Monday, 27 July 2015

Vinegar Ectoplasm

I had lunch with a couple of friends yesterday. It was a good pub: a decent turnover of cask ales and real food made from scratch. My friend asked for vinegar for his chips.

"Sorry, we don't do vinegar - this is a real ale pub" came the reply.

A few weeks ago, in another pub a few miles away, the people at the next table were ordering food. They asked for chips:"Sorry, we don't do chips. Too many people ask for vinegar and we can't do vinegar because this is a real ale pub".

In a third pub, a regular grumbled to me: "We asked for a big jar of cockles on the bar but the boss won't do it because of the vinegar. The same with pickled eggs".

I've been aware of this no-vinegar thing for some years. The idea seems to be that the mere presence of vinegar in the pub somehow adversely effects the beer.

This is vinegar that smells of bullshit.

By what means does the vinegar allegedly adversely effect the beer? I asked one of my lunch friends, who is a very sciencey person, with a PhD in organic chemistry to prove it. "Vinegar ectoplasm" he explained.

Adding to my suspicion that this is mumbo-jumbo, each of the pubs concerned is quite happy to serve other condiments that contain vinegar – tomato ketchup and brown sauce for instance. Indeed, one of them prides itself on making its own chutneys and pickles. Joined-up thinking is not in evidence.

My conclusion is that the vinegar-adversely-effects-beer thing is magical thinking. It is an idea - a meme - that is passed between people who don't question it.

Has anyone else spotted this? Can anyone defend the no-vinegar rule?

*Update: The Beercast has also covered this subject. Interestingly, the pub they mention is is no more than 15 miles or so from the ones I mentioned. Could the no-vinegar rule be a local South Cumbrian thing?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Am I post-craft?

Way back, probably about 1996 or 1997, I first tasted the vivid flavours being imported from the USA. In 1998 I made my first trip to California - and came back an evangelist. Not for big-flavour west coast beer per se, but for a more positive attitude to beer. Long un-enthralled by CAMRA's relentlessly negative and doom-laden "real ale under threat" narrative, I found the US attitude a breath of fresh air. It got me thinking: ditch the term "real ale" and the negativity surrounding it, and fewer people would be put off real ale. And while we're at it, acknowledge that perfectly good beer can come from kegs, and recognise that Johnny Foreigner can brew good beer, some of which might even be lager. But what about a new term that encapsulates this new positivity? The Americans already had a good one: Craft Beer.
Doing a bit of dry
hopping in San Francisco, Feb '98

Fast forward a decade and a half or so, and we find "craft beer" is firmly established in the UK. Big-hop beers are essential for any brewery or bar that identifies with craft. Supermarkets, regional brewers and pubcos are even recognising craft – surely signs that craft is now mainstream.

A recent long weekend in London allowed me to consider my own feelings about the craft revolution I had long wished for.

Evening one: I was at the launch party of the Mikkeller book at which Martyn Cornell was called a bastard. The venue was Brewdog's Camden establishment. The weakest beer available was 4.5% Brew Puppy (I may have mis-remembered this name). It was bitter. It was nothing else. It was like chewing a teabag. It wasn't pleasant.  I later enjoyed a third of one of Mik's sour beers. It was rather good but at the equivalent of £12 a pint it fucking well should have been. But I wanted a pint – a whole pint, not two thirds – of something thirst-quenching. No such beer was available. It made me grumpy.


Evening two: The venue was The Cat's Back, Harvey's little-known second London pub which is tucked away on a side street on the west side of Wandsworth town centre. I had four pints: a Best Bitter, a Wild Hop, An Armada Ale and an 1859 Porter. Three of the four were sublimely good. Sadly the Wild Hop was tired and flabby. But three out of four ain't bad. In fact, I was overjoyed: highly drinkable, thirst-quenching, intelligent beer in a proper pub devoid of bearded hipster clones blasting their tastedbuds with bitterness.

The Cat's Back
Afternoon Three: I popped into the Swift, on Putney High Street. This is a Fullers faux-east end hipster craft beer vibe bar for the unadventurous young professionals of south west London. On my first visit, in December 2013 soon after it opened, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. A blackboard listing the "craft beer" selection included Fosters, without any suggestion of it being an in-joke; surly door-staff enforced a no-bags rule. The board had gone but the faux-ness was all too apparent in the sun of a spring afternoon. The exposed bricks were wallpaper. The vintage distressed tiles were wallpaper. The furniture was over-designed to look under-designed. The beer selection was perfunctory. The whole place was false, a facsimile of craft.

The Swift

The Swift

The Swift

On the train back north I had time to ponder this craft dysphoria. I came to a conclusion: I am post-craft. Genuine craft as exemplified by Brewdog left me cold. Faux craft, as represented by The Swift, left me dispirited.

A Harvey's pub  put a a mile wide smile on my face. I am post-craft. But I'm still not real ale.

Update: 4 August 2015 - The Swift has closed for business. 

Thursday, 26 February 2015

A Victorian Lager Brewery That Never Was

While doing some research on long-defunct breweries of South Cumbria (or North Lancashire as it was before 1974) I stumbled across a prospectus for a plan to build a German-style lager brewery at Backbarrow (click here for location). 

In the archive I also found a letter from a German correspondent (last picture) that seems to confirm my suspicion that this brewery never got off the ground. Scroll to the bottom for my transcript of the letter. 

None of the documents carried a date so I'm going to have re-read Boak and Bailey's fascinating ebook "Gambrinus Waltz: German Lager Beer in Victorian and Edwardian London" to attempt to make a guess at the year. 


Max Grumbach
5 Bohnenstrasse

••• Letter to •••••••
From the ?
Max Grumbach, Esq
c/o Grambach & Co

Being without your news about the projected Backbarrow brewery at seems that the transactions about this have come to a dead stop, which we should much regret for the sake of the interested persons.

We know from a good source that the brewery in London, which is at most about 9 •••••• does a very good trade and we are told that their beer is much liked by the public and that the price, which they fetch is so high that a big advance may be the result.

This success and the certainty that an increased demand of German Lagerbeer will follow, will have the consequence of starting more such breweries during the next few years and it is evident that those breweries which will be first established, will be the most prosperous ones, not having to meet a great competition at the beginning and it certainly will not be difficult for them to find a sufficient market.

With regard to the Backbarrow brewery, we feel almost sure that the net advance, as it was stated in our estimates, will become much larger still, because the selling price  which we have named is the price for beer in barrels which will be much raised if, as it was intended, they will take up the trade of beer in bottles at the same time we request you to point this out to your friends and should be glad if they would soon come to a definite conclusion.

We beg also to mention, that our engineer[?] is at present occupied with fitting up the Wrexham brewery for us and will have finished his work in about 3 months when that brewery will ••••••.

This had been delayed through the failure of the builder, which also stopped this work for a while.

Awaiting your good news & c & c

x The Wrexham Brewery has no connection with •••••••••

Friday, 20 February 2015

How things were before craft...

With such a relentlessly miserable and patronising message was it any wonder younger people stayed away from real ale? 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A New Brewery for Cumbria

A couple of years ago I did some sums to confirm a hunch I had – that my home county of Cumbria then had the greatest number of breweries per capita of all UK counties. Confirmed it I did, but I've chucked out the nice little spreadsheet I made and I can't be bothered making it again so I can't give you any figures.

Of course, that really tells you that Cumbria is sparsely populated but it gets lots of tourists who come to drink our beer after spending the day get rained on. It is well populated by big inhospitable hills and sheep and damn cold lakes, which is nice if you like those sort of things. If you calculated the number of breweries per sheep, the score would be very low because of the surfeit of said mammals. On the other hand, London would probably be top of the league table of breweries per sheep. Nice one London, another feather in your cap.

Cumbria's breweries per human capita figure will soon be getting a little bigger, or rather, a little biggar.

There's a pub I go to, The Queens Arms at Biggar Village, which I will take you to if you ever visit my home town of Barrow-in-Furness. It is a community pub in the best sense of the expression. The QA is possesses a courtyard and some near-derelict outbuildings usually referred to as "the barns". Putting the barns to some useful purpose is a common conversation for the villagers. The idea of creating an art gallery fortunately didn't get off the ground. Barrow really isn't an art gallery kind of a town. Fortunately beer is known to be consumed in the area, and the idea of creating a brewery occurred to lots of people.

The owners of the pub didn't have deep enough pockets nor the know-how to go about creating a brewery so the regulars got their heads together and came up with a plan.

Two years ago the ball started rolling. Without really knowing how go about it, the idea of a co-operative took hold. It was decided shares would be £200. People soon started buying shares. I chipped in in September 2013. I soon found myself on the managing committee as I gave people the impression I knew what I was talking about. Nothing much happened for many months. Slowly we started to fill our information vacuum. By the summer of 2014 we had found an advisor to help us with the formation of the necessary co-operative legal entity – an Industrial Provident Society. Meanwhile we heard Unsworth's Brewery of Cartmel were looking to upgrade their kit and sell their shiny 2.5 barrel kit. So we bought it. That's our kit you see pictured on Unsworth's website.

With the co-operative in place and the kit in storage, we embarked on getting change of use planning permission for the bit of the barns we wanted to use. Six months of stress ensued. Unfortunately the barns are listed buildings. Not only that, they are adjacent to an site of special scientific interest. And adding to the complexity, they are close to a flood plain. One of the many hoops through which we had to jump, was a bat and owl survey. Had the the barns not been listed, a bat and owl survey would not have been necessary – which presumably would have meant we could have murdered any resident bats and owls with impunity. As it was, no evidence of bat or owl roosting was found. Thank goodness.

Planning permission was finally granted just before Christmas 2014. With the ball well and truly rolling, we can think about preparing the premises. The barn doors need rebuilding, a drain needs digging, the walls and ceiling need patching up and lining, and water and electricity supplies need installing.

While this is going on I'm doing the marketing groundwork, this blog post included. Branding isn't finalised but this is what we're using for now:

Our Facebook page is up and running, and naturally I would like you to give it a like. 

A couple of weeks ago we had a bit of a celebration for getting the planning permission and to present the share certificates, all for the benefit of the local media. As you can see we have a celebrity shareholder who is known to have a keen interest in beer and breweries. 

There are still lots more hurdles to jump before any beer gets brewed. One of those hurdles is just who the hell is going to brew the bloody stuff? If any brewers of your acquaintance are at a loose end please urge them to get in touch.  

Friday, 6 February 2015

And so it came to pass...

Way back in the dark ages before blogs, before Twitter, and before Facebook, online chat about beer was hard to find. Only the most geeky of beer geeks would find, a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to real ale. The group is still active but a pale shadow of its former self. Fortunately its historical content has been archived by Google. 

The term "real ale" gives the game away - it was, and still is,  heavily pro-CAMRA. Undaunted, my brother Steve and I would wade in for a bit of beer banter. Some cracking arguments ensued. Often the core argument from the voluble CAMRAists went something like this: "making real ale cheaper will make it sell more." The Pickthall counter argument was "real ale is already cheap, and you are doing a disservice to the pubs brewers you are claiming to support by campaigning for cheapness."

It was great fun. Steve was browsing the archive recently and found this thread from 2002, in which the core argument rumbles on.

At one point, Steve is prompted to offer his manifesto for beer, so he did. Reading it now, what strikes us is how much of this has actually happened. Here's what Steve wrote:

One of the things that has to be done is for CAMRA to remove the phrase "value for money" from its manifesto. "Value for money" is a nebulous concept at the best of times but on this occasion it doesn't help real ale it only serves to commodify it. Beer isn't a commodity, it is a luxury (i.e. it is purchased and consumed entirely for pleasure), the only people who will benefit from the commodification of beer are the producers of low, low quality swill like Lynx and Ace.

CAMRA has to de-emphasise dispense. Germany, Holland, USA, Belgium, Czech Republic all make great keg beer and CAMRA shoots itself in the foot whenever is bangs on about "Ask if it's Cask" (which means little to most people anyway). In the Seventies the keg beers CAMRA protested against were appalling beers, keg dispense was not the problem.

Breweries have to shake up their marketing, they have to stop regarding it with suspicion and assuming 'a good product sells itself' - it doesn't.

Stop banging on about 'tradition', many associate it with hanging, racism, rickets and old duffers ranting about National Service. 'Traditional' can also be understood as 'we have our heads in the sand', 'we are contemptuous of young people', 'we are dismissive of technological advance'. Anyone for 150 year old standards of hygiene? Tradition often is just a romantic view of complacency.

Stop being disparaging about 'fizziness'. People like fizziness and real-ale's poor image includes the largely erroneous notion that it is flat.

Improve product design. Brewers spend a fortune on bespoke embossed glass bottles and most of them look shit and go straight in the bin anyway (e.g. Youngs). They also spend a shed load of money on full colour labels, on some occasions full colour with metallic effects, this hugely expensive and looks absolutely crap. It would be better to spend that money on a good designer who could also design a specific glass for their beer to be drunk from, there is a lot of research which suggests people like drinking from the right glass for the product - it adds value.

Provide more information about the product so consumers can identify flavours and malts and hops and so make fewer shot-in-the-dark selections. Not along the lines of 'brewed for 150 years with the finest hops and malted barley', this kind of anodyne expression shows contempt for the consumer - it is up to the consumer to decide if it is 'fine' or not. 'Floating drinkers' who do occasionally buy real ales are disappointed when they feel they have to finish a pint they don't like when better information may have allowed them to choose a beer they could have thoroughly enjoyed. (This also relates to thelanguage many pubs/PubCos spout about their products - 'quality', 'home cooked', 'finest' - often these are simply lies and the consumer doesn't fall for it).

De-emphasise pint drinking. Pint drinking implies mindless guzzling rather than discriminating connoisseurship. Not to mention that a pint is too much for many people, particularly women.

Strive for greater consistency. I know consistency can be difficult with real ale, but commercial products can't chop and change, they have to be the same everywhere every time or people desert them. The wine world manages to turn inconsistency into a virtue i.e. vintages, unfortunately the beer world can't do this as most beer needs consuming within days or weeks of production,

Don't compete on price. Real ale MUST be more expensive than mainstream mass produced products, there is no way on this earth to make high quality more cheaply than low quality, any brewer who tries will suffer. Also, there is a perception along the lines of 'I thoroughly enjoy my Stella, Caffrey's etc. - how could anything cheaper provide this amount of satisfaction'.

End the tied house system. The tied house system is mostly illegal in the USA and many European nations (I'm studying this in greater detail) for a very good reason - it stifles competition. Competition is good. Britain got a special exemption from the Treaty of Rome for it's 'traditional' tied pubs. This was an error. It is, of course, also necessary to restrict the anti-competitive practices of the non-brewing PubCos who permeate equally strangulatory ties.

CAMRA and many real ale campaigners need to forget about 'competing with the ‘big boys'. Real ale is in a niche, this is not a bad thing, but you have to forget about getting real ale in the mouth of every pub goer in the country, it is not going to happen - this is a good thing, it makes real ale 'exclusive'. Real ale is never going to be able to attract alcopop drinkers likewise alcopops will never attract real ale drinkers - they are not in competition as they operate in different sectors.

Cask breathers. The benefits outweigh the (unproven) drawbacks, the real ale fraternity has to be less disparaging about modern developments in general - it is holding it back.

Ad campaign. A good campaign would be 'Real Ale worth paying more for' (or a message to that effect), part of the campaign would involve getting good beer in the hands of some intelligent celebrities.

Ban press photographers from the GBBF. It is the quiet season and all they're looking for is a photo of the biggest fattest beardedest ugliest people quaffing real ale.

De-emphasise pubs, most pubs are considered to be awful places by many. Be less disparaging about modern 'trendy' bars, people are voting with their feet (and wallet) and moving away from pubs. The future of good beer may be in restaurants rather than pubs.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Q. When is a beer festival not a beer festival?

A. When it's a "convention" or a "calling".

I attended the recent Independent Manchester Beer Convention and Newcastle upon Tyne's Craft Beer Calling. Beer festivals in all but name.

I first visited a beer festival in the summer of 1986. I was nineteen. It was held in the Rydal suite of the Civic Hall (now snappily named "The Forum") in my hometown of Barrow-in-Furness. Back then I only just knew the difference between Theakston's Old Peculier and Timothy Taylor's Landlord. My memories of the occasion are dominated, not by the beer, but by the municipal gloom created by the venue. Concrete, strip lights and mid-century council architecture provided Warsaw Pact levels of joylessness.

I didn't let this event put me off. I was already enjoying beer too much to be put off by individual crappy experiences. I have of course been to countless beer festivals since then. Dull venues, surly stewards, glacial service, dull food and dull beer. The background murmur, to distract you from the awfulness of the experience, is "it's what's in the glass that matters."

Now that CAMRA's hegenomy hegemony on good beer has been challenged by the arrival of "Craft Beer", what happens but beer festivals become enjoyable and even a bit, well, festive and fun. Gone are the concrete municipal bunkers, the glacial service, the dull food and parochial beer selections. The new craft beer festivals aren't perfect but they are a giant leap forward.

Some hipsters contemplate beer, or tattoos, or something, at IMBC.
Brother Steve and I attended IMBC on the Friday afternoon trade session. Neither of us is terribly keen on daytime drinking. Nonetheless, we tried a variety of beers. The organisers thoughtfully provided highly tickable print-outs of the beer list - and provided dinky little branded ticking pencils. Top marks there IMBC! At this point, diligent citizen journalist bloggers would provide you with some information on the beers they tried. But as I chucked out my tick list, you'll have to make do with the highlight and the lowlight of the day.

Highlight - Kernal's 3.5% Sour Raspberry. Tart, refreshing, beautifully executed, not stupidly sour. Divine.

Lowlight - Keen to avoid IPAs and derivatives, I went for a 5% lager. I could tell you what it was, but that would be impolitic. Cardboard! It was extremely oxidised. Possibly the most oxidised beer I have ever had the misfortune to imbibe. I took it back. The twenty-something female server told me "Oh yes, that one has divided opinion. If you don't like it...". I explained that those who had liked this beer obviously didn't know their arses from their elbows, and that the question was not whether I like it, but whether or not such shiteley bad beer should continue to be served. I was offered another beer. Asked what I would like, I said "sell me something". The friendly bartender gave me a speech about some beer that involved a string of adjectives and descriptors like "Belgian", "barrel-aged", "Brett", "Imperial" etc. Contrary to my expectation of an example of enthusiastic but ham-fisted noob craft brewing, I found the resulting beer to be sublimely good. I would love to tell you what it was - but I chucked out my tick-sheet. The beer was as good as the nature of the service I had received - top marks IMBC!

Our afternoon at IMBC made us wish we had made the effort to get to an evening session. Although our overall impression was very positive, were not too chuffed to be turfed out at 5pm. "Right we've had your money, now piss off". This awkward afternoon session/evening session thing is a pain in the arse. Still, with four hours to kill before our pre-booked return train, we managed a couple of pints in the Marble Arch.

Craft Beer Calling in Newcastle was a very similar event. Presumably the organisers had watched the success of the two previous year's IMBCs. Or maybe, you just put an interesting beer selection (without pumpclip shitery) in an atmospheric building, provide friendly, knowledgable and enthusiastic staff, provide decent food and a good modern beer festival is what you get. 

CBC's beer selection was less about peacock beers, more about a rounded selection of beers in contemporary styles, brewed to a high standard. A selection from my brother's Out There Brewing Company appeared and we were pleased to see his "Laika" keg wheat beer sell out very quickly. A beer list was circulated as a PDF before the event but many festival-goers calling-attendees commented about a lack of beer information on the day. On The keg bar pumpclip images had been scanned and printed on A4 and posted on the back of the bar above the American-style array of taps. Legible and identifiable they weren't. Meanwhile a large screen in the main room displayed a repetitive slideshow of uninformative beer and brewery images. A beer information black mark there CBC. 

In the corner of the main hall there was a mini-nightclub. Decks, P.A. and snazzy lights. People known as DJs were advertised as appearing over the weekend. On the busy Friday night session, this was fine. The music ticked over in the background, largely confined to the corner. On the Saturday evening session the music was broadcast over extra speakers to the main part of the room. This was completely unnecessary and fucking intensely annoying as my tweets suggest.  

The music was dominated by extended versions of early nineties club favourites. I am a veteran of many nineties warehouse parties. I grew out of them. I guess the CBC organisers haven't. I am by no means a no-music zealot, but my dislike of having other peoples' witless choice of music inflicted on me is definitely zealous. By all means provide music, but please CBC, make it opt-in rather than compulsory.

Despite the grumbles above, IMBC and CBC get the Pickthall seal of approval. If pushed, I would declare CBC the winner, mainly because of its more rounded, grown-up beer selection (PDF here). After many years of trying to enjoy beer festivals, I think I have finally succeeded. 

Some CBC pictures:

The covered area at the back is the DJ arena, or something.