Lunch with Dave and SamCam

Proper hill walking and the northern home counties aren’t easy bedfellows but the Chilterns give a decent opportunity to stretch the legs and get a good view or two. It’s a bonus that it’s an area packed with decent pubs.

We parked at the Plough at Cadsden (more of that later) with a plan to do a circular walk around Chequers (country house of the UK Prime Minister). We headed east on the Ridgeway with a testing hill to wake us up as the Red Kites swirled around checking us out as likely carrion. We strolled through old woodland, crossing a lane to Chequers with just a ‘Private Road’ sign to stop an incursion.

Another incline and we reached the Coombe Hill memorial. Although it’s only 260m above sea level, it offers some of the best views in Southern England and luckily for us the sun started to break through giving us views out to the northern horizon. The walking was now easy, the chatting was good but the inbuilt satnav started failing. It was a fine day so not a problem and we picked up the track down towards Dave & SamCam’s place. We walked across the main drive with just a couple of cameras watching us and a helicopter drifting overhead.

Coombe Hill

Atop Coombe Hill

Whilst we didn’t get invited into lunch we did ponder that our most senior politician resides in a country house estate covered in public footpaths with only a warning that crossing a low fence means you’ll be subject to terrorist offences or some such. We speeded up as our ‘pint’ visualisation techniques put us on a par with elite athletes. Quickly down the hill into Cadsden, boots off and into the Plough.

Good to see a packed pub in the middle of relative nowhere – you could feel a well run pub as you walked through the door. Very friendly folk on the bar with Marlow’s Rebellion IPA on offer as well as Brakspear’s Bitter. Excellent beers kept really well, topped up with very good freshly cooked food from a kitchen that coped admirably with the rush. It’s the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind. I’m sure they kept her entertained and at least the Camerons support their local.

It was a perfect morning walk, 7 miles (after an initial ‘estimate’ of 5.5 miles) and an excellent pub stop but there are days when life just gets better and we set off for the Chiltern Brewery to buy the Christmas beer. (I refuse to pay to go in a pub.) As one of the UK’s oldest micro-breweries you’re served by people in brewery ties and aprons rather than hipster beards and you’re unlikely to find a mango-infused American IPA (8.5%). As I’m scribbling I have a glass of their Foxtrot helping the words to flow – a rich dark ale that’s surprisingly low in alcohol. Their beers are traditional in their taste and quality – not a bad combination. If you want a brewery trip for a day out from London their tutored tastings with beer and food are very good value and informative.

As the only non-driver I was the allocated taster for a range of fruit infused gins – we’re reckoning that Foxdenton‘s Winslow Plum with Aldi Champagne could be a good Christmas cocktail combination. A bit like mixing Benylin cough mixture with fizz. They had a good range of beers on draught as well as specials in bottle and unlike many micros they offer the choice of rough or bright for polypins. I still think there’s something magical about settling a beer – the wait is always worthwhile. As Sting might call it – tantric beer drinking. The Chiltern Brewery with its drinks, food and friendly chat would even bring a smile to old Scrooge’s visage. Happy Christmas to one and all.

Too cool for old school?

Despite a deepening aversion to CAMRA (I’ll get to it in a later blog) I remain a traditionalist seeking out bitter and mild on a hand pump and I have a historic ‘keg gives me a headache’ prejudice. As a result I’ve wavered about visiting the Verulam Arms in St Albans – in essence I thought its website description of “introducing a Craft Beer Bar” was just too cool for my old school views. Was I facing Shoreditch in St Albans? On the basis that it might be a Gunmakers for the ‘burbs I’ve given it a go a couple of times recently.

The food, with its wild and foraged theme, is very good but I’ll focus on the pub and the beer. Whilst there are lots of people eating it feels very much like a pub rather than a restaurant and it breezed through the welcome test on both nights I was there – one trip for food the other just for beer. They had a few hand pumps including Adnams’ Old Ale and a Tring Christmas yo ho ho special. However in for a penny in for a pound I decided to avert my gaze for the ‘Old’ and head for the new – keg.

They had a couple of Adnams’ Jack Brand brews, a Camden Pale Ale and Titanic Stout. Strange, I thought,  offering beer in halves, two-thirds and pint glasses. Prejudice to the fore I grumbled in my head about craft beer pretentious nonsense but then gave it some thought. A half is just something to top up the last pint before closing but maybe a two-thirds measure could work if there’s plenty of decent choices.

I’d tried some of the Jack Brand beers in bottle on a recent trip to Suffolk and I’m impressed with Adnams as a business – but how good are these fancy dan craft keg attempts? The Adnams 1659 Smoked Ruby Ale was a beer for the fireside – I’ll leave the description to the brewer. As the man behind the bar said, the Adnams Crystal Rye IPA isn’t quite an IPA. I’d agree – at least not one of those ‘smack you in the mouth’ harsh IPAs that seem to be churned out by yet another new kid on the block. Much more subtle and better for it. (My daughter when given a taste declared it too cold and fizzy – a taught traditionalist I wondered.)

As Adnams has claimed, it’s been making craft beers for centuries and the latest attempts show innovation as good as the best of the new. As for the rest of the kegs, the Titanic Stout was like meeting a trusted old friend from Staffordshire, always reliable, and the Citra heavy Camden Pale was just as it says on the tin and for me that’s where it stays in future.

The Verulam is a fine pub with good beers and a few doors down is the Farriers (see earlier blog) a fine pub with good beers. They’re as different as chalk and cheese and that for me is the greatest talent of English pubs.

Well done Verulam Arms – old school dogs can learn new tricks. It’s a Gunmakers for M25 land and only a short walk from the Abbey. Christmas Eve Evensong and two-thirds of Verulam’s own newly brewed medieval ale might be just the job.

All the gear and ready for a beer

It was pointed out to me recently that my blog was supposed to be about walking as well as beer and it was about time I removed myself from the bar. Loins girded we started off from our friends’ place at Clough Mill in Little Hayfield to go round Kinder Reservoir (and then Lantern Pike on the following day). I still have a touch of the puritan attitude and feel that a beer should be earned and a decent stroll obviously qualifies. (The pint of Landlord at The Lantern Pike on Thursday evening was weakly justified by a long drive northwards. As the pub where the first Corrie scripts were written by Tony Warren it had to be worth a visit.)

It’s impossible to describe Kinder Scout without heading into the word box for ‘brooding presence’. It just suits a day with a touch of mist, drizzle and a breeze to chill you down. Whilst I’m all for a sunny day in the hills (usually in thewickingman shirt and shorts) it felt good to be wrapped in multiple layers following in the footsteps of the mass trespass folk from Manchester way.

We started off through the grounds of Park Hall where we came across the sadly decayed elegance of the hall’s heated outdoor pool. Even in the 1960s it seems to have been in use by the locals – I’m sure it made an interesting alternative to the municipal baths.  Out of the hall grounds and we soon had Kinder looming above us as we joined the Snake Path. The white-painted shooting cabin on Leygatehead Moor always reminds me of a cricket pavilion for what I imagine would be a game involving ‘hit a grouse and it’s 6 and out’.

kinder

Good on you, Benny Rothman

At the bottom of William Clough (named after the son of the Blades manager I wondered) we paused to let the pure damp air fill our nostrils. It was a good moment to think about my 250 miles of the Strathmore Stroll in 2015 as I knew I’d be walking down the said Clough in early September. Note to self – it’s time to plan the route in detail.

We headed round the eastern side of the reservoir and met the Kinder Road and sped up to reach the The Sportsman. It’s at such times that I think most walkers use sports’ visualisation techniques – imagine a full pint (straight or jug) and you’ll be in the pub at double quick time. The Sportsman was like most pubs we visited in our trip to the Peak – solid, reliable and short of customers.

I noticed in Monday’s Morning Advertiser alert that Roger Protz is telling us that, “The country deserves better than just leaving our dwindling pub stock to market forces.” I’m just not sure who is supposed to run ailing pubs at a loss. As alternatives should we frogmarch young folk to grubby back street boozers, arrest people who leave supermarkets with a bag of beer or operate a massive state subsidy. Perhaps not.

Anyway rant over and back to The Sportsman, a Thwaites’ pub – a fine pint of their Original Bitter and a very substantial sandwich & chips, but we were the only customers on a Friday lunchtime. They have bedrooms so it’s not a bad choice for a Kinder walking weekend. (I was amused recently to read in the London Standard that Thwaites’ Wainwrights was named after the Lake District walking books. AW would not have been amused.)

Next morning it was a stride up Lantern Pike through pasture fields with millstone grit walls. Very much a traditional Dark Peak walk and none the worse for that. The Little Mill Inn  at Rowarth was a welcome sight – feeling very much in the middle of nowhere but only about 8 miles from Stockport as the crow flies. As a man for tradition (boring says son) I’m not keen on supposedly amusing names for beers – I prefer the beer to do the talking. However in a wild thirst induced moment I went for the Jennings World’s Biggest Liar – a 4.3% bitter that veered nicely into roasted malt territory, honest. Brewed to celebrate their hosting of the recent competition it’ll be a shame if it disappears. Another pub with good fresh-cooked food and well-kept beer but we were the only customers for a while.

A short walk to Hayfield in the evening and it looks like The Village TV drama has given Hayfield a lift. The Royal Hotel has had a polish but it’s kept its three-sided bar to deliver a pint of Thwaites and also a pint of Kinder Falldown, nothing special – must remember to stick to beers with sensible names. The Royal refurbishment seems to have done the job. It was a packed Saturday night and its function room was in full swing with an 80s fancy dress night. I imagine a summer walk over Kinder, a pint or two outside and the tail end of a cricket match on the adjacent ground would be a fine day.

We wandered over the road to The George for a final pint – a surprisingly decent Adnam’s Old Ale given its long journey from Southwold and the Marstons’ EPA was also doing well. As we headed back to our beds we passed The Packhorse – a sad scribbled notice reporting its last day on Sunday. Much as I love a pint in a Peak District pub I realise they can’t all survive just for my occasional pleasure. Some will thrive, some will struggle and some will be lost forever. It’s illuminating to note that a vacant freehold pub in the Peak now sells for less than the equivalent residential property. Please explain that one CAMRA.

The Perfect Pub: Mission Statement – coming soon

Who wants to be a millionaire – well you can’t, but how about taking on a pub as a step to untold riches? I’m always in awe of those good folk who are prepared to serve whilst the rest of us enjoy ourselves. They have to be a bit different to everywhere else, the beer and food can’t have an off day and the landlord needs to make a living without it seeming to be just a business (see final paragraph).

My recent experience is all on the customers’ side of the bar but as a child (see earlier post on my granddad’s pub) I saw the hard-knock life that a landlord’s world entailed. Always running the bar, doing the books after the evening session and then getting a nap after lunchtime closing. A very tough life on all fronts – physical, mental and metaphysical. Not surprising that my grandma could lift 8 one pint jugs in her hands. And in a world of cash and dodgy practices no one could be trusted to stand in. Their only night off I ever remember was the annual Licensed Victuallers ‘do’.

guinness

Granddad’s cufflinks: Perfect for the Licensed Victuallers

Since those days technology has improved the landlord’s lot but pub going has declined as legislation and other consumer choices have kicked in. However there still seem to be enough people who see a pub as their lifelong working dream – perhaps in part due to the joy of sitting the other side of the bar. Sadly I still stumble across pubs where you know within minutes that the new ‘mine hosts’ are ill-suited to running a successful pub.

I can’t see the long-term benefit to an operator of taking on lessees who won’t be successful but I guess the pubco’s will be even more keen to encourage the ‘dreamers with money’ if market rent only becomes an option. The pubcos websites still try and sell the dream to potential lessees and the Morning Advertiser featured pubs seem like nirvana rather than a bottomless pit to pour money down. A recent ad listed a village pub in Derbyshire that had ‘good potential for commuter trade’. I suspect it’s never seen a commuter in its life. Now That’s What I Call Marketing No 666.

Of course it’s not all gloom and doom – there are still pubs where I can walk through the door and all is well with the world. Like many I find it ironic that Wetherspoons brand-grabbed George Orwell’s ‘Moon under Water’ but I still believe in the search for the perfect pub. Interesting that the attributes described by Orwell haven’t changed a great deal, for some of us, in nearly 70 years.

On a stroll around St Albans with my mate Greedy we pondered as to why one pub works and another one doesn’t quite cut the mustard. And why is it almost an instant feeling as you open the door? Last night’s winners were the Farriers Arms and The Six Bells.

Open the door of the Farriers and it feels good to be in from the cold. Welcoming humour from the landlord, acknowledgment by the regulars and a solid pint of Betty Stogs from Skinners isn’t a bad start. It has that essence of the community pub – comfortable but unfussy, nooks and crannies for local groups and even an outside lav. And gentle encouragement from the landlord to have another.

The Six Bells, busy even on a Monday night and offering a good range of beers including a richly malted porter from the local 3 Brewers . The porter was a bit like a liquorice whorl and treacle toffee on bonfire night. The Six Bells is warm, friendly and the lighting is just right. It has that feeling of being loved and well run. I’m sure everyone is running in the background but all feels calm on my side of the bar.

As I said the pub magic trick is to make it seem it’s not a business but sometimes they can’t help themselves. The Old Chequers at Gaddesden Row has new owners. Their shiny website has no mention of beer but it proudly announces that the Mission Statement is coming soon. How did you miss that one off your list George Orwell?

“I don’t do food”

A week in Suffolk had me thinking about what makes a pub different to a restaurant. On the way we drove through Yoxford, a village just off the A12. I remembered some 30 years ago renting a holiday cottage in the village across the road from The Blois Arms, an Adnams pub. In those days, over for a quick pint – the landlord gave us a friendly welcome and asked if we were settled in to the cottage (he knew what was going on in the village).

His only interests were his customers and Adnams’ beer. “This is the only Adnams where John Adnams drinks beer, he’s more of a wine man you know.” How right he was. Our pints were enjoyed whilst he proudly told us he didn’t do food, we could bring a jug for filling and “lift up your little girl on to the bar so she can talk to us as well – here’s a sweetie for later”. In modern parlance it was a wet-led community pub. The pub was closed in 2007.

Blois Arms Yoxford Copyright Adrian Noble

I don’t want this to seem like a diatribe against Adnams – any brewer that produces a fine winter brew like Old Ale gets my vote. It’s a very well run business with a strategically sound diversification of the brand (that’s enough marketing speak) – as my son said, “they’ve really got it sorted”. It’s just that my week in coastal Suffolk (NW3 by the sea) made me realise that, for some areas of the country, pubs focussed on beer are heading for extinction.

By ‘focussed on beer’ I don’t mean there’s no food or that most of the turnover is from beer – it’s more complex than that. When I walk into a pub I want it to feel like it’s a pub, not a restaurant with a counter to place my food order. I want it to be different – not like every other pub. Faced with stripped pine tables and bare floorboards, large menu blackboard, all the tables in the bar set for lunch, it’s clear that if I only want a pint I’m not really needed.

You know the type of ‘pub’ – with no space for mingling I start to think I might as well be at a Carluccio’s or some such. There’s a danger in standing about because you’re likely to get mown down as another ‘trio of locally-grown sausages with cheddar mash and luscious onion gravy, artfully arranged’ passes by your pint.

I’m all in favour of food, particularly after a stroll, and I realise that’s where the margins are for pub operators. What I’m concerned about is that there is a risk of pubs forgetting why they have a unique character. Pubs in Southwold like the Lord Nelson and the old bar at the Harbour Inn still say loud and clear we’re a proper pub and everyone is welcome. Perfect for when you’re in need of rehydration after a windy walk along the beach.

However they feel like a declining breed amongst the identikit ‘gastro-style’ pubs that are beginning to be the only option in some places. What was once an interesting food-led diversion for the pub trade is becoming boring. It’s not fashionable, it’s dull and unimaginative. And fads often become outdated and require yet another expensive re-fit in short order.

If it don’t feel like a pub, I don’t think it is a pub, as the landlord of The Blois Arms might have said.

Ode to Sheffield

The perfect snog

The perfect snog

First of all I have to admit to being biased – three formative years long ago at Sheffield Hallam (and more recently for my son) and it has a hold of my heart. I’m never quite sure what makes any town or city feel safe but Sheffield city centre has always seemed welcoming for a night out. I suspect a city, where burly bus drivers call you love, Richard Hawley calls home and where Hendo’s is a life-blood, has to be good.

Way back when, I remember standing in a queue for a club with snow falling and a local lad in a T-shirt laughed and said, “I see bloody students are back” and looked at us disdainfully in our thick coats and then chatted to us – we were the gowns owned by the town. Similarly, I remember a late night when me and my mates, all in fancy dress, were chased on foot around a city centre car park by a copper. He eventually caught up with us, laughed at our daft outfits, and explained that he wasn’t going to arrest us, he just didn’t want us to drive a car in our state – good policing did exist in 70s Sheffield.

Our latest reunion with South Yorkshire started in deepest darkest Rotherham to watch United being thrashed by the Boro’. I’d not been to watch Rotherham (in Rotherham) since the 70’s when Malcolm Allison’s Crystal Palace were the visitors and Big Mal was in his Fedora hat era.

Back to the beer – I’ve decided that if you want to be in a pub where supporters of both football teams will mingle happily you need good beer and no blokes on the door. (On this basis I fully expect a CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ article soon suggesting that real ale can be shown to reduce football hooliganism when compared to the wicked effect of keg consumption – see earlier blog on village pubs). Pubs like the Derby Tup in Chesterfield, Finborough Arms (Chelsea) and The Great Northern (Burton) offer the best in decent beers and decent folk.

Anyway, the Cutlers Arms in Rotherham provided a good couple of local pints before the game and the New York Tavern with its full range of Chantry brews and other ales offered a post-match warm down. Both supplied beers in good nick and fast, friendly service. Perfect for a game at the tidy new home of the Millers – and many thanks to the supervisor who, after the match, generously escorted my mate from the Rotherham end to meet us at the Boro’ end and for good chat from the friendly copper from South Yorkshire’s finest on the walk from the ground. In the search for bad news, it’s not often reported that you regularly hear away fans thanking stewards and police after a game and the return of “have a safe trip home”.

Back to Sheffield…the night focussed on Sheffield city centre’s heritage pubs. First off it was the Thornbridge-owned Bath Hotel, with a wide range of its own beers and others in fine form, followed by The Red Deer. Somewhere along the way was a pint of Abbeydale’s Deception but why do I never see Brimstone in Sheffield?

The Grapes followed offering good ales & Guinness, a jukebox of excellent tunes (Sheffield songsters a speciality) and the interesting JFK memorabilia room. Strange to think that once upon a time an ‘Irish’ pub was about a friendly well run pub with live music rather than the mock ‘oirish’ nonsense found across the globe. Long live The Grapes.

After an excellent curry at Aagrah, we finished off with the cosy welcome that is Fagan’s – tuneful melodies, perfect Tetley’s and a wonderful snog (see gable end for details). A place guaranteed to make you smile & chat.

Sheffield never disappoints. Here’s to the next time love.

Village pubs – do they make a community?

After a stroll through Rutland on an October ‘summer’s day’ we arrived at Seaton, a picture-postcard village not far from the magnificent Welland Viaduct with its 80 or so arches. The George & Dragon at Seaton is a modern day perfect village pub – good food, excellent beer (malty Bateman’s plus a local Grainstore ale) and well aware of its community role. Whilst food’s important to their success they are very happy to see people who just want a pint.

The pub’s got the builders in to add bedrooms but that didn’t interrupt normal service and a very friendly welcome. Of course like any successful village pub it knows its business model has to combine the local village folk as well as attracting customers from further afield. It’s a good base for a walking weekend – plenty of footpaths including the now dinosaur-free Jurassic Way.

Whilst enjoying my pint of Bateman’s XXXB I thought about the role of a pub in a village. The CAMRA ‘What’s Brewing’ for November 2014 carried an article from an academic researcher (‘Just like beer, pubs are good for you’) suggesting that, “simply speaking, opportunities for communal initiatives would be extremely reduced, if not inexistent, in these parishes without pubs.”

I’m all in favour of pubs in villages and no doubt a well-run pub is a positive factor in attracting some in-comers as are shops and schools. However I’m always wary of research where the analysis ‘shows’ the results the researchers want to hear, i.e. pubs make a village community and therefore we should legislate accordingly. A strong correlation between the presence of pubs and community activity does not necessarily mean that pubs are the determining factor in community cohesion. Is there anything else that drives community activity and delivers business to a pub? I think it’s people that make the difference.

Many villages, particularly in commuting distance from major towns and cities, have become an escape route for the affluent middle class. For example, the presence of ‘Wealthy countryside commuters’ and ‘Better-off villagers’ in CACI’s Acorn consumer segmentation shows how the older affluent groups use villages as an alternative to the suburbs. These affluent demographic groups have a high propensity for eating out and  community activities – fuel for both community cohesion and financially successful village pubs. (NB I used to work for CACI.)

Like bank branches (see the latest government requirement to ignore financial viability), pubs and community cohesion depend on the local population in term of its size and demographics. In my view, the idea that pubs provide the magic ingredient for a successful village, or any other community, is merely a comfort to those who want to preserve any pub whatever the circumstances. As Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville said, “it’s economy, stupid”. If the right people aren’t there in numbers it won’t work – preserve it and they will come doesn’t work.

The Strathmore Challenge – a walk via the breweries of England

For those of you who have asked about the 300 miles walk in September 2015 for a rough outline please click here or look at the image below. I’ll be blogging en route (e.g Day 1 twisted ankle, caught bus, went home) when I can get wifi. I am walking between the start at The Strathmore Arms at Holwick near Middleton-in-Teesdale and the finish at The Strathmore Arms in St Paul’s Walden near Hitchin – the only pubs of that name in England.

The Stroll

A bit of a stroll

And to all who’ve asked…yes I have read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – it would have been a good story if he’d have visited more pubs and breweries.

Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

A week away in Madeira got me thinking of desert island beers – what would I want washed up on the shore in perfect nick. That’s what fizzy lager and dodgy local spirits does to a man, you start hallucinating about favourite beers of the year. Of course, it’s not just the beer – the people, the journey and the pub all add up to the perfect pint.

For me it was a summer stroll across the Hertfordshire countryside to The Strathmore Arms and their ever changing roll-call of beers. Good company on the walk, decent weather and a thirst to be quenched set the tone for an excellent session. When the locals, with a glint in their eyes, told me my choice wasn’t much cop I guessed the American Red from Liverpool Craft might be worth a try. I’ll leave others to pontificate at RateBeer but on this day its caramel taste and refreshing bitterness was fine by me. So far it’s my beer of the year edging out Marlow’s excellent Rebellion IPA at the Cross Keys, Abbeydale’s treacly Brimstone at The Three Stags’ Heads and Harvey’s Best at the late lamented Gunmakers. (Thoughts welcome on your beers of the year.)

As I’ve written before, I’m a beer drinker looking for traditional bitter rather than trying to chase summer blondes. Strange then that my favourite is from a small brewery playing the ‘edgy’ craft beer card. Is this a forewarning of how the beer landscape might look in a few years? Who will be the winners and losers?

For those of us who remember the 1970s and 80s, the pubs of the independent family breweries (IFBs) were often the oases in a desert of tasteless keg – they were our real ale heroes, Young’s in London and Adnams in Suffolk. Could we be heading to a beer future where we only have our memories of those days and their beers? The production efficiency of new craft breweries, the issue of Progressive Beer Duty and a matter of taste may bring the downfall of some who kept the real ale flag a-fluttering.

Those of us from outside of the Shoreditch beer vibe still go weak at the knees when we catch sight of an old-fashioned tower brewery – to many it seems the epitome of an independent family owned brewery. For years it’s been a guarantee of local pubs with a decent pint. The likes of Hook Norton, Harvey’s and Samuel Smith’s have moved with the times but they retain a marketing image founded on traditional values. Surely on that basis, independent family brewers are set up for years of success? Maybe not.

On a tour of Thornbridge’s highly efficient beer factory on an industrial estate outside Bakewell we were told that the next batch of stainless steel would give them more capacity than Adnams on a much smaller footprint. Whilst many traditional brewery buildings are fitted-out with the latest equipment it has to be difficult to achieve similar sterile efficiencies in their often listed buildings. Chances are that a new craft brewery can achieve a much higher production capacity relative to floorspace compared to many traditional brewers.

These infrastructure disadvantages are overlaid with the issues of the capacity limits in the Progressive Beer Duty regulations. According to Adnams, the small craft brewers are at a duty advantage of £55 per barrel compared to the IFBs producing in excess of 60,000 hectolitres. The government’s assistance to small brewers has disadvantaged the brewers that gave real ale a chance of survival.

It’s a difficult world – the family brewers are less efficient due to history, they’re suffering a financial disadvantage and then we come to taste. The growth in the beer market is in part due to those drinkers who want innovation, new tastes and individuality. Whilst many of the IFBs have started their own microbreweries (for example, Thwaites’ Crafty Dan) and one-off brews, they struggle to achieve the ‘edginess’ offered by the market positioning of the craft breweries. The IFBs will live or die by their traditional beers sometimes cherished by an older demographic. And in my view, for some IFBs such as McMullen, Palmers  and Robinsons, the blandness of their regular beers don’t offer enough to get today’s punters through the door. Between them there’s many a decent pub but that’s no longer enough.

So next time you’re knocking back a beer from the new craft kid on the block spare a thought for the heroes of the battle for real ale survival. Old infrastructure, tax disadvantages and a struggle to stand out from the crowded world of craft beer could mean we lose some brewery gems, or at best they go down the  pub-only road travelled by Young’s and Brakspear.

The Burton Snatch – marketing triumph and brand failure

As a Burton-born boy I now view from a ‘down south’ distance the marketing triumph that is Marston’s Pedigree and the corporate failure to manage the Draught Bass brand.

I grew up in a Burton world where roads were criss-crossed by the spider’s web of brewery railways, pubs seemed to be on every street corner and more than a few blokes had taken advantage of drinking beer at work. I thought every town had a smell of spent yeast and Marmite. And the joy of a summer holiday job with free beer in the canteen. It wasn’t just the workers – I remember having to carry a case of beer up to the Bass board meeting for ‘tasting’.

Time moved on and drinking choices in town became clear – Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, Marston’s Pedigree or Bass. Whether it was the choice of pubs or the taste of the beers, it’s lost in nostalgia but I’d hope I’d been able to recognise that Burton beers are not all the same. Pedigree to me is so sulphurous you might be drinking water from a volcanic lake, Burton Ale was too much for a session but Draught Bass was the business.

As I’ve said before it’s just my taste but if I’d had to predict a beer capable of national success as real ale became mainstream it would have been Bass. A great brand in the UK and abroad, perfect for a session and a superb traditional bitter taste. In Burton it even had a tower named after it – until Coors rode into town.

Where is it now? It’s a stand back in amazement moment when you see it on a bar. Too many times recently I’ve stared wistfully at that Bass triangle on the outside of a pub only to face the inevitable Doom Bar inside. It’s easy to say it’s not the same Bass taste anymore but there’s still a hint of what might have been when it’s gently supped. (Congratulations to the Shoulder at Barton for keeping a very good pint.)

From a business perspective Marston’s has done a superb job on placing Pedigree as one of the key contenders for a real ale national treasure. Its sponsorship of England cricket hits the perfect demographic, the advertising pulls gently on nationalistic heartstrings and then there’s the taste (oh well you can’t have it all). They started with product, some regional brand-strength and a growing market and they’ve achieved wonders.

On the other hand InBev had the national (even worldwide) Bass brand – the perfect session product for the only growth market in town and they’ve failed completely and utterly. On the AB InBev website Bass is categorised as a lowly ‘local champion’ and without a hint of irony they note that “the brand has had an incredible pedigree (my italics) for centuries”. The marketing maestros probably don’t even realise it is brewed by Marston’s these days.