly €6 depending on strength and it seemed you just got smaller glasses as the strength went up. Not a bad system at all.  

Across the road is Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà, beloved  of luminaries such as Stonch who praised it to the heavens years ago. Again it was fairly quiet and again, the beer was bloody good. E enjoyed her imported German Pilsner - can't remember which - but, to her immense satisfaction, clear as a bell, while my Rurale 5 Seta Special was a Belgian style wit with bergamot, which again called for two. Same as its sister place across the road, I wouldn't fancy my chances later in the evening, but it was sure charming enough and the same prices applied.

So when in Rome and you fancy a beer, go to these two places. Pretty smashing really.

We should really have stayed for more, but we fancied something to eat where there sun shone.  Both these pubs were in the shade and sadly the sun did not shine all the time for us and we didn't want to miss it while it was there.

Unwisely, I didn't take Jeffers advice for other venues. I should have, but E will be glad I didn't. She was in wine mode.  Mind you it was ten years ago.


Saturday, 22 October 2016

Two Good Brewpubs

I'm not quite finished with Amsterdam. I'd always wanted to go to Brouwerij 't IJ after an abortive attempt to do so many years ago, thus it was that on a warm sunny day, E and I hopped on a tram from Dam - we did - honest -and headed out there to meet that rarest of beasts, a Stockport person that knows everything there is to know about Dutch beer - or so he tells me.  Yes, it was the one and only John Clarke, en route to yet another Dutch Beer Festival.  He was already getting stuck in when we joined him on the outside terrace and enjoyed nipping inside from time to time to refill the generously sized glasses of relatively cheap (for Amsterdam) beer. It really was rather pleasant and the place was comfortable busy, in and out, with non real sign of the supposed gruff service that some commentators remark on.  I do wonder why so many foreign brewers make somewhat inferior versions of IPAs, Double IPAs. etc, but hey, that's what sells folks.  All the beers were pretty tasty actually and jolly good value.  It was a pleasant afternoon and it's always gratifying to go to a place you've always wanted to visit and find out you like it.

Now I haven't always wanted to go to De Prael, but had looked in the door of the bottle shop while heading for the Hidden Catholic Church, more or less next door. I mentioned this to Mineer Clarke who soon set me right. The pub was just a few streets down from the shop, hidden in a somewhat austere alley near a canal. Now everything is near a canal in Amsterdam, so I know that doesn't help, so just look it up.  This is a brewery with not only a mission to brew good beer, but to help those with psychiatric problems and it is worth a read here to see what this is all about. Suffice to say it is a great place to visit in its own right and its social conscience does it credit as a bonus.  We enjoyed several beers here from a somewhat baffling menu which seemed to have as much missing from it as included, but it had some lovely beers, again at decent prices. The venue is fantastic really, with the bonus of really interesting customers to gawp at and the staff here seemed no more  confused or confusing than any Dutch bar. The Dutch are a rather nonplussing lot in my experience and always seem to keep a bit of information back from those that aren't their compatriots, which is rather charming I find.  I like to be mildly disoriented when in a foreign bar. Adds to the overall experience I find.

Well that's it for Amsterdam.  Jolly good place, but take plenty of dosh. It isn't cheap.

I love the little bar snacks in Dutch boozers. A few cubes of cheese, the odd sausage. Perfect. 

If you didn't get the message in previous posts, avoid Heineken and its pubs. Rotten beer and high prices.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Belated Thoughts on IndyMan

I've been away, so haven't got round to writing this up. I went along to IndymanBeerCon on the trade day and had rather a good time. I spent a tenner.  A tenner you say? How could this be at the most expensive festival around?  Arriving around two thirty I was unsure who I'd know, so just bought a tenner's worth to keep me going until I decided how long to stay. First of all I spent a bit of time wandering around trying to get to grips with the place, or rather, get to grips with what beers were on sale. It was harder than you might think as the eclectic collection of bars were rather small and hard to get to, most being surrounded by festival goers, but that was part of the fun.  Of course I was delayed too by chatting to various people I knew and that was definitely part of the fun.

The first guidance was given to me by an eager beaver who had clearly been there since opening and who had also, clearly followed his own advice with some determination. "Buy the rarest and strongest" slurred my beaming sage, pointing me to a particular American beer, which I was assured was as scarce as hen's teeth.  It seems his advice had been taken up with abandon, as there was none left.  I suppose that kind of figures.

Of course though, with only a tenner's worth - four thirds in this gaff - I did follow the proffered advice, in part at least. The beers were all rare to me, so I just decided to have the darkest and strongest. This wasn't a bad decision at all, as I'm partial to an imperial stout or two. I was also offered and accepted a few tasters, both by servers and friends and this did help make my mind up.  Frankly I didn't have a bad beer - well the odd bad taster - though some were better than others. On my smallish samples, I enjoyed the clearer ones more than the muddy ones and as always at these events, I enjoyed the crack.  It is fair to say that the one price fits all way of doing things divided opinion more than somewhat, with quite a few going for the strongest purely on a VFM basis, while others weren't that bothered. Many seem to regard this event as one to be saved up for, like a concert or the like. I don't recall prices being a point of discussion last few times though, so clearly it had struck a chord with some. Beer for the people? Maybe not.

The crowd was the usual collection of trade types, hipsters, CAMRA types and Joe Public. I got the feeling that this session was likely to contain the oldest average age crowd of the event.  It was jolly enough for me though and being bought a couple of thirds by brewers (tokens used) helped me have a good time.  Has IndyManBeerCon gone wrong? I don't think so, but I'm not counting up all the kegs of weak beers left at the end.   I left after a couple of hours, slightly buzzed as our American friends might say, but that wore off on the bus. I'd had enough strong beer really and if I'm honest, wasn't keen to pay £7.50 a pint equivalent for the weaker stuff.

Of course I went for a drink when I got off the bus. Supping beer or sipping beer? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but if they are the same price, go sipping.

Others have written how the do was a good as ever. That's good news, but I seemed to know a lot less people than I usually do and some didn't stay long, but it was fine for a couple of hours. A few bemoaned the lack of cask (none on sale as far as I know at the session I attended.)  The servers were all pretty pleasant which is great. I didn't bother about food.

I had free entry as trade. That's quite a saving.  I took no notes and one photo (above).

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Two Local Bars

It is always good to try the local bars when abroad.  It is there you get the feel for a place, though if course it can be a matter of pot luck as to what you come across.  Near our hotel in Amsterdam there were a couple of bars our group of ten met up at for a couple of pre-dinner drinks, having gone our own way during the day.  Both were friendly and accommodating, rushing to make tables up so we could all sit together and generally being friendly and welcoming. But the beers were a bit shall we say, pedestrian?  Nonetheless they gave a great impression of the city as being a place that you'll be treated well. That's just what you need when away.

Now one of the things that you really must do in Amsterdam is going for a "Rijsttafel" in an Indonesian restaurant. These restaurants are a relic of the Dutch colonial past, much as Indian restaurants are of ours.We chose one carefully and bloody good it was too. It was outside the inner city and thus less touristy.  We walked back to our hotel, the night being lovely and of course fancied a beer on the way. We knew by now to avoid these at all costs, any Heineken sign boozers. The choice is pretty poor and the prices rather high for what you get. This meant a bit more walking, Heineken being everywhere.  We eventually came across a nice little boozer that was worryingly empty at around nine thirty in the evening, but the the Gulpener sign assured us we'd find a beer or two that we'd like. Our host, a young laid back Dutchman, was happy to see us. He explained what beers he had available, insisting on us trying a taste of each before we made our choices. Perfect. In typical British fashion, us men sat outside drinking beer and watching the cyclists whizz by, while the ladies sat inside drinking wine.  Our host kept us up to date, by helpfully advising us when the women ordered another round, knowing full well that we'd follow.  This arrangement suited us very well. We left after three or four beers as the bar started to fill up. Great stuff and again the welcome and care was outstanding.  Well done Café Cees.

We had though noticed another bar near the hotel. Again signed for Gulpener, it was tucked away behind the Concertgebouw. On our last night, we were eating in the area, so we called in for pre-dinner drinks.  Our host here was of the more taciturn type, but us ten filled a round table and got on with things.  On the wall was a poster advertising Van Vollenhoven's Stout.  Sounded good and a squint at the price list showed it to be on sale. At the bar, we ordered two from our less than talkative barperson.  He rummaged silently. He had none after all it turned out, but recommended a bokbier from the tap.  Now it wasn't what we wanted, so I asked for a taste. After all he had recommended it. He answered in authoritative style. "No."  One word, that's all. Hmm. Ah well, it might have been the best beer in the world, but bugger him, his recommendation and his lousy attitude, so we ordered Orval and carried on. I reflected we'd brought ten people, along for a drink and we all had two or three, so a taste wouldn't have hurt. In case you are wondering, it is Café Welling

So what does all this prove? Well, when you have a choice, go where the welcome is warmest of course.
 This advice of course is only good if you go to a place more than once, but I offer it up nonetheless. Would I advise you not to go to Café Welling? Actually no.  It is a nice place with pleasant customers and seats outside. Just don't ask for a taste of the beer, or depend on affable chit-chat.

Annoyingly it is a Dutch habit to lose a bit of beer on pouring. They sort of pour a bit down the drain before applying the glass. That bit would have done me as a taster.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Two Classics and One Less So

In early Autumn sunshine, Amsterdam is quite delightful. From our hotel near the rather grand Concertgebouw it was a nice stroll across the park to the Van Gogh museum (unmissable) and the Rijksmuseum (less so).  But man does not live by culture alone and after a visit to either icon of enlightenment, a spot of liquid refreshment is required.  Now of course you could repair to any number of local outlets for the ubiquitous Heineken, but if you want to drink in pubs of the company that put the lack into lustre, that's fine, but there are other options.

In what might roughly be called the centre of town, not far off Dam, is one of the most famous of boozers, In De Wildeman. The pubs own website describes it as "one of the best places in Amsterdam to taste new beers or simply drink your personal favourite".  That's exactly so.  I took our small party of six in after their visit to the hidden Catholic Church, a spot of culture I opted out of, preferring to sit in the sunshine at the canalside, watching the world go by.  This is an old fashioned boozer with multi rooms, a soothing atmosphere and a warm welcome from the barmaid, a Mrs Doyle look and sound-alike who was pleasantly helpful and gratifyingly, Irish.  My pals and E all drank Jever. OK it isn't Dutch, but it is good. I too avoided Dutch beer, not through any bias, but because I fancied some Weihenstephaner.  Cheesy and (raw) sausagey snacks provided the sustenance to see us through another couple of rounds.  It is that kind of place.

Two of our party left for different things and four of us decided, on my prompting admittedly, to visit another icon, Arendsnest. We asked a friendly local for directions. "Two canals over and on the left." Oddly, one canal over and the noise and bustle of the city receded. Two canals over and it had gone, giving way to a sedate residential area which was a pleasure to stroll in. The bar itself is in a handsome terrace and is beautifully appointed. It serves only Dutch beers. The greeting here couldn't have been better and the smiling barmaid insisted in giving us tasters and happily talked us through the draft beers. We stayed for two, or was it three?  Time ticked by gently and both the beer and welcome made you glad to be there.

A day later, E and I visited Beer Temple, an American beer bar on Voorburgwal.  This is described on t'internet variously as "cosy" or "relaxed". We both thought it a bit of a dump in need of a clean and although the beer was fine, it reminded us that there is more to a drinking establishment than a good beer list.

When did Heineken become so undrinkable? It used to be reasonbaly quaffable, but now seems sweet and turgid.

Beer in Amsterdam isn't cheap, but pick the right places and you still get value. Pick the normal places and you get Heineken at €5.80 a half litre. Top tip. If in a Heineken joint, buy Duvel.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Dispensary Beer Festival

A few weeks ago I was in London having a few pints with @erlangernick. I wrote about some of it here. For our last beers, I took him to one of my local East End pubs, the Dispensary near Aldgate East Tube Station.  I usually go there when I am down at our London flat, as it sells decent beer and is handy for me.   During this visit, Annie the landlady came to chat and ask if I was coming to their beer festival. As it happened I was going to be in London that weekend. She asked if I wouldn't mind checking over the state of the beers on her external stillage and for a bit of advice -  which I duly gave.  She was worried (among other things) that the beer on the stillage, served by gravity, wouldn't be up to snuff.

Fast forward to the night before the festival when I went in to see what was going on. The stillage was erected, twelve beers on board and all vented using a porous hard spile as I had suggested. All were untapped.  Cold water cooling was supplied by Adnams and the beer seemed cool to the touch, so all looked good.  I tapped all the beers and samples were spot on.  So far so good.  I called in the next morning all was well. No big leaks - a miracle in itself - and even better - no cask had spat its tap out overnight. That's always a fear.  The beer was cellar cool, well conditioned and mostly pin bright apart from those that weren't meant to be. Well we thought they weren't meant to be, but it is hard to know these days.  All tasted fine however and we disregarded the odd haze. None were soupy.

The festival was opened by Roger Protz who was, to say the least, surprised to see me, but we had a great time and the pub was busy. Roger drank some Londom Porter which he loved and gave a very amusing and interesting speech about beers in the East End and spoke fondly about his old favourite, Charrington IPA. Roger is a true East Ender and was happy to be back. We had a good two or three hours. Later, much refreshed after our gated community's annual residents party, we called in again. The pub was still busy and beer still good. On Saturday night after meeting friends we nipped in once more on the way home and again the beer on stillage was still in great form and the pub, not usually open on a Saturday attracted quite a crowd.  It was clearly going well.

As I keep saying, looking after cask beer is actually fairly easy.  Why do so many get it wrong?

The photo shows Annie and me after the beers were tapped. I didn't take any pictures of Roger. Or much else. Don't know why really.

Disclosure: Annie is a pal. I just helped her for a few beers. And to prove a point I suppose. Oh and David, her husband gave me an excellent sausage butty!  Assuming the event wiped its face at least, Annie and David will be doing this again. I might help.