Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Will WEST wreck what Punch couldn’t?

The new layout as proposed by Punch in 2012
The saga of the Halt Bar continues. I’ve been sent drawings of the proposed refurbishment to be completed in the next few months as the transformation of the pub, presently trading as “Pop up WEST”, into “WEST on the Corner” is completed.

Sadly it looks like the same thing is being planned that Punch tried to do in 2012. The Edwardian central bar is to be removed and a new bar installed at the edge of the space, to make more room for seating. It looks like the separate snug – a very rare feature in Glasgow – will also be ripped out. CAMRA’s Heritage Pubs Group said in 2012 that these features along with the wood panelling on the walls are of significant interest.

Plan proposed for Noah Beer (WEST’s holding company) in 2014

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Narziss slams the state of German brewing

Professor Ludwig Narziss wrote the book on German brewing. Literally. His two-volume work (with Werner Back) titled simply Die Bierbrauerei is one of the standard textbooks for brewers, so much so that it is referred to just as “der Narziss”. He was already teaching brewing science at Weihenstephan in 1964.

So when the veteran professor, now 89, got up to sharply criticise the decline in standards in German brewing last week, it should have been a big deal.

As news site Biertäglich.eu reports, Narziss spoke at a seminar run by the Austrian Brewers' Federation at the end of October. His remarks were about the development of flavour in German beer in the last fifty years. And when you have been around as long as Narziss has, you can demonstrate long-term change with data.

Before 1993 the German beer duty regime was based on strength categories: Schankbier, Vollbier, Starkbier, etc., with a flat rate within each category. The move to taxation strictly on the basis of alcoholic strength brought with it the possibility of shaving off a couple of points to save some tax. Narziss showed that this was precisely what had happened in recent years, with a significant drop in the original gravities of beers. Even half a degree Plato has a discernible effect on the beer’s flavour, said the Professor.

Boiling and fermentation too have been compromised for the sake of efficiency; the decoction mash of the past largely abolished, and in some cases the wort is not even boiled vigorously enough to drive off the DMS which gives beer that sweetcorn aroma.

A slight acidification of the mash before brewing has many advantages and has therefore become widespread practice, said Narziss, but this has also meant convergence of flavour.

The development over the last 50 years has been toward ever more similar, more and more neutral beers. Distinctive house flavours from esters, higher alcohols, resins have been reduced, and the use of high-alpha bittering hops and hop extracts have robbed beer of the complexity that the other components of hops give it. Narziss finished by challenging the assembled brewmasters to return to beers of character, with a proper three-addition hopping schedule; to experiment with different hopping techniques and new varieties.

Narziss’ critique is in line with what other observers have been saying for several years. This 2012 documentary has not been the only TV programme on the subject. A couple of weeks ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine too ran an article on the same topic, focussing on the closure of the once proud Iserlohner brewery.

All have come to the conclusion that beer is being dumbed down to compete at the unsustainably low prices forced on the brewers by supermarkets. When the brewers formed an illegal cartel in defence, they were pilloried in the press. Three out of every four crates of beer are now sold at a promotional price as low as eight euro.

Eight euro for a crate of 20 half-litre bottles: it may sound like a paradise for beer drinkers, but the consequence of such low prices is that the beer itself must be bastardised – and there are, as Professor Narziss points out, plenty of ways to do that within the constraints of the Reinheitsgebot.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A visit to Jaw Brew

Industrial estates are generally pretty grim places, and the one on the south-west edge of Glasgow where Jaw Brew is based is no exception. But it’s a sunny day, the train station is not far and there is an attractive view of the Kilpatrick hills in the distance, beyond the airport. That’s more than most such estates have going for them.

Jaw is just off the main drag and round a corner, where owner and brewer Mark Hazell is in the middle of a boil on his tiny 5-barrel kit. In the last few months Mark has done a good job of getting his beer into local outlets. It’s become such a common sight that I often forget how new the brewery still is – he’s been brewing commercially only since May.

Mark is particularly proud that his own local pub sells Jaw beer, and has landed another coup by getting it into the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow, which usually sells Fyne Ales exclusively. Pubs are generally quite happy to take his beer, says Mark – it’s the big pub companies that are the problem. They have a list of suppliers they can be bothered to deal with and the tied pubs can only take what they are given. Some of the smaller pubcos are no better either.

Mark pretending to take a sample from the fermenter for the photo

Jaw Drop and Jaw Drift are the two main beers, one selling more in cask, the other in bottle. Unusually (I think), the two main beers are both pale. Drop can taste a little burnt to me with a rather harsh bitterness. I am keener on Drift, which is sweet and full-bodied but bitter at the same time, with a gently floral hop flavour.

Today though Mark is brewing a new beer for the first time in the brewery – a mild provisionally entitled Fathom. The grist contains Maris Otter, crystal, chocolate and black malt. We taste a sample of the trial brew: it’s rich, oily and liquoricey with a genuinely surprising thick, viscous mouthfeel that suggests a beer of 8% or more, not the sub-4% ale it actually is. Perhaps it’s a bit too full for the quaffing beer it’s meant to be.

Mark has little time for new-fangled beers with weird ingredients. “Simple” is a word he keeps using. Plain beers for people to drink in quantity. So far, there seem to be plenty of customers who agree. Between my visit and finishing this post, Fathom has been released to pubs and won Jaw’s first SIBA award – pretty good going for a beer that’s been brewed once.
Photo courtesy of Laurieston Bar (hi Joe)

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why can’t Tennent’s make a success of a premium lager?

The 1980s was the decade of “premium” lager. All manner of well-known lager brands – even Harp – sprouted premium extensions, the formula of slighter higher gravity and more sophisticated packaging being an easy one to replicate.

Tennent Caledonian – then part of the Bass empire – came up with Gold Bier, a lager that many still remember today. I remember that I liked it a lot, though I can’t say whether I would like it now. It had nice typography and glossy double-page adverts with stylish copywriting, in the days when lager drinkers were treated as literate.

Gold Bier lasted well into the 1990s and seemed to be fairly popular, but it eventually disappeared. I have no evidence for this claim, but I have always assumed it got the chop after the Belgian group Interbrew bought Bass and Whitbread. The merged group already had heavyweight premium lagers Stella Artois and Beck’s and didn’t need Gold Bier competing with them.

Tennents had another go in 2008 with a beer called 1885, after the putative date when Tennents, according to themselves, started brewing lager (there has been some dispute in the Scottish Brewing Archive’s journal as to whether this claim is accurate). 1885 was another pale, green-bottled 330ml effort, with a husky, grainy flavour. It didn’t last long. Apparently there was an ad campaign for it, but I don’t remember ever seeing it.

Fast-forward now to Tennent’s Original Export Lager, launched just two years ago. Original Export had very plush packaging indeed and some impressive adverts. The beer was quite drinkable too, all-malt and full-bodied; I’d have bought it regularly if there had been a few more hops. Both the beer and marketing were, in my view, head and shoulders above that of the keg ale Caledonian Best launched around the same time.

And yet Best has flourished and Export flopped, which just goes to show that brewers shouldn’t take my advice about anything.

I’m looking at a six-pack of the new Black T. It’s Original Export re-branded, I am told – I haven’t tasted it yet. I suppose the idea is to link it with other allegedly premium products: Stella Black, Smirnoff black label, Johnnie Walker black label. Whether it will be any more successful than its predecessors remains to be seen.

Why have Tennent’s efforts to get into the premium sector failed so regularly?

Well, that has, I think, something to do with who drinks (or doesn’t drink) Tennent’s and how they regard it. I tend to divide them into four groups.

1. TL fans. These folks love Tennent’s Lager and consider it the best lager available. They like the standard lager, so have no real motivation to buy the premium version (You see expat examples of these on the Tennent’s Facebook page, begging to know where they can get a frosty can of TL in Australia or America).

2. Tennents-haters. Do not believe anything remotely drinkable can ever come out of Wellpark. It should be fairly obvious why a new beer is not going to sell well among this group.

The Tennents brand is quite peculiar in being loved by the first group, but toxic among the second. 

There is a third group which I think is a bit unusual.

3. Contemptuous consumers
. There is in Scotland a discernible group of consumers who think Tennent’s is rubbish. But they drink it anyway.

Why exactly this contempt exists, I’m not sure. Perhaps the local, ubiquitous beer will always be scorned, irrespective of its actual quality. I think Tennent’s is no worse than most standard UK lagers and better than some. It’ll never be my favourite beer but it doesn’t deserve the abuse it gets from some quarters.

Which brings me onto my fourth group, which consists of me and three or four other people.

4. Agnostics. I am not joking about the small size of this group. Every Scottish drinker, it seems, has an opinion on Tennents; it’s almost as divisive as Marmite. I have only ever met one other person who was willing to judge a Tennent’s beer on its merits (I’m vain enough to imagine that I try to be objective).

Over and above that, though, we have to consider other factors: the commoditisation of premium lager itself, and whether there is actually room for another brand. But that’s for another time. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

If Scotland goes independent

What would change for beer drinkers, if Scotland were to vote on Thursday to become independent?

I’ll give the answer first of all: we don’t know, but – I suspect – not really very much.

For the question on Thursday is on the general principle of independence, not the details. As long as it’s not yet cut and dried what currency we’ll use, then the type of thing that would affect beer, such as rates of beer duty or fuel costs, are still a long way from being certain.

I read somewhere that duty harmonisation was one of the long-term goals of the EU. We don’t seem to be making much progress in that respect – the Germans would not stand for the pittance they pay in beer tax going up, and the neo-prohibitionists of Britain will not dream of cutting it. However, I do think it’s unlikely that actual duty rates would differ very much. Other factors are another matter entirely.

We do already have a more restrictive licensing regime in Scotland. As I understand it, in England and Wales the presumption is that you apply for a licence and you will get it – unless there is a good reason not to grant it. In Scotland, would-be licensees have to argue why they should be granted one in front of an often reluctant licensing board; in some areas the board has agreed a “no new licences” policy. I know of at least one microbrewery which is unable to open a tasting room at the brewery for this reason.

The SNP government has enacted several measures in Scotland such as banning multi-buy promotions of alcohol (e.g. three bottles of wine for a tenner or four bottles of beer for a fiver), and is at the forefront of trying to introduce minimum pricing. These are devolved matters and we have them whether Scotland becomes independent or not. It’s worth noting that Westminster would also like to do these things, but has just found it politically difficult.

Currently I can buy London microbrewery beer in Glasgow for pretty much the same money as at the brewery. If I want Belgian beer, I can expect to pay two or three times what it costs in Belgium. Out of self-interest, I wouldn’t like to see the price of English beer rocket, so let’s examine why Belgian beer is so much more expensive by the time it gets here. Basically the beer duty is vastly lower in Belgium. Once it arrives in the UK, it becomes liable for UK duty, and because much of it is above 7.5%, also attracts the higher rate for strong beer.

I asked several brewers and beer sellers what they thought would be the effects of independence on beer. In general, all – like most businesses – took a “wait and see” attitude. None made melodramatic claims that they would be forced to stop trading in Scotland. I suspect that most businesses who make public statements either for or against independence are really doing it due to the existing political affiliations of their owners. For that reason, I didn’t ask brewers who I already knew were personally Yes or No.

A substantial brewer with a presence in both countries made a cautiously PR-friendly statement that they were committed to their businesses in both, and were sure they had the flexibility to cope with any variations in different markets. 

The preservation of the existing reduced rate of duty is very important to the smallest brewers, and Dave Whyte of Demon Brew has written to the Scottish Government to call for assurances that this will continue.
While the current Scottish Government may be quite anti-alcohol on a social policy level, one brewer had praise for its support of the food and drink sector; the fact of independence might well enhance the brand “Scotland” in export markets.  

One thing we can say for definite: there will be more paperwork. Not necessarily an excessive amount, but in cross-border trade, beer duty will have to be paid to two different revenue authorities. It’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle, and surely professionally-run businesses should be able to automate such routine tasks.

It should not affect individual breweries too much, as (as far as I am aware) most beer trade between Scotland and England already goes through wholesalers. Unsurprisingly, the beer distributors I spoke to were rather less enthusiastic than the brewers – probably because they will be the ones who end up doing the additional paperwork. 

This is a very theoretical view I am putting forward here, of course: in the short term there may be a shortage of wholesalers who are set up with the appropriate know-how and registrations. One wholesaler I spoke to said that frankly there are too many unknowns, and that beer would the least of our worries if there should be a crisis of confidence in Scotland.

At the CAMRA AGM in May, chairman Colin Valentine, a Scot, was asked what the potential implications for CAMRA would be, if Scotland went independent. His answer was that they hadn’t given it much consideration and that in the event of a Yes vote, the process of independence would take at least eighteen months, which would be enough time to sort out anything that needed sorting out.

At the time the opinion polls showed a double-digit lead for No in the referendum campaign, so the prospect of a Yes seemed far more remote than it does now. The position remains the same – there will be an issue at the time there is an issue.

CAMRA is in a reasonably easy position. It’s not a bank like RBS or Lloyds with any great regulatory framework to service.

One branch officer thought the structure might have to change and have the Scottish branches grouped across Scotland, rather than together with Northern Ireland as they are now. (I confess I cannot see the reasoning for this unless the organisation were to split.)

There will of course be technical and financial questions – it may be that CAMRA in Scotland would need its own financial arrangements, especially if it ends up with a different currency. Transferring funds between Scottish branches and St Albans might have implications for the current tax efficient CAMRA practice. In principle I don’t see why this should be any great problem – other businesses set up registered offices and subsidiary companies all the time, and CAMRA need not be any different.

However, if there is a popular backlash against the Scots down south, we might see some ugly letters in What’s Brewing. I have seen one post on an unofficial forum which assumed that all Scottish pubs and breweries would be deleted from the Good Beer Guide and the space redistributed to the English and Welsh CAMRA branches.

I doubt it will come to that. CAMRA is a voluntary organisation, not an asset of the UK to be fought over or divided up, and there is no major political or technical reason it cannot operate in two countries.

A quick aside. One of the misconceptions surrounding the referendum is the idea that it has come about as a result of a rise in Scottish nationalism, or that we dislike English people more than we used to. Media elsewhere might represent it such, but this is a misleading interpretation.

It is misleading because the electoral success of the Scottish National Party does not in fact reflect a shift to nationalist ideology among voters. Scots have continued to vote for pretty much the same sort of social-democratic mixed-economy policies they have supported for the last fifty years. It’s just that this particular political space has been vacated by the Labour Party, and the SNP has filled the gap, hoovering up former Labour voters.

Why is this particular insight relevant to beer? Well, it’s because I want to argue that recent years have not seen a growth of national chauvinism with regard to beer either. In fact, when it comes to beer I think the reverse is true.


Even though the brewery has gone and the brand is now owned by Wells & Youngs of Bedfordshire,  beer brands like McEwan’s are seen as iconically Scottish. It wasn’t always thus.

The ideology of earlier times can be well seen in this McEwan’s advert. The kilted Scottish soldier shares a pint with the English redcoat, but both are standing in front of the Union Flag. The old McEwan’s globe logo itself reminds every drinker of the Empire, on which the sun supposedly never set. Indeed, in the nineteenth century McEwan’s had huge contracts with the British military, arguably contributing substantially to the brewery’s success and growth.

Tennent’s too was happy to ride on the coat-tails of the Empire, and at one point was the world’s leading exporter of bottled beer.

The development of modern Scottish nationalism since the 1940s is too much to go into here, and not enough to do with beer. Yet somehow by the 1970s the taken-for-granted Unionism had vanished from Scottish & Newcastle’s advertising. It was a time of confidence and record-breaking sales of beer, despite early signs of economic decline. S&N demolished the old Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh and built a vast new complex in its place to produce more and more Tartan Special and McEwan’s Export, believing the thirsty long-haired young men in denim who still poured in and out of the shipyards and steelworks every day would be there for ever.

OK, this is an extreme example, as it involves football, when all assumptions
of political common sense go out the window
If you think much of the culture of beer drinking is macho now, you should have seen Scotland in the 1970s. I am reminded of a throwaway Billy Connolly line from a routine about going to house parties: “You’d better get some Bacardi – there might be women there.” This is actually quite revealing: it tells us both that women didn’t drink beer, and that it was not unusual for a drinking party to be an all-male gathering.

One of the early activists of CAMRA in Scotland, Alan Watson, found it necessary to criticise Scottish chauvinism in beer in an early article in 1975:

‘It is ironic that it should be the Scots who make such a fetish of their ability to hold their drink, who should show least concern for the way that beer has been adulterated and weakened over recent years. As a nation we respond too quickly and uncritically to any appeal to our chauvinism e.g. “Tartan”, “Burns Special” and Piper Export, and knowing “for a fact” that Scottish beer IS stronger, are impervious to any objective evidence that in terms of specific gravity not one of the common keg beers sold in Scotland would be placed in the top twenty British beers.’ (Glasgow University Guardian, 13 March 1975).
No longer the beer of the Empire … but
every Scotsman knows McEwan’s is best,
says this 1972 advert

The tendency of Scots drinkers to dismiss English beer as not worth drinking was tempered by the limited availability of it. There was no guest beer system then, so sightings of English beer were few and far between. According to one CAMRA veteran, though, Draught Bass was so good that a blind eye was regularly taken to its country of origin.

The keg equivalent, Bass Special, did not fare so well. In the early 1980s Tennent Caledonian, then part of the vast Bass conglomerate, was trying to push Bass Special in its Scottish pubs. Eventually market researchs discovered that, to put it over-bluntly, the punters didn’t want English beer. The dilemma eventually led to the creation of Tennent’s Special as a home-grown brand for the Scottish market, announced in the brewery’s in-house paper:

“Tennent’s Special will eventually replace Bass Special, which research has shown as not the best brand name to attack effectively Younger’s Tartan Special, in what represents the largest sector of the Scottish Ale Market … the product itself, when researched ‘blind’, i.e. when the consumers were unaware which brand they were drinking, certainly measured up to the others in quality and consistency and, quite often, was rated as preferable.

“It was only when the consumers were told that they were drinking Bass Special that … [it] suddenly became ‘weak, flat, uninteresting, watery’ and, most nonsensical at all when one was measuring the effect on taste-buds, — ‘non-Scottish’! Almost chauvinism run riot showing that the problem basically has been psychological!” (Tennent’s Times, Autumn 1983).

While Scots and Englishmen still like to jovially insult each other’s beer, just as drinkers in the North and South of England do, it is difficult today to imagine a beer brand from outside Scotland meeting such consumer resistance here as is described above. What happened? Well, further concentration of the brewing industry happened.

The 1960s had seen most of the smaller Scottish breweries swallowed up into larger combines. “No fewer than ten of the above Scots firms have disappeared into the Bass Charrington maw, their breweries for the most part razed like Carthage,” raged Watson (Glasgow CAMRA, it seems to me, has always prided itself on a splendidly immoderate turn of phrase).

This continued until by the 1990s only a few Scottish-based breweries remained, with most beer marketing controlled by increasingly multinational companies. These were more interested in promoting huge multinational brands than the local brands they’d acquired.

All beer drinkers were forced to embrace a less regional beer culture. It would not be correct to say more homogeneous, for the number of brands and beers available mushroomed.

For drinkers of mainstream beers, the culture did not become British so much as global, with names like Drybrough and Alloa falling by the wayside in favour of Miller, Budweiser, Peroni, John Smiths, Heineken, Fosters, Stella Artois. It didn’t matter so much that they were nearly all brewed under licence in the UK. The point is that it became increasingly difficult for a would-be chauvinist to stick exclusively to Scottish beer.

Drinkers of CAMRA-approved real ale, on the other hand, began to see increasing numbers of English beers appearing to supplement the rather meagre choice available from the remaining Scottish breweries. Drinking English beer was often a necessity if you wanted any variety. So for real ale drinkers too, material reality intervened to make anti-English sentiment ridiculous.

It would be ridiculous anyway, as English-born members have contributed a huge amount to CAMRA in Scotland. The Scottish branches have a disproportionately large number of activists who learned to drink real ale in England, came north and fought for it here too. The brewing scene too owes a great deal to breweries owned and/or run by people who have come to Scotland from elsewhere.

Judging by the popularity of the likes of Oakham and Dark Star round here, an appreciation for English brewers’ art is not going to go away, whatever happens.

(Although I have promised not to name them, I am very grateful to all the people I spoke to for this post for their insights).

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Probably the best lager in Bermondsey

There’s a fine line between being a critical consumer and being that miserable bastard who doesn’t like anything. I feel I sometimes err on the latter side too often. So it’s a great pleasure to come across a new beer I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Fourpure is one of the newest London breweries. But most of London’s breweries are new these days, and that doesn’t really tell you very much.

The beer I am so keen on is their Pils. Just Pils. No fancy barrel-aged hibiscus flower saison; it’s a Pils and a damn good one.

Occasionally your mouth tells you “wait a minute, maybe this is just a little too bitter”, and then you drink it again and decide it isn’t after all.

I have no idea whether Fourpure’s other beers are also as good as this, and to be honest I don’t really care. One beer as good as this is plenty for any brewery.

In Scotland Fourpure is available at bars and shops supplied by A New Wave. In London, I guess you can get it at the brewery. Possibly most of England is still missing out.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Grunt work

One side effect of the slow, self-inflicted death of traditional high street off-licence chains is that space has been created for others to get in on the act. Some of the most disruptive entries are corner shops or convenience stores. Now this is not strictly a new thing because I distinctly remember buying unusual beers from a licensed grocer in Glasgow twenty years ago; but more recently more and more such shops have discovered that there's a market for beer beyond the slabs of Carling and Kestrel.

It’s all the more delightful to come across one of these because you expect – well, I do – to go to the corner shop and be faced with a depressing line-up of bland, mass-market beers. How nice it is to be able to choose from interesting local beers instead.

On the south side of Glasgow is Maxwells, in the middle of the rapidly hipsterising Pollokshields. Walk in and you see the cans of baked beans, tea bags and disposable nappies. Then you notice the beer shelves, stacked with the products of independent breweries: Stewart, Cairngorm, SixºNorth, Williams and more. I am told by people who know about these things that the wine range is not half bad either.

But I’m mentioning Maxwells chiefly because I think it was the first shop in Glasgow proper (barring Whole Foods in Giffnock) to do take-away growler fills. For about six months you’ve been able to go in and get draught Williams Joker IPA or WEST St Mungo to take out. Since I was last in they’ve added two lines from a clown brewery in Aberdeenshire too.

Take-away beer has a long history, of course. Some pubs still have engraved glass panels advertising “Jug & Bottle Dept” or “Family Dept” where containers would be filled. That practice nearly died out, at least round my way; as long as I can remember, pubs have rarely seemed interested in catering for off-sales. And while I will drink cask beer in the pub until the cows come home, it doesn’t respond well to being decanted into a bottle. It loses carbonation going into the bottle, the temperature isn’t low enough to stop it frothing all over the place, it sloshes about while you’re carrying it and you end up with flat beer. Some cask beers are so stunningly good that they even still taste nice after this treatment, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

It’s no real surprise then that the new wave of growler vendors are all doing it with keg beer, which has enough CO2 that it can afford to have some of the fizz knocked out in transit.

In addition to Maxwells, Valhalla’s Goat has got their own growler station up and running in the last few weeks too. And I have just been to see the man who’s launching a pop-up growler shop in the West End. Chicago-born Jehad Hatu plans to open his “Grunting Growler” shop three days a week in the premises of the Bike Station cycle shop near Kelvingrove Park. The plan is not to raise capital to later open a permanent shop, but to first of all demonstrate that the business model is viable.

As a student, explains Jehad, he and his friends couldn’t buy beer on a Sunday because local regulations prevented liquor stores from opening. But restaurants were allowed to sell growlers to take away, so they would get those instead. The growler thus has something of an emotional import to him – he wouldn’t want to open a beer shop or a bar. He’s also keen to improve the standard of growler filling. Most places, he explains, just fill the bottle straight from the tap, leading to oxidised beer that goes stale quickly. Grunting Growler will use sanitised growlers and fill them with a device which first flushes them with CO2, then fills them through a tube from the bottom to minimise splashing. Jehad wants to serve beer in the best quality possible: he has good beer from great breweries and doesn’t want to be to blame for customers getting beer in poor condition.

Jehad will have four keg taps to start with, but dreams of some day expanding to as many as twenty-four. Beer will be about £6.50 a litre and the pop-up opens for the first time on Thursday.

Grunting Growler
Glasgow Bike Station
65 Haugh Road
G3 8TX
10am–6pm, Thu–Sat between 17 July and 9 August

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Nicht mehr haltbar?

Another sad chapter in the history of Woodlands pub the Halt Bar came to a close a couple of weeks ago, when the pub was found padlocked at unexpected times. However, the pub’s Facebook page was still being updated and various comedy nights were still taking place. In the latest issue of the Glasgow Guzzler we said that it was still open, because we weren’t sure and didn’t want to report it closed if it really wasn’t. Just a few days after the magazine went to print, though, it was impossible to be unsure any longer.

I wrote about the struggle to save the Halt from redevelopment when it was under threat from the pub company in 2012. Then the owner Punch wanted to gut the place and turn it into an anodyne food-led bar of the kind that litter nearby Bath Street. But a loud campaign (as well as the fact that Punch apparently couldn’t find anyone willing to put in the six-figure investment they had in mind) prevented that happening. Instead, Punch appeared to have realised what a gem they had on their hands and leased it to new operators, who gave it a lick of paint, put some candles in wine bottles on the tables and tried to make a go of it. A year ago, it seemed to have been saved.

Unfortunately, even this very mild gentrification drove away the previous clientele of hipsters who had appreciated the cheap White Russians, and while I quite liked both the old and new guises, the beer was painfully expensive for what it was. Occasionally I’d go in and have a pint of mild – I discovered the splendid Cotswold Spring OSM here – but I wouldn’t have two or three as I might otherwise have done. More importantly, I couldn’t get friends to go there with me when they could get much more interesting beer 25% cheaper  at the State Bar round the corner.

As time went on, the tenants played it safer and safer, trying to sell Black Sheep Bitter and even Tetleys. At £4 a pint. The inevitable closure followed.

It wasn’t the tenants’ fault. The beer couldn’t be any cheaper, because they were having to pay through the nose for it to the pubco. I have no doubt the reason for the pub’s failure is down to Punch’s greed in trying to squeeze more profit out of the pub than it was actually able to generate. CAMRA in Scotland is therefore rightly demanding that the pubco adjudicator legislation the Westminister Government has at last introduced should be followed by the Scottish Government too, and preferably strengthened.

On the positive side, the Halt will not be closed for long. A couple of days ago the painters were in giving the interior a coat of light grey. The rumours are true: the local West brewery is taking over the bar, supposedly as a pop-up. It might seem an odd time to take on a new bar. Demand for West beers is now high enough that on sunny days the brewery has difficulty keeping its own beer hall fully stocked.

Weirdly, the bar is going under the name “WEST on the corner”, missing the opportunity for some sort of linguistic pun – “haltbar” in German means something along the lines of “tenable”, “hard-wearing” or “durable”. Perhaps not the most appropriate name for a pop-up, but it will be sad to see the historic name disappear. I hope it doesn’t.

The sign was ugly but it’s still a bit sad seeing the pub denuded

Sunday, 6 July 2014

England’s Franconia

For several years I have talked about making a trip to Dudley to drink dark mild. It started as a joke, but the more I found out about the beer culture of the Black Country the more serious my plans became. I learned that the home of the famous Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild was round there, and also the Swan, in the 1970s one of the four remaining old-time home-brew pubs in England.

Most of all I had heard old CAMRA boys speaking with reverence of a brewery called Batham’s, whose beer was divine nectar. But you can’t get it anywhere else; you have to go to the Black Country for it. I made up my mind to go.

I'm meeting an old friend in the Lamp Tavern in Dudley, because it’s the most central of the pubs we want to visit. And because it’s a Batham’s pub and I want my first drink of the day to be my first taste of these legendary beers. C is already there by the time I arrive; he has a pint of mild in front of him, so I get one too.

The mild is heavenly. When we switch to the bitter, it’s even better, a golden revelation of a beer, sweet and substantially bitter all at the same time. Very few British beers really taste of malt to me, but this one does. We learn from the barmaid that the Lamp is more a bitter drinkers’ pub … which doesn’t surprise us. 

There are a couple of surprises behind the bar too. Bottles of Gold Label (I thought they’d been discontinued years ago), but not brown nip bottles: stubby green bottles like the ones cheap French lager comes in. And the pork scratchings. This part of the world is famous for pork scratchings, of course. But this pub sells four different brands of pork scratchings. That’s taking scratchings seriously. 

Our next stop is the geographically nearest: Ma Pardoe’s aka the Swan. Either it’s not as close as it looks on the map, or we get lost on the way. 

Never mind. We pile in to the parlour bar, see no pumpclips, so head through to the back to see what’s on. Ah. No pump clips here either. They don’t use them – the available beers are just chalked up on a blackboard. There’s a surprise for me here too: on ordering two pints of mild, I am immediately asked “light or dark?” We go for the dark, which is delicious. After circumnavigating the warren of interconnecting rooms, we end up in the beautiful red front bar and have a pint of the pale mild. Which is also delicious. There’s also “Entire”, another slighty stronger amber beer, not a porter as you might expect, and Old Bumblehole (arf, arf, etc.).

The Swan is a wonderful pub. There are great pubs in nearly every city, but very few of them have the magic of this place. It’s this magic that reminds me of Franconia. Old, wood-paneled, multi-roomed taverns, brewers who carry on doing things as they always have, not paying much attention to what trends are moving in the metropoles, and all this in a region foolishly regarded as a backwater by people elsewhere. And yet these pubs are completely embedded in the local community and couldn’t exist anywhere else in the same form. I’m even starting to like the local accent, which is much pleasanter to listen to than the malicious caricature of it you sometimes hear on television.

With some reluctance we leave the Swan, and the reason is that we are trying to get to the Bull and Bladder in Brierley Hill before it gets dark. 

Batham’s Bitter is golden with very little, if any, caramel or crystal malt.
More evidence that bitter is not always brown.
This pub, also called the Vine, is regarded as Batham’s brewery tap. Again, there are multiple rooms and the pint-pulling is done by two silver-haired matrons. More Batham’s Bitter is drunk here. Not just by us, by everyone. It seems that almost everyone in the pub, including most of the women, has a pint of the golden beer in front of them. You can definitely see how the brewery survives with only a few tied pubs.

Oh, it’s gone all dark by the time we leave…

There is one more pub we want to see with some urgency: The Britannia. The peculiar feature of this pub is that it has a room with no bar counter at all, just a set of beer engines mounted by the door. That room is only opened on Saturdays, so this is our only chance to see it. By the time we arrive the pub is bouncing and there’s no chance of getting a seat in the holy room, but we get to stand in the doorway at least.

When planning this trip I thought that four pubs in a day wasn’t very much, but it was more than enough; I could happily have spent all evening in any of them. There is one pub I had been hoping to visit that we couldn’t have gone to even if we’d had time: The Shakespeare, recorded in CAMRA’s National Inventory and detailed in issue three of the wonderful Doghouse magazine. But just a few days before the trip I learn that it closed back in September last year.

We make it back to the Lamp in time for a last pint of Bitter – about three minutes before last orders in fact.

The next morning there is some culture in store. Well, the pubs don’t open until twelve and you have to fill the morning somehow. The Black Country Living Museum is a splendid collection of old buildings, painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed on this site to form pseudo-original streets. There are various shops, a trade union hall where we get a decent breakfast, a working fish and chip shop, trams and trolleybuses – and a pub.

The Bottle & Glass in the Living Museum
The pub is the Bottle and Glass which once stood in nearby Brockmore. It’s pretty much exactly as it was fifty or a hundred years ago. It’s wonderful to sit in one of the sparse little rooms next to the coal fire. Even better is the knowledge that there are still pubs like this out in the wild round here.

The Bottle & Glass does still serve beer, but as they pour it in plastic cups, which kind of ruins the experience, staying for a pint here is not a must-do.

(These niggles aside, it’s a far better reconstruction than the terrible mess Glasgow has made of the pub exhibit in the Riverside Museum. That is nothing like the interior of the old Mitre Bar that it claims to be, and the whole thing seems intended to remind people of the evils of drink more than anything else. As for being able to get a pint there, even in a plastic cup, forget it.)

It’s easy to spend hours at the museum and still only scratch the surface, so by the time we leave it’s well past opening time and I’m starting to fancy a refreshing glass of beer. I know where, too – the Beacon Hotel in Sedgley. We have saved this pub till last, as it’s the home of the potentially dangerous 6% Sarah Hughes mild.

Once again I have misjudged the distance, and we waste valuable drinking time walking to Sedgley. It’s only around three miles, but in the sunshine in our hungover state it feels like ten. I don’t recommend it; the walk is neither pleasant nor useful.

On the way we unexpectedly pass the Holdens brewery, but don’t have time to stop, because it’s Sunday and afternoon closing is still sacrosanct here. We are in danger of not reaching the Beacon in time at all. But we get there, and at eighteen minutes to three are standing on the other side of the road. Walking for miles in the scorching sun has a slight tendency to make you thirsty: five minutes later I am queueing at the serving hatch for my second pint. The beer that slides down so fast is Amber; despite the name it is golden in colour. Thanks to the Amber taking the edge off our perishing thirsts, and to the generous drinking-up time the pub allows, we are able to treat the following pint of Ruby Mild with the respect it deserves.

Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild in its natural habitat

The magically restorative power of the Mild means that after just the 45 precious minutes in the pub we are relaxed and refreshed again and able to jump on the convenient next bus to Wolverhampton for the train home.

I was expecting to be disappointed in this trip and have my romantic illusions destroyed. Instead I found a real living beer culture, both surprising and endearing. OK, central Dudley is a bit run-down, but the pubs are magical and the beer is even better. I can’t wait to go back.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

You’re having a G-raf

This is going to be – is – another busy week. For the first time in over 25 years Glasgow CAMRA is running a beer festival – the Glasgow Real Ale Festival (G-RAF) opens on Thursday at the Briggait, the city’s former fish market. Significant support has come from Renfrewshire CAMRA who have been running the Paisley Beer Festival for almost as long and know what they're doing.

Glasgow has not one, but two new breweries. Drygate has had plenty of coverage, but, surprisingly, the first to get commercial beer (brewed on their own kit) to market is the much smaller outfit Jaw Brew, based in Hillington. Owner Mark Hazell will have his beer at the G-RAF on Thursday. But Drygate won’t: even though their on-site brewery is now in production, business has been so good that they have run out of the initial stocks of Williams Bros-brewed beer, and their first few brews are going into restocking their own bar.

The preliminary G-RAF list had Drygate’s core beers on it, but it could have been predicted that at least two of them were non-starters: Bearface lager would take far too long to be ready, and it is doubtful if Outaspace Apple Ale can be put in a cask with live yeast at all. It contains about 35% unfermented apple juice which would immediately start fermenting out – if the cask didn’t blow its shive first.

Maclays’ newest city-centre venture “The Raven” opened today, promising both craft beer AND cask ale (sigh…) along with slow-smoked meat. While vegetarians may be praying for the pulled-pork-and-brisket fad to end, it certainly seems to be more of a beer-oriented venue than the office-girls-n-pinot-grigio format Maclays chose for The Hope a couple of streets away – it’s worth noting that the latter has recently done a U-turn and started selling cask ale, after saying at the start that it wouldn’t (Told you so).

Re-opening after refurbishment tomorrow is the Clockwork Beer Co on the south side, also Maclays-owned. I don’t know much about what’s changed, but I have heard the Clockwork will be adding WEST beer to their newly “craftified” range. This is interesting because, until a few weeks ago, that would have put it in the position of selling all three Glasgow-brewed lager brands: WEST, Tennent’s and their own Clockwork lager. Now that Drygate is open, it means there’s still no pub that sells all of the city’s lagers!

While I’m on the subject of Maclays, the veteran cellarman at the legendary real ale pub The Three Judges, Ronnie Anderson, has retired. Ronnie knows more about beer than just about anyone in Glasgow – by a considerable margin – and on his watch the Judges specialised in beers from English microbreweries. Generally there would be at least one brewery represented on the bar that I’d never heard of before. It’s to be hoped the Judges will maintain the same standards without Ronnie, but they are some damn big shoes to fill.