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.