Clive of India Pale Ale

We embarked on a pre-Christmas dads and lads outing to St Albans’ pubs – it was difficult to work out who was leading who astray. Enough to say that any evening that starts with winter ales, has a middle of pub carol singing with St Albans’ Morris folk and ends with a kebab is unlikely to result in much erudition. However, somewhere in the mists of drinking, some of us (i.e. Clive and myself), discussed the problem of IPA. At The Goat pub the dads had gone for Redemption’s Big Chief IPA and a couple of the lads had chosen Well’s Eagle IPA (or whatever they are calling it this week).

Whilst Clive would even ask for a blood transfusion to have added Citra hops I’m more of a roasted malts man but we can agree on a beer needing some taste and complexity. The Well’s IPA tasted of – well it didn’t have a taste to be frank, whereas the Big Chief was full of flavour including some citrus stuff but so much more than a ‘we’ve bunged in a load of Citra hops to make a strong beer that’s like alcoholic bitter lemon’.  Anyway pity was taken on the errant lads and extra pints of Big Chief were purchased to much acclaim.

The essence of my complaint about IPA is that as a description it’s now about as much use as teats on a bull. A Google search has over 680,000 results for “India Pale Ale” reflecting the fact that it has become a meaningless term of no use to the beer drinker e.g. someone explain black pale ale to me. But in a way, worse than meaningless given that it’s become a label used to sell any old (or even new craft) sludge.

In my early drinking career Worthington’s White Shield was a good bottle-conditioned standby in Burton’s pubs and a useful finish to a night when another full pint was unnecessary. It was a classic IPA (I mean to say was) and today it remains a ‘proud member’ of the Molson Coors’ Global Portfolio…in fact they’re so proud of it coming from Burton on Trent (sic) they even illustrate the Worthington’s White Shield web page with that beautiful corner of Burton otherwise known as Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire. Marketing muppets.

Anyway enough of my anti-Coors ranting, I don’t ask for much, so please dear brewers if you label a beer as an IPA make sure it tastes of something, that it’s more complex than an alcoholic bitter lemon and remember its origins as a Pale Ale.

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.

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?