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.

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.

Since it’s you that’s asking I’ll have another gin dear

My grandad ran a couple of Marston’s pubs, the Fir Tree Inn in Arley (formerly a mining village in North Warwickshire) and the New Talbot in god’s own Burton-upon-Trent. whatpub accurately describes the Fir Tree… a large pub on a pointless roundabout. I’ve thought about my childhood memories of the pub whilst reading the BoakandBailey book BrewBritannia on the rebirth of British beer. Their otherwise excellent tale of the rise of Grotney’s Red Barrel and tasteless lager and the decent beer fightback lacks a vital explanation as to why many punters happily turned to keg. Shock horror, it was better quality and more reliable.

My dear old grandad took the bucket of beer slops at the end of every night and poured them back in the barrel topping it up with a bottle of lemonade to give it a bit of fizz. The slops were free and the lemonade was cheap because, sorry Marston’s, he used to go undercover to the local pop factory to avoid paying the brewery’s prices for soft drinks. The result for my dad and many of his generation was that a drop of real ale never touched their lips after the arrival of keg. Dad struggled to understand why I’d ever want to drink something that was subject to tampering by the landlord. I suspect my grandad was not alone in his dodgy practices but he had to make a penny or two.

Grandad’s other business ideas for money making in the pub were ‘white-labelling’ and target marketing initiatives well ahead of their time. It was customary amongst the regulars to ask Sam if “he’d have one with them” – the offer of a free drink in your own pub. His response “thank you I’ll have my usual” and he’d pour, from the gin bottle behind the counter, a measure of the finest tap water.

When I visited the Fir Tree as a child I wasn’t allowed to go the other side of the bar and much to my annoyance I couldn’t have a lollipop from the jar behind the bar – they weren’t for me. What I was allowed to do was to stand on a tin box of Smith’s crisps and engage the old ladies in the snug – pubs in those days were of course omni-channel venues. My script from grandad went along the lines of… smile, say hello Mrs Jones and then ask her if she’d like another gin. Of course the cherubic marketing message triumphed and she responded with “since it’s you that’s asking I will – tell your grandad”. So it was my fault that gin sales rocketed amongst the old ladies of Arley – guilty as charged mi’lord.

Back to the annoying jar of lollipops. Many years later it was explained to me that the sweets were for little Eric. My grandad was never prosecuted for serving after hours but always had lock-ins, except on those nights when the local bobby turned up ‘unexpectedly’. Little Eric was the local copper’s son and he could come to the ‘offie’ window and get a free lollipop whenever he desired. That’s called community policing of the ‘old-school’.

Grandad was educated at the university of life – I think he awarded himself a MBA with merit.