In praise of hipsters and homes

It’s easy for old miseries like me to slip into disparaging comments about hipsters i.e. younger people who are concerned about their appearance and willing to try new stuff. I suspect older folk had much the same attitude about the young metropolitan types who fuelled the growth of the Firkin pubs long ago. A trip to see the husband and Wife of Bath led me to question such attitudes.

First off, a stop at the Marlow Brewery Co to pick up some Rebellion Ales and reinforce drinking prejudices. They have truly made the brewing of ‘brown beer’ an art form. The ever reliable IPA provided the backdrop to the weekend and you can’t beat their lovely Roasted Nuts. For those craft brewers who belittle ‘brown beer’ I’d ask can you produce a beer to the standard of Harvey’s Best and Rebellion IPA?

A saunter along the Bath skyline and brought us to the Bath Brew House pub. Once a grotty pub in a modern block it’s had a craft beer bar makeover and as a result it’s packed to the rafters, mainly with younger folk. It offers hand pulled cask and craft keg including the products of its on-site brewery. I suspect it wouldn’t exist without the ‘hipsters’. And whilst pubs like the Bath Brew House might not be top of my list they are one of the few games in town for pub growth. They provide for a growing market in some locations and give me the chance of a decent pint in reasonable surroundings. For that I’m grateful – the Buxton Brewery’s keg Rednik Stout was as good as ever.

Thinking about my old trade of location analysis led me to consider how to select craft beer pub locations. Sufficient numbers of people with well trimmed beards, plaid shirts, clean work-style boots employed in graphic design, media and the trendier end of IT together with overheard references to BBC 6 Music might be a good start. Perhaps Joules should take note?

As myself and others have said these young folk would need to be forced into failing back street boozers and dead roadside pubs and so to preserve pubs at all costs is destined to failure. I’d argue that we need homes rather than failed pubs and so I’m happy that the vote to tighten planning regulations failed. Greg Mulholland’s assertion that outdated regulations protecting launderettes justify increased barriers to market-led development always seemed weak to me.

Recent articles in the Morning Advertiser report that, according to Christie & Co, average sale prices for pubs are on the rise (it’s not so good north of Milton Keynes) and Fleurets’ data suggests that the retention of freehold sales as pubs is at a five year high. Life for pubs is improving but slowing down the redevelopment of unsuitable locations would benefit no-one.

Time to dispense with the dispense?

I was in a country pub in the Midlands at the weekend (I’ll not name the pub as it’s not awful and merely typical of many in rural areas), it was a local CAMRA most improved winner in 2014 and is shortlisted for the CAMRA branch pub of the year. It had 3 beers on handpump including the inevitable Doom Bar. The Timothy Taylor’s Landlord wasn’t the worst I’ve tasted but it was well past its best.

The owner was complaining about the prices she has to pay for real ale, compared to the short-date prices paid by Wetherspoons (some would say this is a beer myth). She mentioned that there isn’t the volume to enable her to buy short-date beer and she’s struggling to get enough winter trade to keep three real ales on the bar. My drinking experience would seem to concur.

I’m of the view that the local CAMRA folk are pleased to see someone reviving a moribund pub and they like to see handpumps and so reward accordingly. I’m not a natural supporter of craft keg, my eyes will always tend to look out for a handpump rather than a something along the traditionally fizzy and tasteless section of the bar. However if a pub is struggling with volume and wants to offer a selection of beer in good condition then surely local craft keg should be a good option to replace a hand pump? Or is there a fear in some parts of the country that such an approach would upset the local CAMRA committee and lose the chance of a GBG listing?

As I’ve been around the country recently I’ve been in the habit of picking up the local CAMRA newsletters. The response to craft keg seems to range from the ‘we’ll let a guest writer say something positive’ to a more fundamentalist approach on the evils of keg personified by many of the strident letters to ‘What’s Brewing’.

The ‘Derby Drinker’ for Jan/Feb 2015 carries an article written by an anonymous local brewer arguing that “craft keg should be seen as an extension of cask beer rather than in direct competition…Anyone choosing to blindly ignore the amazing variety and enhanced beer experience that craft keg beer has to offer, risk alienating themselves from such an exciting progressive beer scene”. It’s a well-argued piece and I’m intrigued as to why the brewer didn’t want to use his or her own name.

In CAMRA ‘Pints of View’ for Hertfordshire (Dec/Jan) there was a generally positive review by Ian Boyd of Britain’s Beer Revolution (published by CAMRA) by Protz and Tierney-Jones. The review and the editor’s response illustrate the difficulties of CAMRA in coming to terms with the beer revolution in all its glory.

The reviewer reports that “since this is a CAMRA production, the choice of brewers highlighted has understandably more to do with real ale production than the overall taste explosion.” He goes on to mention, “a notable exclusion from the map of Scotland is Brewdog, arguably one of the most pioneering revolutionaries of them all”. Whilst the reviewer acknowledges the two pages covering Brewdog, he reflects that “this stilted recognition of Brewdog’s undoubted influences…surely has nothing to do with CAMRA’s past contretemps with the brewery?”. (I should say I’m no fan of Brewdog but I see where he’s coming from.)

The Pints of View editor, Steve Bury, responded with ..”a lot of very poor beer is being marketed as Craft Beer including Fosters Lager…” He went on, “Yes CAMRA has had disagreements with Brewdog who pride themselves on being confrontational and outspoken (me – wasn’t that CAMRA once upon a time), but the truth is they don’t produce real ale and therefore should not expect a large amount of coverage in a CAMRA publication.” That seems to suggest that Britain’s Beer Revolution is really a one-eyed view of the world. I’m strangely reminded of declining communist regimes and Private Eye’s trade union leader, Comrade Dave Spart.

I’m heading off to New Zealand in a couple of weeks and I admire the simplicity of their Society of Beer Advocates (SOBA) whose “main aim is promoting a wider availability of better quality beer”. Is it time for CAMRA to have their own ‘Clause IV Moment’ and recognise better quality beer rather than just a means of dispense? I suspect many of their ‘rank & file’ members have already crossed to the dark side (or perhaps keg pale).

Intolerant moi, perhaps just a little bitter

A day-long saunter around the villages of Hertfordshire and too early for a pint at the Green Man at Sandridge (tapped from the cask, their Abbot has to be one of the best around) and so it was on to the John Bunyan at Coleman Green for a pint of AK. It’s a reliable pub in rural isolation and whilst I’m no fan of McMullen’s beer, the longstanding landlord and family have always kept a very good pint and offered a friendly welcome. For me and others the pub is more important that the beer.

It’s the pub that counts  Copyright John Bunyan (the pub not the bloke)                                                          

The pub family were grappling with the latest EU regulation on allergens and intolerances in respect of food and drink. ‘How do we word the sign, where do we put it, and we can’t say exactly what’s in some of our food and drinks’. I’m no UKIP libertarian but (don’t they ‘they’ always say that…) given local authorities like nothing better than new legislation, it seems it’s something else for landlords to worry about given that their suppliers won’t give guarantees about the content of their products.

Of course a joint rant with the landlord’s son about ‘nanny state’ led to some good tales that publicans have always specialised in – the customer who told them she couldn’t eat the salad she’d ordered as it had been contaminated by the tomatoes on the plate, and the local Chinese take-away who’s been told by council officials that she now needs to list the contents for every dish on her menu. True or not, they do reflect the problems of small businesses in dealing with regulation and the culture of the British in imposing EU legislation compared to other countries.

While I’m on intolerance, here’s one of mine. Why do some pubs bother with having their own ‘house’ beer usually characterised by a bland bitter. The Green Man (above) has its own Heartwood Bitter and I was recently in the Vaults pub in Rutland’s Uppingham and they too had their own bitter (and a very good Starless Stout from Nene Valley). I guess there’s a financial benefit for the pub but for me house beer usually means a feeble tasting pint when they could have something more interesting with a pedigree rather than the real ale equivalent of yellow snow.

Fyne views and home brews

It’s sometimes good to get away from the influence of the Great Wen and its increasing hinterland. For us folk down south it’s easy to go all London-centric and think nothing is happening to beer and pubs elsewhere.

The minipin of Chiltern Foxtrot ale had run out at home, only one bottle of Burry Porter was left (see later) and it was time to get on the road. After a quick stop to watch the ‘Brewers’ in Burton (sadly it doesn’t have that overpowering smell of yeast extract and beer any longer) we headed to Leek. We had a saunter around Tittesworth Reservoir on the edge of the Staffordshire Peak District and a return for a lunchtime pint in Leek.

We passed the Blue Mugge (an innovative community pub with its ‘discussion in pubs’ meetings) and went into the Earl Grey. Last time I saw the Earl Grey it was a depressingly decrepit Marston’s street corner boozer well beyond its sell-by date. It looked closed even when it was open. Post-closure and a neat development of the site, the little pub has had a new lease of life from cheery folk offering a fine range of hand-pulled and keg beers. In fact just the sort of pub a modern consumer organisation promoting all types of good beer should be supporting – anyone know of one? The Earl Grey even had a friendly chap and dog at the bar ready to chat to incomers. London craft beer pubs have to hire them in you know.

Earl Grey

Essential man with dog

The Earl Grey bitter from Whim was fine and the keg Rednik Stout from Buxton brewery was a mighty beer – described by Mrs WickingMan as tasting of railway sleepers soaked in creosote. A reasonable description and good enough for me. The award-winning Reckless Pale Ale from Redwillow, much enjoyed by others in our group, was just too much Citra for me but it was complex enough to get me looking at the brewery website.

We headed on to Scotland via the wonderful Tebay services – it has to be the best range of local craft ales in a motorway service station as well as excellent pies. We picked up some Allendale beers (Wolf ruby ale was very good) to remind me to get fit for my 310 mile Strathmore Stroll.

The following day gave us a tour round the lochs to the north of the Firth of Clyde. The lunchtime stop at the original Loch Fyne Oysters was near to the Fyne Ales brewery. The remoteness seemed to make it even more of a find.

Fyne ales

A nicely fashioned brewery tap and shop (meat from the estate often available) and a half of Highlander was a good combination. Interesting to note that our designated driver wouldn’t even have a half-pint given the new Scottish legislation and concerns about the previous night’s consumption.

Apologies for the philosophical and literal wandering around the craft beer by-ways of Britain but there is a point to all this meandering. It’s the exuberance of these new brewers – skilled, innovative and willing to have a go. As my friend, Stewart, from the Wharfedale brewery once said ‘craft brewers have to remember that we’re living the dream for many of our drinkers’.

The Red Willow brewer, Toby, describes it thus, “I started brewing as a hobby one day, canʼt remember why now, but it was fun and the initial results were passable. Slowly but surely the hobby started to take up increasingly large amounts of my time and before I knew it I was experimenting and brewing most weekends.” And the tale of Tom Hick from the AllendaIe brewery is that he “was inspired to brew by a love of home brewing…and my mini-brewery at my parent’s home got more and more complicated”.

Which brings me back to my solitary bottle of Burry Porter. My daughter arrived on Christmas Day with a couple of bottles from a home brewing friend. Despite their protestations that he’s brewed freebies for friends’ weddings I thought back to my own home brewing kit days of yesteryear and wondered how to respond to the inevitable smelly muck from their mate, Aled.

Burry Porter

One of Aled’s Finest

I’ll leave it to Aled Price to describe his Burry Porter (malts – Golden Promise, Carapils, Biscuit, Black Patent, Chocolate, Caramalt; hops – Target, Cascade; IBU – 56; ABV – 5.2%), “I was going for the middle ground between the really malty traditional porters (which can sometimes just taste like ash) and the new craft beer type porter/stouts, which while packing a hoppy punch, can lack the balance of a good beer.” Suffice to say my concern was seriously misplaced and the man has considerable talent. As Aled is looking to expand capacity in his new garage there may be a time when his various beers reach the pubs of nearby Manchester. Lucky Mancunians. I’m off to finish the last bottle.

All hail the enthusiastic hobby brewers who’ve transformed the beer landscape of Britain as their talents have developed into full-blown craft breweries.