Friday, 9 December 2016

Hamming it up in Leeds

A friend of mine is a university lecturer and has recently taken up a new position in Leeds. As he knows I have an interest in pubs and beer, he invited me to pop over for a tour of some of the city’s hostelries. Although he does enjoy a pint, he’s not a CAMRA member or beer geek, and so this was more a broad cross-section than an exercise in seeking out obscure brews. I’d asked for suggestions on Twitter, which drew a very wide response. I boiled this down to a list of nine pubs, all on the south-east side of the city centre, but in the end we only managed six.

The train service between Manchester and Leeds now manages an impressive frequency of four trains an hour, which almost makes it “turn up and go”. It was a cold, misty winter day which made the former mill villages of Saddleworth and the Colne Valley look particularly grim.

We met up in the Scarbrough Hotel opposite the station, where I joined Owain in a pint of Leeds Pale, which almost seems to have become the city’s national beer. While the pub’s name may look like a misspelling, it actually comes from its original owner Henry Scarbrough rather than the seaside resort. Note the “Ind Coope’s Ales” lettering on the frontage – while it may have ended up in the Tetley estate, this wasn’t an original Tetley’s pub. The photo obviously is a stock image and not one taken on the day.

I remember it from years back as being a bit tatty, but it’s now part of M&B’s Nicholsons chain and has been smartly refurbished. There’s a long bar facing you as you walk in through the door with more intimate seating areas at either end. There were about eight real ales on sale, including Tetley Bitter and Nicholsons’ own-brand Pale Ale brewed by St Austell, alongside the Leeds Pale. The cheerful chap pictured below was clearly getting into the Christmas spirit with some comedy headgear.

A short walk round the corner took us to Friends of Ham, about which I’d heard many glowing reports. It’s an unusual combination of craft beer bar and charcuterie and cheese delicatessen, specialising in sharing platters, which made it an ideal venue for lunch. It offers four cask beers and ten craft kegs, although the latter are listed on the beer menu in an initially confusing way where each beer is ticked off as it goes off and the next one comes on, so it can be difficult to match the list with what is actually on the bar. We began with a couple of halves of the relatively easy-drinking Summer Wine Pacer Session IPA on keg. I followed this up with a Magic Rock The Big Top India Red Ale, weighing in at a hefty 7.0% ABV, while Owain went for the similarly-coloured Credence Red from the cask range, which he was amused to see served in a half-pint dimpled mug. The photo below shows the mural illustrating the sources of ham in Spain, France and Italy.

As Owain is an Italophile, it seemed appropriate to go for the Italian Meat Plate, which comprised one variety of ham and two of salami, together with bread. This was absolutely delicious, but it must be said not hugely filling, so there was plenty of room left for a platter of three cheeses – Kirkhams Lancashire, Gubbeen, an Irish washed-rind cheese, and Stilton-style Stichelton. Again all excellent, with the tangy Lancashire being to my tastebuds the pick of the bunch. All in all, some of the best food I’ve eaten all year, and somewhere I would definitely return to. The two platters together, plus some extra bread, came to £27, which I don’t think is bad at all.

We then headed up Briggate, the main shopping street, which unusually retains a number of pubs accessed down alleyways on the western side. I was tickled to see Owain enjoying a swift fag during the walk between pubs. Our next call was what is probably the jewel in the crown of Leeds pubs, Whitelock’s, the first of the alleyway pubs. The long, narrow interior is a feast of mirrors, stained glass, brasswork and ornamental tiling. The upper end is reserved for dining, leaving it standing room only in the remainder as all the wall benches were occupied. There are about ten different cask beers available – I went for a Taylor’s Landlord, while Owain had an Ilkley Mary Jane, which has become another modern-day Yorkshire signature beer.

No visit to Yorkshire is complete without calling in a Sam Smith’s pub. There are three in Leeds city centre, but I had been advised that the keg-only Duncan and General Eliott were really only of sociological interest, so we went to the Angel, which is the next alleyway pub up Briggate, and hard to spot from the street. The approach is a little confusing as it passes through a courtyard onto which the windows of a neighbouring pub, I think the Pack Horse, also open. While the Angel looks like an old pub, it is in fact a relatively modern conversion. The ground floor has a small bar and a larger, plain room with bench seating around the walls, while there’s also an upstairs lounge which we didn’t try. Two pints of cask OBB at the usual Sam’s bargain prices, and a much more down-to-earth atmosphere than Whitelock’s.

A walk through the fascinating Kirkgate indoor market, with its rows of butchers’ and fishmongers’ stalls, brought us to the Lamb & Flag in the shadow of Leeds Minster. This is another new pub in an old building, brought back to life last year by Leeds Brewery, although sold this year to Camerons along with the rest of their pub estate. It has become a favourite stopping-off point for Owain on the walk between the university and his flat, and apparently there’s a very pleasant suntrap courtyard, although dusk on a cold, foggy day is not the best time to appreciate it.

It has a smart, modern interior on two levels, but has a relaxing atmosphere rather than being a forest of posing tables. From a range of about eight, we both went for Thornbridge Beers, Owain having Beadeca’s Well smoked porter, while I had the Hopper IPA, which is not the same beer as the much stronger Pond Hopper listed on their website. A sign of Camerons ownership was the presence of Camerons Bitter on the bar.

For our final call, we crossed the Aire by a stylish modern footbridge to reach the Adelphi, which is another of Leeds’ classic unspoilt pub interiors. Some people had warned that this was a bit of an ordinary pub in an impressive building, but there was nothing wrong with it on this occasion, with a decent range of beers and a lively mixed-aged clientele occupying most of the seats. It’s a magnificent gin-palace style place, with a variety of separate rooms around the central bar. We managed to find a cosy corner next to the fire.

Seeing Robinson’s Trooper Red and Black Porter on the bar, I had to go for that, and a couple of pints are shown on the photo above. I then finished off with another Thornbridge beer, the dark Wild Holly, while Owain, who perhaps felt in need of a change after a run of rich beers, went for a Peroni. From here it was only a short walk back to the station and I was home in Stockport before ten.

So an excellent day out with a good contrast of pub and beer styles. I haven’t commented on beer quality, as I didn’t have anything less than good all day, but apart from the Angel it must be said it wasn’t cheap drinking. The two pints of Red and Black in the Adelphi, for example, came to £8.30. I didn’t have a single drop of Tetley’s, which once would have been unthinkable in Leeds. Needless to say, there was plenty of stimulating conversation too. It’s not every day you get to discuss Garibaldi’s crossing of the Strait of Messina in 1860 (in which he was helped by the British Royal Navy) in the pub. And the food in Friends of Ham was truly memorable.

The other pubs I had on my list which we didn’t have time to get to were the Templar on the north side of the city centre, and the Grove and Cross Keys round the back of the station. The Victoria Family & Commercial was another recommendation, although that’s some distance away on the other side of the city centre. And that’s without venturing into any of Leeds’ more crafty delights such as North Bar, so I’m sure another trip will have to be arranged some time.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Welcome to the Scrooge Arms

You must have been living in a cave if you hadn’t noticed that alcohol prices in the off-trade tend to be considerably cheaper than those in the on-trade. This has been the case for decades, and realistically is just a fact of life. Yes, over the years the differential has widened, but that has been as much due to pub prices rising above inflation than off-trade prices dropping. And obviously, as the off-trade accounts for a steadily growing share of consumption, the gap has loomed larger as a factor in the market.

Now parts of the licensed trade seem to have suddenly woken up to this fact and are having a good whinge about it. “They’re selling Carling for 64p a pint! How can I possibly compete with that?” The answer, of course, is that you can’t, you never have been able to, and you don’t have to. A pub is far more than just an alcohol shop, and to suggest that pubs are in direct competition with supermarket drinks is no more realistic that claiming that restaurants are threatened by cheap ready meals. As Cooking Lager rightly points out:

In reality, very little off-trade alcohol consumption is readily transferable to pubs anyway. It’s rarely a simple either-or decision. And to claim that raising off-trade prices would make people any more likely to visit pubs is delusional. Even if a 50p/unit minimum price was applied, that 64p pint of Carling would still be only £1.13, or a third the price in a pub. There’s still a massive saving to be had.

The Christmas and New Year season is also one where, more than any other, people will be looking to entertain at home, and to get the keenest prices on the food and drink they buy. If they go in a pub to find the owner bemoaning the fact that they’ve been able to get some bargains, they’re likely to see that as a distinctly Scrooge-like attitude. And how many pubs are open on Christmas Day evening anyway?

It’s also very wide of the mark to claim that such offers amount to “loss-leading”. Yes, profit margins for both brewer and retailer will have been pared to the bone but, as I’ve explained before, loss-leading just doesn’t work like that. To sell something that can account for a substantial proportion of a typical trolley-load at an actual loss is commercial suicide. John Ellis of the Crown Inn at Oakengates makes this dubious assertion without a shred of hard evidence.

As I’ve said many times over the years, if you seek to make common cause with the anti-drink lobby to gain a short-term commercial advantage, you are on a hiding to nothing. In the wise words of Churchill, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A different world

The photograph below was taken in the Reddish Working Men’s Club in Stockport in 1977. I have copied it from a Stockport-related Facebook group and I apologise if anyone’s copyright has been infringed.

In many ways it’s a fascinating historical document that seems a world away from the present-day drinking experience. The beaten copper tables, the all-male company, the preponderance of handle glasses (and oversize ones at that), the girlie calendar and, last but certainly not least, the ashtrays.

Indeed it would be rare today to come across any social gathering where everyone was drinking beer, and the sight of pub or club tables groaning with pint glasses is increasingly rare.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Am I bovvered?

Readers sometimes confuse a tone of nostalgic regret for one of anger on this blog, and I think that may have been the case with my recent post about how real ale and downmarket pubs had parted company. Now, I find it distinctly sad that real ale has disappeared from large swathes of working-class Britain where once it was commonplace, but I understand the reasons why this has happened, and accept that trying to reverse the trend is largely an exercise in flogging a dead horse.

I decided I would put the question to the readership in a poll, and the results indicate that, while there is a spread of opinion, the majority aren’t too concerned that real ale has lost its mass appeal. While this may be no more than a reflection of reality, it has to be recognised that it represents a major shift from the position in the early days of CAMRA where it was seen as reasonable to expect the vast majority of pubs to stock it. And the reasons behind this are mainly cultural, not a matter of price.

But, if you take it as read that it simply isn’t realistic for many pubs to sell real ale, you need to stop keeping a score of real ale “gains” and “losses”, and stop badgering pubs to put real ale on and criticising them when they don’t. If it’s not for everybody, then it doesn’t belong in all pubs. Just let it go.

The trend could be reversed, of course, and virtually all pub-owning breweries still have real ale in the majority of their tied houses, including ones in working-class areas. The only exception I can think of nowadays is Felinfoel. It’s not exactly difficult – simply position your best-selling ordinary bitter as the default beer in your pubs, and if you offer a keg alternative at all, price it significantly higher. But if you’re just a pub company, you have no interest in your pub estate being a showcase for your products, and so you put on the bar what sells, and make no attempt to influence customer tastes.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A pub crawl down Memory Lane

On his recent visit to Stockport, Paul Mudge lent me a vintage pub guide he owned entitled The Greater Manchester Good Beer Guide. It isn’t dated but, from some of the long-defunct pubs it features such as the Club House and Grove in Stockport, I’d say it probably dates from around 1976.

I’ve done a few scans of my local areas which I’ve put up on my website for your perusal. Bear in mind that it’s a selective, not a comprehensive, guide, and some very familiar and highly-regarded pubs are conspicuous by their absence, such as Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport, which was one of the highlights of our pub-crawl. From the comments on other pubs it may be that Sam’s were just emerging from a flirtation with keg beer. No Armoury, Davenport Arms or Nursery either.

The high proportion of real ale dispensed by electric pump is also very evident.

Manchester City Centre

Manchester Suburbs Part 1

Manchester Suburbs Part 2

Stockport Suburbs

Stockport Town Centre and Tameside Part 1

Tameside Part 2

Tameside Part 3 and Trafford

As with many early pub guides, the descriptions often vary from terse to non-existent, but they include some gems such as:

“Quiet, well-kept pub for animal lovers”

“Imposing pub maintains cool pint in summer – rattles your teeth in winter”

“Haunt of the chunky sweater brigade”

“Good beer in odd atmosphere”

Sunday, 20 November 2016

No pub left behind

It didn’t take long for someone to win the Keg Pub Challenge, when blog reader Matt found that the North Manchester district of Collyhurst recorded a perfect 10 of pubs with No Real Ale. The distinguishing feature of all those pubs is that they unashamedly cater for a local, working-class clientele, although I can remember maybe twenty-five years ago when the Queen’s Arms on Honey Street was briefly something of a real ale shrine. The photo shows the Valley on Glendower Drive, the first result of the search.

It seems to be taken as read that, nowadays, “estate pubs” are keg pubs, but it wasn’t always so. I’m not familiar with those particular pubs, as it’s not my patch, but I’d bet that thirty or forty years ago, some, if not most, of them sold cask beer. I remember in the late 80s my local branch of CAMRA mounting a series of campaigns to encourage breweries to put real ale into some of the few remaining keg pubs. One where we had no success was the Garibaldi in Abbey Hey, Manchester, which was then a Tetley’s pub. Ironically, it recently did start serving real ale before, as reported by WhatPub, being closed on the orders of police. So what happened to cause real ale and the ordinary, down-to-earth boozer to part company?

I’d say the key reason is the shift from saying “the beer in this pub is real” to “this pub sells real beer”. There’s a subtle, but vital difference. In the early days of CAMRA, pubs just sold Mild and Bitter, or two bitters, and the customers didn’t identify it as being real ale or not, although they might notice that the real beer was better. If a pub “went real” it involved changing a keg or top pressure beer over to cask, not adding another pump. Across large swathes of the Midlands and North of England, real ale was more often than not dispensed through electric pumps, so there was no obvious difference at the point of sale.

Not unreasonably, CAMRA took the view that, if real ale was to be promoted, greater differentiation was needed. Most of the well-known beers associated with the initial “real ale revival”, such as Ruddles County and Ind Coope Burton Ale, were cask-only, and CAMRA began to press for separate branding for real and keg beers to avoid confusion.

But I’d say the key changes happened in the early 90s. The transfer of pubs from breweries to pub companies took away a lot of the kudos of being able to say “85% of our pubs serve real ale”, and the pubcos found that stripping it out made life easier for licensees without any loss of trade. Plus the rise of nitrokeg created a distinctive keg product for which there was no direct real equivalent, and which, at least initially, was something that many drinkers would make a point of ordering. I wrote here in 1997 how John Smith’s Extra Smooth was increasingly taking the place of cask bitter as the default choice in many Levenshulme pubs.

Another factor was the ongoing replacement of electric pumps with handpumps, which may have provided a clear and unambiguous symbol of real ale, but at the same time marked it out as a beer apart. If you wanted to avoid something that was inconsistent, potentially cloudy or vinegary, might involve challenging flavours, and tended to be favoured by Polytechnic lecturers with woolly jumpers and beards, you knew not to touch anything that came from a handpump.

In the North-West, we still have substantial numbers of family brewer pubs – Holts, Hydes, Lees, Robinsons and Sam Smiths – where the cask bitter remains the normal ale choice, and is consumed by large numbers of working-class drinkers. But, across the country as a whole, as I wrote here, real ale is increasingly seen as a middle-class drink, and is conspicuously avoided by working-class drinkers, especially the younger ones. Would a working-class bloke under 40 ever even contemplate ordering a pint of cask? And as for “craft beer”… Some might say that just displays how thick they are, but in reality working-class people have a pretty sound nose for pseudery and pretension of all kinds.

The Bobby Peel on Castle Street in Edgeley, Stockport, received an expensive refurbishment from Punch Taverns earlier this year, which also involved restoring real ale in the form of Doom Bar. But, when John Smith’s is available at £2 a pint, all day, every day, who on earth is going to pay £2.95 for a pint? It fell victim to the inevitable vicious circle of lower demand leading to lower quality, and has now, entirely predictably, disappeared from the bar. And it seems to be very common, as for example reported by Martin Taylor here, that pubs have a token real ale, but the locals just don’t drink it. “I can’t say I saw anyone else buy it, but at least I didn’t get asked if I was CAMRA.”

The question is, if you want to “campaign for real ale”, does it really matter that pubs like the Valley don’t sell it, and realistically are highly unlikely to do so? Indeed, some hardliners might enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude when keg-only pubs close down. To be honest, real ale is only going to succeed in pubs of that kind if it becomes the default ale option, not an expensive speciality. And I don’t really see that happening.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Mudging around Manchester

Manchester has become well-known for its cutting-edge beer scene, and its craft beer shrines such as Port Street Beer House and Café Beermoth. However, the city centre still has its fair share of “proper pubs” and, on a mild, sunny autumn day, I thought I’d have a stroll round a few of them. It isn’t by any means all bright young things gaily supping overpriced craft beers.

The Old Wellington (left) and Sinclair's in Shambles Square

Keg as far as the eye can see

I started off at the well-known historic landmark of Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, relocated from its former location in Shambles Square following the IRA bomb. This is a Sam Smith’s pub but, unusually, offers no real ale. I had a pint of keg Old Brewery Bitter which wasn’t too bad – not nitrokeg soapy, but not too fizzy either. If all keg beer was like this, real ale might well have have disappeared. It has a rambling interior on two levels with plenty of dark wood. I overhead a fascinating conversation from a group of off-duty police officers. In hindsight perhaps I should have tried the 5% keg India Ale which isn’t available in the Sam’s pubs I usually frequent.

Codger central in the Hare & Hounds

I then headed up Withy Grove to the Hare & Hounds on Shudehill, which stands in one of those rows of old buildings that survive amongst all the modern architecture. Formerly a Tetley’s house, this is a small National Inventory-listed pub with the classic “West Yorkshire” layout of central bar, front vault, rear lounge and drinking corridor. It clearly appeals to an overwhelmingly older male clientele, as the photo shows, although there was a blackboard advertising bottles of Prosecco. I hope the two gents featured don’t mind. Three real ales were available – Doom Bar, Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, and Holts Bitter, which was on very good form and came at the bargain price of £2.20.

The next pub, the Unicorn on Church Street, was another that attracted an older customer base, although the sound system was incongruously playing punk and nu-metal, presumably chosen by the bar staff. It’s a handsome building with a characterful interior featuring extensive light oak panelling, but sadly looking a little run-down nowadays, although the toilets appeared to have been recently refurbished. Tandleman has written about a recent visit here. It is known for being possibly the only pub in central Manchester offering Draught Bass, but unfortunately on this occasion it was not available, leaving me with a choice of Dizzy Blonde and Bradfield Farmer’s Blonde. The latter was OK but seemed a little tired – probably the least impressive real ale of the day.

I crossed Piccadilly Gardens and headed down Portland Street to a group of three pubs situated very close together in another small surviving group of modest Victorian buildings. First was the Circus Tavern, billed outside as “The smallest bar in Europe – the biggest welcome in the World”. The bar is indeed tiny - a minuscule quadrant tucked in to the corridor, that still manages to accommodate two handpumps for Tetley Bitter and, yet again, Dizzy Blonde. Opposite this are two small, cosy snugs, in one of which I spotted the pub dog enjoying a snooze on some of the bench seating. I don’t think I’d had cask Tetleys for a couple of years. Now brewed in Wolverhampton, it does retain a hint of the “Tetley tang” but certainly isn’t the beer it once was, although it was in good condition here. This, like the Hare & Hounds, was originally a Tetley’s tied house.

Almost next door is Hydes’ Grey Horse, which is only slightly bigger than the Circus Tavern, but has been opened up a little more, although still retaining plenty of bench seating. A half-moon bar dispensed five Hydes beers, including the staple Old Indie and Original, and the latest from their Beer Studio sub-brand, Tomahawk Challenger, which was surprisingly rich and full-flavoured for a modest 3.9% ABV. It’s worth noting that both of these very small pubs manage to provide proper separate ladies’ and gents’ toilets, in contrast to most of the latest generation of micropubs.

My final call was at Holts’ Old Monkey, on the corner of Portland Street and Princess Street. This has the feel of a Manchester institution, but in fact is a new-build pub dating, I think, from the late 80s, which explains the location of the toilets in the basement. The basic ground-floor bar dispenses a range of Holts’ beers including some from their Bootleg offshoot, although I stuck to the standard Bitter, which again was pretty good. This bar was very dimly-lit, so I headed upstairs, which I vaguely remember from years ago as being fitted out as a lounge bar with bench seating, but now has only loose chairs and tables, plus a pool table. I didn’t much appreciate the hip-hop music being played, though. From here it was only a short walk back to Piccadilly Station for my train home.

So, an interesting encounter with the more traditional side of the city centre’s pub life, most of which I hadn’t been in for years. None of the pubs I visited are in the current Good Beer Guide, although the Grey Horse was last year, and the Hare & Hounds, Circus Tavern and Old Monkey all have been in the fairly recent past. The current edition does still feature some classic pubs like the Britons’ Protection, City Arms and Castle, so it’s certainly not wall-to-wall trendy craft emporiums.

It’s interesting that I was recently musing about local allegiance and the distinct identities of Stockport and Manchester. As befits its function as a regional capital, Manchester feels a much bigger place than Stockport than their relative populations would suggest. A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a pub crawl of Stockport town centre with Paul Mudge, and I can’t help feeling that, while Stockport fits me like a cosy, familiar pair of slippers, Manchester does have a distinct metropolitan edge to it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sense of place

Matthew Curtis recently wrote an article on the Manchester beer scene entitled The City with a Thorn in its Side. Now, in general, it’s a good piece of journalism. He made the effort to get the train up here, get the feel of things on the ground, and interview several key players, including CAMRA stalwart Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman). For readers in Canada and the US, it does its job just fine. However, he repeated one common error that, whenever I see it, makes my hackles rise. He said that Stockport, home of Robinson’s Brewery, was in Manchester.

Yes, Stockport is part of the same conurbation, but it is a town in its own right with a long and honourable history going back to mediaeval times, and has its own very distinct identity. It also retains its own status as a Metropolitan Borough entirely separate from the City of Manchester. Yes, it’s an easy mistake to make, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Part of the problem arises from the naming of Metropolitan Counties in the 1970s. Six of these were set up, but only one of them took the name of its major city. The other five – Merseyside, West Midlands, Tyne and Wear and South and West Yorkshire – didn’t. The area was originally referred to as SELNEC – South East Lancashire, North East Cheshire – but that didn’t trip off the tongue, so the present name was adopted.

However, all too often that tends to lead people to refer to the other major towns in the area as being part of Manchester, when they aren’t. I know someone from Wolverhampton who would go ballistic if anyone suggested that his city was part of Birmingham, even though they are both within the same West Midlands Metropolitan County. Likewise try telling someone from Bradford that it was part of Leeds, or someone from Sunderland that it was part of Newcastle.

Local pride and allegiance remain very important, and anyone writing about areas should be careful to get these things right. Stockport, and other major towns such as Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury and Bolton, may be referred to as being within Greater Manchester, or being part of the Manchester region. But they are not, never have been, and never will be, part of Manchester itself. This page helps explain the situation.

Another glaring error in the article, albeit one of limited relevance to a Transatlantic audience – is the statement that “You don’t have to wander far down a Manchester street to come across one.” Again, this is just plain wrong.

When I moved into this area in 1985, the family brewer pubs were extremely scarce in the centre of Manchester. Lees and Hydes both had just two (and arguably Hydes’ Jolly Angler isn’t really in the centre), Robinson’s one, and Holts precisely zero. Lees, Hydes and Holts have all acquired one or two more, but they’re still far from thick on the ground. And, in the wider city of Manchester, Holts and Hydes have a few scattered pubs, but Robinsons’ and Lees’ pub holdings remain minimal. The nearest thing to a concentration is the string of Hydes pubs along the Wilmslow Road corridor in Rusholme, Fallowfield, Withington and Didsbury. Historically, by far the biggest holders of pubs in Manchester were Wilsons, part of the Watney/Grand Met empire, followed by other members of the erstwhile “Big Six” Whitbread, Bass and Tetley.

These are innocent mistakes, but when it comes to local identities, you do need to be careful not to tread on people’s toes.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The keg pub challenge

I recently wrote about how keg pubs sail under the radar of CAMRA and beer writing. Several people responded on Twitter to say that I was exaggerating and there weren’t anything like that number of keg-only pubs in the country.

My response was that he was looking at a tourist area, and that if you looked at more down-at-heel areas away from the tourist trail, the proportion would be very different. For example, if you searched on WhatPub for Clay Cross, on the fringes of the Peak District, 4/10 of the results are No Real Ale.

This led me to wonder what was the highest proportion of keg pubs you could find doing a similar search. Considering places in my general neck of the woods, Leigh in South Lancs scored 7/10, and Widnes, birthplace of both my parents, an impressive 9/10, although some of the pubs listed are actually south of the Mersey in Runcorn.

I couldn’t, however, find anywhere with the magic 10/10. I suspect that is most likely in Scotland, but a problem is that, north of the Border, CAMRA branches don’t seem to have listed all of their pubs, keg or real, on WhatPub? Understandable, I suppose, if you have two real and two hundred keg pubs in your area. It’s possible that somewhere in the South Wales Valleys might make it – for example, chosen at random, Abertillery scores 8/10.

So, here’s the challenge - can anyone find a 10/10 keg pub location on WhatPub? The rules of the game are that you search under a particular location, then uncheck the “Real Ale Available” box. But it’s cheating if you also uncheck “Pubs Only”.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

A proper curmudgeonly crawl

Readers of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing will be familiar with the name of Paul Mudge from Stafford, who is a frequent and outspoken contributor to the letters page. He’s a long-standing CAMRA activist and served for many years on the What’s Brewing editorial board. Because of his surname, he’s sometimes confused with me, especially because he posts on the soon-to-be-closed CAMRA forum under the name of “curMUDGEon”, and in the past I have myself used the name of “Mudge” as a handle on Usenet and web forums.

Although we’d often engaged in discussions over the Internet, we’d never actually met, but last week we remedied this by meeting up for a crawl of some of the “proper pubs” of central Stockport, which is easily reached by train from Stafford in less than an hour. The term “proper pub” has been a bone of contention on the forum, as Paul and I tend to take the view that it’s a common figure of speech that is self-explanatory, whereas Sussex-based contributor Richard English is continually aggrieved that we don’t consider that it encompasses Wetherspoon’s, and demands a precise definition.

Sometimes meeting people in the flesh with whom you’ve only previously engaged in discussions over the Internet can be something of a surprise, but I can’t say Paul varied much from my expectations, although, as with most of us, in person he’s much more affable and softly-spoken than his Internet persona might suggest. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that we agree, pub-wise, on the vast majority of things.

It was a fine, sunny Autumn day which showed off Stockport’s historic town centre at its best. We kicked off at the Calvert’s Court just after 11 am, where Paul had already enjoyed a Wetherspoon breakfast. Wetherspoon’s is a frequent bone of contention on the forum, as both Paul and I recognise their merits as a good-value, predictable pub chain that can often be the best bet for decent beer and food in a strange time, but never scales the heights of pub character, whereas Richard English tends to believe the sun shines out of their backside and bristles at any hint of criticism. I had a pretty decent drop of Howard Town Wren’s Nest, but then we moved on to the first of the town’s unquestionably Proper Pubs.

The steep flight of steps down to Little Underbank brought us to Samuel Smith’s Queens’s Head (also known as Turner’s Vaults), in the shadow of the bridge carrying St Petersgate over that street. This National Inventory listed pub has a long, narrow interior including front bar area, central “horsebox” snug and cosy rear lounge. It also features the “Compacto”, billed as “the world’s smallest gents’”, which unfortunately is far too narrow for tubby modern blokes and so is permanently locked shut. We managed to find a berth on the benches in the window in front of the bar to enjoy some very good Old Brewery Bitter.

We then went back up the steps on the other side of the road to the Boar’s Head, Samual Smith’s other pub in Stockport. It’s a handsome brick-and-stone building dominating its corner of the Market Place, and earlier this year was somewhat surprisingly, but entirely deservedly, voted Pub of the Year by Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA. In a refurbishment a few years ago the brewery took the very unusual step of actually reinstating some internal walls, giving it a cosy, multi-roomed feel. The Old Brewery Bitter was on particularly fine form here. We were joined for a fleeting visit by Rob Nicholson (aka “munrobasher”) from Macclesfield Branch. The pub was already pretty busy when we arrived, and by the time we left just after one o’clock it was virtually standing room only, despite not serving any food, and it not being market day, which underlines how good beer, good atmosphere and good value create their own success.

Just across the way is the Baker’s Vaults, which couldn’t offer more of a contrast with the Boar’s Head. Now, I’ve been critical of Robinson’s refurbishment of this pub, but basically on the grounds of the quite remarkable dearth of any seating at all, let alone comfortable seating, which still holds true. But, at a quiet time when you can get a seat, it does offer a striking, high-ceilinged drinking space, and the beer and food offer both have much to be said for them.

I started off with a Titanic Plum Porter, which was in good condition but a little too sweet and cloying for my taste, but Paul was disappointed to be refused a pint of Old Tom, and had to settle for a half. I’m sure mayhem in the Market Place was prevented by this move. The three dark beers in the picture are, from left, Old Tom, Trooper Red and Black and Plum Porter.

The menu centres on hot dogs and burgers – I had the standard hot dog, which was excellent and very filling, but Paul, who doesn’t eat dairy produce, was disappointed to find his burger served with a cheesy sauce, despite asking for it without any butter or cheese. It was duly removed, but I suspect it wouldn’t go down as his favourite pub of the crawl. We then washed our food down with a couple of halves of Robinson’s Trooper Red and Black Porter, which was very drinkable and belied its 5.8% strength.

Having sorted out all the problems of the beer world, we parted company with Rob and headed up the Market Place to the Cocked Hat. This is a small pub opposite the parish church with an inter-wars Brewer’s Tudor frontage, which was formerly the Pack Horse but was renamed when it was taken over and revived by the Atwill Pub Company. The interior comprises a standing area on the left around the bar, and two partially knocked-through rooms on the right which retain plenty of comfortable bench seating. There were six real ales on sale, but we both plumped for the house beer – which I think is called Old & Disreputable – which we were told had been the best seller that session. It was indeed in good condition but, as with most beers from Blakemere Brewery, perhaps not the world’s most distinctive.

A short walk down Millgate brought us to the Arden Arms, a National Inventory pub which is one of the true classics of unspoilt pub architecture. As lunchtime food service had finished, there was no problem about finding a seat, and we were able to settle ourselves in the wonderful snug that can only be reached by walking through the server – one of only three remaining in the entire country. This is somewhere we could happily have lingered for hours. Six real ales are dispensed from handpumps attacked to the back of the servery, not the counter, and my Wizard was certainly in good nick.

Our next call was another of Stockport’s National Inventory entries, the Swan With Two Necks on Princes Street. This is a long, narrow pub on a main shopping street that is currently having to contend with construction works for the nearby RedRock shopping and leisure complex which have disrupted pedestrian footfall. Its crowning glory is the central wood-panelled, toplit snug which really is somewhere you can retreat to set the world to rights. The only real ale available was Unicorn (alongside Westons’ Old Rosie Cider) which again was in good form. A group of regulars were enjoying some lively conversation in the corridor opposite the bar counter.

We finished up in the Crown, the well-known free house in the shadow of Stockport’s famous viaduct, where we met up with local CAMRA member Stuart Ballantyne. Once a Boddingtons’ pub, this has a central bar surrounded by a pool room and three comfortable lounge/snug areas. Its main attraction is the range of up to sixteen different cask beers, many from local micro-breweries. It is a perennial Good Beer Guide entry and a former local Pub of the Year. I wasn’t taking notes, but I did have a good drop of Oakham Inferno.

The Crown was conveniently placed for Paul to make the short walk up the hill to Stockport station for his train home. It’s hard to think of a better way of spending a lunchtime and afternoon than setting the world to rights over a few pints in some of Stockport’s great proper pubs. You should try it some time! And it wouldn’t be difficult to map out another crawl in the town of equal quality, although perhaps involving a little more walking between pubs.


(For the avoidance of doubt, pints were not consumed in all of these pubs. What do you think we are, irresponsible binge drinkers? But they were in some)

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

False equivalence

An argument that I’ve made more than once in the past is that CAMRA made a major strategic error by deciding that the relationship between bottle- and brewery-conditioned packaged beers was an exact mirror image of that between cask- and brewery-conditioned draught beers. But, you may say, in each case one conditions in the container and the other doesn’t, so the principle is just the same. However, it’s not quite as simple as that.

An important point to remember is that CAMRA didn’t come into being to stand up for something already recognised as “real ale”. It identified that something was going badly wrong with British beer, and then came up with the definition of real ale as a means of sorting out the sheep from the goats. However, it involved more than just undergoing a secondary fermentation in the cask – real ale should also be unfiltered, unpasteurised, not artificially carbonated, and pumped or gravity dispensed rather than being forced to the bar by CO2 pressure. And, as Martyn Cornell points out in his book Amber, Gold and Black, Mild, which as late as 1960 accounted for most draught beer sold in Britain, had traditionally been regarded as a “running beer” to be sold as quickly as possible and experiencing minimal secondary fermentation. Cask-conditioning was basically something that happened to Bitter.

At the time, the definition of real ale was a pretty effective way of defining what was good, at least in terms of British draught beer. Yes, there were some awkward cases that didn’t quite fit, such as the Scottish air pressure system, which was accepted, and the Hull Brewery ceramic cellar jars, which weren’t, but broadly speaking it worked. In the early 1970s, bottled and canned beer accounted for less than 10% of the overall market, and it didn’t really matter that filtration and pasteurisation had been adopted as the norm for decades. There were a tiny handful of beers that still fermented in the bottle, and so CAMRA was able to say that these were “good”, whereas all the others were “bad”, but it was just a token gesture that made little difference in the overall scheme of things. Brewery-conditioned bottles could simply be dismissed as “keg in a bottle”.

However, over the years, the off-trade beer sector steadily grew at the expense of the on-trade, and therefore assumed more significance in drinkers’ buying habits. Much of this was canned beer, but the brewers started producing “Premium Bottled Ales” which, although brewery-conditioned, were presented and perceived as the equivalent of the cask beers such as Pedigree and London Pride drunk in the pub. Indeed, although strictly speaking it is wrong, many drinkers routinely refer to them as “real ales”.

CAMRA launched the “CAMRA Says This is Real Ale” accreditation for bottle-conditioned beers, and encouraged many of the new wave of microbreweries to produce them. However, they have never taken off in the same way as draught real ale, and only account for a tiny proportion of bottled beer sales in major retailers. This is not because they have failed to stock them, but that too often they have tried and failed. The general consumer simply does not want them, perceiving little or no benefit in terms of flavour and character, but a major downside in terms of inconsistency and the risk of cloudiness. Meanwhile, CAMRA continues, at least officially, to refuse to recognise any merit in high-quality brewery-conditioned bottles such as Thornbridge Jaipur, Hawkshead Lakeland Gold and Robinsons Old Tom. It’s noticeable how all the new-wave breweries who have broken through in the bottled beer market have done so with filtered beers.

Essentially, though, the read-across from draught to bottled is far more tenuous than CAMRA likes to believe. For a start, drinking real ale involves no more effort from the customer in the pub than drinking keg, whereas bottle-conditioned beers require considerable care in storage and pouring, and are obviously unsuited to immediate consumption. And, if done properly, a bottle-conditioned beer will come out “fizzy”, albeit in a slightly different way from an artificially carbonated one. The difference, as perceived by the drinker, is much less.

It’s possible to argue that, apart from reasons of turnover, all ale served in pubs could be cask-conditioned, whereas realistically you can’t argue that all packaged ale, for all situations, should condition in the container. A further factor is that lager, by definition, can never be cask- or bottle-conditioned because the nature of the process means the beer is stabilised before being put into the container. But that shouldn’t mean dismissing all bottled lagers out of hand.

I’ve argued before that a key part of CAMRA’s mission was defending a unique British tradition that, in the early 70s, while under threat, was still very much alive and kicking. It was “a people-powered cultural heritage movement”. But it wasn’t bringing something back from the dead. Bottle-conditioned beers, on the other hand, had largely vanished from the scene decades before, and, to be honest, had never been greatly celebrated and weren’t much mourned when they were replaced by bright beers which were clear, consistent and didn’t have bits in. It’s also very questionable how much bottle-conditioning actually took place in bottled Guinness which for long was held up by CAMRA as a totem.

Yes, at the end of the day, bottle-conditioning, if done well, does add something to a beer. Bottle-conditioned beers can be regarded as the crème de la crème. But, because of the practical difficulties involved, and the fact that the process adds very little to lower-strength quaffing beers, it is best reserved for higher-strength specialities. Now that the off-trade accounts for over half of all beer sold in Britian, it is high time that CAMRA abandoned the narrow dogmatism of insisting that it is the only proper way of presenting any packaged beers.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Under the radar

There are about 50,000 pubs in Britain today. CAMRA’s WhatPub online guide lists just short of 36,000 that sell real ale, leaving some 14,000 in the category of “keg pubs”. These often exist under the radar of CAMRA, and other compilers of pub guides, and surprisingly little is known or written about them.

The other day, Jeffrey Bell chanced on one in Folkestone, the Park Inn, pictured above. What is notable about the beer range is not just the absence of real ale, but the absence of any nod to the craft beer movement or indeed the 21st century. Jeff and his companions plumped for Guinness, although I suspect my preference would be Stella or Carling as Guinness tends not to agree with me. Martin Taylor has written about the Vaults, a surprisingly characterful little keg pub in Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, although that does offer “real” cider.

In the old days of the tied house system, breweries would often offer keg and cask versions of the same product in different pubs. However, with a few exceptions, such as Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s, you don’t tend to see that now. You wouldn’t go into a Robinson’s pub and find keg Unicorn on the bar. Instead, the ale range is likely to be one or more of nationally distributed smoothflow beers such as John Smith’s, Tetley, Boddington’s and Worthington, plus possibly a blast from the past such as John Smith’s Chestnut Mild.

While a large majority of pubs in Stockport serve real ale, there are still some prominent keg-only pubs such as the Town Hall Tavern on the A6, the Jolly Crofter on Castle Street, Edgeley, and the Houldsworth Arms in Reddish. The Jolly Crofter seems to do good business, and whenever I pass it during opening hours there seems to be a throng of smokers outside the front door. And one of Manchester’s most famous pubs, Sam Smith’s Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, remains defiantly keg-only.

By definition, a keg pub is not one that is seeking to attract new customers with an interest in beer, and is probably familiar with people walking through the door, taking one look at the bar taps, and walking out again. And it has to be said that nowadays, with real ale increasingly becoming a middle-class affectation, keg pubs tend to very much appeal to the working class, who of course can spot pretension a mile off.

They may be largely ignored by people who write about pubs and beer, but keg pubs represent a whole swathe of pub life that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Delayed gratification

The latest proposal to rear its ugly head in the People’s Prohibitionist Republic of Scotland is one from “public health experts” to ban the sale of alcohol in the off-trade until 5pm. Now, this is objectionable on so many levels that I’m not going to make any attempt to list them. It represents a collective punishment meted out on the overwhelming majority of responsible drinkers in an attempt to address the problems of the irresponsible few.

One obvious issue is that it would be likely to lead to a kind of quasi black market of people buying drink on others’ behalf. A simple request to pick up of bottle of whisky while you’re out could easily lead on to someone carrying a small stock to supply people who find it inconvenient to buy it themselves. And I can’t see the Scotch whisky industry – the country’s leading export earner – being remotely happy about being prevented from selling bottles to coach parties on distillery tours.

In Sweden, which operates a similar hard-line attitude to alcohol sales, the state-run Systembolaget stores tend to close their doors just as the Scottish offies would be opening. You could just as well argue that earlier closing, rather than later opening, would achieve the same result, or lack of.

Of course the chances of this happening in the near future, even in Scotland, are zero. But, by laying it on the table, an Overton Window has been opened up in which such draconian proposals are brought within the scope of serious debate. And how long will it be before someone suggests banning pubs and bars from selling alcohol before 5pm too?

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Not so Pedigree condition

One aspect of Marston’s rebranding brainfart last week that seemed to get lost in the noise was the news that Pedigree was going to become an entirely bottle-conditioned beer. This was welcomed by many in CAMRA, but to my mind it represents another error of judgment.

For a start, the actual demand for bottle-conditioned beers is pretty limited. Look at the premium bottled ale shelves in Tesco, and how many are bottle-conditioned? Two or three out of a hundred, if you’re lucky. It’s not that the supermarkets are deliberately holding the category back, but that they’ve tried it in the past and found that buyers actively shun it. There have been experiments with selling Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Courage Directors in bottle-conditioned form, both of which rapidly died the death, and more recently HopBack Brewery have switched their popular Summer Lightning to be brewery-conditioned.

And will the change make the minority who seek out bottle-conditioned beers any more likely to buy Pedigree? It’s currently a fairly unadventurous, mainstream product, and those basic characteristics aren’t going to change. I can’t say I’ve drunk much bottled Pedigree recently except when it’s been on offer at £1 a bottle in Morrisons. It’s OK, but there are many better and more distinctive bottled beers out there.

On the other hand, unless a very “sticky” yeast is used, the average drinker is likely to reject it on the grounds that it has bits in it, while if the yeast is sticky they won’t notice much difference. And, either way, you’re likely to get a less consistent product. I’d say it will win few new customers while potentially alienating many existing ones. I’ll certainly try it when I see it, though, and report back on my findings.

Surely a better approach would have been to leave the existing product as it was, but introduce a new and possibly slightly stronger variant called “Pedigree Extra” or suchlike, which made a virtue of being bottle-conditioned, and could be promoted on the basis of a greater appeal to the connoisseur.

I can’t see the container-conditioning being extended to the canned version, though, so, if you want a consistent drop of Pedigree to enjoy at home, I’d advise going for the cans instead.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Dad dancing

This week, Marston’s have announced a major revamp of their beer branding, as shown in the picture above. However, the initial impression is that they’re trying a little too hard to appear trendy and ape craft beer styling, and it comes across as something of a misstep. There’s always a risk that customers will be confused if the packaging fails to reflect the contents, and someone described it on Twitter as “a traditional brewer trying a bit of dad dancing”. Compare the designs with the distinctive, smart Pedigree label shown below, which in itself was the result of a subtle tweak only last year.

Renaming the classic Burton Bitter as “Saddle Tank” comes across as an error of judgment which will only serve to confuse customers, and opens itself up to the inevitable rather unfortunate rhyme. I’d also say as pumpclips, as opposed to bottle labels, they’re too dark.

I was interested to read an article on how to design packaging to appeal to older consumers, which made the following points:

They prefer traditional tastes to 'experimental' ones. This extends beyond the product to the packaging, which they want to look and feel traditional, rather than appear overly radical or be 'different for different sake'.

They prefer products and packaging that are subtle: ones that are ageless but appeal indirectly to their demographic, rather than those that appear directly targeted at them because of their age.

And it’s important to remember that half the adult consumers in this country are over the age of 50.

Obviously packaging does need to change with the times, but if your intention is to stress tradition and continuity it’s important to do it in a subtle way that respects what has gone before. Otherwise the risk is that it comes across like go-faster stripes painted on a Honda Jazz. You only need to look at malt whisky labelling to see how it should be done.