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 Greg Mulholland’s assertion that outdated regulations protecting launderettes justify increased barriers to market-led development always seemed weak to me.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.

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.

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.