Monday 21 December 2009

What Am I Looking For? (My Beer Of the Year Award)

I was in the pub recently with award-winning blogger Woolpack Dave and his partner Woolpack Anne. The conversation between Dave and I (Anne, despite being entirely sober, was nodding off) was about what we look for in a beer; the quest, the never-ending search for the next great beer.

Ten years ago I was infatuated with American IPAs. I thought they were the be all and end all. My first couple of trips to California in the late nineties had convinced me that big, bold and assertive beers were the future. This thought was part of the inspiration for creating Microbar. I wanted to bring a bit of the  US's craft beer culture to the UK.

Since then, I have mellowed in my view. I like to think my understanding of what sells to whom and why (in the socio-demographic and individual senses) is rather good. Years of experience and observation have tempered my enthusiasm for hop-blasts and caused me to re-appraise my early view of them as saviours of beer (I still love them and crave them especially here in Cumbria where one hop cone is passed around the various breweries for a waft over the wort).

No, today I'm looking for something that transcends the thrill of blasts of flavour and bitterness.

I'm wary of the description "balanced". For me, that word brings to mind obsessions of an older generation of cask ale drinkers: the regional brewers, sessionability, CAMRA and boring brown beer. "Balanced" is too close to "b*lan**d" for my liking.

There is no single word for what I'm looking for. Here's a selection that go some way toward describing what I crave: harmony, complexity, layeredness, aroma, integration, surprise, poise, nuance, finish, moreishness.

I hope that those descriptors give you some insight into my selection for Jeff's Beer of the Year 2009.

GOLD: Anderson Valley's Boont Amber. I first came across this on draught in a bar in San Francisco in 2003. Since then I've dreamed of its symphony of malt and superlative but subtle hop character. Fortunately someone had the good sense to bring some in for the GBBF.

From GBBF '09

SILVER: Budvar. Yes good old "ordinary" Budvar. Throughout the year I've regularly been noticing that Budvar has gained hop character in a particularly beautiful way – it meets all, rather than just several of my criteria. Many times I thought my mind must be playing tricks on me as it's such a well-established and familiar beer. Anticipating having my mental health questioned I asked the chaps from Budvar UK if there had been any change to the beer in recent months. Breezily they replied "Oh, that's since the new head brewer took over last January." I swooned. The brilliance of my tastebuds confirmed!

BRONZEJarrow Brewery McConnells Celebratory Port Stout.  Neither really stouty or porty, nonetheless a great beer - undercurrents of treacle, chocolate and coffee with an abundant smack of hoppy orangey fruitiness. Despite pseudo-Victorian pumpclip imagery, it's actually quite modern in its flavour profile.

There are many, many more deserving of honourable mentions. If I get time later I'll add some. Now I'm off to start my Christmas shopping.

Friday 18 December 2009

Festive Beer And Food Matching

Last Christmas my brother and I matched Orkney Blast by Swannay Brewery with our Christmas turkey. It was heaven. This golden ale with moderate bitterness and malty character partnered the roast avian and chipolatas with distinction. Brother and I grinned while sister-in-law, mother and step-father supped their indifferent plonk.

The great thing was, we hadn't planned the pairing. It has become a tradition for us to have multiple beer aperitifs on Christmas day by sampling a selection of beers we've picked up in the preceding weeks (we deserve it, up before dawn to put the sprouts on and slaving in slaving in a hot kitchen all morning). Orkney Blast made it to the table as it was the one that we opened just as everything was ready to serve.

This year we want to repeat the food matching triumph. Going for the same beer again, if we can find it, is much too obvious – what do you recommend?

Thursday 10 December 2009

Writing About Beer Is The New Rock'n'Roll: Backstage After-Party With This Year's Sensation

You know the cliche: such-and-such is the new rock'n'roll? Comedy, fashion, politics, knitting, you name it, it's been the new rock'n'roll.

The "beer is the new rock'n'roll" triteness (tritism?) has been lurking in my mind for a few weeks now, largely inspired by that popular beat combo Brew and his Dogs and their fanclub, er, shareholders.

I was reminded of it last week when Pete Brown was celebrating winning Beer Writer of the Year.


Late at night, with a group of friends away from the public gaze and already under the influence of a heady intoxicant, Pete was witnessed on his knees partaking of some unseemly ritual involving a sharpened implement and a substance known to this underground culture as "wax". With a smile on his face he went on to allow his guests to "sniff" the contents of a phial cryptically marked "Bass King's Ale, February 22nd 1902". He later poured out a syrupy liquid for his guests to consume. Soon they could be heard uncontrolably and deliriously drooling words normally reserved for flavours and aromas. Exactly what substances are being used by this dangerous counter-culture is anyone's guess. The police have been informed.


Bass King's Ale 1902

Tuesday 24 November 2009

I Fancy a Fictional Beer

Every time I watch My Name is Earl I try to catch the name of the bottled beer the characters drink in the Crab Shack. The label is usually partly hidden by the character's hand.

Tonight I got it. It's "Heisler".

Of course, I expected Heisler to be entirely fictional. What I didn't expect, as revealed by Google, is that Heisler has appeared in dozens, if not hundreds of TV programmes and films.

The Germanic name may be a nod toward Budweiser, but the graphic design says to me "craft beer".

Everybody seems to drink straight from the bottle so we don't get to see the fictional colour of the beer. I'd like to think it's an amber, something like Anchor Steam. I'd drink it.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

A Scary Thought.

Is this the sort of thing UK neo-probs are fantasising about?

Also here and here.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Wetherspoons Enters Never-Ending Sparkler Debate

Last night my brother and I popped into the Union Rooms in Newcastle Upon Tyne to try their festival beers.

I ordered a Schwarzbier (can't remember the name) and Ste a Woodforde's Dragon Hall. The barman apologised the Woodfordes had finished so, rather graciously, I turned round the pumpclip for him (I how this simple task often escapes them). This was revealed:

Note the staff instruction: "Use Southern Sparkler".

Eh, a what?

Since you were wondering: The wotsit Schwarzbier was agreeable but unmemorable; York Brewery Coppergate had "tantalising hints of niceness but otherwise vegetal yuk" according to Ste; Toshi's Amber spoiled by obvious oxidisation.

We moved onto the Bridge Hotel were we discovered a brilliant beer: "Hadda's Autumn" by Vale Brewing Company. It tasted like a lower strength version of Anchor Liberty Ale. And that is a very big compliment. Liberty is one of my desert-island beers. Tremendous.

Disappointingly, we encountered no atrocious beer names all evening.

Friday 30 October 2009

The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back

Browsing Newcastle Real Ale Listings before I pop over there at the weekend I came across a beer name that made me wince.

It didn't just make me wince, it made think of the film "Falling Down" – with me in it.

As I don't know where to get any guns or explosives, I thought I've got to do something a bit creative.

I've had an idea lurking for some time – a collaborative blog dedicated to improving cask ale's brand image by collecting images of dismal pumclips and the like. Hopefully we would knock some sense into the brewers thusly named and shamed.

Here it is.

BTW The beer name that pushed me over the edge was "Dognobbler" by Wylam Brewery. Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising the beer, just the name. I regularly enjoy Wylam beers when I'm in the NE and John Boyle is a jolly decent chap but...

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Undercover Mission

My mischievous interest piqued by a junk mail flyer, this morning I had an informal meeting with an Enterprise Inns recruitment manager, a nice lady from Solihull.

Putting on my investigative reporter hat, I packed my note-book and tape recorder. I also packed my annotated copy of the Business and Enterprise Committee Report on the Pubcos.*

Other than the nice recruitment lady,  I was the only person there.  My notes and the tape recorder had to stay in my bag, they would be too conspicuous. I had to scribble long-hand and work from memory. I certainly wasn't able to note everything she said but all the following quotes are direct.

We kicked off with some general chit chat in which I felt I was being tested on pre-existing knowledge of the pub trade. I didn't let on I'd been the co-founder and co-owner of a legendary specialist beer free-house.

I asked about Enterprises rivals. She listed Punch, Admiral etc. I mentioned Greene King had bought my old local pub. I'm good at reading (or at least noticing) body language. On the mention of GK her hand immediately covered her mouth – a gesture usually interpreted as occurring when lying or holding back information. Very curious.

We moved on. I mentioned the name of a local Enterprise pub that has opened and closed repeatedly the past couple of years. Apparently "they didn't keep up with obligations". She deftly moved the subject on before I could ask "such as..?".

Moving away from awkwardness. I asked about terms of leases. She gave me an overview of the major terms  – although funnily enough, she didn't mention upward-only rent reviews and foolishly forgot to ask about them.

We talked about an attractive Enterprise pub currently available in Ambleside. Apparently it will be leased on the understanding that:

"The incoming people would spend some of their own money on making it what it needs to be. We are cutting back on non-essential spends."

So, it's a dump and they want me to pay for its refurb.

I brought up the subject of the downturn in the pub-trade and mentioned that I'd seen lots of closed Enterprise pubs bearing "to let" signs. Apparently:

"Householders bought [pub] leases at the peak of the market to release equity, but the market plunged."

The implication there is that Enterprise's business practices had no influence on the number of lessees having their leases and livelihoods terminated.

I asked about the tie system. My favourite aspect of UK beer is the micro sector. With that in mind, I asked if, as an Enterprise lessee, I would be allowed to sell what I wanted. Apparently:

"Pretty much anything you want to sell, we can get"

Feigning limited knowledge of the sector, I offered "micros seem to be a growing field these days". I was re-assured they could supply me with:

"Most of the brands of cask ale being brewed"

I brought up the subject of imported beers. The response was a vague and weasily:

"We can get all the [imported] beers most people want"

That's Beck's then.

She moved the subject on to wine. I sensed at this point I was expected to be impressed that:

"We get all our wine from Waverley. If you're doing well with wine we can use Bibendum"

We moved on to the pub situation in city centres, that they are filled with branded outlets such as Walkabout, Tiger Tiger etc. She moaned that Enterprise didn't have as many city centre pubs as they would like. She described Enterprise pubs as "independent". Unknowingly, she'd waved a red rag at this particular bull – but I didn't let my annoyance show. I asked "how can a tied pub in an estate of 8000+ be described as 'independent'?". It seems they're "independent" because:

"We don't brand our pubs at all"

My brain reeling from this assault on logic, I went back to the tie. I wanted to know the typical price differential between their tied supply and the open market:

"[our wholesale prices] are not necessarily higher than the open market"

Tellingly, she did the hand-over-mouth thing again.

Pushing the tie question further, again feigning ignorance, I asked her to explain why there seemed to be some controversy about the operating methods of the Pubcos. I mentioned that I'd noticed a local Cumbrian MP, Tim Farron had something to do with a body called "Fair Pint". I didn't let on that I'd previously interviewed Tim Farron on the subject for a magazine article. She did the awkward hand over mouth thing again and went into a rambling justification of the tie system based on the glaringly fallacious defence:

"The tie system has been in place for generations"

She digressed onto the situation that existed before the Beer Orders of 1989 and the creation of the Pubcos. Her view was that because there are now more beers and breweries than before the existence of the Pubcos, it must be the Pubco system that has enabled this to happen. She was floundering and I was doing my best to resist putting her straight.

On the subject of the brewing Pubcos, i.e. the Regional/Family Brewers, she seemed scornful. Perhaps she had got into her head that being interest in beer I may be a better candidate for them. With negative body-language and tone of voice she rambled about fixed term loan-ties offered by brewers:

"You agree to sell so much of their beer in a fixed period and in return they'll do up your cellar or garden or something"

Where did that come from? I think she may have been trying to move the subject away from sensitive subjects while attempting to find something with which to diss some of the opposition. I was astonished that she could be contemptuous of loan ties but favour  non-brewing 100% wet-tied estates.

I asked about the apparently high number of leases available. What was the proportion of leases being surrendered compared to the number of leases being assigned (sold)? She did the hand-over mouth thing again and rambled something that included:

"It's no good whingeing down the line you've been ripped off."

Doing a Jeremy Paxman, I asked what I might expect to earn as an Enterprise leaseholder. Another circuitous, hand-over-mouth ramble ensued. At no point did Solihull lady name any figure even when I insisted it was a very important question. In a rather awkward side-step she managed to move the subject on to necessity of gaining a personal license.

I asked about Brulines cellar monitoring equipment. I mentioned that I'd heard the system described as BruNazi. I mentioned the accusation that Brulines equipment allegedly can't differentiate between beer and water – a serious concern. Solihull lady went into a ramble about the benefits of Brulines including:

"It's very good for working out staffing levels. You'd be a fool not to use it"

Perhaps the most important question (other than earnings) is the ingoing costs. Here Solihull lady was seemingly quite open (or well-briefed). She explained how it works. 25% of annual rent as deposit plus one month's rent in advance with additional costs i.e. legal, surveys and stock-taking. Apparently this adds up to about £20,000 for the "average" Enterprise leased pub and £10 or £12k is the bare minimum. I've no idea of the accuracy of this figure, perhaps any Enterprise leaseholders reading this can enlighten us.

I asked about rents. Although I forgot to specifically mention such abuse of power as upward-only reviews I did describe a hypothetical situation like a large local employer going out of business and so depriving the pub of a large part of its trade. The message was: "tough!" but she couched it in the euphemistic:

"The economy is not a material change in circumstance"

I asked how long does a typical leaseholder stay in business before moving on, for whatever reason.

"I wouldn't like to put a term on it"

No, I bet you wouldn't. Surely that kind of information is foremost in the minds of Enterprise executives? Indeed, it has been suggested that the money paid by ingoing leaseholders and the charges made on surrendered leaseholders are built into the cashflow of Pubcos as revenue streams. For a recruitment advisor to avoid answering it is alarming and possibly dishonest.

I asked why Enterprise concentrates on leaseholds rather than managed houses. Apparently:

"Managed houses are not viable for us – too costly"

Yes but a pub's a pub isn't it? There aren't radically different modus operandi between individual pubs. So isn't this a weasily way of saying "we prefer leaseholders to bear the increasingly onerous costs and  the risks therein"

That was it really. My hour was up. I think I did reasonably well in my investigative reporter role. Funnily enough, I wasn't persuaded that I should take an Enterprise lease.

* A nice juicy extract: "There is a worrying pattern in the evidence presented to us [by lessees] of lack of support for lessees, of verbal agreements not honoured, and, on occasion, of downright bullying [by the pubco landlords]"

Thursday 22 October 2009

Desperate Enterprise?

My mother called to let me know a leaflet had been delivered to her house which she thought must be for me because it was about pubs.

I asked her to scrutinise it – no it bore no name or address, it was just junk-mail accompanied by takeaway menus and handyman leaflets.

Yes it was about pubs – Enterprise Inns.

It seems Enterprise has taken to door-to-door leaflet drops to try to sell their poisoned leases to retired professionals!

Here's some blurb:

"Enterprise Inns is coming to your area in the next few weeks, to answer all your questions about running a pub business and to tell you how they could turn your dream into reality [read: 'redundancy money etc into thin air']."
"At these forthcoming information days you will meet our Regional Managers, who have many years of experience in the pub trade. They will talk to you about what it takes to run a successful pub business and will tell you about all the training and support offered by enterprise Inns that will help you get started. They'll also show you full details of all the available pubs in your area."

Funnily enough, I advised my mother (second hip replacement next week) to resist Enterprise's tempting offer.

I feel an urge to sign up for one of their brainwashing days armed with the BEC Report in the pubcos – with all the nasty details highlighted. I feel I have a duty to protect the innocent.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Survey Result – Some Correlations

Note: Economic left is negative, Liberal is negative. E.g. the top left cell indicates economic leftiness and view of CAMRA have a correlation of 0.20.

As you can see, there are some very interesting results.

Once again I emphasise that we shouldn't presume that these results are true for the British beer world at large. These result only tell us about the 72 (and counting) respondents to the survey. Still – makes you think doesn't it?

I have colour-highlited some pairs of figures I find particularly interesting.

What's a correlation I hear you ask?

Note: Economic left is negative, Liberal is negative. E.g. the top left cell indicates economic leftiness and view of CAMRA have a correlation of 0.20.

Monday 28 September 2009

Survey Results – the Average Respondant

66 people have so far taken the survey.

All prominent beer bloggers responded apart from Tandleman (though the pseudonym "Big Nora" did have me wondering).

The average (mean) respondent is:

Left/Right: -4.57 (remember negative numbers indicate leftness)
Liberal/Authoritarian: -3.68 (Remember negative numbers indicate liberalness)
Rates CAMRA: 6/10
Rates the tie system: 3.4/10
Age: 41.8
Likely to be a current CAMRA member: 51%
Likely to be in (or have been in the beer trade): 37%

Gender: 90.9% male, 9.1% female
80% of respondents were UK-based

OK, I'm not suggesting that my survey tells us anything about anything other than the sample group, nonetheless, the averages do seem to look like a picture of an average cask-ale drinker/beer fan.

Tune in later for more analysis.

There is one piece of analysis that is quite startling – I'll tell you later.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Beer Politics Survey Preliminary Results

With 57 survey forms in this is how the left/right, libertarian/authoritarian spread looks.

The survey will stay open possibly indefinitely.

As you can see most of us beer fans are reasonably liberal and somewhat left.

A thought occurs to me: the Political Compass is American (I think). If it was British, would the weighting of the survey be different? I suspect the vertical axis would be shifted to some degree to the left reflecting the difference between what counts as the centre in the UK (or Western Europe) and the US.

Just a thought.

Tune in later for more analysis.

B.T.W. I won't be mentioning anyone by name.

[I've just installed Snow Leopard OS on my iMac – result: Excel isn't working. Thanks Microsoft]

Sunday 20 September 2009

Survey Latest

We're up to 46 now but no sign of Tandleman yet. What's he scared of? Will the political compass reveal to him unpalatable things? Perhaps he'll be close to Norman Tebbit? Wouldn't that be a laugh?!

BeerNut has corrected his typo. He's no longer beyond Stalin!

Can we make it to fifty?

Friday 18 September 2009

Survey Latest

We're up to 18 entries in my beer politics survey. That isn't nearly enough to be statistically significant. We're really not going to learn anything useful (possibly ever) as the sample group is largely self-selecting. Nonetheless I've been calculating some correlations (or rather, a spreadsheet has). Very little light is yet being shed on anything but I am getting some insight into certain individuals!

Hopefully by the end of today we'll have a few more entries. It's Friday so people will be looking for end-of-week work diversions.

p.s. Beer Nut: could you confirm your Political Compass scores? I think you may have made a typo as you're nearly off the graph!

Monday 14 September 2009

The Political Compass

It had to happen.

I believe the tie system is the biggest challenge cask ale faces. I don't necessarily believe in an abrupt end and a change to a completely free system, but if were we inventing a system from scratch, without historical baggage, I would favour it.

I believe ties and tenancies should not mix. The jobs of brewing and selling beer become a game of estate agency and property management (and often squeezing tenants until the pips are beyond squeaking).

I am continually astonished that CAMRA supports the tie system. Then again, I'm not. CAMRA's underlying philosophy is that of the far-left. Any talk of increasing competition in the market is met with a wailing and gnashing knee-jerk reaction. I believe the Thatcher era is to blame. Raw memories are evoked by the word "competition". Quite rightly.

By criticising CAMRA's politicisation of beer observers have presumed – wrongly – that it is because I oppose the particular political flavour. They are wrong – it is the politicisation that I dislike. I believe it is irrelevent, misconceived and ultimately damaging to the cause upon which it has been imposed. Any superimposition of any political ideology is irrelevant to the promotion of the appreciation of good beer.

This came to a head recently when Tandleman called me an "old rightie". Oh how I laughed at this off-target student politics ad hominen! But I saw it coming. It had to happen.

It dawned on me long ago that CAMRA's keenest members tend to be politically motivated. Their pre-existing political ideals have been sublimated by the real-ale cause. The real ale cause, for many, is a surrogate for political beliefs. The political tail wags the CAMRA dog.

My curiosity has been provoked. Can I compile data that supports my view? Well, let's have a go.

I've created a survey that will hopefully shed light on the subject of CAMRA and politics. If I get a reasonable amount of data I will attempt some statistical analysis (if I can remember how to do this sort of thing, it's been a few years).

The first thing I'd like you to do is complete the Political Compass test. Do it and note down your result, you'll need it for my for my survey. You can also install the Political Compass as a Facebook application. Only do the test once. Don't go back changing your answers to fiddle with how you are perceived.

Done that? Good. Now please complete my survey.

Since you are wondering, here's a diagram of my Political Compass test. I'm the red dot. The others are various FB friends (number 4 is Woolpack Dave and number 8 is an American relative who swears by Fox News: you can't choose your rellies.)

Wednesday 2 September 2009

No Good Breweries in California?

About an hour ago I was getting a couple of tasters of unfamiliar cask ales in a pub I favour. Over my shoulder, came the advice "the Doombar is good."

The big butterscotch aroma and vinegariness suggested otherwise.

I chatted to the landlord. The weather was awful. We talked about emigrating. I said I would emigrate to California.

The voice came over my shoulder - "no good beer in California though."

This means either:

A: the speaker had tasted many Californian beers and come to the conclusion they weren't up to much.

B: The speaker was utterly clueless.

Given the "advice" about Doombar, I suspected B.

I later learned that the person concerned is a prominent local CAMRA "activist" and organiser of the local branch BF.

The Daily Mail's Redeeming Feature

Much as I heartily despise the Daily Mail and its tiresome "Broken Britain" rhetoric, its racism and its encouragement of fear and hatred, it does give beer some good coverage.

Here, for example.

I still won't be buying it though.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Is the North of England Devoid of Good Pubs?

I found this map "Good Pub Guide National Awards 2009" rather alarming.

It's telling us England's most northerly good pub is in Peterborough. Wales and Scotland have one good pub each. Northern Ireland has no good pubs.

I feel like punching it.

Sunday 30 August 2009

Wetherspoons Misinformation?

Now I'm not one of those pub-goers that screams "Trading Standards" at every minor infraction of some petty rule but this poster did catch my eye. It seems to be saying Guinness, John Smiths Extra Smooth and Strongbow are lagers.

Evidence of the cheapo shoddiness rather than an attempt to deceive I would think.

Yes, observant readers, this does mean I've set foot in a Wetherspoons again. All in the line of duty. I'm sorry.

Friday 28 August 2009

I Just Got Dem Recession Brews, Oh Yeah Baby!

But seriously folks, I'm doing a bit of research – and you can help.

To save me poring through countless websites and publications could you kind people provide me with names of any UK breweries that have come into existence in the past year or so since the credit crunch thingy?

I suspect it is a lower number than in previous years or CAMRA would have been trumpeting it as evidence of the alleged success of their "campaigning", instead they chose to trumpet that they have recruited (or bamboozled) their one hundred thousandth member.

[BTW 100,000 in base 19 is EB03. Doesn't sound quite so exiting does it?]

Saturday 22 August 2009

Tuesday 11 August 2009

The Solution

There you have it. The odd one out is LAGER. Who would have thunk it?

Imagine a beer festival, maybe in Germany or the Czech Replublic. Imagine the wordsearch in reverse: ale is the odd one out. How would that be perceived by CAMRA types? The organisers would be accused of outright ignorance, and worse. Imagine the chorus of indignation: "What about ale's multitude of splendiferous variations - e.g. Golden Ale, Best, Light Bitter, Barley Wine, IPA, Mild, Porter, Old Ale, Stout?" they would splutter.

Looking on the brightside, "Wordsearchgate" has
given me an excuse to embed a video of one of my heroes.

Monday 10 August 2009

Saturday 8 August 2009

GBBF '09

Here are some pics of things that caught my eye this week.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Breweries With Visitor Centres And Shops

Greetings my gracious readers,

A nice friendly microbrewery of my acquaintance is moving to bigger premises and upgrading from 5BBL to something bigger. The new premises has room for a visitor centre-cum-shop.

What my friends would like to know is: what works? They would like to get an idea of what facilities they should install and what attractions to offer.

Could you provide me with the names of any small breweries that already offer this sort of thing so they can have a look?


Monday 27 July 2009

Undoing All The Good Work

For all the good people kindly raising appreciation of beer there'll be some other bugger being paid to lower expectations and encourage the consumption of utter rubbish. Here's one.

And A Good Night Was Had By All

After twenty or so years away I don’t know many people in my hometown of Barrow-in-Furness. One Barrovian I do know is TV’s Dave “Hairy Biker” Myers. Of course he’s a food geek in a big way but he’s also partial to beer, and lots of it, especially if it’s Belgian. I originally knew Dave as a customer when I worked for Utobeer at Borough Market. We had one of those “I know your accent” moments while he was buying some bottles of Kwak. I later interviewed Dave and his telly partner Simon King for Beers of the World.

I bumped into Dave at the weekend in the town centre and our chat drifted gradually to an almost telepathic “fancy the pub tonight?” meeting of minds. The pub in question was the Prince of Wales at Foxfield, ticker paradise, beer geek nirvana.

On the train on the way up we talked about Westvleterens. Dave hadn’t had them. I had. After a couple of pints to warm up our palates we started to browse the bottle list. I asked the barman if the list was up to date. “Er, not quite. It’s a bit obscure, you might not have heard of it. We’ve got some bottles of Westvleteren 8.” Crikey, we thought, this is an opportunity not to be missed.

Although, as a bar-owner, I’d stocked the full range of Trappist beers I’d never got round to doing a side-by-side comparison of Rocheforts and Westvleterens. I’ve long had a suspicion that Rocheforts are better and that Westvleterens, although utterly excellent beer, play a trick on the minds of drinkers by their rarity and cult status.

We all sampled the Westvletern 8 first ­– yup, we all confirmed, brilliant beer. The Rochefort 8 was opened, poured and passed around. Blimey! The fruit! The hop character! The malt! The finish! Rochefort had comprehensively trounced the Westvleteren. First round knock-out. The tasters: me; Dave Myers; Dave’s partner Lil; Lil’s son Serg and friend Ben Steel (big Rochefort fan) agreed unanimously ­– victory to Rochefort! I suppose, on reflection, a busy, bustling pub with lots of background distraction isn’t the place to studiously taste legendarily complex beers: the subtleties of WV may have fared better in quiet surroundings. Nonetheless the margin of victory was large.

We went on to enjoy several more beers and miss the last train back to Barrow (10.15pm). Dave Bailey had turned up and kindly offered to go 40 or so miles out of his way in his monster truck to get us home. Telly Dave and Lil invited us in for nibbles and a coffee. We tucked into an array of sublime smoked salmon, duck and chicken from the smokery at Haverigg Prison (you’ll be hearing about this in future). Forgetting the cuppa we sampled beers from Brewpub Dave’s very promising trial-bottling of his new beers. A “Red IPA” would seem to be a stunner but at 1.30am after a cracking night in the pub tastebuds were jaded. The drink moved on. Lil – who is Romanian ­– insisted we try a shot of the 60% abv plum spirit “Palinca”. It had turned into one of those nights. The kind of night you should have grown out of by the age of 25. It was brilliant.

[In the bleary cold light of the following day I found I'd left a note to myself: it said "Swinefever Ratzenberger". Go figure.]

Friday 24 July 2009

Pig Ignorant?

I don’t generally post beer reviews on this blog. I can’t be bothered. Had ratebeer been around in the mid to late nineties when my appetite for new beer experiences was at its most voracious I think I may well have become an uber ratebeer nerd, not a ticker mind you, flavour was always the big thing for me, not the list. Although I’d been introduced to good beer in my teens it was until my late twenties that I became a fully-fledged beer geek – buying beer books, traipsing around obscure beer shops and planning jaunts around local beer availability.

Anyway, I’ve started this post with a digression. What I really wanted to talk about was ongoing, all-consuming quest to understand the psychology, economics, anthropology, sociology and a whole host of other ologies – pertaining to beer: who drinks what, where they do it and why they do it. At this point I'd like to work in a gag about "what makes people tick" but I'm not sure how.

And so it was when I had a week in Egypt back in April. After a couple of days on the tourist trail I realised I was rarely weeing, and when I did it was almost like passing honey (OK, too much information). I was very dehydrated. I was turning into a human prune. 35C and 12% humidity had got to me. Mad dogs looked on in admiration.

I got to thinking about alcohol’s role in desert societies. Islam – often described as “the religion of the desert” ­– prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Also, alcohol is a diuretic: it makes you wee more than you put in at the other end. Water is scarce in the desert (that’s what defines it as desert of course). Could there be a link between Islam’s prohibition and alcohol being a diuretic?

I’m a life-long atheist (I even had to leave cubs because I refused to go to church parade). Nonetheless I’m utterly fascinated by the phenomena of religions – in the same way I’m a-CAMRA-ist but fascinated by it. I think a lot about things like this.

Islam and Judaism share a prohibition on the consumption of pig meat. This isn’t coincidence. For a large part of human history, any many parts of the world pigs have been hosts to fluke (I’m more than willing to be corrected on this). Getting fluke from eating infected meat is not a good idea. Simply attempting to spread the word (“psst, don’t eat pig, pass it on”) to hungry, illiterate peasants wasn’t good enough. “How do we make the message more forceful?” thought some enterprising Rabbis and Imams. “I know!” they chorused “we’ll call it a commandment from god or the teaching of a prophet or summat.” “Yes that’s it – if you eat pig, god won’t be happy with you and he may arrange something nasty for you in the afterlife. That’ll do the trick.”

And so it came to pass that the prohibition on pig consumption gained its status as religious dogma. Being religion though, rationality is discouraged. Fluke has long been eliminated in most of the world so Middle-Easterners can now tuck into pork with impunity. They don’t. The rule has stuck. Religion’s like that.

So, back to Egypt. I had a thought. Could Islam’s prohibition on alcohol have occurred in the same way – leaders wondering how to deter people from drinking booze in order to prevent dehydration and preserve water supplies? I reckon so. I’m not sure how Judaism escaped the same prohibition though. Perhaps it was because of early migration into Europe where there was lots of water.

I’ll leave you to ponder. I’m off to the pub.

Saturday 11 July 2009

Greene King pub disappoints – shock.

My local pub is a Greene King pub. I don't go anywhere near it. It's horrible. It has all the unique charm of a branch of McDonalds. It is very popular with the Daily Mail-reading hordes that populate the area I have the misfortune to call home (for the time being.)

Yesterday my friend rang: "I'm watching the test match on the big screen in the Strawberry – you coming?"

Cricket is the only sport I watch and I'm furious that it now belongs to Murdoch. I'm not remotely tempted to fork out for Sky – so, on the whole, I don't get to see Test Matches.

So, against my better judgement, I trundled round to the 'Berry. Mark was several pints in and rain was threatening to stop play. I don't particularly enjoy afternoon beer so I ordered a diet coke. It came in a nice branded glass with three large ice cubes. Unfortunately it only reached just over half way up the glass. I've consumed enough bottles of beer in my time to be able to make a good estimate of volumes of liquid. I got about 220ml of Diet Coke. I'm not certain but I think it may even have been a metered dispense. How much did they charge? £1.45. That's about £3.70 for a pint of post-mix.

That's nowhere near the £3/half that is charged in a notoriously awful pub that estate agents go to after work in my old stomping ground in South London: even so, I was mightily pissed off.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Lovely Lager

I love lager.

I hate to hear ill-informed anti-lager rants from real ale jihadists. For a beer drinker to disregard all lager as rubbish is like a wine drinker dismissing all white wine as rubbish. Sure Blue Nun is crap, but that doesn't make all white wine crap. Sure Fosters et al are the Blue Nuns of the beer world, but they don't make all lager crap. When I hear any variation on the phrase "the war against lager", I think "this person doesn't actually care about beer."

Anyway, yesterday was hot. Last night my living room was 25c which is quite remarkable given that it spends ten months of the year at about 12-15c spurning the efforts of my central heating and gas fire to get it above 17c for any sustained period. So, last night I needed cold lager. I don't keep a huge cellar of exotic beer, in fact, lager is the only style I check I have emergency supplies of.

And so it was last night. First I opened a bottle of Staroslav from the Czech Republic. I wolfed it down without contemplative pauses a la Ice Cold in Alex. Not the most sophisticated lager I've ever had; a little too sharp in flavour and lacking complexity; but still hugely preferable to UK mass-market alternatives.

I then opened a bottle of Český Pivovar I had picked up in ASDA earlier. A whole different kettle of, er, malt and hops. Soft malt flavour reminded of the stuff inside Crunchie Bars I can't remember the name of. The Saaz hop character was beautifully integrated and a delight to behold. Thirst-quenching over and done with, I allowed Český Pivovar to caress my tongue and envelope me.

Lager inferior to ale? Nah, it's all just beer - some good, some bad.

BTW - You don't have to go to specialist beer shops for either of these beers, they're in national supermarkets. The Český Pivovar is in ASDA and Booths; Staroslav in Tesco and ALDI.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Good News from the North East

I've just heard that Mordue Brewery (one of my favourites) is installing bottling machinery. This is confirmation to the world at large that last year's receivership, restructuring and re-financing is allowing Mordue to grow. Arguably, it's a brewery that failed to fully capitalise on its 1997 CBOB win. All being well the bottling of its tremendous IPA will give the brewery the national recognition it deserves. Lookout Brewdog IPA and Thornbridge Jaipur!

While in Newcastle last week my brother and I eavesdropped on a charver who looked distinctly out of place amongst the community arts project types in the Cumberland Arms. His friend insisted he drink Mordue IPA. His response? - "It tastes of fuckin' flowahs!" Isn't that a great advertising slogan? I can see the t-shirts now.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

Take-home Casks?

I see Sainsbury's are now selling cask beer. Or maybe not.