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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.