Friday, 29 September 2017

Passive-aggressive hate mail

Way back in 2001, my brother and I opened a specialist beer bar in London. You can read more about it here.

The way we were doings things proved fairly newsworthy. The Sunday Telegraph sent a reporter and and we got a half page with pictures. You see it here.

The Telegraph story provoked a CAMRA activist to write to us. The letter is in Comic Sans, surely the green ink of the computer age.

Here it is:

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

IPAs are dead (almost)

I have long been fond of the beers of Anchor Brewery.

Memories are vague, but I think I can trace my awareness of Anchor Steam Beer to Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter TV series of 1989. If I recall correctly, the beer was first imported to he UK in 1991. I don't remember when I first got my hands on a bottle of Steam, or any of the other Anchor beers, but I was certainly drinking them regularly before my first trip to California in 1998.

Being a beer geek was different then. Entertaining beer was rare. Feeding beer geekery necessitated a state of constant vigilance, and regular speculative outings to places where desired exotic beers may appear. Disappointment often ensued. Although the internet had arrived, beer coverage was spartan, and there was little opportunity to communicate with fellow beer lovers. Living in London, my beer geekery took the form of buying random bottles from Oddbins, Selfridges, Army & Navy Store*, Pitfield Street Beer Shop, Nelson's Wines in Merton, and of course, supermarkets. Other than the Anchor beers, US craft imports were then very sporadic. 

I adored Anchor Liberty Ale. Although only modestly hopped by today's exuberant standards, then, in the nineties, it stood out for its exotic hoppiness. Such depth of flavour - such complexity - such intelligence to conceive of such a beer.

Liberty Ale introduced me to American IPAs. In the late nineties and into the new millennium, a passion for the style was one of the motivating factors behind my brother and me opening one of the earliest establishments in the UK to use the term "Craft Beer". We figured that it wasn't just us who could be thrilled by big new flavours. We were right.

But by 2005 US IPAs were losing their allure for me. In 2004 I judged at the Great American Beer Festival. This episode was pivotal for me. I was thoroughly blasted by hops. After one particular day judging, my tastebuds were knackered. That evening, in the Falling Rock Tap House, my tastebuds were dead. Only a particularly sweet perry managed to penetrate the hop deadness my mouth was experiencing. From that day on, my fondness for US IPAs declined. I had reached peak hop. On my second trip to GABF in 2005 I gave myself a no-IPAs rule and sought out delicacies such as Pilsners and Belgian wit beers. And by crikey, I enjoyed myself.

In the past decade I have watched the British IPA boom with fascination. It is flattering to have my prediction confirmed that large numbers of fellow Brits could get into big-flavour IPAs. At the same time, it is disheartening to listen to new-wave beer geeks obsessing about big hops while giving modestly-hopped beers the cold-shoulder. I'm not the first person to utter this heresy: big hops are the new boring brown bitter. These days I spurn invites to overtly craft-beer establishments because of the dominance of IPAs. Imagine turning on the radio and finding every station playing heavy metal, or country, jazz, or techno, or whatever your least favourite musical style may be – this is the feeling I get in many craft specialist places. IPAs are boring now. 

Having firmly dissed IPAs, I'm going to tell you about my new beer infatuation. It's an IPA, quelle horreur! It's Anchor's new IPA, and it's a work of art. It won't be hoppy enough for johnny-come-lately beer geeks, but to expect it to be stridently hoppy would be to miss the point of this beer. This is a beer of subtely, depth and complexity - qualities that elude many modern IPAs. The malt background is of toffee. Yes, an IPA with a malt background, you did read that correctly. Anchor Brewery knows how to use malt. It may be the grand-daddy of all US microbreweries, which may suggest hop genius. But no, for me, Anchor Brewery is the malt master. Anchor does malt complexity like no one else. I have seen the future, and the future is malt.


* The Army and Navy flagship store in Victoria had a good beer selection. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Craft Beer Calling

A picture paints a thousand words - so here are 24,000 words on Craft Beer Calling, Newcastle upon Tyne's answer to the inferior Indy Man Beer Con.

Craft Beer Calling 2015

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?