Thursday 9 December 2010

My TV Debut: The New Rowley Birkin

It's not like me to go blowing my own trumpet about being a "beer expert", let alone a "leading beer expert", as if it's some kind of competition. In particular, when encountering the alchemists who actually brew the stuff I'm more than happy to STFU and remain humble in my ignorance.

But "beer expert" is what Lakes TV have called me for a Rowley Birkin scene about beer for Christmas shot in one of my favourite local pubs in my South Cumbrian homelands, The Queens Arms at Biggar Village.

You can watch it here (you'll need to follow the link that bears my name as there isn't a specific URL).

You can also catch it on proper telly, Sky 203, at 8pm this evening (Thu 9th December).

Rowley Birkin

Tuesday 23 November 2010

A Myth Busted?

I am a skeptic.*

There's a lot of rubbish out there fighting for our brain-space and often, our money. It's astonishing how many people are willing to buy into the evidence-free claims of charlatans, quacks, paranormalists, conspiracy theorists and clergy.

Homeopoathy, chiropractic, reflexology, detoxReiki, ghosts, mediums, organic foodUFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, bio-dynamic agriculture, religion – I could go on for a very long time listing the things that appeal to the hard-of-thinking (e.g.  Prince Charles).

Many times over the years, in the world of beer, I have heard something that provokes my skepticism. It is an idea that is as widely believed and repeated as the myth that water goes down the plug-hole different directions in different hemispheres**. Two recent mentions pushed me over the edge into researching the subject ... well, Googling it. Pete Brown mentioned it on his blog (although the exact location escapes me for the moment), and Julian Grocock, Chief Executive of SIBA, mentioned it in his welcome speech to the judges at the recent Great Northern Beer Festival.

So, what is this great myth?

It's the idea that the tongue is divided into areas that detect different aspects of flavour: salt, sweet, bitter and sour. In our beer world the myth frequently manifests itself as the suggestion that bitterness is experienced at the back of the palate, and this (as claimed by Grocock) is why we must swallow when judging beer.

A bit of Googling revealed that I'm not the only tongue flavour detection skeptic in the world. In fact, the subject seems to have been done to death in the world of wine. There are many mentions of the myth on wine blogs and websites.

It seems the origin of this myth is a scientific paper by a German psychologist. In 1901 D.P. Hanig found that sensitivity to flavours varies across the tongue, but his his result was mistranslated as meaning that different areas of the tongue detect different flavours.

The myth was reinforced in 1942 by Harvard psychologist Edwin Boring [great name!] who analysed Hanig's raw data. Unfortunately his graphs were plotted in such a way that areas of lower sensitivity were were wrongly perceived as being areas of zero sensitivity.

The false tongue flavour-map started to appear in textbooks and the myth took hold.

The subject was visited afresh by Virginia Collings in 1974. Her paper confirmed that although there are areas of variable sensitivity on the tongue, the flavour map is a myth.

This raises the question why do when swallow when judging beer yet the wine world spits when tasting wine? My guess is that it's simply a question of strength. Most beer is weaker than most wine. We just don't get hammered by swallowing the amounts of beer we need to drink to experience sufficient flavour. Certainly a good gulp of beer can be particularly enjoyable, but is it necessary to fully experience the flavour? I think not. Treat with skepticism.

Some links:

* Increasingly, "sceptic" is being spelled as "skeptic" in the UK. Here and here, for instance.

** If you are thinking to yourself "that's true, isn't it?" you need to be more skeptical.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Organising a Beer Festival Judging

Although I've judged at many beer festivals and events I've never been chief judge.

Now that time has come.

The organisers have asked me first to define the categories. The festival is four months away and the brewers need cajoling into entering – and they need to know the categories.

Style and category definitions are often the source of bafflement, and sometimes argument amongst those involved. Tedious pedantic semantic arguments occur: "That beer's not a Strong Bitter, it's an Old Ale" etc. ad nauseum.

I'd like to keep the bickering to a minimum and get a pat on the back for my organisational flair – and I'd like your help in doing so.

What are your thoughts on what the categories should be for a British beer competition overwhelmingly dominated by cask ale?

Monday 1 November 2010

Nutts About Alcohol

I was going to attempt to write something about muddled thinking regarding drugs but I have little to add to this from one of my favourite non-beer blogs, Heresy Corner, so I haven't bothered.

Friday 22 October 2010

Doing My Bit For The Beer Cause

I've just received a copy of a book I've contributed too. 

I'm quite flattered to get a piece into a book whose predecessor sold 150,000 copies to a mainstream readership who might not otherwise be exposed to propaganda for good beer.

The piece is a rather general "why not try beer with Christmas food?" sort of thing, not really written for a beer-specialist audience. I half expect some "you should have mentioned such-and-such" comments when you people see it. It did originally contain a few more juicy recommendations and some advice on where to find good beer but the editor deemed it surplus to requirements. Instead, a paragraph was added to the end (as if written by me) on the subject of wine – a subject about which I freely admit to knowing bugger all about.

It's a lovely book with lots of nice pictures and Christmas recipes. Many will receive a copy on Christmas Day, but that's a bit late to be swatting up on Christmas comestibles and the shops are closed so go out and buy a copy now.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

The Heart Sinks

After reading Martyn Cornell's lovely ranty post about Mark Hunter, boss of MolsonCoors in the UK I innocently followed a link to a page within the corporate behemoth's website.

Reading down the timeline we see such loveliness as:

  • 1744: William Worthington starts brewing in Burton-on-Trent, UK.
  • 1900: There are more than 32 breweries in Burton, including 87 miles of private brewery track and 36 level crossings in town.

What marvelous moments in Britain's beer heritage!

But wait – what about 2009?
  • 2009: Coors Brewers Limited changes its company name to Molson Coors Brewing Company (UK) Limited.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Chile's Best Beer

Watching BBC News 24's coverage of the marvelous rescue of the trapped miners after two months of  empathetic claustrophobia terrors that have occasionally kept me awake at night, I am, like millions of others, feeling quite elated at watching the happy ending in progress.

As journalistic padding there's been some talk of what the men will be most looking forward to back on the surface: loved ones; hot baths; clean clothes; sunlight; fresh air; fresh food.

Beer wasn't mentioned but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

A bit of browsing on Ratebeer revealed this brewery, Szot, by a head and shoulders margin, as Chile's best. That's what I would want – after family, I suppose.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Californian Beer Industry Vs Marijuana Legalization?

When is a beer festival not a beer festival?

When it's the Tynemouth Beer [sic] Festival.

My brother, some friends, and I arrived at the Tynemouth Cricket Club shortly before 8pm on Saturday evening. There was a short queue to a ticket booth where each relieved of £10 for 8 half-pint vouchers.

We sallied forth unto the marquee.  A long bar down one side carried about fifty handpumps. Strangely, there seemed to be very few pumpclips. In fact there were four pumpclips. In fact there were only four beers available – and they ran out by about 8.20pm.

A beer festival running out of beer on its final night is not unheard of. No beer festival organisers have the psychic ability to predict the exact amount of beer to stock, and having local breweries on standby to deliver some bright casks is often a sensible policy.

We could accept the lack of beer but what annoyed us was that weren't informed that supplies were drying up when parting with our cash. 

Moving out of the marquee to get away from an awful rock covers band whose drummer had a flamboyant attitude to time-keeping, we observed that people were still being sold vouchers for non-existant beer until well after 9pm. There was a growing number of obviously annoyed people milling around. Some, like us, reluctantly explored the small cider and perry bar (does perry often taste of UHU? does cider often smell of fried eggs?) Some hardy souls even used their vouchers in the pavilion for John Smith's Smoothflow and Fosters.

The Queue

Only an hour or so after the beer-zero hour did we see newcomers being informed of the crisis.

I spoke to the organiser. I was struck by his cavalier attitude to the number of unhappy people. He actually seemed overjoyed that the beer had only just lasted into the third of three sessions. No doubt his spreadsheet would indicate a roaring success. 

His last comment was "I have created a monster". You said it pal.

On a brighter note – an early departure allowed us to go to the Tynemouth Lodge Hotel where we found the Mordue IPA to be utterly tremendous.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Friday 10 September 2010

Sloe Goer?

In the fields behind my mother's house the hedgerows are laden with sloe berries which look like they'll be fully ripe in a couple of weeks. 

Obviously we'll be having a go at sloe gin but naturally the notion of "sloe beer" is shouting at me. 

Sloes are hellishly bitter so presumably they could assist in the role normally played by bittering hops whilst adding some of their own flavours.

The worry is that I don't recall ever having come across a sloe beer. A Google search on "sloe beer" only produces a thin smattering of non-illuminating hits. This could be for one of three reasons:

  • I'm the first to person to ever have the idea (unlikely) and I'm a genius who has had a brainwave that will make me millions (even more unlikely).
  • Lots of people have tried making sloe beers but nothing palatable or saleable has been forthcoming and I'm an ignoramus for not knowing this already.
  • There are lots of sloe beers in existence but they have all escaped my attention.

So, waddya reckon? Could sloe beer be a goer or should I stick to sloe gin?

Your comments please.


UPDATE: Peter Alexander, a.k.a. "Tandleman" has tipped me off that Lees once produced a sloe beer. Thanks Pete. Anyone tasted it?

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Dinner with @PeteBrownBeer – Guest Post By Pete Russell

Guest post from beer blogging newcomer Pete Russell ! Give him a warm welcome!


On Monday night my Father and I went to Hardy's Brasserie in Marylebone for Pete Brown's tutored beer tasting and talk, followed by dinner with each course matched to a complimentary beer.

Pete Brown is Beer Writer of The Year and author of Hops and Glory, cataloguing his quest to recreate the voyage that India Pale Ale (IPA) took from Burton to India, as well as several other fine titles. He speaks with enthusiasm and candor about his transition from working in an advertising to following his passion and becoming a full time beer and travel writer.

First came the tasting, starting with a Harviestoun Scheihallion Pilsner,
which is
not a style I would normally choose, but it made an excellent start with subtle grass and olive flavours. It reminded me of drinking Stella and Jupiler in Brussels 10 years ago, before Inbev broke it.
Next was Otley O-Garden, a wheat beer which I was a little disappointed by, I presume it was filtered as it was mostly clear, there are certainly better wheat beers around but again probably the intention was to have a subtle introduction so as not to totally ruin our taste buds.

Pete interspersed the tasting with anecdotes from his Hops and Glory travels and general wry observations on life. He managed to get the balance about right between chat and tutored tasting.

You'll have to excuse if I start to muddle the order of the beers at this point, we had had a pint of Jenning's Cocker Hoop in the pub before we started and the staff were quite generous with the taster beers when encouraged.

Next was Mort Subite Kriek, again a style I am not fond of, and I struggle with Lambics in general. The flavours were complex and the mixture of the sweetness of the cherries and almost astringent strong flavours I could appreciate if not wholly enjoy, personally I find a few mouthfuls enough of this kind of beer and cannot really enjoy a whole bottle. That said, I can understand why people like it and one of the women at our table was very keen and had another bottle with dinner.
At our penultimate beer of the tasting we came to some of my favorite beer styles, firstly an IPA style that had all the classic powerful flavours and lovely bitter aftertastes one hopes for in a modern IPA. Thankfully it did not have ridiculous alcohol content, it is an added pleasure to enjoy a great tasting beer, knowing you can have several more and not need to be carried home. I would happily have drunk this beer for the rest of the night.

Finally, the Belgians made a second appearance with a Westmalle
Dubbel. This is another big, bold beer with earthy, caramel and fruity flavours and a big alcohol punch at 7%, it is a beer to be sipped and savoured. As Pete said, the Belgian's reputation as boring is a big con to keep the hoards away from fantastic beer like this and it's thousands of cousins in the bars of Belgium.

This was only the first half, it was followed by three course meal paired with beers to compliment them, I hope to write about this later on as the food was excellent and there was more fantastic beer to come.

Overall it was a great night, with an entertaining talk by Pete Brown, excellent food at Hardy's Brasserie and a fantastic beer selection (supplied by Utobeer). The only way I found out about the night was by following Pete Brown on Twitter, now at least I have a good explanation for these people that don't "get" Twitter.

Monday 9 August 2010

Welcome a Guest

My chum, ex Microbar regular, beer-lover Pete Russell is going be contributing to "It's just the beer talking".

Please welcome him by following him on twitter here.

Saturday 17 July 2010

The Legendary Croglin Vampire

Observant Twitter followers will have noticed that I get fed up with session beer. I seem to remember tweeting "I'm drowning in an ocean of indifferent session beer" at some stage.

The problem is, my home county of Cumbria is a very conservative drinkership. It wants unchallenging session beer. 5% abv is regarded by many as ridiculously strong. Imported beers are conspicuous by their absence. I get bored and more than a little frustrated. I've nothing against session beer, I just don't want it to be the only style (or range of styles) available to me.

Fortunately there are some positive developments: "Hardknott" Dave Bailey's admirable efforts are well-documented in blogsville; Bitter End are rumoured to be brewing an 8% "extreme" IPA and Stringer's brew "Black Flag", an luscious 8% stout.

I've recently discovered another tremendous Cumbrian beer that has the potential to entertain the beer geek (as opposed to the real-ale enthusiast): Croglin Vampire by Cumbrian Legendary Ales. First brewed in 2007, its only regular outlet is the Kirkstile Inn which shares ownership with the brewery. Only rarely has it appeared anywhere else.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Roger Humphries, the owner of the pub and brewery, for my little beer column in Cumbria Life magazine.  A few days later a box of bottles arrived in the post. Most were 500ml bottlings of their regular beers, of which "Loweswater Gold" is the star (current title-holder of SIBA's Northern Region Best Bottle Beer.)

Amongst the 500ml bottles were a couple of 330s which immediately provoked my curiosity. "Croglin Vampire, Doppelbock, 8% abv." I bunged them in the fridge and longed for beer-time.

I was astonished. A Cumbrian brewer producing something quite un-Cumbrian. The beer is dark ruby red with a rapidly-dimishing head leaving attractive "legs" down the side of the glass. There isn't a big aroma, just some generic malt with some forest-fruits.

But the mouthfeel and flavour! What a treat! The phrase that sprung to mind was "a symphony of malt". Layer upon layer of nuanced malt loveliness revealed themselves with a sumptuous velvety mouthfeel. Very special.

In a beer world in which shouty hop-bombs hog the limelight, malt complexity is frequently sidelined. Crog Vamp is a perfect reminder of the delights of malt.

I emailed Roger telling him how good this beer is. My enthusiasm stirred, I wanted to share this beer with the beer geek world.

The other day I had a meeting with Roger to work on a marketing plan for Crog Vamp. I've recommended that as a matter of urgency he engages with us online beer geeks in two ways: get Twittering, and send out bottles for reviews by bloggers.

Yes, you read that correctly – there are bottles available for review! If you are an internet beer reviewer you can have a bottle or two. Roger will need your address so please leave it here, and I'll pass the info on.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Inbev At It Again

It gets a bit irksome doesn't it?

"Contains Only Four Ingredients: Hops, Malted Barley, Maize, Water."

As beer geeks, we're clued up about our favourite beverage. We know that no decent beer ever "contains" maize (or corn syrup as it probably manifests itself.) It annoys us that Inbev UK Ltd have the bloody cheek to rely on the average customer's ignorance to make a selling point of a cheap adjunct.

It's also annoying that they choose to ignore the humble unsung-hero of brewing: lovely miracle-worker yeast.

This campaign first appeared a couple of years. It appears to have been revived. There are umpteen hoardings carrying the advert across Newcastle. I presume they have reappeared elsewhere too.

So rather than getting annoyed and bitching to each other about AB Inbev's attitude, why don't we do something about it?

As the "four ingredients" statement is untruthful in neglecting yeast, this advertising probably breaches advertising regulations. We should complain. In fact, I've done it already. It's easy; here's the link to the Advertising Standards Authority online form: I'm not sure that multiple complaints on individual subjects adds any weight, but it can't do any harm can it?

[Please make sure you complain about Inbev UK Ltd]

[You can see the results about other previous complaints about Stella advertising here]



Here's the rather predictable response fro the advertising standards people:

"Dear Mr Pickthall


 Thank you for contacting the Advertising Standards Authority.  I’m sorry to hear that this ad has caused you concern.

 You may be interested to know that we’ve previously received a few complaints about this ad.  Complaints included concerns that the ad didn’t list yeast and carbon dioxide as ingredients.

 We reviewed the ad and sought the advertisers’ response to these complaints. I should state from the outset that we will not be taking further action in respect of these complaints.  I realise you feel strongly about this ad, but please let me explain how and why we reached this view.

 The advertisers explained that the claim relates to the liquid produced at the end of the brewing process.  Both the advertisers and we accept that yeast is used in the brewing process to start the fermentation.  However, the yeast is removed after the fermentation process, using a combination of three methods, which ensures the yeast doesn’t appear in the end product. 

 We consider that most consumers are likely to know that yeast is needed for the brewing process, and that carbon dioxide is a by-product of that process.  In our view, the ad is unlikely to mislead consumers to their detriment as to the nature of the product or how it is produced.  Given this, we will not be pursuing these complaints further.

 Although we’ve been unable to uphold these complaints, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to contact us with your concerns.

 Best regards,

Emily Henwood | Complaints Executive"

That response hasn't exactly come as a surprise. As Beernut was quick to point out, Inbev's defence would be that Stella doesn't contain yeast as it's filtered to death out.

Fair enough. We could all see it coming.

I'm still not satisfied with the advert. OK, I'll put my hand up to the accusation of pedantry, but their use of the word "contains" bothers me. I'd be happy with "brewed from" but as far as I can see Stella does not "contain"malted barley, maize or hops. I'm not a brewer, I don't really know how to word it in a properly technical way but Stella must rather contain proteins derived from malt and maize, and a smattering of acids from the hops. And good old alcohol and CO2 of course.

As you can see from the response email "The advertisers explained that the claim relates to the liquid produced at the end of the brewing process." Well, Mr In-Fucking-Bev, the liquid DOES NOT "contain" malted barley, maize or hops – I could bloody well see them if they were there and they would get stuck in my teeth if I were ever to lower my standards enough to consume the stuff.

I may well make another pedantry-inspired complaint.

Rant over.

Saturday 26 June 2010


My other obsession in life is music, and you'll be hearing more about this in the forthcoming mammoth blog post. 

Some musicians speak to me. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, B.B. King, Carlos Santana (in his peak years '72-'74), to name but a few, do it to me. The greatest virtuosos are capable of capturing the all complexity and nuance of the human voice. And this is the ultimate goal when you attempt to play a melodic instrument, whether you know it or not. When I am most receptive I can almost hear words. Coltrane is a chatterbox trying to tell you his life story; Shorter is taciturn but a master of the withering put-down; Miles Davis does it all: name an emotion and I'll point you to a recording that captures it. Even Sun Ra's cacaphonies make perfect sense to me. Most rock music conveys no more message to me than a baby banging its toy on its cot conveys to its parents.

What's this got to do with beer?

When I experience flavour I almost hear it and see it. Fruity, herbal hop character is shiny brass instruments; maltiness is bass and drums. Somewhere in the middle the highs and lows mingle in harmonious, or sometimes discordant, ways. At the same time I almost "see" a representation of my mental flavour encyclopaedia, and where the new beer flavour is filed. Experience a new beer and I look into my mind and I almost see lights come on, like a map in a public place that has buttons illuminating specific locations.

I have a friend who keeps no numbers in his mobile phone. He doesn't need to as he can remember them all. He'll freely admit to being a bit "spergy". Sometimes I feel I have a similar thing going on with flavour.

Recently I was in the pub with friends (funnily enough). I described a beer as having a murky midrange. One of my friends, known for his ability to cut through bluster and flummery, interjected – "what the fuck are you on about, 'the mid-range flavours'?". It was then that it dawned on me that I regularly use this, and other, musical terms when describing flavour. It seems perfectly natural to me but now I realise not everyone perceives and remembers  flavours the same way. 

Could this be synaesthesia? Am I a synesthete? I wonder. It would explain a lot.

Monday 14 June 2010

New Poll On Bottle Sizes

It's over there on the right  

This isn't the mammoth post that's in the pipeline btw!

Saturday 29 May 2010

Bear with me...

There's a big blog post coming up. It's currently on 3500 words and will probably go over 5000.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Lib Dems Leading In The Poll That Matters

The Lib Dems are leading in the non-authoritative poll I'm running (which you can find at the top right of the page you are looking at.)

At 11am on the day before the general election the parties currently stand at:

Conservative: 3 votes (13%)
Labour: 1 vote (4%)
Lib Dem: 12 votes (52%)
Hung / Coalition: 1 vote (4%)
Other: 6 votes (26%)

The poll ends as voting closes on election day.

Vote in my beer poll now!

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Enterprise On My Back

You may recall that last year I went undercover at an Enterprise Inn recruitment indoctrination event. Since then I've been getting regular emails attempting to cajole me into taking on one of their poxy pubs and thereby work 100 hours a week for £10,000 p.a. and then get booted out after two years with a debt of £50,000.

They have a new tack – taking on an Enterprise pub as a way to indulge a passion for cask ale.

"And with Cask Ales enjoying a real renaissance, we can offer you the chance to combine your passion for keeping and serving the very best beers, supporting you every step of the way in your new venture."

At the recruitment meeting last October I asked the nice lady from Solihull about cask ale. She told me that Enterprise could supply "pretty much anything you want to sell." Further probing revealed that the cask portfolio listed 80 beers. 

To get that in perspective, remember that the UK now has over 600 breweries and during the course of year each will brew a dozen or so different beers. Therefore there are approximately 7,200 different cask ales available every year. Enterprise's offering constitutes about 1.1% of the available beers. 

It's not going to work is it? Certainly, a good and varying range of cask ales is a sure-fire way to create a popular pub – but you're hardly going to be able to achieve it with Enterprise's paltry portfolio of national brands.

I shall be continuing to resist Enterprise's kind offer of a pub.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Friday 12 March 2010

Second CAMRA Facepalm in 24 hrs

Today I became aware, courtesy of CAMRA apparatchik @tonyjerome on Twitter, that CAMRA has created a pub discount scheme.

This isn't a scheme whereby a pub can gain a discount on something and thereby reduce risk of closure; no, it's a scheme whereby CAMRA members can get discounts on beer.

Now, let's get this straight: the pub trade is up against the wall, 39 or 52 or something are closing every week, CAMRA creates a scheme that eats into already-slim profit margins.

It's astonishingly dumb. It will extra competition between the pubs that CAMRA members already favour. The ones giving the discount will attract more CAMRA customers; the real ale pubs not offering discounts will lose trade. 

To create this extra price pressure is a disservice and insult to a trade that is already struggling.

Coming from an organisation that appoints itself as a guardian of pubs this scheme is a slap in the face for the very business sector it claims to support.

Another consequence will be that perfectly good pubs will find themselves edged out of the Good Beer Guide in favour of those giving discounts.

Who gains? A hardcore of tight-as-a-gnat's-chuff CAMRA loudmouths. 

Any CAMRA member with any self-respect should make a point of supporting pubs by not asking for, or declining a discount under this scheme. 

You couldn't make it up!

Facepalm Moment

Perhaps I'm mellowing in my advancing years, I'm not wound up by CAMRA activities quite so much as I used to be. Perhaps CAMRA is getting better.

Now and again though, something comes along that creates that special facepalm feeling that only CAMRA can provide.

Last night I visited the Prince of Wales at Foxfield, South Cumbria's premier hardcore CAMRA hangout. In there I picked up the latest edition of the local branch's newsletter, "Furness Inn-Quirer" (geddit?).

An article on the Lancaster Brewery caught my eye. It was a familiar story – branch members hop on a train to visit a brewery and gawp gormlessly, gasping for free pints while the kindly brewer talks them through mash tuns and FVs.

The author provides a quick description of Lancaster's four key beers. One is described thusly:

"...and not for the faint hearted, is Lancaster Red, which at 4.9% is a premium strength, ruby red beer with a spicy, malty aroma and a smooth taste."

Yes you did read that correctly – 4.9%, not for the faint hearted.

Beggars belief, doesn't it?

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Christmas Gets Earlier

Cast your mind back a couple of months. What did you drink on Christmas Day?

I've landed a commission to contribute to a book of Christmas food and drink which, all being well, will be flying off the shelves next December. No, I haven't been given the Terry's Chocolate Orange or Toblerone sections. Funnily enough, I've been given the beer entry.

I don't have a huge number of words to play with so I'm going to concentrate on beer/food matching for the classic festive comestibles.

My brother and I have been attempting to create sublime beer and food matches at Christmas for years. We've come up with a few principles to narrow down our own Christmas beer search e.g. golden ale or darkish lager, low to medium bitterness, to go with the turkey.

What are your Christmas beer/food guidelines? I'd like to see if my perceptions are are shared by other beerophiles, or whether I'm going to look like a turkey with my suggestions.

Might be worth keeping it simple, such as festive comestible / beer style / example such as roast turkey / golden ale / Swannay Orkney Blast.

Your wisdom is appreciated. Remind me to get you a pint next time I see you.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Beer Electioneering Semiotics

I often start the day with a browse of the Daily Mail's website. I know I shouldn't but it is a useful adjunct to the effects of caffeine in getting me fired up for the day.

Today this caught my eye: "Now 'Dave' claims he likes nothing better than to sit on the sofa watching darts... who does he think he's kidding?"

Apparently "Dave" Cameron has given an interview in which he talks about his love of darts, canned Guinness and 'gritty' shows on the telly." 

That is of course a mendacious and patronising attempt to appeal to working class voters and should be treated with eye-rolling disdain.

But beer gets a mention – what role does it play in Dave's electioneering?

Dave Cameron is a clever bloke and more than capable of understanding and manipulating subtle messages of "brand".

Canned Guinness says (and you may contradict me here): "I'm ordinary; I don't like fancy things but canned lager is a bit too crude for me; I choose Guinness because it offers more flavour yet doesn't possess a snobby elitist image; I'm a man of the people but not undiscriminating".

It can't have escaped your notice that he is pictured clutching a pint of cask ale. I expect this has come from the DM picture library rather than issued by the Cameron machine to accompany his interview with Shortlist magazine. Nonetheless Dave would have been aware of the semiotic value being pictured with a pint of cask ale. This will no doubt go do well with Dave's core voters – the home counties middle class. For this group – the blokes at least – cask ale is the default beer choice. 

When Dave became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, for one interview (so Dave, what attracted you to the aristocratic multi-million heiress Samantha?), he was pictured in his kitchen at home with his wife and kids. Difficult to miss, on the wall behind them was a Grolsch neon. A Grolsch neon? It can't have escaped Dave's people that a prominent brand image was displayed. I imagine the intended message was "I drink lager, I'm ordinary; however I choose drink posh import-only lager, I care about provenance, flavour etc".

All-in-all, it's a fairly confused message. The only message I think I'm getting is that Dave probably is a beer drinker. I don't think the same can be said for the humourless Scottish puritan control-freak Gordon Brown.

Will Dave the Beer Drinker, or Gordon the Hair Shirt get my vote? No. Hell will freeze over before I could vote for either of them. Nor could I bring myself to vote for Nick "it's a recession: we've downgraded from Ocado to Sainsbury's" Clegg. I'm stuck on "none of the above". I suspect I'm not alone.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Beer On The Telly Again

A few evenings ago my TIVO picked up this sympathetic piece from the formerly-nasty Michael Portillo:

Pleasing though it is that our beer history is getting some mass-media, my heart sank a little at one point.


2 mins 47 seconds.

Why the old-fashioned van? I'm no expert but that van looks 1930s to me. Just what has that got to do with brewing in 2010? OK, the thirties were in Burton's glory years but the brewery concerned is contemporary. I can see that they want to suggest "we revere the tradition we are part of", but isn't it an awkward and unnecessary way of saying it? I might be imagining it, but I think Portillo's laughter is disguising a cringe. I certainly cringed.

It bothers me that the world of cask ale is perennially keen to promote itself to more people yet it doesn't listen to those it wishes to convert. The perception "cask ale is for old men" is still inhibits the unconverted yet brewers still trot out the very "ye olde" cliches that created it.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Pub Closures – A Thought

This post by Woolpack Dave has got me thinking about pub closures.

We regularly see the scary statistic "52 pubs closing every week". Or 36, or 19. Whatever the number is, it signifies some sort of change or upheaval in Britain's socialising habits. Costs for pubs have increased and notably the historical core of the pub business  – blokes drinking lots of pints – looks fragile.

Ten years ago my brother and I were in the midst of a two year search for premises for our own beer evangelism business (please overlook the ghastly photograph, it was a much nicer place than the image might suggest). Steve and I love pubs. What we really wanted was a pub but it quickly became apparent that to do what we wanted – to sell what might termed the esoterica of the beer world – our chance of finding a pub in which to do it was zero.

The essential requirement was that whatever premises we took on it would have to be free-of-tie. To buy the freehold of a pub was way out of our budget. Free-of-tie pub tenancies and leases in London are conspicuous by their almost complete absence. So we had no choice we had to look for premises other than pubs. That's why we ended up adapting a former furniture shop.

But what had we created? People socialised, drank beer and ate food in convivial environment. A pub, in all but name. But no, the appropriate description was "a bar".

Had we been doing this now, would our business count as a pub opening? Are pub closure statistics limited to the bricks and mortar bearing the name "pub"? Are the statistics neglecting new business that are pubs in all but name? I suspect there are many others who have experienced the problem we had.

But why does that problem exist?

Obvious really. The structure of the pub industry. Pub companies owning thousands of pubs. Sure you can get your hands on a pub: but it will have to be tied. Wave goodbye to your local market knowledge, your specialist skills, your ability to innovate. Or go for a bar or cafe.

I feel sad when I see boarded-up pubs; I feel happy when enterprising people are opening bars and cafes. There's no short of people willing to invest in and run food/drink/conviviality businesses only pubs are off-limits because of the structure of the pub industry and its weapon of mass-destruction, the tie system.

If the stranglehold on the pub trade was loosened would the picture be rosier? Would the likes of Microbar, North Bar, the Rake and countless others, beer-focused or not, be thriving pubs? I think so.

Friday 8 January 2010

BBC at it again.

Here's another BBC news story scaremongering about alcohol.

Note the following paragraph:

The report also called for a rise in duty on spirits and white cider, mandatory health warnings on labels, and stricter regulation of alcohol advertising and promotion.

So, the story is about a report which calls for a duty rise on spirits and white cider. What image does the BBC choose to illustrate this story about spirits and white cider – a picture of someone drinking a pint of what appears to be cask ale, presumably in a pub.

Poor journalism.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Top-Notch Service – Pub Trade Take Note.

A few days ago I took Messrs Marks and Spencer's kind offer of four bottles of Cornish IPA for the price of three.

I opened the first bottle: dull, lacking flavour, limp, oxidisation starting to rear its ugly wet cardboard head.

I opened the second then the third – the same problem. The fourth remained unopened – I'd got the message.

Braving the icy roads, clutching my receipt, I took them back to M&S.

The checkout assistant summoned a friendly lady from the stock room. A profuse apology was offered while a refund form was being filled in.

I took my money and turned to leave.

"Wait, you haven't got your replacements."

A bag containing four more bottles was thrust at me.

I paused while I wiped away a tear of joy at the niceness of the world (almost).

Tuesday 5 January 2010

I Wouldn't Normally ... OK, Go On Then...

...I'll have a copy of the Spectator.

In it you'll find a piece "Don't worry – drink and be merry"by Canadian journalist Leah McLaren who evidently spends a lot of time in the UK.

I hope it registers with the main protagonist in neo-prohibitionism – the Government, and the uncritical mass-media: the BBC, the Daily Mail, The Independent...and many more.

While I've got your attention, "Labour’s fixation with control is strangling everyone" in the Times is also worth a read.