Friday, 31 December 2010

Your Local: A State Of Mind?

The following piece was published almost exactly five years ago today in the New York Times...
FOR the last nine years, the Blind Tiger Ale House on Hudson Street in the West Village was one of the best places for New York's beer lovers to be on New Year's Eve. But last night, its doors were locked. The wee hours of Dec. 29 marked the end of an era - the last pint was poured at the Tiger...

The place had been around for only a decade, but in that time it became practically world famous for its beer selection. American microbrews, classic Belgians and a selection of others handpicked from around the globe were poured from 24 taps, two handpulls and endless bottles.

But the Tiger was more than just a place where you could count on drinking a Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale in the fall and Southampton Double Espresso Stout in the winter. It was a cornerstone of the West Village, a place where people from the neighborhood and beyond came to enjoy good company and great beer.

It didn't seem special at first glance. It was dark and a little dingy, just one small room with a few wooden tables. The graffiti in the downstairs men's room elevated profanity to an art form, and not all the barstools had their legs intact. The bar itself was elegant - a deep brown wood with zebra-like stripes in the grain. There were two televisions, but the Tiger was no sports bar.

I soon became one of the regulars. So regular that on Friday afternoons, the Tiger became my office. I sat at the corner of the bar with my laptop and cellphone, drinking seltzer, chatting with Louise the bartender and trying to make sure the bar cats (Sierra and Liberty) didn't pounce on my keyboard. And though the Tiger was a good place to work, it was an even better place to socialize.

But now, the bar is closed. Apparently, what has happened one block over on Bleecker Street is now happening on Hudson. The small, independently owned businesses are giving way to the fancy chain stores... While I understand the economics of the situation, it is still galling, even wrong. I have so many memories associated with the Tiger. Of sharing good times, birthdays, engagements. Of rallying behind a friend in need. And I'll never forget that night in September when regulars and a soot-covered news crew gathered at the bar as Humvees barreled up Hudson Street, away from the smoldering ruins of the twin towers.

There's talk that the Tiger will return, a few blocks away, and I would be the first in line for a pint. In a city of strangers, we find our families in funny places - coffee shops, office cubicles and, sometimes, the corner bar. I haven't yet heard of that happening in a Ralph Lauren boutique.
My mate Pete Fornatale wrote that, marking the closure of the old Blind Tiger. I met him and a lot of my other NY friends in there, and when I go back, the new Tiger on Bleecker Street is the first place I go. Last time I was in NYC, I hardly left. It's my New York local, and for more reasons than just the beer. It's a place where everybody knows my name. OK, I exaggerate, but chances are somebody will be there who I know if I stop in for a pint.

The loss of The Royal Albert in SW8 (Stockwell or Clapham or Vauxhall depending on your preference) started me thinking, and Pete's piece is as fitting a eulogy for a lost pub as any I've read. The Albert was a 'local' for me for almost a decade from around 1993. A pub owned by reviled Whitbread, hiding under their Hogshead brand, yet a committed management team used to run regular real ale fests around the time I started exploring the UK cask beer scene. When it stopped being a Hogshead and the beer choice became pedestrian, I still used it. Last time I was in, almost a decade ago, the barmaid was a tranny and it had a 'fringe' vibe. I was drinking light & bitter, the bitter being Worthington Smoothflow. Another mutation of a pub that must have reinvented itself almost half a dozen times in the years I used it. Most recently, it had apparently gone gastro, to no avail.

I've never really had one pub that runs as a thread throughout my beer-drinking. But I wonder, does anyone? Our expectations and tastes change, the market changes and pubs come and go. As the Albert slips into oblivion a neighbouring pub, The Canton, which I knew as a lairy locals pub with Sizzling Steaks, keg beer and Big Screen Football is apparently one of Fay Maschler's Top Ten new London restaurants (it's a PUB, Fay).

How many 'locals' does a drinker have during a lifetime? Is it always a local for the same reasons? Does it have to be nearby to be local? Perhaps there are weird and mysterious psychogeographical forces at play which lead us to our watering-holes. I dunno. This year I've paid more attention to the numbers of closures, the "49 pubs a week", "29 pubs a week" tale of the tape BBPA reports on every quarter, but I wonder, does anybody ever record the personal stories, the community of experiences, that were lost with each pub that closed? "In a city of strangers, we find our families in funny places", wrote Pete. Does that ring true in 2010 Britain?

Go careful now. And Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Dear Dredgie...

(I'd have posted a reply on the blog, but since you upgraded, I can't leave comments)

A beautiful piece of work. Got me dribbling. But you don't say where the unblessed can buy it. Give us a clue...

Friday, 24 December 2010

Ho Ho Ho! Russian River Upsets Spoogebeerians For Xmas

Highly-regarded Californian brewer Russian River has upset members of the beer trading community by announcing their programme for sales of seasonal Double IPA Pliny The Elder in 2011.

If you were reading back in the Spring, you'd have seen that a 'growler' (64 US fl. oz. container) of the stuff made it here. RRBC launch the beer each year saying it should last "longer than a day, but less than a week". In 2010, it didn't even last a day, as queues round the block exhausted the batch in record tine. Much of it ended up being traded by the vile spoogebeerians who infest a dark corner of the beer-drinking community. RRBC was also targeted when it released a special beer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and spoogebeerians bought up the lot.

For the 2011 Pliny The Younger release, RRBC has taken steps to ensure Pliny The Younger is available in the pub for 2 weeks, and that means they won't be filling any growlers. As Natalie Cilurzo says in the RRBC blog,
kegs will be allocated to last for exactly 2 weeks. Therefore, we may run out at the pub each day, but will have more the following day for 2 weeks. It will be available in 10 oz. glasses only- no growlers or bottles to go. This will allow more beer enthusiasts like you, as well as our regular customers, to enjoy some Younger this year! And we won't see it on Ebay!
Predictably, this has exercised some of the BeerAdvocate 'community', who've have taken their heads out of their backsides arguing over whether a hefeweizen is an ale (see Ron Pattinson's post, but be prepared to lose your will to live) for long enough to notice what RRBC are doing.

Never mind a brewer is plugged in to the local community and wants to ensure regulars and locals can drink their beer, this isn't good enough. Some BAs think that the brewery needs to consider massive expansion so they can sell into all 50 US states. One thought that RRBC needed the trading market driven by these selfish buggers to build business. Yeah, right. Like a hole in the head. A few voices of reason surfaced, but the sense of entitlement that comes off some of these people is nauseating.

So, a craft brewer strikes a blow against the Grinches of the spoogebeer trading collective. Hopefully they won't be the last.

Joy on earth, peace and goodwill to all men*, ho ho ho and buy the Frank Sidebottom box set! Merry Christmas!

*but not spoogebeerians.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Boggle Awards 2010

I don't have the budget or the engagement in the wider beer scene to be able to put together something like the impressive 'Golden Pint Awards' trailed on Young Dredgie's page. But I did want to recognise some good experiences in the London beer scene, so I've designed the "Boggle Awards", which are awarded in four categories:

Best London Brewer - Kernel Brewing
Best London Pub - The Harp, Chandos Place
Best London Beer Bar - The Rake, Borough Market
Best Beer Retailer - Utobeer, Borough Market

I decided to differentiate between a pub and specialist beer outlet because I think they cater to different demand, though it's clear that in some cases the lines are blurring. As London suddenly has a healthy brewing scene, I wanted to acknowledge my favourite local brewer, and the retailer award takes care of the off-trade.

The retail side might look like usual suspects, but it's still early days as new outlets look to craft beer to grow their business. Cask Pub & Kitchen gets an honorable mention for this year, and this time next year I'm sure there'll be new on- and off-trade outlets vying for recognition. As things develop, I'm sure I'll develop some more rigorous criteria to help me decide winners in future years. Or maybe not.

I haven't bothered to pick out a favourite London beer, since I don't take notes and I've supped several excellent brews this year. My top 10 UK-brewed would include Lovibonds' astonishing Sour Grapes, Saltaire's excellent Triple Chocolate, Kernel's delicious re-imagining of a Baltic Porter and my go-to pint, Dark Star's lovely APA, but really, so much affects the beer-drinking experience, so I'm not going to try and reduce a good year for beer to a list.

Thanks to all the brewers, pubs and bars, and shops for providing me with these experiences.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

From The Spambox

I don't get too much spam as a result of writing this blog. The occasional request to publish feeds from trade recruitment companies, or some PR trying to generate some excitement over a beer-naming competition for Butlins. I expect the 'opinion-formers' of our community are pestered more. Still, the odd interesting email turns up. I fished a couple of missives out of the spam box this week which I thought I'd share.

First was a request from a character called Uncle Wilco, who introduced himself thus:
Hello I follow you on the interwebs and read your beer stuff (but I am different from the other nutters)
Hullo, I thought, makes a change from claims that the contents of the email will increase traffic and help me monetize. This guy runs what I'd call a beer porn site called, but I've encountered him before in his guise of garden shed enthusiast, when I posted this pic of Frank Sidebottom on flickr. He runs a site called Readers' Sheds, so definitely not your usual nutter... anyhow, seems he wants to do for beer what he's done for sheds, and he's signed up such luminaries as The Boy Dredge and Zak Avery to reveal all, so watch out for my dirty little beer secrets being revealed alongside theirs.

The other email was from Meanatime, announcing their College Beer Club. This was trailed earlier this year, and expressions of interest invited from 'aficionados' to see if the limited subscription of 500 memberships would be taken up. Interestingly, at the beginning of the week, my source 'Deep Pint' texted me to enquire rhetorically, whether I knew how many members there were. I assume there weren't any because the club hadn't formally launched, but if you know different, drop me a line.

My initial thought was, who is this for? £350 for 12 months is a lot, even if the core offer of 24 bottles of exclusive Meantime spooge means access to beer nobody else will drink. Is that a good thing? Peter Haydon, who wrote out to the blogerati, proudly exclaims that
When you join the College Beer Club, you are not just buying beer you are buying a first class ticket on a journey of discovery
He goes on to describe some of the other benefits, including:
...exclusive brewery tours, brewmaster’s dinners, tutored tastings, and a range of exclusive events and offers with Club’s affiliate organisations including, the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Sir John Soane Museum, Class Magazine and 86 St James.
Class Magazine? 86 St James? Really, I mean, who IS this Club for?

As a mate of mine said only this Thursday, it's only beer.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The World Is Just Like One Great Big Gigantic Xmas Tree

Oddsmakers predict that, at the moment, Evil Emperor Simon Cowell will likely be pushed for Xmas Number One by either Surfin' Bird by The Trashmen (thanks to repeated exposure on Family Guy over the past couple of years) or the celeb-performed 'Cage Against The Machine' gimmick release of John Cage's 4' 33".

While I quite like the idea of X-Fucktor being beaten by four-and-a-half minutes of silence, it isn't really Christmassy, is it? So I'm reminding you all that you need to get on Frank Sidebottom for Number One. Right now, Paddy Power will give you 40/1, so you could slip a crafty fiver on, then get all your mates on board. If I had any friends, that's what I'd be doing.

To get a taste of the true Spirit Of Christmas, here's a video made by Frank associates Paul McCaul and Mark Alston, with a little help from the residents of Timperley...

Bet you feel all warm inside now...

Let's Get Fantastic Frank To Number One! Sunday 12th December, download from Amazon or iTunes!

Thank you.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

"I Was Working In The Lab..."

This morning, your correspondent was at London's excellent Kernel Brewery, as Rake manager and Rabid Barfly Glyn Roberts embarked on another brewing adventure, this time swapping the valleys of Wales for the backstreets of Bermondsey.

Our host was the affable Evin O'Rioirdain, who in less than a year has built a formidable portfolio of bottled beers and a brilliantly simple yet effective brand. Already a SIBA winner, he produces an impressive array of delicious hop-forward golden ales alongside his interpretations of some old-style darker brews, like London Porter, Export Stout and his recently-released Imperial Stout.

Today, with Glyn as a catalyst (actually, more like Igor to Evin's Dr. Frankenstein), Evin is fusing his two signature streams to create a version of San Francisco brewpub 21st Amendment's Back In Black Black IPA, a beer Glyn has raved about since his honeymoon. A 6.8% brew with Carafa roasted malt and hopped with Centennial and Columbus, 21A were generous in sharing their recipe with Evin.

As I arrive, Evin and Glyn are preparing to commence the boil. Mike, a homebrewer with thoughts of stepping up to commercial scale, is helping out around the brewhouse, getting a feel for the ebb and flow of a brewers' day. It has me reflecting that, in all the heated debate about 'craft beer' occupying the thoughts of the UK blogosphere, one of the criteria ought to be the level of automation. Here, it's all hoses and buckets. No computer controls, no Star Trek console telling the kit which valve to open, how much liquor to pump and where, just a brewer seamlessly interacting with his plant to produce an impressive finished beer. And then there's Glyn...Here, our Barfly weighs out the Carafa, steams up his specs while checking the brewing copper temperature, weighs out the first addition of hops, then, strangely, rubs hop oil on his upper lip. He says it's a natural decongestant, but that look on his face isn't because of Vicks Vaporub. Evin only uses whole hops, so there's every chance Glyn was blissed out in Druid Street way before the time came to put the yeast in.

Here's some more pics from the lab...
Like I said, Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. Igor checks the mash tun temperature, while that foaming stuff is new life (last seen as a prop in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) ). Finally, Evin commits bruicide by throwing himself into the brewing copper after Glyn snorts one too many hops.

Talk is that some of this might be available on cask as well as bottles. I find myself mischievously wondering whether kegging might suit the style better, but you know it'll be good. I can't wait...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Ho Ho Ho, Hee Hee Hee...

In a week or so, we'll have some sub-pub singer at the top of the pop charts, courtesy of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas No. 1, pop impresario and freak-wrangler Simon Cowell.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Next Sunday, 12th December, Cherry Red Records are releasing Frank Sidebottom's "Christmas Is Really Fantastic" on download via iTunes and Amazon, in the hope that his fans will end the year we said goodbye to Frank, by giving him the chart hit he never had during his life, and a cheeky bid to keep Cowell and his circus off the top of the pile. The final chart of 2010 will be released on 19th, and they (and his fans) hope he'll be on it.

This song was my first-ever Frank vinyl acquisition. The 12" EP version was picked up for me by a Manchester mate on a trip home, the title song being two-and-a-bit minutes of cracking Christmas happiness that reminds you of the days when we had proper Christmas songs, when you'd watch Top Of The Pops after dinner on Christmas Day and there'd be Slade or Paul McCartney or Mud rounding off the show with the Christmas Number 1. The whole EP gives off a slightly off-balance Christmas Party feel, with Frank's trademark riffs surfacing in both his own songs and his excellent cover versions of Mull Of Kintyre, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and his Christmas Medley, and banter between him and his nemesis/conscience/bobbins puppet little frank. I still have it.

Cherry Red will be donating some of the proceeds to charity in memory of Chris Sievey, Frank's creator and doppelganger, and if you're still looking for that special gift, the box set of all Frank's In Tape releases, his albums, some previously-banned tracks (the Beastie Puppets songs which the Beastie Boys' record company injuncted) and a DVD featuring his video version of Panic, is out on Monday 13th, just in time for the big day.

It has been said that, if you want a proper Christmas song doing, then Frank is your man. If you hark back to the Yule of Yore (and Mine), if you resent the Cowell machine using the top slot to feed his empire, then buy this song next Sunday. Let's take Number 1 back and make sure Christmas really is fantastic! Thank you.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Pssstt! Wanna Watch A Car Crash..?

Then have a look here for the next few days. A Thousand Beer Vouchers American! For a bottle of beer!

Story from the shadowy Beer Underground is that this beer was very nice on release some five years or so back. Locals knowing it was a one-off anniversary brew (Sarah Palin?), bought up a few cases, and have been slowly dripping it into the spooge beer pool as tradebait. The seller in this case has been on HateBeer to explain his motives. Seems he wants to sell some spooge in order to buy his dad some Remy Martin Louis XIII brandy, which is supposed to sell at anything from $1,600 to $3,000 a bottle.

Another one of my Underground contacts says the buyer might have to prepare themselves for disappointment. He says he had information that a bottle opened recently had aged "into shit territory", so buyer beware. Of course, if a spoogebeerian is buying it, it won't be for drinking. Dear me no. It'll be straight into his Beer Mausoleum, probably in a little refrigerated display case with some tasteful display lighting.

I don't think I've ever tried any Midnight Sun beers, but some very good stuff occasionally emerges from Alaska. Safeway and Beers Of Europe used to sell Alaskan beers, giving rise to weirdness where I could buy a case of their 2004 Smoked Porter here, and had to take bottles back to New York, since the beer wasn't available there.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

"Roses Have Thorns, And Silver Fountains Mud"

Bloke called Shakespeare wrote that. I looked it up. Apparently he's big with the GCSE English crowd. I had to look it up because I'm stupid.

I want to focus on the rose part, as that's a metaphor sometimes used to describe the radiant fragrant flowers of English Womanhood. Well, this week, I had a rare opportunity to see out last orders at a bar (my favourite London Beer Bar, as it happens), and was able to observe a few specimens in action.

Part One occurred after the bar staff had called last orders. I'd enjoyed watching them deconstruct the concept of last orders, but eventually, having debated it, one of them grasped the nettle and called it. Some pubs have a bell which will usually provoke a Pavlovian response in punters, but here, calling it seemed to work, as a couple of drinkers immediately made their way to get a final drink before the place closed. Then, five minutes after time had been called, two of our Roses made their way up. One of them was about to try and order, when the manager cut her off and told her the bar was closed. She wasn't to be put off. Fragrant, elegant and with a sense of entitlement which swept away the law, she told him that this was her favourite bar, she'd brought her friends, and it would be seen as a kindness to serve her more drinks. Declined again, she turned to her Rose mate (I say rose, on reflection, more of a chimera made with spare bits of Geri Halliwell and Patsy Kensit), loudly apologised to her and declared the bar to be "shit". However, being a fragrant English Rose, she made it sound like a compliment. Probably.

Some ten minutes later, and having observed the bar staff and I pick apart the incident, Rose number 3 made her way to the bar, all shouty and assertive, dressed in her M&S business best. A weird three-way conversation may then have ensued, as follows:
Rose 3: "We've paid for our drinks. Can I -"
Boggle (for it is he): "Your friends missed last orders.."
Rose 3: "I'm not talking to you. Am I talking to you?" (addressing the Manager) "We paid for our drinks. Is there any reason why you have to keep looking over and talking about us so we can hear?"
Boggle: "She was 5 minutes after last orders..."
Manager: "The bar is closed. You can drink up and leave"
Rose 3, addressing me again: "Are you stupid? You look stupid! I'm not talking about last orders!"
Manager: "I'm not really interested. We're closed, so you can drink up and leave"
Boggle: "I'm not stupid. Your friend thought she could get served after closing"
Rose 3: "This is her favourite bar. She brought us here specially, and you treated her very badly?"
Manager: "I've never seen her here before. She said the bar was shit when I told her she wouldn't get served"
Rose 3 (floundering): "She wouldn't say that!"
Boggle: "She did. Ask her."
Rose 3 (addressing Boggle): "But why talk about us?"
Boggle: "Why ask me? I'm stupid."
Rose stomps away. Luckily your correspondent is a man without ego. They tell me this sort of thing is common amongst a certain class of drinker at this bar. Maybe they think this is their time. Pomposity designed to intimidate their inferiors. Just remember, though, next time you see a fragrant English Rose, sometimes they're up to their knees in pigshit.

Boggle's Beers Of The Week.
Not a new feature. Just had the chance to try some very good stuff this week. First is La Trappe oak-aged Quadrupel. 10%, but you wouldn't know it. This could be a sweet, phenolic mess, but isn't, as the beer carefully walks a tightrope without falling over into dominant whisky notes. Lots of lovely condition with the aging lending some pleasing vanilla to a fine Quad. Thanks to Demon Brewer Don Burgess for the sample.

Next is Brewsters Porter. I don't know anything about these guys. A bottle was shared by Rake Manager Glyn Roberts. Fabulous nose and pleasing mouthfeel, with chocolate, red berries, and a long warming bitter finish.

Lastly, Dark Star Thornstar, the collaboration beer by Mark Tranter and Kelly Ryan. APA is my favourite Dark Star beer, and this is a Black IPA version. Same ABV (4.7%), lovely fresh hops on the nose, the chocolate malts imparting a nice balance in the mouth, and a mellow hoppy finish. The Harp has some if you haven't tried it.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

London: Never Had It So Good?

(Sorry. Hehe)

A regular reader (who isn't a Frank Sidebottom fan) might recall me getting all giddy with excitement over the prospects for London beer and brewing following the London Brewers' Showcase in September of this year. And so it comes to pass, with a couple of new venues establishing themselves, and a madeover pub taking the bull by the horns and offering its own London Beer Week. The latter is The Jolly Butchers, while your correspondent has recently acquainted himself with the latest of the Draft Houses, (the one on Tower Bridge Road) and the Euston Tap. A lovely light space with accommodation apparently appropriated from a schools cince lab and a couple of caffs, some rock memorabilia to wallow in on the walls, and some interesting (if pricey) beers on offer. A great place to stop into after a visit to Kernel Brewing on a Saturday for some beer and stuff.

I'm not the only one getting all excited, either. If Stoke Newington were in a proper part of London - i.e. South (I have that instinctive wariness all South Londoners have for any part of the Other Side that's so far from the river), and the Jolly Butchers opened during the day, I'd have been at the fest, but I hear it was very successful. 4-12 opening, though? I know it sends a message to those who are feckless, workshy and would rather spend all day in the pub, but come on, lads!

The recent story for me (if it is a story) concerns The Euston Tap. I've never been to the Sheffield Tap, but they've thoughtfully brought the concept to me. I'm grateful. It's quirky with some great beers and nice people. However, I noticed a little comment tucked away on BeerAdvocate's UK forum thread about the place, in which a "London brewing insider" noted that some of our local brewers were boycotting the Tap over the omission of locally-brewed beers from the range on offer.

I haven't been able to verify this anywhere - but after all, the place has only been open a fortnight; it does pour a splash of cold water on the general mood of the London beer scene, though. I do know that Yan was ordering some local beers from Camden Town for the place, and that he did get to The Jolly Butchers. I wonder what he thought of it..?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Politics And Beer, Never A Good Mix

Tickerific Tampa, FL brewer Cigar City Brewing (CCB) will be at New York's excellent Blind Tiger Ale House this evening, premiering over 20 kegs of their beers for the first time. Top man Joey Redner has decided to travel up and meet the punters, and while he's there I imagine he might have an interesting chat with the BT folks about how to deal with hostile local politicians.

It seems that a routine application to convert their temporary "wet-zone" permit which allows operation of a tap room at their brewery, was refused when CCB failed to secure a majority vote in support from Tampa City Council. They have two more chances, or will be compelled to close the tap room, which their website claims will lead to job losses at a small business which has seen a tenfold increase in staffing since they commenced operations.

CCB cites "...politics, a willful lack of understanding and... a downright embracing of unfair practices", and according to whispers I heard, it does appear that CCB may be in the local council's crosshairs due to family connections. Redner's father (also Joe) has his own Wiki page identifying him as the father of the nude lapdance, and his operation of a well-known strip club, and the conflicts that has caused with City Fathers, plus his desire to participate in the local political scene, has set teeth on edge for some years. CCB's tasting room may now be a victim of this, if the scuttlebutt is true.

The Blind Tiger knows about overcoming local political opposition. When they moved to their present Bleecker St location in 2006, they were faced with withdrawal of their alcohol licence, with local residential opposition cited for the action despite the bar being on one of the busiest tourist thoroughfares below midtown Manhattan. A vigorous petition and write-in campaign finally moved the local State Liquor Authority, and the bar was permitted to open with initial restrictions.

Borrowing this tactic, there's an online petition aimed at moving Tampa City Council, and CCB are urging supporters to write to their local councilperson in a bid to get their four votes. I don't hold any brief for CCB - I've tried some of their bottled beer (the Marshall Zhukov RIS was very good) - but I don't like seeing beer bars and breweries bullied or played as pawns by local politicians. Hopefully CCB gets the right result. One word of advice though, lads - notoriety is probably not a helpful word to use when describing your business...

Pics from Rick Lyke and

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Greene King Still Apparently Embarrassed About Beer

Here's the third* of Greene King's newspaper ads promoting their pubs. As I mentioned here, they have built the campaign around responses to a survey...

"But Sidney," you may reason, "everybody knows pubs sell beer. This is a chance for GK to attract new trade by offering an experience that isn't beer-centric." You might have a point. Personally, I think they have a subconscious fear that punters will pop in for a warm by the fire and a beverage, and accidentally order GK IPA and swear off pubs forever.

No 'proper pub' should ever sell Greene King IPA.

* Disclaimer: there might have been more than three of these ads by now, but for some reason GK aren't buying space in The Sun. I found this one in the new Independent 20p comic/digest, 'i'...

Thursday, 11 November 2010

CAMRA's Enemy Within?

The ripples from Pete Brown's recent reflections on draught beer dispense have widened and observers such as Rabid Barfly, Zythophile and Barm have entered the debate.

Zythophile contextualises the CAMRA viewpoint, and to me that's quite important, since CAMRA has defined the debate for many years with a general tendency to define cask beer both by what it is, and by what it's not, which was explicit in their raison d'etre as a campaigning body.

But times change, and so do markets and technology, and memberships. Over time CAMRA seems to have made itself a hostage to fortune over their strict definition of what keg beer is - see the opening paragraph here. And today many of the new wave of brewers who produce excellent and award-winning cask beer are also displaying an encouraging open-mindedness about kegging some of their beer using new technologies. Attendees at The Rake's recent South-West Beer Fest would have noted how much good beer was available on keg, some from brewers who retain a commitment to casking their beer. How does CAMRA's orthodoxy adapt to deal with this?

Then we have the huge but largely passive group of new members signed up over the past few years. The numbers give CAMRA significant clout, but the membership seem largely distanced from the politics and agenda-setting. And now the organisation is proposing to centralise control of subscriptions in order to manage funds for campaigning. Campaigning for or against what? Full pints? Pub closures? Like some other bloggers, I'd like to see some work on promoting good cellarmanship, not just printing an advertorial of the latest Cask Marque joiners and leavers. Judging from my recent local experience, in some areas you need to buy your pint from a tied house to ensure it's in good form. Or perhaps CAMRA see that as SIBA's job? Or do they already do it via GBG updates? I dunno.

Keg beer won't go away. CAMRA itself hasn't been averse to selling it at GBBF. And encouragement and availability of foreign beers at official fests could be said to have fanned the flames that has created the market that UK-based keg brewers are keen to take a share of. There's also been much said about CAMRA's ageing activist base. How and whether those people can be replaced will be something the organisation will have to address in the near future, or face gaps in its coverage. But another threat to their effectiveness or relevance is clinging to 70's attitudes in the 21st Century. It will be interesting to see how 'fit for purpose' they think they are when it comes to picking apart the bones of their current review.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Great Dominions Call To Their Own

One of the effects of having been a colonial power are the ties that remain in place after the trappings of Empire have been cut away. These ties take many forms, and inform our history, society, economy and culture more than we know.

Take New Zealand. We are taught that Britain conquered Everest. One of our finest post-War achievements, but the first man up, Sir Edmund Hillary, was a Kiwi. When we come down to breakfast in the morning chances are that 'Britain's Favourite Butter' on our breakfast table 'Has The Anchor Sign'. The list goes on: John Walker, Jonah Lomu freight-training Tony Underwood, Goodbye Pork Pie, the Haka, the Lord Of The Rings films that meant people didn't have to watch the Ralph Bakshi version. Shine a light on a corner of our own econo-socio-cultural experience, and there's a bit of Kiwi there, too.

And there's a Kiwi who has made a big splash in UK brewing. Kelly Ryan at Thornbridge has been in the vanguard of the New Brewing in the UK, setting an example with his peers and colleagues at a handful of young breweries, which is changing the craft beer landscape.

But now Kelly has decided it's time to return to New Zealand. In a few short weeks, he'll clean out the mash tun for the last time, put the cat out and lock the doors. He'll be missed but with the World Of Beer shrinking rapidly, we expect to sample the fruits of his labours in his homeland.

Good luck, Kelly and don't forget to leave the recipe book behind...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Number 1? I'd Like To Thank...

Erin Thompson. Who she? She's the Head of Window Display & Merchandising at Selfridges, and it's her 2010 Christmas windows in Oxford Street and their misappropriation of Frank Sidebottom's image, that provoked the shitstorm which led to this blog receiving as much traffic in one weekend than its had since I started it. The story helped to compel an apology and "donation" to Chris Sievey's estate. For being part of that, I'll probably die happy.

Thanks also for the good wishes. I didn't set out with an agenda beyond occasionally poking the odd part of the beer-loving community with a stick, so what happened this month has never been part of my thinking about where the blog could go. December will likely see normal service resumed with Pete Brown or Mark Dredge at the top. Now that Cookie has abandoned Zak Avery to join "Team Boggle", that's a given. He's a Jonah. Given I don't tweet (and Twitter was the engine for what happened at the weekend), I imagine I'm destined to be the Bolton Wanderers of the beer blogosphere - fighting relegation successfully each season, with the odd foray into nosebleed territory and a place in Europe. Good enough.

I noticed that Wikio has started to publish rankings for the US beer bloggers, which has prompted the same type of navel-gazing we have here. Stan Hieronymous noted the current rankings here, with a nod to our own listings. US beer writer Andy Crouch (with whom I'm slightly acquainted) posted some thoughts on beer blogging on his website, He has some interesting views. Then there's Ron Pattinson's post on why he does it.

I suppose there's something to what Andy is saying. I don't generally agree about the state of 'amateur' blogging but admit I'm not well-acquainted with the US blogging scene. If it's anything like BeerAdvocate or HateBeer fora, it'll be mind-numbing fare such as 'what's in your fridge?' If professional beer writers want to blog, they step into that pool knowing what it's like. Hopefully though, the best writing is aspirational. I feel that's the case over here. Some of the debate about leveraging blogs into PR vehicles has been had in the UK, led by Melissa Cole. I can say I've never been offered anything, and don't expect that to change. Cookie has that market pretty well stitched up, I feel. As for motive? Meh. It's the interwebs.

Still, the rankings got a kick up the backside for a month with Rabid Barfly making a prodigious leap, and the other big mover being the Adnams blog. Now to find another Frank story...

Monday, 1 November 2010

Selfridges Are Bobbins: A Social Networking Adventure

As I reported on Saturday, the swell of disquiet over Selfridges' apparently unauthorised use of Chris Sievey's Frank Sidebottom likeness built into a perfect storm that breached the media dam by Monday morning.

The story has all the right ingredients: a big company riding roughshod over the little man; an online community of offended and willing fans ready to mobilise; a celebrity (Jon Ronson was on the phone to Selfridges to complain); a viral transmission of the story via Twitter and other networks - the lot. This blog alone had over 5,000 hits in just over 36 hours as my previous post was shared across the interwebs.

In turn, larger websites like picked up the vibe, and their feed found its way out. Local news sites started to get interested and finally, the BBC picked it up, interviewing the principals on the Sidey side for both local radio and their regional TV news programme. In the meantime, the store's Wikimedia page had the story added and the Independent's online edition was swamped with comments.

While the webz were humming, Chris' partner Gemma Woods had been contacted by Selfridges' Head of Window Display and Merchandising chaperoned by a representative from Messrs Sue, Grabbit & Runne, and a day of talks appears to have concluded with the store offering a sincere apology, a promise to credit Chris on the windows and in-store, and an offer of a £10,000 donation to his estate in lieu of use of the images. That sounds like Fairness For Frank, and a job well done for his family, friends and fans. And to think that a story that only came to light on Thursday when Selfridges launched their Xmas 2010 window could be turned around in a long weekend is a testament to the positive power of social networks.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Shop That Died Of Shame

Each year, "Top Peoples' Shop" Selfridges (sorry, I don't know what a "Top Person" is) gets a lot of media play over their Christmas window displays. This year, with a theme of play, they invite customers and passers-by to reconnect with their inner child, lighting up their storefront all along Oxford Street with a riot of colour and cleverness based on Christmas Day in a dolls' house.

So far, so good. Then, this pic got picked up by several papers...

Could that be a female Frank Sidebottom? What a coincidence! The pic got picked up by some of the Frank Sidebottom fan groups on Facebook, with questions being asked about whether or not Selfridges had permission to use the likeness. Seems not - they hadn't approached anybody connected with the Sievey/Sidebottom estate. Well, after all, it could be Betty Boop. Right?

I went along this morning to see if there were any more faux Sidies. Oh yes. Several, in fact.

If that's Betty Boop, then I'm Walt Disney.

Selfridges ought to be ashamed of themselves for stealing a dead man's clothes, and I hope they do the right thing by either removing these heads from their display, or make a sizeable donation to the fund being set up to get a statue of the Great Man erected in Timperley.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

First, There Was The Clone Beer. Now...?

...the UK may have its first clone brewery! Yes, folks, say hullo to Kent Brewery, a new start-up in the Garden of England. I say start-up, as the business is caught up in a planning dispute which has delayed their setting up in a permanent home. While they work with their prospective neighbours and the local authority, they are keeping their hands in with the help of a neighbouring brewer, said to be Larkins, to produce some test brews.

They do have a website, which has a wonderfully evocative theme about Kent's place in our brewing tradition, lofty ambitions in the area of provenance and the exciting possibilities of the New Hops. However, these are forward-looking brewers, as they explain,
[we] will not be recreating old recipes (although we may take guidance from the best), or keeping only to traditional hop varieties, because we are looking to the future rather than to the past for our inspiration.
Ah, guidance from the best. Who's the best? Might be the former employer of Paul Herbert (our Kentish Man), judging by the couple of unfined gyles of beer which have made their way to his old place of work. My source (we'll call him/her, "Deep Pint") takes up the tale.

Numbered Gyle 1, the first contained a 5.5% Porter, while the other cask is described as a "pale hoppy beer". Both might be described as 'signature beers' of the former employer. One has been a Champion Beer Of Britain. Recent sampling of Gyle 1 caused raised eyebrows, as the beer appeared to be exactly to the recipe of his old employers' Porter. A little side-by-side sampling took place outside the brewery, which confirmed the suspicions. According to Deep Pint, his erstwhile colleagues are "fuming" about what they see as ripping off their recipes.

Now, it's possible that Herbert is just using these recipes until his own brewery is up and running. Or perhaps "guidance" means copying lock stock and hopsack. Just to make sure, I expect his old mates will be in touch to wish him well and ask for their recipe book back.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Where's The Beer?

Greene King has launched a series of ads for press and TV, following a survey they commissioned asking punters what they thought made up the 'proper pub'.

I saw these two in yesterday's Observer...

There will be a series of six of these ads, picking up some of the popular responses from the survey. I could only find these two online, so I'm guessing the campaign will be refreshed by releasing the others through the duration of the campaign. I believe one deals with beer gardens.

The question I have for Greene King right now is: Where's The Beer? Shouldn't one of those glasses on the table in front of the settle, be a pint glass? You brew the stuff, don't you want to sell it in your pubs?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Missing A Trick?

The news today is that our beloved leader "CallMeDave" Cameron gifted bottles of Fullers London Pride to each of 'Los 33', the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days until last week. In return, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera gave 'Dave' a lump of rock from the floor of the cave.

A couple of things occurred to me. While CAMRA were delighted that Dave had finally 'got it' with his gift of real ale (is Pride Real Ale In A Bottle? I didn't think it was), didn't he also 'get it' with his little beer trade with US President Barack Obama a couple of months back? And, why Fullers? Is that a little pat on the back for Michael Turner's support of the Comprehensive Spending Review? He signed the letter published in the Daily Torygraph a couple of days back.

If it had been me, I'd have been on the dog and bone to Demon Brewer Don Burgess, to blag a couple of cases of his excellent (and bottle-conditioned) Freeminer Deep Shaft Stout.

The final thing is this lump of rock. I remember going to Berlin during April of 1990. All along the western side of the Wall, people were knocking out chunks of it, preserved in little plastic bags. Turned out that enterprising 'Osties' were casting concrete, spraying it with paint and smashing it up to sell to people like me. If I were you, 'Dave', I'd make sure your bit of cave rock came with a certificate of authenticity before popping it on eBay.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Spooge Vampires Bitten On The Bum

A delicious tale of spoofery and angst reaches me from The World Of Spooge. The normally reliable site carried news of a beer launch from the well-regarded and ticker-targeted Captain Lawrence brewery of Pleasantville NY. Reading from a press release purportedly from founder Scott Vaccaro, the site informed readers of the launch of several highly-desirable beers.

The 'news' was posted on Beer Advocate, where the trading forum vibrated into action. A few members with functioning cerebella smelled a rat and wondered why they hadn't seen the info, since they are on the brewery email list. Their voices were drowned out as the Vampires worked out how to corner the market in the precious nectar. Some bleated about the scheduling, complaining they had other spooge to hunt. Then, later the same day, word came down that it was all a hoax. Vaccaro had seen the info late in the day and passed word that it wasn't true. published a correction and apology, and BA admins locked down the thread before anybody exploded with anticipation.

All well and good? Well, not quite. The Ladies Of Craft Beer pondered a while and concluded that Captain Lawrence are somehow culpable because they don't have anybody scanning the social media interwebs 24 hours a day. Instead of just accepting somebody perpetrated a clever hoax that got a lot of knickers bunched, there has to be an inquest.

You want an inquest? The often despicable behaviour of these people in their single-minded pursuit of eBay and trading fodder continues to be hothoused by the online beer communities providing them with trading fora. They have become predictable in their greed, and eventually, somebody was bound to dupe them. To claim that a brewer has some complicity because he isn't baby-sitting a bunch of avaricious numbskulls instead of trying to run his business is to offer excuses for shallow greed and disrespect for beer. The Vampires scored big last month when they cleaned Russian River out of commemorative beer in 24 hours, this month they've been made to look stupid. Get over it.

Here's to the next stunt!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Cask Report: The Kennington View Pt. 2

In the first part of this article, I set the scene and wrote about some of the pubs located around Kennington Cross. Thanks to local blogger The SE11 Lurker for linking to part 1. If you're a Kennington resident and found your way here via his blog, I'm interested in getting your non-'beer geek' perspective on the local pubs - the beer (especially handpulled cask beer), the prices, the clientele. For this you have my grateful thanks.

To kick off this part then, it's on with the visits.

The Pilgrim (left) and I go back a ways. This was my local through much of the 80's and early 90's after I came back from Germany, the guv'nor being quite tolerant of things like having a chorus line doing 'New York, New York' with their trousers around their ankles at last orders, or filing in on a busy Friday night with underwear being worn on the outside. Those things create a bond. It was a Courage house for years, and was the first pub in which I started to regularly drink cask.

These days, the pub has a very young feel with friendly hipster bar staff, and the two beer engines look a bit out of place. I noticed the large fridge had several bottles of ale (sorry Martyn) though. Perhaps Da Kidz prefer their top fermented beer from bottles. Only one cask beer was on, Deuchars IPA. Again, it was in mediocre form. A couple of older drinkers sitting at a table supping pints of lager (the working man's pint says The Pub Curmudgeon, and I agree) looked out of place.

The original landlord of The Pilgrim stayed in the area, taking over the nearby backstreet boozer The Duchy Arms (right), and he's still there. This is a family-run pub, rare these days. Those working-class drinkers I was looking for drink in here, though there's some lunchtime office worker trade too. This place has been a sometime local for me in the past, but I've usually steered clear of the cask offering. The pub used to have two beer engines with Adnams and a guest, and last time I popped in it had the worst Rosey Nosey I've ever tried. Pure vinegar. These days The Duchy has three beer engines, and my half of Wye Valley HPA was pretty good, in fact apart from the Late Red, the most drinkable beer I had on the day. Pricewise, it was just under £3 for a pint.

The next stop is also a blue-collar pub, The Ship (left). Not a pub I ever frequented much, it provided a base for Peckham RL club many years ago. Despite sitting amidst terraces of million pound townhouses, it's tended to draw custom mostly from the local housing estates. A couple of beer engines, but only one with beer, this time Courage Best. It was in pretty poor shape, though much cheaper than in the more upmarket pubs.

I went by a little oddity, The Royal Oak (right) in Fitzalan Street. It's like the 80's never happened. Note the old Youngers' sign on the wall. The old guv'nor (now sadly passed on, I believe) used to run a Rolls Royce, which he parked outside the pub. Hours were whatever he felt like, he'd pay you to play the jukebox and would buy the whole pub a round. Cask beer? Not a chance. This place gets customers from the nearby estates, and probably always will. Time might have stopped for some of them, as well...

If Kennington Cross is the town centre, Kennington Park Road near Kennington underground station is the town end. More nice houses, Guinness Trust flats and a couple of large estates, very little in the way of shops and two pubs right next to one another, unfortunately on the wrong side of the underground to appeal to thirsty travellers. I say two, only one is actually trading. That's the Old Red Lion. This was a geezers' pub, all keg and big-screen sports. I didn't know it had changed hands since the Grade II listed facade always made it impossible to tell if the place was open or shut, but since earlier this year it has been part of the Antic Pub Co. This, alone of all the pubs I visited, doesn't try to attract any lunchtime trade during the week, with opening hours from 4pm to midnight. The interior has been remodelled extensively, creating a curiously dissonant effect setting mock tudor against 60's modern furniture. There are 6 beer engines. Only one was dispensing beer, Purity Ubu being sold from a tap with a parcel tag instead of a pump clip. On the other side of the island bar, a Doom Bar clip was turned around. £1.60 for a half which was OK.

On the left of the picture you'll see The Mansion House. So what? you'll say. The bloke who owns The Hermit's Cave in Camberwell used to have it, sold out to Shepherd Neame who spent a fortune on a new kitchen but couldn't make any money, and it's been closed since. It's of interest because it would have been a genuine destination pub in Kennington. If you ever heard talk of Oakham Ales opening a London tap to be called 'OAKA', this was it. They even gave out free pint vouchers at GBBF a few years back. I don't know why it didn't come off, but Kennington still sits and waits for a genuine decent beer venue. Footfall might pick up on this side of 'town' when a new Tesco's opens next door to The Old Red Lion.

That's all the pubs. Well, pretty much. I left a couple out, and there's the many that have disappeared over the years - The Alderman, The Rising Sun and Court Tavern, lost to residential use; The Cricketers and Horse & Groom near Newington Butts, The Giraffe, The Carpenters Arms, all closed. The Cock Tavern in Kennington Road is now South London Pacific, a cocktail and cabaret club.

Conclusions? Well, there's this idea of the 'community pub'. I'm not sure which of these is a 'community pub'. Possibly all of them are since they are clearly targeting different markets in the area. Thirty years ago, most of them were selling to a working-class clientele which during the week was swollen by workers, with regular lunchtime trade Mondays to Fridays. These days Kennington is much more socially-mixed, with almost all of the newer residents being squarely in the crosshairs of the Cask Report's ideal drinker profile. Several of the pubs have mutated (evolved?) into gastro and food-led establishments to service their business, and the neighbourhood has more dining out and bar/bistro type places competing for that business as well. Only The Royal Oak on my tour is wet-led.

Cask presence? All of the pubs that used to ignore cask beer now sell it, and what's more, most sell it at what to me is a premium. The 'town centre' pubs have already priced the working-class drinker out of the area. Prices were between £3.30 and £3.40 a pint. Compare that to specialist beer venues like Cask (£3.35) and The Rake (£3.10), and noted real ale venues like The Harp (£3.10). The two pubs which attract a more blue-collar clientele were the exception - The Duchy Arms and The Ship were both £3 or less, and I'd assume they have relatively lower prices for other drinks.

The beer. There were some usual suspects, hardly anything micro. Taylor's Landlord and Sharp's Doom Bar turned up regularly. Neame has their own beers on the bar at The Prince of Wales, and Young's, Black Sheep and Bombardier were about. Most of the pubs are either free houses or part of small pubcos, but all played safe with brands which might be familiar to cask drinkers. Most of what I had was in average shape. The Courage Best from The Ship and Doom Bar in the Tommyfield was clearly on the way out and shouldn't have been on sale.

That brings me to the matter of beer quality. Judging by what I found, this is a substantial hurdle. The only beer I tried in really good form was in The Prince of Wales, a tied house. The Cask Report suggests the ABC1 cask ale consumer is a fickle one. Unless their cask experience is routinely good, they'll turn their backs on it. The Report suggests cask beer is some kind of shorthand for craft offerings to a receptive audience who are tightening their belts but will still spend on quality. Curmudgeon does an excellent job of deconstructing premiumisation here. I don't know how the manager of The Tommyfield (the only clear 'gastro' venue trading on local provenance) sets about quality control in his cellar and among his punters. I don't know what his company's position on having cask on the bar is, except to wonder that the atmos they're striving to create might be undone the first time a customer spits out the pint of near-vinegar they just sipped.

Can you get away with premium pricing and a 'craft' proposition if the beer is routinely in poor form? Which way do you turn when sales drop off? Do these places provide suitable training for their staff? Do any of the pubs offer samples and tastings to customers? Of all the pubs I visited, only The Duchy Arms is a member of Cask Marque. While I hear mixed messages from the trade about their value, membership is at least a pointer to some kind of commitment to keeping and selling cask beer in good condition. Maybe the 'Guardian-reader' pubs don't expect to sell much, or rely on the ignorance of their customers to get away with beer in poor form. The two pubs with a decent lunchtime crowd in, were the two pubs with cask in drinkable condition, though I didn't see anybody else drinking it after I left The Prince Of Wales.

This is all anecdotal. I didn't rigorously sample every cask beer in every pub. I didn't check temperature, or try to find out how much each place sells, the proportion of wet sales, or the prices of keg alternatives. I didn't ask the pub operators for a comment about their commitment to cask beer. But taking the long view, having some historical knowledge of many of these pubs, it seems clear that Kennington does, in fact, reflect some of the good and, especially, the bad of what the Cask Report has captured and concluded. For me, I'll still be on the bus outta there when I'm after a decent pint...

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Cask Report: A London Case Study?

Probably not, actually. But I've been musing on some of the commentary which followed the publication of the latest Report. Target markets for cask, premium pricing, exclusion of non-cask consumers, have all been fermenting in my noggin. To test some of these points, I thought I'd have a stroll around my neighbourhood, and see what's what in the local pubs.

I live in Kennington in South London. Really it's Central London but when you live south of the river, you're never 'central'. Kennington is like a commuter suburb. Not much in the way of local commerce or light industry any more, residents mostly work away from the area by day. Large local employers like James Burroughs (Beefeater Gin) and Naafi are long-gone. These days, estate agencies are prominent. They used to say Kennington was known for churches and pubs. I don't think too many churches have disappeared over the years, but a lot of the pubs have. Those that are left get some lunchtime trade, but tend to be busiest in the evenings.

Much of Kennington is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Head up Kennington Lane from Vauxhall, and most of the housing on the left-hand side of the road is former Duchy estate workers' housing. MP's have had flats and houses here for as long as I've lived here, and there are also some very large council housing estates, so Kennington is quite a socially-mixed area these days. That's because in the late 80's, huge amounts of the Duchy-owned housing were put on the market. Though some of the new influx were transients, generally, they've stayed and consequently the demographic in Kennington is much more upper-middle class and professional. The type of open-minded, adventurous, young ABC1's the Cask Report talks about reaching out to.

It's had an effect. Kennington went a couple of decades without a supermarket until Tesco opened up in 2000. Dining out is a lot better. Boris has put huge numbers of his Bikes in the neighbourhood. And there are now local associations and fora, and an annual 'Village Fete' and boules (or bocce - I don't know the difference) in Cleaver Square. Amusingly (to me, anyway), when Transport For London decided Kennington Lane was the southeastern boundary of the congestion charge zone, the more well-to-do residents, horrified by the prospect of having to pay to take little Jocasta and Guido to school in Westminster or wherever, tried to stymie the plans. Cue gatherings with nibbles, all very genteel, all very Kennington.

I mentioned earlier that a lot of pubs have gone. In 1980 you could have gone from Vauxhall Street to Newington Butts and, without leaving the two main roads leading there (Kennington Lane and Kennington Park Road) very far, visit 26 pubs. Today, I think you'd be lucky to find ten. Now, I'm not one for drinking locally. I like Zeitgeist in Black Prince Road but my beer geekiness means I tend to leave the area for a pint, and that's been the case for some years. We've never had any really good pubs, but recently I've become aware that some have changed hands or changed their 'offering'. With Kennington also being a different place these days, I wondered how much the pubs had changed. Did they have cask? Did the locals still use the pubs? What was pricing like? Thus, I ventured forth to have a look...

Since I've babbled on to set the scene, I'll do the pubs in two parts. This bit will deal with the pubs around what is recognised as the 'town centre' at Kennington Cross. Our first stop is The Prince Of Wales in Cleaver Square. In the 80's this was a Courage house and had a reputation as a bit of a villains' pub. I remember they did sell cask, though. The story goes that residents got fed up with late-night noise and police vans circling the Square looking for 'faces', and got Courage to close it. Greene King had it for a bit, and now it's a Shepherd Neame pub, In fact, a plaque says it won Best Cellar for 2009. A compact space, it's clearly aimed at dining punters - where there used to be a jukebox, a small dining area has been created. I had a pint of Late Red, which was pretty good. Three beer engines - the other had Kent's Best and Spitfire was off.

Next, I popped into The Tommyfield. This was always The White Hart, in Watney's hands. It became a tapas bar in the late 80's and a few years ago was bought by the small Renaissance pubco. They put in a new kitchen and bar and restored the White Hart name (they say Kennington used to be deer-hunting grounds), although a refurb and relaunch earlier this year saw the 'offering' tweaked to a more 'gastro' food-led pub with emphasis on provenance, and a name change. They have Meantime Pale Ale on keg (sometimes), and three beer engines, which I don't remember the old White Hart having. I had a half of Sharp's Doom Bar. They also had Taylors' Landlord and another beer I'd never heard of.

Across the road is the Dog House, formerly The Roebuck (see? More ungulates). This was a Charrington House popular with the 'old git' contingent. In fact, an old git was outside having a half of lager when I popped in. I guess some regulars will hold on to their local pubs as long as they can. This was the first pub in Kennington to target the new influx. In the mid-90's it reopened with bare walls and floors, reclaimed furniture, board games and wines and spirits leading the menu. I remember they used to have a fake handpump with a keg bitter, but that's now gone and they have three beer engines. I had a half of Black Sheep Bitter, and they also had Bombardier and another beer.

Number four on my list was The Black Prince. This was a pub popular with locals off the huge Ethelred Estate. I remember it as having no cask beer in the 90's, but it's recently changed hands. Check out the bar back - it's still the original Double Diamond one that was there donkey's years ago. Ironic? The pub is now food-led and has four beer engines. I had a half of Young's London Best. Young's Ordinary, Doom Bar (again) and another beer were available.

So far? All but the Prince of Wales is free of tie, though The Tommyfield is part of small pubco. All of the pubs have cask these days but, apart from the Neame house, it was mostly in poor condition, making me wonder if these places can support three or four beer engines. Cask in these pubs was priced between £3.30 and £3.40 a pint which I'd say is premium (The Harp in the West End is £3.10), and based on the quality, not worth it.

I'll round up the rest of the pubs in my next post here, try to find where the C2DE's are doing their drinking, and draw some dodgy conclusions. Stay tuned...

Saturday, 2 October 2010

The Curious Case Of The Beer That Never Was...

One of the things I like about many US brewers is their sense of place and their support for the communities they sell beer in. Not just by the act of brewing and selling beer, but by embedding themselves in the life of the community.

So it is that, each October, Russian River Brewing Co of Santa Rosa CA, supports Breast Cancer Awareness Month by raising money for a local womens' health centre in Santa Rosa. Parade floats, sales of special "All Hopped Up For The Cure" merchandise, raffles and sales of beer. Last year, they wrote a cheque for $12,000, and hope to beat that for 2010.

As it turns out, they already put $3,000 in the kitty, but nobody is jumping up and down too much. RRBC brewed a small batch of beer (supposedly based on their Beatification ale), oak-aged for 6 months with raspberries. "Framboise For The Cure" was released at their pub on Thursday, but before they could announce it officially, the Spooge Vampires got wind. The lovely and fragrant Natalie Cilurzo takes up the tale on RRBC's blog:
I will admit, I am a little bummed that someone posted it on Beer Advocate before lunch yesterday and all 23 cases were snatched up in less than 24 hours.
From Beer Advocate, I learned that people were frantically calling local contacts to help them obtain the beer. Seems like our friends the mules were also in evidence to help the greedy buggers get around the '2 bottles per person' limit RRBC set to ensure fair availability.

I'm happy that RRBC sold all that beer and put a nice wedge into the fundraising kitty. What annoys me is the behaviour of these sad gits every time a limited-edition beer is released, even when it's for a worthy cause. HateBeer and BA trading forums are now glowing with traffic generated by this, with some traders self-righteously patting themselves on the back for supporting such a good cause. No doubt some of this beer will wind up on eBay selling for multiples of the $12 retail price, and bottles will be traded back and forth. After all, with only 276 bottles brewed, it's uber-rare. I don't suppose any of the profiteers will think of making a donation to the cause.

I'll leave the final word to Natalie:
And to those who did get a couple bottles, please drink it humbly with friends and family in honor and memory of the survivors and especially the ones who lost the good fight.
Fat chance.

Pic above by Mario Rubio

Thursday, 30 September 2010

A Pub Of Goodness

A couple of weeks back, I was having a pint in the pub. As is my wont, I was belly-up to the bar, supping on a well-kept Dark Star APA.

To my left, a couple of middle-aged ladies in red cagoules were sipping halves of Guinness. As I drank, I was aware my neighbours were aiming to order another beer. They were German, from Berlin, unfamiliar with 'our' beer but keen to learn, and wanted something sweeter than their Guinness. The landlady was busy (the pub was packed) and asked if I'd help them out. I got them on Dark Star Sussex Stout and we got chatting. One of the ladies asked if this was a typical English pub, and I, reflexively, said yes.

An hour or so later, I wondered if I'd been honest with our visitors from the Mauerstadt. I wondered because I was in The Harp in Chandos Place.

Not typical? Well, I'm not sure I know of another pub in London selling upwards of 3,500 pints of cask a week. A pub with grub that consists of a choice of sausages or crisps and pork scratchings, a pub not the slightest bit family-friendly on the tourist track to Covent Garden.

A former Punch house bought out in 2009 by landlady Binnie Walsh and now selling a shitload of Dark Star beer through three of its eight beer engines as well as Sambrooks and Redemption, this is a pub with a reputation for good beer that could have played safe. Instead, Binnie has grown her business by bringing in beers from some of the best of the new generation of cask brewers.

So, I can't really say whether it's a typical English pub. I'm not even sure it's a template for success, and these days I'm not sure whether a CAMRA accolade like this makes me care enough about their mission for this to mean anything. I do know that, as an 'irregular', the staff are always friendly, service is prompt and beer is invariably in good nick. I'd like to think it is typical, but I get around and hear enough to know that many pubs in London struggle to keep a good pint - the head brewer from Texels told me he had a pint of cask served at 18 degrees, while Tandleman is never without his probe while on a trip Darn Sarf - and that's never been an issue in The Harp.

So, congratulations to Binnie and her team, and good luck for Pub Of The Year. I feel good about London and beer at the moment, and The Harp is one of the reasons why.

Monday, 20 September 2010

London Brewers Strut Their Stuff

I'd previously referred to the nascent London Brewers Alliance. Being based in London, with a finger on the pulse of the beer scene, the good blogger has been tracking the development of this initiative, and indeed it has been subject to a good deal of interest in the trade. I, on the other hand, found out about it when I tried to send prime mover Phil Lowry a birthday greeting via Facebook.

Phil is a Renaissance Man of Beer. His day job, has been busy encouraging the UK spoogebeerian to empty their piggybanks with his enticing range of quality craft beers from around the world. He has also 'til recently been found making productive use of the brewery plant at Brew Wharf, drawing plaudits for his (and his associates') interpretations of the New Craft Beer, turning that venue from a restaurant that sold overpriced bottled beer, to a destination bar for interesting and drinkable cask beer.

He's opened himself to beer movements elsewhere, principally the craft brewing guilds located in some of the US beer hotspots, and he decided that London needed something similar to nurture the resurgent London brewing scene. He got a bunch of brewers around a table, got himself a nifty logo (left), and lo, The London Brewers Alliance was born.

Like London itself, the Alliance is a diverse and cosmopolitan group. Members include Fuller's, who brewed almost a quarter of a million barrels in the last year; Meantime, Sambrooks and Twickenham; brewpubs such as The Florence, Brodie's and the long-established Zero Degrees in Blackheath; and recent start-ups like Kernel Brewing in Bermondsey, Camden Town Brewery, and there's a seat for the craft brewers of tomorrow who currently express themselves as the London Amateur Brewers. There are brewers from London, Austria, New Zealand and elsewhere.

From top left: meta Phil Lowry; London Amateur Brewers; Lizzie & Jackie Brodie; meta Camden Town Brewery; Simon Siemsgluess (Zero Degrees) & Evin O'Rioirdain (Kernel); John Keeling getting down; Rabid Bat Fly (geddit?); I'm not stalking Mark Dredge - honest; two responsible licensees

The Alliance hopes to see an inaugural London Beer Week in Spring 2011 (New York's is next week, San Francisco has one in March), but in the meantime, they met their public on Friday 17 September at the London Brewers' Showcase, hosted by Brew Wharf in their impressive Upper Hall. A special collaborative Alliance London Porter was brewed at The Redemption Brewery in Tottenham, and 35 firkins will be available to the on-trade. Fullers have five, and are deciding which of their pubs will have it, says Head Man John Keeling.

I'm not going to bang on about the event itself at any great length. The general point is that there is now a body that isn't representing special interests or protecting a type of dispense. It's a body that will allow the new and young brewers to network with the established producers, and vice-versa, to hopefully find new markets for their products and reinvent a brewing tradition that might have stagnated, the way London has always reinvented itself, by attracting talent, ideas and energy from elsewhere. British brewing, London brewing, is patted benignly on the head by some of our overseas friends. Garrett Oliver is the most recent commentator to declare himself "disappointed". But we are opening up to new ideas, and when they eventually express themselves more widely, it'll be as a fusion of their ideas and our tradition, and London will be at the front!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Doing The Texels Twist

To The Rake for the UK launch of the Texels range of beers from The Netherlands. I'd previously participated in a tasting panel which sampled the full bottled range from the brewer, and lo, it has come to pass that Utobeer have agreed to distribute them, and their draught counterparts, in this country.

Interestingly for a Dutch brewery, they haven't looked to Belgium for inspiration, but rather Germany, brewing all of their beers in accordance with the Rhenheitsgebot (or, probably more accurately in the 21st century, the Biergesetz). Similarly, they've resisted the urge to brew a pilsner or lager-style beer. Instead, brewmaster Maurice Diks brews only top-fermenting ales ranging from a 5% Wit to their 9.5% Storm Bock.

A 5-foot bottle of Skuumkoppe; Maurice Diks signs The Rake 'Wall of Fame'; a typical Rake scene; Eyerlander Amber

The brewery is based on the island of Texel (pronounced TeSSel), which is the first in the archipelago formed by island masses stretching up to Denmark - it's about 20 minutes by ferry from the mainland. The island was enlarged by poldering an adjacent landmass (Eyerland) in the 17th century, and now supports some 14,000 inhabitants involved in tourism, agriculture, and management of a protected wildlife habitat that takes up a third of the island and has been accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. The local sheep population outnumbers the people by two to one, and provides noted local produce including lamb, cheese and wool.

Texels produces approximately 5,000 hl of beer annually from an 18bbl plant (I estimate). All of their barley and wheat is sourced from local growers, who take orders at each harvest, and send the brewery's grain to Belgium to be malted. Hops are sourced from Poperinge in Belgium and southern Germany, and they use their own strain of yeast in all of the beers. Apart from wheat, the only other adjunct used is sugar to help the yeast with the higher ABV beers. All of the beers are unfiltered and so some secondary fermentation takes place once racked or packaged.

The Rake had all of the beers available, and Maurice Diks conducted some tutored tastings. Their biggest seller is Skuumkoppe, a 6% dark wheat. The name refers to the foam which forms on a wave, and is said to come from a term coined by Texels' beachcombers. For me, the standout beers were their Wit at 5% - a refreshing but not overly carbonated beer which drinks well below its ABV; the draught Goudkoppe (Gold Cap, 6%) is a delicious hoppy ale with a drying, almost tart mouthfeel and a long finish. It has an obvious relationship to a smaller brother, the Amber at 5.5%, beautifully balanced with some sweetness and a gentle floral hoppy finish - it reminded me of a good pint of Youngs Ordinary; the Texel Bock, at 7%, has some fig (or dates - I couldn't make my mind up), toffee and liquorice and a warming finish. The Dutch have an annual Bockbeer competition every October, and this came first in 2009.

Most remarkably for a brewer with an eye on German brewing (their brewing copper and some of the other vessels were acquired from there), Maurice Diks brews a 'barleywine'1, Storm Bock, at 9.5%. Big alcohol warming on the tongue, which gives way to a complex palate in which I picked up raisins, some hop bitterness and a long finish. I asked him why he brewed this, and he replied that one year, he had an idea for something different, just to sell in the visitor centre adjacent to the brewery. After a couple of years, demand meant he started bottling it. The beer spends 3 weeks in the fermenter, then is aged in the bottle for 9 months before release.

To protect the island producers, a local association endorses genuine Texel produce with a quality mark, and the brewery participates in this. This whole idea of local provenance, of partnership and co-operation with local producers, while undoubtedly an economic imperative in a small island community, has a nice ring to it. And it feels as if it's a good time to extend their reach. London is undergoing a beer renaissance. The London Brewers Alliance promises to put high-quality, locally brewed beers in front of an increasingly discerning and demanding drinker. Good pubs offering wide ranges of the best beer from around the world are seeing increasing footfall. The way Texels approach their craft, they ought to fit right in...

NB: What's the 'Texels Twist'? Maurice Diks likes to do things slightly differently, so he says all of his beers have a 'twist' to them.

1Having read Martyn Cornell's treatise on whether there is such a style. I thought I'd better put this in quotes.