Cheers landlord

Of course like everyone I have my favourite beers (I might have mentioned Bass). Whilst beer quality may have generally improved over the years, I’m beginning to realise that the beer name on the pump clip is often irrelevant and difficult to rely on, particularly for the big sellers.

What really matters is the landlord come cellarman. (I realise that women do the jobs as well, but landlady never seems right.) Isn’t it time we gave recognition to the folk who get all kinds of beers to us in excellent nick. Britain’s top cellar man or woman should be on a plinth.

I’ve had some poor pints of TT’s Landlord over the years, to the extent I usually ignore it outside of Yorkshire. I remember Jeff Bell aka Stonch deciding against Landlord as he didn’t  have the cellar space to stillage it for the TT’s head brewer’s suggested time. Of course I know that if I was in the Boltmakers in Keighley or the Woolly Sheep in Skipton I could have a wonderful pint.

Similarly I’m dubious about London Pride outside a Fuller’s pub and, on the flipside, the Green Man at Sandridge would be one of my only places for a GK Abbot. Bass at the Stretton Social Club might not be served from the jug, but they serve a consistently cracking pint.

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Craft beer packed full of southern hemisphere hops. Marston’s New World pale ale.

On the microbrewery front the same applies. Sometimes good…sometimes bad, but I’m less certain as to whether that’s the beer or the landlord. I suspect that it’s usually the latter. In small territories directly supplied, by the likes of Allendale and Yorkshire Dales breweries, I’m much more confident about my pint. They know and trust the people who sell their beers.

As RetiredMartin has described on his many GBG pub expeditions, beer quality is generally good but varies even amongst the best. And remember he tends to drink the pub’s most popular pint.

I’ve had good and bad pints in free houses, tied houses, pub restaurants and micropubs; GBG entries, and places unlikely to be ever considered for listing. In my experience, the type of drinking venue and the beer brand are of little consequence unless the landlord happens to keep a close eye on quality and achieves sufficient sales volume.

So next time you’re given a really good pint across the bar, don’t just think it’s all down to the brewer, remember to thank the landlord. He, or she, has probably been responsible for your perfect beer.

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Thirsty walk, crafty connoisseurs and Firkin wine bars

Apart from regular trips to the local, my most enjoyable pub visits are usually allied to a stroll in hills and dales. A quick lunchtime pint or two en route or a few evening pints justified by a thirst after a decent walk.

A gentle session in the likes of the Lathkil at Over Haddon, the George at Hubberholme or the Tan Hill Inn is the perfect end to a tiring day in my book. Usually in the knowledge of another day’s walking to come. As a result I struggle to find an occasion for very strong beers.

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I’ve done the craft breweries of Shoreditch and Copenhagen but I like to drink pints. And preferably ones that don’t have a bucket of hops in each glass. I am a beer wimp, not a connoisseur. Part of a generation that likes a few pints not sips.

This is not a rant against craft keg, in favour of real ale, both can have great merit. It’s a post about my personal taste and occasion. But I am not alone as a middle-aged market. As a walking mate of mine said when faced by a range of Thornbridge beers on the bar, “there’s so many of them I can’t have if I’m driving home later”.

The working man of yesteryear wanted to slake his after-work thirst with several pints of Mild, Bitter or a half and half. Essential rehydration and generally not high alcohol levels.

In my childhood, I remember seeing wayward brewery workers in Burton finishing work having had a few beers during their working day. It was said maltsters had to drink beer during the day to replace the sweat lost on the baking hot malting floors.

In my leisured way I’m much the same over my beer choices. After all, it’s a little known scientific fact that any beer 3.8% or below is re-hydrating*. I’d choose a Lord Marples over a Jaipur and of course Deception is better for the thirst (and perhaps the soul) than Absolution. First pint knocked back quickly to quench, the second savoured more slowly and so on…

As beer becomes something of a lifestyle accessory enjoyed in modish craft bars it’s perhaps inevitable that alcohol levels rise and smaller glasses come to the fore. Those folk are more interested in the styles and tastes of their innovative beers, compared to mere beer swillers like me.

Similar to the well-aimed Firkin brewpubs and sophisticated wine bars of the 1980s, perhaps? Where drink was stronger and price kept out everyone except ‘people like us’. I remember those folks in on-trend places, I was one of them in that there London Town. Nothing really changes.

Each to their own, but please dear brewers think of those for whom your 8% Black IPA doesn’t meet the drinking occasion. Wainwright… now that’s what I call target marketing.

*See academic paper by Howells, Lonsdale, Taylor & Thurman as a result of research at the University of Skipton (Woolly Sheep building).

A Little (Longstone) Gem

A stroll from Bakewell to Little Longstone and back in every kind of weather. Definitely the White Peak today.

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Desperate for a pint

Into the Packhorse, loads of folk piling in to food and everyone packed liked happy sardines. We gently steamed in a corner of the bar, me with a pint of Lord Marples and crisps..a Walker’s lunch.

The pub…it’s got the magic ingredients of very good beer and food but what makes a place special is when you’re treated well whatever the spend. No ‘are you dining with us’ here. They don’t need to force folk to eat.

Many thanks to the young woman behind the bar for top service with a smile and friendly chat. Always worth thinking that friendliness to those quickly passing through will bring later rewards.

A top pub well worth its place in the GBG.

 

Missing in Action

The GBG is at its best when you’re journeying into new territory. With a bit of reading between the lines, it’s reliable in finding a gem to break the journey.

Or, more importantly ensuring that the holiday won’t be in a beer desert. Although the low risk of ale disaster these days shows how much the real ale world has moved on since the likes of the Norfolk Broads of the late 70s.

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A quality read

The CAMRA volunteers, who no doubt spend hours debating who’s going in next year’s GBG, are worthy of our thanks. The good work of the merry band of pub watchers (they offer much more jollity than mere ticking) such as RetiredMartin, shows that the volunteers usually get it right within the constraints of beer standards and branch allocations.

Some CAMRA branches clearly have an excess of good beer/pubs compared to their allocated number, whereas my guess is some other areas struggle to hit their numbers.

My question to you dear reader is what’s missing from the current GBG that’s on your list of pub perfection. Of course you don’t have the limits on your selection such as changes of landlord and other stuff that might restrict a branch in its choices.

My starters for 10. Inevitably the Cooper’s in Burton, its neighbour the Devonshire and the New Inn at Pegg’s Green in Leicestershire. And then, a bit left-field, the Royal Barn in Kirkby Lonsdale, the modern tap for the local brewery.

Go on, only a bit of fun, where would you send thirsty drinkers. I might even allow keg mild as good beer.

 

What’s so funny about Doom Bar, GK IPA, and Pride?

Small is beautiful..isn’t it? There are now over 2,000 breweries in Britain despite pub numbers still in serious decline. Many entries in the Good Beer Guide are pleased to offer large numbers of changing beers from small breweries. Micropubs in particular have specialised  in offering a wide range of microbreweries’ wares. However as numbers show most real ale drinkers are happy drinking Doom Bar and its ilk.

I admit that on occasion I’ve been tempted to try a beer from a brewery I’ve never heard of. The results for me are mixed, as might be expected for products from any range of small businesses delivered by other small businesses with variable quality control procedures.

I suspect many active CAMRA members focussed on cask ale and craft keg’s early adopters have a similarly positive outlook when it comes to small breweries. So why do some people favour the small new kids on the block rather than the experience of the big breweries?

In part, some would argue that the BBBs (boring brown beers) are the long established offering from the big breweries. Bland and tasteless, compared to the exciting hoppy beers of the new breed, seem to be common views amongst the beer trendsetters.

But what happens when the big breweries come up with new beers? Are we accepting of their attempts? My suspicion is that we are keen to expose the beer as a mediocre effort at a modern style. And if the big player creates a new sub-brand e.g. Marston’s Shipyard, we’re happy to expose the wickedness of the supposed sham and turn up our cultured noses.

Similarly, when a microbrewery is bought by a Big Beer player, it’s seen as the ruination of the beer. Even worse, the Big Beer beast will look to reduce the costs of production and sale and sell more of it.

Is small so much more beautiful than a beer brewed in a major brewery by an experienced team of brewers, and then sold in a tied pub with a well-trained tenant?

I suspect the reasons are much more nuanced. Many joined CAMRA to fight the evil keg mega-brewers, e.g. Watneys, and support the family brewers who kept the real ale flag flying. It was, and perhaps still is, a battle against the multi-national corporate world. The ‘little man’ essence of the outdated Keg Buster cartoon strip in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing newsletter.

Micropubs and microbreweries are one of the few modern opportunities for consumers to support the ‘little man’. (We can ignore the fact that these little men and women have considerable tax advantages, in terms of small business rate relief and progressive beer duty.)

Perhaps beer quality, in reality, matters little and it’s all about the drinking David’s fighting corporate Goliaths. Those nasty businesses that blight their lives as workers and consumers. Drinking beer from small breweries. That’s telling them, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

Perfect storm approaching?

It could be all change for CAMRA as it brings forward its Revitalisation resolutions. Will it be breezy progress to a brave new world of ‘quality beer’ or could it be the start of a perfect storm for the organisation?

If I worked at CAMRA HQ I would be worried for my future on a few fronts.

  • reliance on CAMRA beer festivals for HQ income
  • lack of CAMRA relevance for members on both sides (and no side) of the real ale v keg divide
  • declining active membership for a committee-based voluntary organisation
  • branches having very different viewpoints selecting entries for the GBG post-Revitalisation decisions
  • a media that tastes blood on the ‘so what is quality’ story

 

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So which beer is quality?*

CAMRA beer festivals

It’s a world of harsh competition for CAMRA, whether it’s ‘Indy’ beer festivals or alternative opportunities for the leisure pound. Every pub worth its salt seems to have a couple of festivals every year and many have cottoned on to the benefits of offering more drinks than real ale to attract a wider range of people.

In August,  CAMRA put in place cost saving measures given that income was likely to be below forecast levels, with issues such as membership numbers and festival income reported by the CAMRA Chairman, Colin Valentine. My view is that as the competition hots up, these issues will become more of a threat in the future and that would result in more severe cost-cutting.

CAMRA relevance

The battle lines on Revitalisation are already being drawn on the inclusion of keg in CAMRA’s definition of quality beer and there will no doubt be tears. Whilst some such as PubCurmudgeon raise the problem, of defining quality, calmly and logically others seem ready to man the trenches.

Witness the CAMRA Hertfordshire’s Pints of View letter in December, headed ‘Campaign against beer in sealed dustbins’. “Hearty congratulations on your (the Editor’s) demolition on key kegs and their contents (in a previous issue). Sadly it seems not all Camra branches share your well-founded scepticism.”

The letter went on to describe the disgrace of the CAMRA Leeds’ branch having key kegs at their festival. Evidently the CAMRA Leeds’ newletter included such annoying ‘tosh’ as, “Any key keg naysayers need to wake up and smell the coffee…and…The cask v. keg debate seems to be no longer an issue for us, we’ve moved on.”. Blimey it’s only a drink, not world poverty.

I suspect these battle lines will have a few members on the ‘losing side’ deciding to take their ball home and cancelling memberships, post-Revitalisation decisions. I don’t expect these folk to significantly reduce CAMRA income. Perhaps more importantly the passive members, who regularly let their direct debits roll-on, will question whether CAMRA and its arguments is still relevant to them and their drinking opportunities. And if that happens there could be serious repercussions on the income front.

Declining Active Members

In terms of the age profile of active members and the high level of activity of those in the ‘Cask only’ trenches I think some branches will struggle to carry on with the traditional branch structures. For many people, particularly the young, an organisation that appears more like a public sector trade union with endless committees and resolutions is not for them. Telling them what is ‘quality beer’ will merely add to the disengagement.

The reliance on the work of active members for festival organisation, pub awards and the GBG listings could cause severe problems for CAMRA in its current structure. Could that result in a declining rump with limited activity in some branches?

Branches taking differing views 

As branches have a great deal of leeway in their local guidelines and in making their GBG selections could we see for GBG 2020, some ‘traditional’ branches taking a hard line view, focusing on ‘proper’ real ale pubs, whilst others, particularly in metropolitan cities, considering venues on their full range of ‘quality beers’ – cask, keg and all. GBG 2020 vision might be a bit blurred.

Media smells blood from the wounded CAMRA beast

If you thought Michael Hardman on BBC Breakfast talking about CAMRA’s modern day relevance was  (a) given a brutal going over, or (b) gave an inept performance, it will be nothing compared to the media running a coach and horses through the definition of ‘quality beer’, and accepting that beers other than real ale are now fine. The argument that cask at its best is ‘the best of the best’ just won’t be enough to justify CAMRA’s existence.

The relevance of CAMRA will be severely questioned and if the baying hounds of the media start to examine the GBG, will that hold up to scrutiny as the best guide to the best beers in Britain. Questions such as, ‘you mean that different parts of the country are chosen using different rules’; ‘you’re saying that the submitted beer scores you mention are so thin on the ground as to be meaningless’; and ‘you’ve included some venues that hardly ever open and some that don’t even sell real ale for part of the year’ could be very embarrassing for the poor CAMRA spokesperson.

The reality of the GBG is much more positive, as witnessed by the travels and travails of RetiredMartin and others like him. That reality will be of no interest to a media that spots an organisation ripe for a good kicking.

I think CAMRA is heading for difficult times. Its relevance, its finances and its activities could all be coming under severe threat in the next few years. The Revitalisation debates and decisions may not help in that regard.

Me, I’ll just stick to a pint of quality, please landlord.

*The beer in the glass was actually a lovely pint of Draught Bass in the esteemed Stretton Social Club near Burton upon Trent. Keg beers also available.

 

Liquid Allsorts

My latest visits to places serving beer have illustrated to me how ‘pub’ perfection can be found in all sorts of places. Some in the GBG, all the way through to some not even in the What Pub database.

Our local British Legion club, The Knoll, provides a community pub for one end of the village. Its extortionate charge of  £1 for non-members keeps out that pub ticking riff-raff (and keeps it out of What Pub I suppose). Of course with the quid entry included, it’s still the cheapest real ale session hereabouts. A fine pint of Marston’s Saddle Tank (aka Burton Bitter before a ‘more money than sense’ £1m re-brand of their beers) and a lovely Mansfield Mild (old school keg), since you ask.

A friendly welcome in a space smaller than most micropubs, the entertainment is when the floor is opened up beneath your feet for access to the cellar. And we won the quiz with free sandwiches for afters. What more could you ask for?

Journeying northwards, at last we ticked off the Swan with Two Necks at Pendleton just south of the Forest of Bowland. A former CAMRA pub of the year and a family run pub of many years standing. On a wet day it seemed nothing special from the outside but opening the front door it had that ‘just seems right’ feeling that happens so infrequently these days.

It was a public house, but very much somebody’s house, where we were welcome guests of the hosts. A proper welcome, talking about the weather and choosing beers, and legs warmed by the glow of an open fire. Beers (Wishbone’s Abyss stout and Ossett Gold) were in good nick and a proper plate pie added to the glow.

The pub was full to bursting on a weekday lunchtime and all was well with the world.  I just hope this isn’t an example of a dying breed of perfect pubs. An ageing clientele happily focussed on a limited range of gently-hopped beer and home-cooked food doesn’t seem to be flavour of the month for many.

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On to the Yorkshire Dales to meet friends. Rendezvous at 3pm at the Old Hill Inn at Chapel-le-Dale was the order of the day before we moved on. Some had got there earlier with the landlady, Beany, ready to close. Did she batten down the hatches and repel boarders? No, pub perfection meant she stayed open until we all arrived and had our pints of Black Sheep and their Ribblehead bitter. And so it proved over the weekend, as we saw her generous welcome extended to all, whether it was beer, meals or coffee and cakes.

And finally to the Beaumont Hotel in Hexham. Recently  refurbished and a top quality restaurant to boot, but with a small bar area. Nevertheless the owner’s very happy to serve an excellent pint of Allendale’s Golden Plover and discuss beer quality and lacing down the glass. Another one not on the What Pub database but it takes all sorts to achieve pub  (and beer) perfection these days.