When premium means quality

I’m in Yorkshire steadying myself for a week of walking and beer drinking in the Dales and Westmoreland. And so a couple of Yorkshire tales of quality.

First, a few weeks ago I praised the quality of TT Landlord in a local pub that I name checked. I also mentioned that I’d had Landlord the night before in another local (unnamed) that really didn’t compare well.

To their credit TT contacted me privately to say they would like details of the unnamed pub in order to arrange some training with their BDM. They also asked for my thoughts on why the beer wasn’t up to their normal standard. A substantial effort to deal with a punter I thought.

Of course fine words are cheap, but true to their word they have spent time and effort on a pub owned by another brewer. The result is that when I went back to the pub on Friday night I had the best pint of Boltmaker outside of The Boltmakers at Keighley. The cellarman proudly told me it would be even better a day later. The Landlord was excellent as well I was told by my drinking companions.

It justs goes to show that when some brewers suggest they have a premium product they really are able to justify a premium price by their efforts throughout the process from brewery to glass.

Secondly, it’s a good time to reflect on one who seemed to appreciate quality in everything he did. I never met the late Richard Coldwell but it struck me from his beautiful photos and ‘to the point’ writing that quality mattered to Richard. He expected brewers to try hard and was always willing to bring the slackers to account.

Whilst he perhaps favoured a more modern style of beer compared to me, it never felt like he manned the barricades of beer Twitter in anything but a light-hearted manner. I regret that I never told him that I appreciated his craft.

My thoughts are with his family and friends. I will raise a glass of a hoppy Yorkshire brew in his memory.

 

 

Advertisements

People like us…is pub and beer culture holding up a mirror to a divided society?

I had the pleasure of listening to the wisdom and knowledge of a bloke in the village local last night. That he’s nearly 25 years older than me seemed to be irrelevant. I felt lucky, reflecting on our conversation this morning. I’d learnt stuff over a couple of pints. However, a couple of this week’s social media comments made me think about the tribes in our wider world of beer and pub culture.

My local, like many of the best pubs, is a place to find mutual subjects for conversation but also to accept that others have different views and backgrounds.  A few years ago,  I was talking in the Tan Hill Inn to a retired London fireman. He was saying, that in his experience, it’s worth chatting to people you don’t know because 80% of folks have something worth hearing. In many ways, we seem to have lost that willingness to seek knowledge from others, search for common ground and accept others’ heartfelt views.

I wonder if our beer and pub culture is increasingly reflecting the political and social attitudes in our society. A world where John McDonnell tells us he could never be friends with a Conservative. Was it ever thus, or these days do many of us only want to be in pubs and bars with ‘people like us’ and therefore exclude others? We seem to have a social media world where real ale/craft beer and big beer/microbeer divides seem to move too easily from gentle teasing into personal vitriol.

On Twitter, Pete Brown expressed the exclusion he perceived in the Goose Island brewpub in Shoreditch.

“Absolutely love the beers at Goose Island brewpub in Shoreditch but on the basis of several visits, the braying clientele, pounding music in the middle of the afternoon and snotty, hostile attitude of the staff all make it clear that people like me are not welcome here.” (My highlighting)

Have such bars become the opposite end of the spectrum to those seemingly tough pubs where only the late great pubman Alan Winfield (and his latter day disciple BBM) would swing the doors open? These days are we all sticking to our personal pub exclusion zones?

And as I muttered about Brewhouse and Kitchen in the comments on a recent RetiredMartin blogpost, Stafford Mudgie quite rightly highlighted the similarities with the Firkin pubs of old.

“David Bruce had a similar idea with his Firkin pubs over thirty years ago – except that his beer was a sensible price and he didn’t bother with the Kitchens or smoking sheds.”

Surely not, would I have gone to Firkin pubs all that time ago on the basis of being with only people like me and my mates? Me elitist, a shocking thought. In the modern era, is my aversion to many micropubs and microbrewery taps to do with feeling excluded by endless focus by closed groups on obscure beers, or an illustration of my unwillingness to move on from my definition of a proper pub and a pint of Bass?

There are many tribes in the beer world. Perhaps it’s time for us all to dismantle the barricades and find common ground. Well, until my mate Clive tells me to put down my Ruby Mild and try a Sherbet Saison.

Are pubs in our National Parks missing out?

It’s difficult selling beer in a pub in the UK’s National Parks – a lack of residents, a reliance on seasonal tourists and the issues of drink driving for day visitors, particularly in Scotland, make it a tough job with limited rewards.

Of my top ‘local’ pubs for beer quality, two have changed hands in 2019 and one is up for sale. Many landlords are now in their 60s and beyond. The tough life of a rural publican means that many are calling time on their pub career and others are restricting their opening hours. Will we miss them when they’re gone? We’re already missing them.

20150918_111246

In addition, I wonder if these pubs face an inherent bias that means they struggle to gain their due recognition? I have no doubt that CAMRA branch volunteers and beer & pub guide compilers don’t seek to discriminate against remote pubs. However, these pubs are difficult to get to (particularly by public transport) compared to the average urban local and there are few people to provide feedback even in these days of internet tools.  The somewhat historic survey dates on WhatPub illustrate the issues, even for some current GBG pubs.

With regard to being recognised in the GBG, the pubs in the National Parks have the issue of remoteness together with a struggle to sell enough real ale to have a wide choice. The oft-reported perception that you really need to have at least three real ales or more to get in the GBG may or may not be true.  It’s certainly true that new landlords feel the pressure to ring the changes and increase the choice whatever their volumes. Pleasing beer tickers and setting up micropubs isn’t possible in my patch, without risking beer quality.

2015-06-07 14.30.47

In addition (certainly in my area of the Peak District) the pubs in the National Parks are allocated across a multitude of CAMRA branches/sub-branches, often meaning that they are on the fringe of areas dominated by a large town or city with masses of beer choices. In my relatively small patch (in terms of pub numbers) of the White Peak we’re split between Chesterfield, Ashbourne, Matlock, Sheffield, High Peak and Staffordshire Moorlands branches. The split must make it difficult to achieve consistency in selecting the best pubs in the area never mind the remoteness.

With the best will in the world it’s unlikely that these pubs in the ‘difficult to get to’ fringes will be in the forefront of CAMRA volunteers’ minds. I realise that many branches have a rural award category but in many ways that feels like ‘the exception that proves the rule’. Does creating a rural category acknowledge a problem of recognition? I think so.

In financial terms, life can be very difficult for a pub in the National Parks. It becomes even more difficult if you struggle for recognition. Perhaps it’s time for our National Park authorities to get together with CAMRA and recognise the special qualities of these pub gems before they disappear? A National Parks’ pub of the year anyone?

 

 

 

 

Waiting for The Stokies

At its best the pub, particularly a new tick, should offer uncertainty and release its tales slowly. Seemingly nothing is happening, but everything is happening. The human condition to be gently observed.

The TV series (and now a top notch play for any pub lovers) Early Doors had a similar quality in its beautifully scripted tales of a back street Manchester boozer. Simple characters revealing complexity in an existential whole. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to visit a pub with similar qualities.

We strolled from Longnor in the Staffordshire/Derbyshire borderlands and over the other worldliness of Chrome Hill, descending towards Earl Sterndale and the Quiet Woman pub. A pub I’d walked past before but always at the wrong times. Now was our chance to let it reveal its secrets. It looked nothing special from the outside apart from an open door.

We wandered in, no-one behind the bar and three young folk chatting by the fire. Are you alright, we were asked. We slowly realised that this was the pub code for a further question or statement. A bit like the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions but more polite.

Little changed over the years, unspoilt wouldn’t do it justice. GBG stickers all the way back to the 1970s adorned the bar, local pork pies sat invitingly, in a nostalgic sort of way,  under a plastic lid with mini Bakewell Tarts alongside. On the beer front, it was Wainwright, Burton Bridge Mild and Marston’s Burton Bitter (none of that Saddle Tank nonsense) on offer. A Marston’s Low-C bottle opener and a Pedigree Bitter ashtray harked back to an earlier time. The sort of pub that CAMRA was formed to protect.

IMG_20180912_123911188

A photo to gladden the heart of the regiment.

The lad in the corner offered to get us a pint. We accepted a Mild in perfect condition and a Bitter that was suppable. A couple of pork pies and we were set up for a perfect pub lunchtime.

Act 1, Scene 2…the kids left, a couple came in silently and Ken the landlord appeared from out the back to serve them. How he knew they had come in was beyond us. Are you alright, he says to us. I’m just going to move this table as The Stokies come in every Wednesday. We were puzzled by these mythical creatures who were about to appear and why they needed a table at a right angle to ours, but no chairs.

Ken walked to the front of the bar and picked up a small children’s snooker table top. Like a slow-moving magic trick…he flipped it over, placed it over the existing table to reveal the table skittles top. The fixing of the pole was a work of scientific intrigue. He explained it had to be bolted into place with a high degree of accuracy. The ball must just touch the metal pin on the board. A few thou’ out wouldn’t do as my dad would have said.

And then The Stokies arrived. A happy miscellany of travellers ready for serious business albeit in a well-established routine. The Canterbury Tales sprang to mind as we watched Stanley the Tool Man (it was the graphic images on his yellow braces) play Hank Marvin’s younger brother (the glasses always give the family link away). To our excitement they told us that the pole needed re-adjusting..it needed to be highly accurate. Oh and could we move to the next table as they liked a bit of space around the skittle table.

Let gentle battle commence. I can’t recall a time when a pub game has been so carefully played…backs bent to line up the ball and release points calculated by these masters of pub physics.

As the game moved on a couple in clean walking gear arrived but made no move towards the bar. Instead they held out a mobile and asked if anyone could help. Obviously they wanted a photo taking in a traditional pub so I offered to help. No, they wanted help with the walking route on their phone. The route started at this pub they insisted and was near Owler Bar and Burbage Rocks and the A5127.

Ken and I agreed their walk was in the moors near Sheffield and showed them the places on the OS map. No, they insisted the postcode for the start of the walk SK something or other placed them at the pub. We all agreed that was the postcode but not for their walk. Advice from us on proper maps didnt seem to be greeted with applause. They turned tail and exited pub stage left.

Gently disturbed by the exciting goings on, we needed more mild and then headed back to Longnor via unnecessary diversions up High Wheeldon and the hill out of Crowdecote. What do we know about finding the correct route? Two pints of beer and pork pies do that to a couple of old blokes. At least we can find a proper pub.

 

Have we become obsessed about choice?

A wonderful stroll in the western end of the Peak District had us wondering why choice is so important these days, particularly when it comes to beer.

IMG_20180622_121324023

Hi ho Trig point

Starting at Tegg’s Nose we looked towards Macclesfield and South Manchester and headed up through the woods towards Shutlingsloe. Up and down the Cheshire Matterhorn we were now ready for a pint.

Descending we arrive at Wildboarclough to search out the Crag Inn. Three hand pumps and only one in use. Kodiak Gold from Beartown in Congleton it has to be. Bit golden and over-hoppy but why should beggars for a pint be choosers.

IMG_20180622_124045697

Informative and accurate

We ponder why we feel a bit disappointed with the lack of choice given that all we wanted was a beer, any beer, halfway down the hillside. We slap ourselves about for being ungrateful and tuck in to a Mycocks’ meat pie and chips washed down with another pint of cellar cool perfection.

IMG_20180622_124814678

We’ll get it down

A bloke wanders in and asks for Peroni from under the tea towel. There was another lager, but clearly not enough choice.

Soon after a mum and son ask about food..are there any specials as well as the menu, err no. OK, I’d like the chicken salad but with tuna, goes the conversation. Everyone wants choices. The days of a single beer with cheese and onion on Mother’s Pride (and be grateful for it) are over.

We chat with the friendly owner who admits that a pub this remote has to be something of a hobby. It can’t offer a wide range of cask and a long menu. It’s not worth opening on a weekday evening. They’re now bottling water from their borehole to add a further income stream (sorry). It’ll be available with milk deliveries soon.

IMG_20180622_142837837

How many shires do people want these days?

It’s too comfortable but we force ourselves onwards. Up the hill and then to Three Shires Head before more uphills to the closed Cat & Fiddle pub and on to the busy tea shop further down the road.

Robinsons are looking to lease the Cat & Fiddle but admit its pub days are numbered. Bizzarely they seem to think a tea room might work here. Prospective tenant thinks…remote location with a large tea shop less than half a mile away. Oh yes, a tea shop in a former pub is a brilliant idea. I could attract the punters with more choices than the one down the road.

IMG_20180622_154241294

Old-fashioned SatNav

Do we really feel any better from the offer of ever-expanding choices. Endless TV channels and nothing you fancy watching? Will our demands for beer and food choices lead to the same problem?

Why pubs really matter

Forget the arguments about beer types…craft or cask doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things. It’s not world peace. Beer is merely a way of getting blokes to communicate. (The reason I only mention blokes will I hope, become clear below.)

I increasingly realise that pubs are one of the few opportunities for blokes (particularly those who are middle-aged & above and single) to provide the means to support each other. In terms of mental well-being, I realise that there are organisations such as the nascent men’s sheds movement and the bowls & golf clubs and their ilk, but men’s social networks in retirement are notoriously poor compared to women. At its best the pub offers the opportunity to talk if you want to, or remain silent, but yet be part of a community.

20150916_184521

We were in a rural pub recently and started to chatting to a group of old mates in for an unhurried lunchtime of a couple of pints. Eventually one of the chaps started telling us of his wife who had moved into a care home with severe dementia. The pub was a place where he could bring her in the early stages of her illness without worrying about what people would think. As we chatted, he felt able to talk freely about the issues of being a carer and the hole in his life after she had to move out.

We found out, when another left early, that he was a Falklands’ veteran who didn’t like to talk about his experiences of lost comrades. Of course his mates respected his silence, but they were there to talk about other stuff and ready to support him.

Another chap was recovering from a stroke and slowly sipping his pint, safe in the company of his friends…people who would judge him on what he said rather than the manner of his speech.

As the first chap said, as we left, “this isn’t so much a pub to us, as a way of life.”

IMG_20180406_133458468

The best of pubs don’t judge, don’t ask who you are, or the value of your house. You’ll be given quiet space if you want, or friendly chat if that’s your choice.

In these days of limited public spending let’s remember the importance of pubs, the listeners behind the bar, and our fellow customers. We live in a rapidly ageing society and more and more people will live alone. Whilst I applaud CAMRA’s Community Pubs Month, there is much more to be done as the pub comes under more pressure, both economic and legislative.

Alcohol is subject to increasing scrutiny by health professionals and legislators. Pubs as outlets for alcohol products will inevitably come under the microscope. For some the pub will be seen as a means to breach government alcohol guidelines. We need more effort from the industry and CAMRA to improve recognition of the community, social and mental health benefits of the pub. A ‘public house’ is just that for many people.

We can all help each other, but let’s recognise the role of the pub in opening those doors to all.

 

Completely Howgilled

My favourite walk in England beckoned. Sedbergh to Ravenstonedale across the Howgill Fells. Always a slog out of Sedbergh and rucsacs loaded with vittels.

Hills that look like pale green ghostly pillows lobbed randomly but perfectly. Up on to the Calf and views of Morecambe Bay, Lakeland hills (is that Great Gable and so on), and Ingleborough peering out again. There can be few more remote and silent places in England that offer so much with so few people about.

IMG-20180517-WA0009

We look down on valley bottoms with distant meandering streams and wonder how many people have ever been there.

In sunny weather it is a complete joy, we think back to days in Summer when poor visibility has led us to abandon the idea of walking up here.

After many miles of ridges, the long downward slope leads us off the fells and we wend our way through small upland farms, a tree nursery and boggy meadows.  Better field paths and minor roads lead us to the edge of Ravenstonedale to be lifted by the sight of the King’s Head.

IMG_20180517_164448785

Obviously doing business with Marston’s…61 Deep and Mansfield Cask on offer. Why no local Jennings’? Out of curiosity I rehydrate on Mansfield. The blandest bitter I’ve had in a very long time. Not kept badly, it just seemed as if they’d used the cheapest ingredients in the beer factory and not much of them.

We wander on through the churchyard to arrive at our billet for the night, the Black Swan. A wonderful country pub hotel if ever there was.

A GBG regular, they seem to have a clever strategy on the beer front to keep their place. Black Sheep to keep the non-CAMRA punters happy and a couple of changing obscure local micros to meet the ‘needs’ of local CAMRA folk. Is this how it’s done?

The beer is fine and we rest our Howgilled bones and joints in preparation for a trip tomorrow on the Settle to Carlisle and a wander round Skipton. The Woolly Sheep beckons.