Friday, 31 December 2010

Golden Pint Awards

It's that time of year again when we start sitting back and looking over the past year, deciding which were the high points and the lows and wondering whether to go to bed or have another beer and sit think about things some more. In other words, the Golden Pint Awards.

Best brewery: Fyne Ales.
I was remiss last year in describing Fyne as the best brewery in Scotland. It wasn't high enough praise. Over the last year their beer seems to have become more widely available south of the border too, and I don't think I'm the only one who now classes them as one of the top breweries in the UK.

Best beer book: Tim Webb, Good Beer Guide Belgium (new edition).
My phase of infatuation with Belgian beer is long in the past but the book is a really enjoyable read —Webb's writing is full of a bone-dry wit that's so caustic you could clean a brewery with it. [Edit: I've just found out that this actually came out in 2009. Oh well.]

Runner up in this category is the new edition of John Conen's guide to Franconia. It's a beautifully produced volume. I've been visiting Bamberg for fifteen years and there was still information in the book that I didn't know.

Best blog:
Pete writes about pubs so beautifully and with so much love that it often makes me cry. This is a perfect example of how he conveys how a visit to a good pub is so much more than the contents of your beer glass:

You understand why your favourite tea mug is the one with the chip in the rim. Or how you just can’t throw away those old slippers with holes in the toes. You know how a slight shabbiness can be agreeable. You understand the way a certain dog-eared quality can be comforting. Perfection, somehow, is just not our thing: a little roughness round the edges is needed before we can connect. Maybe one of your favourite bits on a record is where the singer’s voice catches or wavers slightly, in a way they can’t reproduce but just happened in the studio at this serendipitous moment which raises your neck hairs every time. And we all prefer the wayward genius of the late Alex Higgins and George Best to a Stephen Hendry or an Alan Shearer.
You quite clearly understand all this very well. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t put up with the ropey template I’m still using for this website. And you wouldn’t be on this website at all, regardless of its design. Because if your soul didn’t rebel against Ikea perfection now and again by crying out for a threadbare sofa, then you wouldn’t really understand pubs.

Best UK Draught Beer: Fyne Ales Jarl
What is there left to say about this stunning beer? I was lucky enough to taste it at the brewery festival in June. Other people had to wait until GBBF for it; it didn't win an award in London, but did become Champion Beer of Twitter by popular acclaim. 
Best UK Bottled Beer: Highland Orkney Porter
Amazing how good this is. It's 9% without being harsh or boozy. It's when you taste a beer like this that you understand the difference between master brewers who know what they're doing, and a bunch of dilettantes just throwing stuff in the mash tun.

Best Pumpclip or Label: No award.
It would be complacent to make an award given that the standards of design for so many are still so abysmally low. Just as dog shit doesn't belong in beer, WordArt doesn't belong on pumpclips and labels.

Best Overseas Brewery: Brauerei Heller Trum.
I keep coming back to Schlenkerla Rauchbier. I love it. Not just because of the smoke, but because underneath the smoke it's one of the world's greatest beers. 
Pub/Bar of the Year: The Antonine Arms.
Out in the countryside (well, it's the countryside to me) in Twechar, most people would have advised Andy and Kathy at the Antonine Arms to stick with Belhaven Best and Tennent's when they took over the pub this time last year. But on top of that they have two or three rotating guest beers, often from the most cutting-edge local breweries like Tryst and TinPot, whereas in most village pubs you're extremely lucky to find a single token Deuchars on sale, if they have real ale at all.

Beer Festival of the Year: Market Gallery Pub
Perhaps not strictly a beer festival in the usual sense of the term, but certainly one of the most idiosyncratic beer events I've been to, and one which united the best of American and British beer cultures in a most delightful way.

Supermarket of the Year: No award. 
Morrisons' beer range has declined in my subjective view, Waitrose has improved somewhat, but I don't really go to supermarkets enough to have a definite opinion. In general supermarkets give me a "ho-hum" feeling when I look at their beer.

Best Beer Twitterer: @Glasgowbeer, which is showing slow but steady growth and helps drinkers tip each other off about where there's good beer.

In 2011 I’d Most Like To… 
drink a beer made by @crownbrewerstu. I haven't been to Sheffield for yonks and while I've managed to taste at least a sip of beer from most of the "hep" UK breweries, I've still to try any Crown stuff.

Open Category: You Choose 
Best beer made by an evil corporate megabrewer, that you can buy in supermarkets: Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. It’s damn good. I hope they don't let the marketing people near it, ever, because they'll wreck it like they've done to every other product Guinness had.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Salaries at Tennent's, 1944

Any time-travelling brewers out there fancy a new job? Here's what you could expect to earn if you managed to work your way up to being salaried staff at Tennent's in 1944.

There's one name on the sheet I recognise: Stubley, the Head Lager Brewer. Born Spitz, he took the name of his British wife during the First World War to avoid anti-German sentiment. He eventually reached senior management and retired in 1956. A much happier end than his predecessor in the job, Schreiber, who felt himself obliged to resign in 1916, was interned and later deported to Germany. Oddly, although Tennent's management felt unable to ask Schreiber to stay, or at least to offer him his job back after the war, they nonetheless immediately appointed another German, Stubley, as Head Lager Brewer.

So in 1944 Stubley had been in the job for nearly thirty years — perhaps it’s therefore a simple matter of seniority that the Head Lager Brewer was being paid £200 more than the Head Ale & Stout Brewer, or perhaps it indicates how important the lager trade was for Tennent’s even then.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Memorable beer prices

Inflation, eh? It’s been a complaint of beer drinkers ever since I can remember that beer seems to rise in price faster than other goods. I don't know whether it’s true, though I rather suspect it is, and I can’t be bothered looking up the figures.

I suppose that a pint is a regular purchase, like a newspaper or a travelcard, and you notice when it goes up. You get used to the price. You think of it as the natural price and are a little upset when the price rises. Once you have got used to the higher price and have finally stopped grumbling about, it goes up again.

By my reckoning, the price of a pint has tripled since I started drinking. I have certain price points etched in my memory.

1988: In the grotty social club where we all had our 18th birthday parties, all pints were 88p or 92p or something like that. I remember Guinness was the only one that cost more than a pound at £1.02.

1992: £1.22 in the mock-Tudor pub where we used to go after student demonstrations.

1997: I pay £1.99 for a pint for the first time. I remember being really shocked about this. Still, it was at a railway station in central London and the usual price was still significantly lower.

2004: When I moved to my current abode, my new local had caught up with 1997’s London prices: £2.05 was the cost of a pint.

2008: All cask ales £2.50 in one particular pub. I remember this because one night they put on Paradox (9%) at the same price as everything else.

2010: Most of the places I drink now charge £3.00 or a few pence less.

But if you offered me a pint of the nasty muck that I had to drink in the grotty social club for 92p, I’d still choose to drink the beer I drink now.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Do you remember a pint of Best?

I was too young to see these adverts first time round, and I suspect they weren't shown in Scotland in the still very regional set-up (in both brewing and commercial television) of the 1970s.

I can take or leave Chas and Dave, but just look at the detail in these ads. Everything is done with so much attention to detail you're left wondering if it isn't actually archive footage (I think some of it is). The clothes, the pub frontages and the ten-sided beer mugs.

But it leaves me wondering, should they really be drinking Best at all? Wasn't Mild the popular drink in this era? Edit: I love these ads but the more I look at them the more I realise that, despite the attention to detail in sets and clothes, almost everything they say or imply about the actual beer is essentially fiction. Courage was selling four times as much mild as bitter at the time. Most people drank mild. They wouldn't have been drinking bitter at all, and if they had, it would have been about 60% stronger than the product the ads were pushing.

An oddity, and the obligatory Christmas theme to this post, is this second video. It’s the Two Ronnies as Chas and Dave.

The interesting thing is that it's not a parody as such. It's just a pastiche, and they even manage to shoehorn in the Two Ronnies trademark, an unsubtle double entendre that you can see coming about ten seconds in advance. Otherwise it's a straightforward song that you could imagine Chas and Dave performing themselves, and mostly of note because it shows that the Courage ads were well known enough to be pastiched on prime time television. Well known in London anyway — who knows what people in the rest of the UK who hadn't seen the original ads made of it.

There is a Santa Claus

My mum usually has enough food bunkered in at Christmastime to last a siege or short war, but this year there was magically room in the fridge for beer. Hooray. Draught real ale, a wonderful thing; fitting it in the fridge, the Christmas miracle.

Monday, 20 December 2010

A few beers

The other night I met up with Mr Beer Monkey, Mr Real Ale Radler and a couple of other beer enthusiasts (whose identity I am protecting) to try a few bottles.

First up was a straight comparison between BrewDog Trashy Blonde and the recent experimental Eurotrash from the same brewery. The recipe is the same but Eurotrash is fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. The unanimous verdict: Trashy Blonde is better. We all thought it crisper and fresher-tasting and the hops shine better. Beer Monkey has more effusive tasting notes too.

Eurotrash is pleasant enough, yet anonymous; it could be any of dozens of generic Belgian blonde beers.

Staying with BrewDog, while rummaging in my beer cupboard for some beers to bring along I found a bottle of Nanny State (first iteration). This is the 1.1%, 225 alleged IBU version from last October. How will it have held up? Pretty well as it turns out. It's still very hoppy and oddly enough, not as thin-tasting as it was.

On to something I wasn't expecting to get a chance to taste: Schlenkerla Eiche. This is a version of Rauchbier from the legendary Schlenkerla brewery in Bamberg, but with the malt smoked over oak rather than the usual beechwood. A friend discovered it in The Cave off-licence in Glasgow's leafy west end, which was a pleasant surprise as I thought the stuff was all going to the USA. It is, as you would expect, superb and makes much easier drinking than its 8.0% suggests. It's rather mildly smoked in comparison to the intensely smokey beechwood original.

Towards the end Mr Beer Monkey produced a bottle of Bashah Reserve, aged in Highland Park casks with raspberries. Around this time last year I enjoyed a slow bottle of plain Bashah in the pub on a bitterly cold evening shortly before Christmas. It was brilliant, dark, rich, bitter and roasty. Bashah Reserve is perhaps a case of gilding the lily. The whisky dominates the beer, yet the raspberries are really apparent and upfront and lend the beer an incredibly fresh fruity aroma — but the beer underneath gets lost.

Experimentation is good. The results aren't necessarily so good. Although we enjoyed them, the common factor with tonight's beers seemed, to me, to be that these variations didn't quite reach the same level as the originals.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Moany Christmas post

You can feel it already, the Christmas spirit. In my terms it means all the pubs are clogged up with amateur drinkers when I want to go for a quiet pint.

Why don't these people go to the pub the rest of the year if they like it so much? If they did we might not see so many pubs closing.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Beer-drinking cow sets world record

I was only searching for stuff about Milk Stout and look what comes up. I suppose it was inevitable, what with the folk stories you hear time and again about farmers feeding beer to all manner of beasts. From Life, March 22, 1948.

 "Keeper helps cow swallow a pint of stout. The beverage is not rationed but is hard to obtain in England." I wonder how true that was?

This is of course the kind of silly story that papers love, in 1948 and today. Those shouting that beer needs to get into the mainstream media could do well to reflect on that: Cows drinking beer is what the mainstream media are interested in. 

You never saw it in the mainstream press when BrewDog put pale ale on a ship, or aged stout with berries in an Islay cask, or blended two double IPAs to try to achieve new flavours. You did hear about it when they made "the strongest beer in the world", because that's the type of trash the press want to write about. Who's really to blame, BrewDog or the mass media?

But this story, apart from being silly, is interesting because we actually find out what kind of beer is involved, and there's even a lovely picture of bottles with nearly-legible labels. Oat Malt Stout (not Oatmeal). That narrows it down a fair bit. The label resembles the Tetley's huntsman but the lettering above the type of beer seems to be two words. I remember somewhere reading that some other brewery also had a huntsman logo … [edit: Puzzle solved. It was Eldridge Pope. Thanks to Callum]

Should be easy: A brewery in Hampshire or thereabouts, that in 1948 had an Oat Malt Stout with a huntsman on the label. There's a prize for the right answer. A bottle of Milk Stout. Or Oat Malt Stout if you prefer.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

They’re still at it

It’s usually Pete Brown’s gig to point this out: the BBC still persist in illustrating stories about unhealthy alcohol consumption with pictures of people drinking pints of lovely refreshing beer.

The beer in the first picture is certainly not one of the products intended to be taxed more heavily.

Dave has a detailed critique of the plans to put a super tax on super lager (and anything else in the same gravity range). It’s not going to do anything to help homeless alcoholics, but will punish the responsible drinkers of strong beers and endanger the viability of small brewers.

The alleged lower duty for 2.8% beer, which I imagine is intended to be the carrot in this package, is worse than useless. These notional beers don’t actually exist, and small brewers who are on reduced beer duty rate won’t gain anything from brewing them. The proportion of the price of a pint that’s made up of duty is so small at this gravity that they won’t be any cheaper in the pub either.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The grass is always greener, or why we see enthusiastic reviews of crappy beers

I noticed a German blog with a gushing post about Newcastle Brown Ale. See the picture on the right for a rough translation.

I suppose that wherever you live, the foreign stuff is always slightly more exotic and interesting. I've certainly spent enough time and money myself in the past, trying every variety of mediocre beer from all over the world the shops had to offer.

I just find it amusing because within a few days I also saw its opposite number, an equally embarrassing UK post about a German beer —Roger praising Veltins Pilsener to the skies. (Roger, Tim and Ben apparently all got the same press release).

I wouldn't cross the street for either of these beers, but then I'm picky.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Faithful Eckart’s infinite jugs

There's a very old story; the oldest known written version dates from 1663, the Grimm brothers tell it, it appears in von Falckenstein's Thüringische Chronik (1737), and Goethe also retells the tale. It tells how the Wild Hunt passes by a village in Thuringia, called Schwarza.

Christmas throughout Christendom - The Faithful EckhartTwo boys carrying jugs of beer home escape with their lives, but have their beer supped by the horde. Faithful Eckart (a much older figure in German mythology) tells the boys to go home and not worry about the beer, but on no account to tell anyone what they have seen. When they arrive back, the jugs have miraculously become full of wonderful beer, and they remain full for three days no matter how much people drink from them. Good old Faithful Eckart!

Until the boys foolishly break their silence, and the beer dries up. The eejits.

This story's survived essentially unchanged since the 17th century and is typical of the guff you accidentally find while trying to learn about beer on Google Books. Nowadays it's somehow supposed to be wrong to send small children through the woods on foot to the next town to fetch your beer. It's political correctness gone mad.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

De gustibus non est disputandum

Even though we spend an inordinate amount of time talking about good beer, it’s impossible to define it. 

People have tried — the best known rules for making beer are the Bavarian Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot; and on the other hand, CAMRA’s definition of real ale. And both have the same Achilles heel.

The Reinheitsgebot tells you what you can put in your beer; CAMRA tell you how you can condition and serve it. Neither attempts to determine whether or not the beer tastes any good.

Producers of beer complain that these are inadequate as guarantors of good beer, and of course they are correct. You only have to drink a glass of Beck’s to recognise that you can make crappy beer within the Reinheitsgebot.

But it’s no accident that these ostensible measures of quality are so defined. They’re objective and measurable. Do you put sugar or potatoes in your beer? will get a yes or no answer. As will Is this beer served with extraneous CO2? On the other hand, Does this beer taste nice? depends on the drinker and his or her preferences.

Until this dilemma is solved, which it won’t be, there’s no point adopting new terms that have exactly the same weaknesses as the old ones. Beer is good or not good. That’s it. It’s not objective. Life is hard.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Meanwhile what about cask ale?

Just for a bit of fun, I took an extract from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and used search and replace to substitute "CAMRA member" for "Socialist" and "cask ale" for "Socialism". The most amusing bits are posted below.

I could have edited it a bit more to make a laboured, tedious satire, but I like the surreality of some of the results. Every empty belly is an argument for cask ale, indeed.

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 11

Meanwhile what about cask ale?

It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment we are in a very serious mess, so serious that even the dullest-witted people find it difficult to remain unaware of it. We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive.

And all the while everyone who uses his brain knows that cask ale, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, cask ale is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already.

Yet the fact that we have got to face is that cask ale is not establishing itself. Instead of going forward, the cause of cask ale is visibly going back. At this moment CAMRA members almost everywhere are in retreat before the onslaught of Fascism, and events are moving at terrible speed. As I write this the Spanish Fascist forces are bombarding Madrid, and it is quite likely that before the book is printed we shall have another Fascist country to add to the list, not to mention a Fascist control of the Mediterranean which may have the effect of delivering British foreign policy into the hands of Mussolini. I do not, however, want here to discuss the wider political issues. What I am concerned with is the fact that cask ale is losing ground exactly where it ought to be gaining it. With so much in its favour--for every empty belly is an argument for cask ale--the idea of cask ale is less widely accepted than it was ten years ago. The average thinking person nowadays is not merely not a CAMRA member, he is actively hostile to cask ale. This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda. It means that cask ale, in the form of which it is now presented to us, has about it something inherently distasteful--something that drives away the very people who ought to be flocking to its support.

At a moment like this it is desperately necessary to discover just why cask ale has failed in its appeal. And it is no use writing off the current distaste for cask ale as the product of stupidity or corrupt motives. If you want to remove that distaste you have got to understand it, which means getting inside the mind of the ordinary objector to cask ale, or at least regarding his viewpoint sympathetically. No case is really answered until it has had a fair hearing. Therefore, rather paradoxically, in order to defend cask ale it is necessary to start by attacking it.

Anything is relevant which helps to make clear why cask ale is not accepted. And please notice that I am arguing for cask ale, not against it. But for the moment I am advocatus diaboli. I am making out a case for the sort of person who is in sympathy with the fundamental aims of cask ale, who has the brains to see that cask ale would 'work', but who in practice always takes to flight when cask ale is mentioned.

Question a person of this type, and you will often get the semi- frivolous answer: 'I don't object to cask ale, but I do object to CAMRA members.' Logically it is a poor argument, but it carries weight with many people. As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for cask ale is its adherents.

The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that cask ale, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes. The typical CAMRA member is not, as tremulous old ladies imagine, a ferocious-looking working man with greasy overalls and a raucous voice. He is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years' time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism; or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white- collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings, with a history of Nonconformity behind him, and, above all, with a social position which he has no intention of forfeiting. This last type is surprisingly common in CAMRA member parties of every shade; it has perhaps been taken over en bloc from. the old Liberal Party. In addition to this there is the horrible--the really disquieting--prevalence of cranks wherever CAMRA members are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'cask ale' and 'CAMRA' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. One day this summer I was riding through Letchworth when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got on to it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink, and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple. Their appearance created a mild stir of horror on top of the bus. The man next to me, a commercial traveller I should say, glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured 'CAMRA members', as who should say, 'Red Indians'. He was probably right--the I.L.P. were holding their summer school at Letchworth. But the point is that to him, as an ordinary man, a crank meant a CAMRA member and a CAMRA member meant a crank. Any CAMRA member, he probably felt, could be counted on to have something eccentric about him. And some such notion seems to exist even among CAMRA members themselves. For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say 'whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian'. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity.

To this you have got to add the ugly fact that most middle-class CAMRA members, while theoretically pining for a class-less society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige. I remember my sensations of horror on first attending an I.L.P. branch meeting in London. (It might have been rather different in the North, where the bourgeoisie are less thickly scattered.) Are these mingy little beasts, I thought, the champions of the working class? For every person there, male and female, bore the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority. If a real working man, a miner dirty from the pit, for instance, had suddenly walked into their midst, they would have been embarrassed, angry, and disgusted; some, I should think, would have fled holding their noses. You can see the same tendency in CAMRA member literature, which, even when it is not openly written de haut en bos, is always completely removed from the working class in idiom and manner of thought. The Coles, Webbs, Stracheys, etc., are not exactly proletarian writers. It is doubtful whether anything describable as proletarian literature now exists--even the Daily Worker is written in standard South English--but a good music-hall comedian comes nearer to producing it than any CAMRA member writer I can think of. As for the technical jargon of the CAMRA members, it is as far removed from the common speech as the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional CAMRA member speaker address a working-class audience. His speech was the usual bookish stuff, full of long sentences and parentheses and 'Notwithstanding' and 'Be that as it may', besides the usual jargon of 'ideology' and 'class-consciousness' and 'proletarian solidarity' and all the rest of it. After him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There was not much doubt which of the two was nearer to his audience, but I do not suppose for a moment that the Lancashire working man was an orthodox CAMRA member.

For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a CAMRA member in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even CAMRA if he gets the chance, but his conception of real ale is quite different from that of the, book-trained CAMRA member higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, cask ale does not mean much more than better wages and shorter' hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence. But, so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of cask ale. Often, in my opinion, he is a truer CAMRA member than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that cask ale means justice and common decency. But what he does not grasp is that cask ale cannot be narrowed down to mere economic justice' and that a reform of that magnitude is bound to work immense changes in our civilization and his own way of life. His vision of the CAMRA member future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centring round the same things as at present-- family life, the pub, football, and local politics. As for the philosophic side of Marxism, the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it. It is of course true that plenty of people of working-class origin are CAMRA members of the theoretical bookish type. But they are never people who have remained working men; they don't work with their hands, that is. They belong either to the type I mentioned in the last chapter, the type who squirms into the middle class via the literary intelligentsia, or the type who becomes a Labour M.P. or a high-up trade union official. This last type is one of the most desolating spectacles the world contains. He has been picked out to fight for his mates, and all it means to him is a soft job and the chance of 'bettering' himself. Not merely while but by fighting the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois himself. And meanwhile it is quite possible that he has remained an orthodox Marxist. But I have yet to meet a working miner, steel-worker, cotton-weaver, docker, navvy, or whatnot who was 'ideologically' sound.

It may be said, however, that even if the theoretical book-trained CAMRA member is not a working man himself, at least he is actuated by a love of the working class. He is endeavouring to shed his bourgeois status and fight on the side of the proletariat--that, obviously, must be his motive.

But is it? Sometimes I look at a CAMRA member--the intellectual, tract- writing type of CAMRA member, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation--and wonder what the devil his motive really is.

The fact is that cask ale, in the form in which it is now presented, appeals chiefly to unsatisfactory or even inhuman types. On the one hand you have the warm-hearted un-thinking CAMRA member, the typical working-class CAMRA member, who only wants to abolish poverty and does not always grasp what this implies. On the other hand, you have the intellectual, book-trained CAMRA member, who understands that it is necessary to throw our present civilization down the sink and is quite willing to do so. And this type is drawn, to begin with, entirely from the middle class, and from a rootless town-bred section of the middle class at that. Still more unfortunately, it includes--so much so that to an outsider it even appears to be composed of--the kind of people I have been discussing; the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-iri-your-beer reformers of whom Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are CAMRA members now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of high-minded' women and sandal- wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come nocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat. The ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of cask ale, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any CAMRA member party that means business. Worse, he is driven to the cynical conclusion that cask ale is a kind of doom which is probably coming but must be staved off as long as possible. Of course, as I have suggested already, it is not strictly fair to judge a movement by its adherents; but the point is that people invariably do so, and that the popular conception of cask ale is coloured by the conception of a CAMRA member as a dull or disagreeable person. 'cask ale' is pictured as a state of affairs in which our more vocal CAMRA members would feel thoroughly at home. This does great harm to the cause.

If one faces facts one must admit that nearly everything describable as CAMRA member literature is dull, tasteless, and bad. Consider the situation in England at the present moment. A whole generation has grown up more or less in familiarity with the idea of cask ale; and yet the higher-water mark, so to speak, of CAMRA member literature is W. H. Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling,[Orwell somewhat retracted this remark later. See 'Inside the Whale', England Your England, p. 120 (Seeker & Warburg Collected Edition).] and the even feebler poets who are associated with him. Every writer of consequence and every book worth reading is on the other side. I am willing to believe that it is otherwise in Russia-- about which I know nothing, however--for presumably in post-revolutionary Russia the mere violence of events would tend to throw up a vigorous literature of sorts. But it is certain that in Western Europe cask ale has produced no literature worth having. A little while ago, when the issues were less clear, there were writers of some vitality who called themselves CAMRA members, but they were using the word as a vague label. Thus, if Ibsen and Zola described themselves as CAMRA members, it did not mean much more than that they were 'progressives', while in the case of Anatole France it meant merely that he was an anticlerical. The real CAMRA member writers, the propagandist writers, have always been dull, empty windbags--Shaw, Barbusse, Upton Sinclair, William Morris, Waldo Frank, etc., etc. I am not, of course, suggesting that cask ale is to be condemned because literary gents don't like it; I am not even suggesting that it ought necessarily to produce literature on its own account, though I do think it a bad sign that it has produced no songs worth singing. I am. merely pointing to the fact that writers of genuine talent are usually indifferent to cask ale, and sometimes actively and mischievously hostile. And this is a disaster, not only for the writers themselves, but for the cause of cask ale, which has great need of them.

This, then, is the superficial aspect of the ordinary man's recoil from cask ale. I know the whole dreary argument very thoroughly, because I know it from both sides. Every-thing that I say here I have both said to ardent CAMRA members who were trying to convert me, and had said to me by bored non-CAMRA members whom I was trying to convert. The whole thing amounts to a kind of malaise produced by dislike of individual CAMRA members, especially of the cocksure Marx-quoting type. Is it childish to be influenced by that kind of thing? Is it silly? Is it even contemptible? It is all that, but the point is that it happens, and therefore it is important to keep it in mind.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


Like any manufacturing process, making beer involves compromises. You want to make the best product you can, but also make it for a price that your customers will pay, and it also needs a reasonable shelf life and a minimal amount of waste.

The price for drinking fresh, unprocessed beer is a compromise, in a way: you have a perishable product which will go flat and sour if you're not careful, and if that happens the beer quality is compromised much more than by any processing.

Good beer
You can pasteurise beer to give it stability. Many people think it doesn't taste as good, but on the other hand it's a lot nicer than an unpasteurised beer that's gone off.

You can filter beer, again to give it stability and to make it nice and clear. But you filter out flavour.

You can use extraneous CO2 to protect beer from the atmosphere. Overdo it and you wreck the beer, making it fizzy and acid, but that's just incompetence.

Bean-counters will tell you none of these damage the beer, or that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Well, maybe. Really flavourful beer can withstand several such compromises and still be good. Some beers don't survive much compromise. Some beers only really work direct from the cask because they're so subtle.

This brings us to the current debate about cask-conditioned beer versus keg.

"Keg" has been a dirty word among British beer drinkers for the last forty years because the accepted definition of it — by drinkers and brewers alike — has been pasteurised, filtered beer, force carbonated and served by CO2 pressure. Much of it wasn't that good to begin with and the number of flavour-compromising processes it goes through doesn't make it any better.

If you now start telling people that keg is the future, don't be surprised if their first reaction is "Ewww."

It's more confusing since the word keg is being used interchangeably even by new-wave brewers for two quite different containers: the keg proper in which CO2 pressure is used; and the KeyKeg in which the beer is contained in a plastic bag and never comes in contact with the gas, rather like a small-scale edition of a Czech tankové beer.

The proponents of "craft keg", if they had any sense, would point out that the stuff is not filtered or pasteurised and is actually a lot closer to real ale than it is to the keg muck that CAMRA was formed to fight against. It's arguably more real than the cynical FastCask nonsense devised by Marston's to comply with the letter of the definition of cask-conditioned beer, while in reality their EPA is crap beer to begin with, and heavily processed – filtered and reseeded with yeast beads.

Good beer
There's nothing theoretically wrong with a bit of extraneous CO2 to protect a slow moving beer or to propel it to the bar. None of it's necessary though. Drink beer while it's fresh and still has condition; that's common sense, like eating your cheese before it goes mouldy (of course there are exceptions, both in the world of beer and the world of cheese). Serving artificially preserved beer is like a restaurant reheating yesterday's soup. You can do it, and it might still be very nice, but the first-rate establishments don't do it.

The less you do to beer the better it is. Brew it, ferment it, rack it, drink it. I love that simplicity. So I drink real ale.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Meet The Brewer

J D Wetherspoon’s The Counting House in Glasgow is hosting a ‘Meet The Brewer’ event this Wednesday from 17.30 to 20.30. The brewery is Houston from just outside Glasgow. Their beer is pretty good but I don't tend to buy it because they choose to send it out into the free trade with names and artwork like these:

Looks like a good opportunity to let them know what you think of their tacky and sexist marketing.

Goodbye, goodbye, he's leaving us, goodbye

I was as surprised as anyone when Kelly Ryan announced that he was leaving Thornbridge and returning to his native New Zealand.

It's traditional to relate amusing and/or embarrassing anecdotes in posts such as these, but I only met Kelly for the first time in Manchester a couple of weeks ago so I sadly don’t have any amusing anecdotes to tell about him, nor have I drunk as much of his beer as many of the bloggers down south. What I can recognise even here is the disproportionate impact he has made in his few years in the UK.

From Fyne Ales where he got his first brewing job in this country, to Thornbridge where he made his name, and tangentially BrewDog who, rumour has it, tried to poach him to work for them, he's been central in the UK's new wave of brewing for the last few years. His passion for good beer has arguably been one of the fundamental elements in Thornbridge's success.

He has the remarkable gift of conveying infectious enthusiasm even through the mundane medium of blog comments, and was even polite beyond the call of duty about my plans to put mint in homebrew.

Stuart Howe from Sharp's put it better than I can. He claimed that Kelly was "being deported for being far too attractive and good at brewing." That about sums it up. New Zealand’s brewing scene is about to be enlivened a bit more.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The legend of kettle caramelisation in Scottish beer

Recently I was listening to Fergus Clark from Inveralmond Brewery at a conference telling the audience about his new-build brewery. One of the advantages over the old plant, he explained proudly, was that they got less caramelisation of the wort during the boil.

I had to grin on hearing this, because, of course, there is a widespread belief that kettle caramelisation is a typical component of Scottish beer — yet here was Fergus saying that he wanted as little of it as possible!

I am pretty sure I know the origin of this tale. Michael Jackson often praised the beers of the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh. As the last remaining Victorian brewery in Scotland, it still has direct-fired coppers. Russell Sharp, then boss of the Caley, argued that the kettle caramelisation — “We are boiling, not stewing. This creates flavours you cannot achieve with steam heat” — was an advantage and part of the unique character of Caledonian’s ales.

After Michael Jackson repeated this story, thousands of American homebrewers started boiling down their first runnings to create a caramelised malt syrup, and adding it back to their “Scottish Ale”. The ironic thing about this is that if you are boiling wort in a converted keg or turkey fryer over a propane flame like these guys, you have already recreated a direct-fired copper on a small scale.

Like Michael Jackson, I took the Caledonian story at face value for years. But now I wonder if it was an early example of Russell Sharp’s gift for marketing, later to become evident in the spectacular success of Innis & Gunn? In reality, was he making a virtue out of necessity?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Two British Doppelbock beers

Since when do the British brew Doppelbock? That was my reaction a few months back when I was offered a bottle of Croglin Vampire, the Doppelbock from Cumbrian Legendary Ales, as championed previously in the blogosphere by Woolly Dave and Jeff Pickthall. Jeff gave me one at GBBF [rephrase this later] and it sat in my beer cupboard until my memory was jogged by the unexpected arrival of a second bottle in the post last week.

In the other corner is the bottle of Dopplebock (sic) from Edinburgh’s Stewart Brewing, which the brewery were nice enough to hand out in goody bags at their launch party for the beer in July. So I took the chance to sample both side by side.

I thought Hallowe’en was an appropriate time to open the Vampire and was looking forward to a beer I could really get my teeth into. It doesn’t really form a head at all in the glass. The deep amber colour is beautiful. The overwhelming aroma is caramel malt and the taste is syrupy, grainy sweetness. I don’t know about you but caramel isn’t the same as malty in my book. In the mouth there’s creamy cereal and butter. It’s really very sweet indeed.

It’s years since I drank a real Bavarian Doppelbock, so I wouldn’t like to stick my neck out by saying Croglin Vampire isn’t much like one, but I can’t help feeling Cumbrian Legendary Ales have bitten off more than they can chew. Mind, everyone else seems to like it and it’s just won an award as best vampire-themed barley wine in the land (or something like that) so I guess they won’t mind too much me saying it’s a horror.

More enjoyable was the Dopplebock from Stewart Brewing. On the down side, it’s not nearly as eerily handsome as the Vampire, pouring an unattractive muddy brown, but at least it forms some sort of head, though this soon collapses. The taste is much more balanced. It’s full and malty but the sweetness is subtly balanced by herbal hops. Very slightly smoky. Not quite as chewy as I was expecting. I don’t find Stewart’s everyday beers to my taste very often, with the exception of the superb Edinburgh No. 3, but their speciality beers are pretty interesting.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

West/Schanzenbräu opus:e

This is a collaborative beer with Schanzenbräu from Nürnberg, brewed at West in Glasgow to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the two cities’ twinning. The first sniff gives toffee, malt, floral hops. CO2 is a tad high but it doesn't detract too much. Very nice beer. The colour is amber, unfiltered. Splendidly rich, has the malty body that lacks in most British lager. I am imagining a touch of smokiness in it. They have switched to all Bamberg malt after a dalliance with British base malt and the brewers say they like it better. The glory of this beer is the substantial hoppy bitterness that makes it satisfying, a lager to drink with relish. Prost.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Manchester Twissup

I’m fortunate enough not to have to get up at 5.30am on a regular basis, but I will do it for the sake of beer. I'm soon in a panic, paranoid that I will miss my train. I missed the first two Twissups and am convinced that the fates will conspire to make me miss the third. If my local train doesn’t arrive on time, I’m screwed — but it does arrive, and I have enough time to stroll on to the 7.10 Trans-Pennine Express, and it’s only later that I realise how unconsciously Kraftwerkian that name is. The journey south is only three hours which passes quickly. By the time we are approaching Manchester I am already besotted with all the lovely Victorian buildings. Red bricks everywhere.

We are meeting in the stiflingly hot upstairs coffee bar at Picadilly station. Some people I recognise are there and more that I don't. Eventually we figure out — somehow — that everyone who is going to turn up has done so, and move off through the back streets towards the Northern Quarter and the Marble Brewery.

Such is the demand for Marble beers that they have had to construct a new brewery underneath a railway arch about 300m away from the Marble Arch pub where they started. We get in and get to take the edge off our thirsts with bottled Dobber. Then it's on to a quick tour of the brewery. It's surprisingly small. Dom tells us the entire brewery was built for £150,000. And yet they are producing some of the finest beer in the country, though Dom is unjustifiably self-deprecating about it.

In the cask room, we get invited to sniff and rub some of the stash of Summit hops. "If you can't make good beer with these, you're an idiot," says Dom.

Then it's back up the road to sample the beers at the Marble Arch. The crowd at the bar is unbelievable. The other bloggers have managed to drain the cask of Pint just as I get to order it. I have W90 instead. It's superb even though I have ruined my palate by chewing Summits in the brewery. I go dry for a few minutes because I suspect that just as I order a second pint, a fresh cask Pint will come back on. And sure enough, within minutes it is and I get the sublime Marble beer. Without a sparkler, of course. The problem is, though, that here when you ask for an unsparkled beer, the staff assume you're just a tightwad who wants his glass filled to the brim with no head. Actually, I do want a head, I just don't want it sparkled. But the beer is so good that it doesn't really matter.

It's like a party in the pub and the beers just disappear. I haven't been to the Marble Arch for five years and wouldn't mind in the slightest staying here all afternoon. But that wouldn't be much of a pub crawl, and we go around the corner to the Angel. The last time I was here it was called the Beer House. Everyone dives on the Pictish Centennial and drinks the cask dry. Well, nearly everyone. Some enthusiasts at the bar are getting stuck into the cask-conditioned Harviestoun Old Dubh and offering tastes. It tastes like whisky-flavoured soy sauce to me but I nod and smile.

At Bar Fringe, the barmaid throws up her hands in horror at the unannounced deluge of customers. "I'm on me own!" she exclaims. Somehow, though, we all manage to get beers in our hands. I have Leeds Gathering Storm stout which is pretty crap. Then before we know it, we're all being herded out of the pub again and back to the railway station.

Although I’d like to spend more time in Manchester, I’m glad the group is making a move so early. This is because I’m taking a train back to Glasgow at six and I’ve figured out that if we leave Manchester by four, I can travel as far as Stalybridge with the others, have a drink and get back in time for my train home.

Stalybridge is the next stop, because, as any fule kno, there is a bar on the platform. It’s an amazing bar, magnificently cluttered, with a decent range of beer. I’ve made a firm decision to spend a solitary hour in here again some time, just soaking up atmosphere and ale. You would never be bored waiting for a train in here, there’s so much old railwayana to look at. But it’s not at its best when a large group piles in; there are about 25 of us and by the time everyone has managed to get served, it’s almost time to leave again. I get a half of Millstone’s True Grit and a portion of the famous black peas. They are rather like chick peas in flavour and taste pretty muddy and dull until Janine tells me the secret of dousing the little buggers with loads of Worcestershire sauce. What’s the beer like? No idea, we’re all chatting and having far too much fun to start writing tasting notes.

The train to Huddersfield draws in and most everyone else gets on, and I cross to the other platform to get the train back to Manchester instead.

Later on, I realise how remarkably little beer I've consumed. Oh well. I can have fun without getting drunk.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Tip of the day

CHEAPSKATES. Avoid shelling out for fancy imported American stout by just adding Centennials when making your morning coffee.

(Only works with french press method, hops may clog up a moka pot).

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

BrewDog’s Aberdeen bar

If I’d known it only takes two and a half hours to get to Aberdeen, I’d have gone before. As everyone probably knows, BrewDog have now opened a bar there, so I went up for the opening night.

The North East of Scotland is prettier than its reputation as the train swooshes through Arbroath and Montrose. Aberdeen station feels more like a German airport than it does like any other Scottish railway station (this impression is strengthened by the branch of Peckhams' selling Oktoberfestbier from the big six Munich breweries). Outside, the whole town has a distinctly retro feel. There's an indoor market featuring Hughie's Country & Western Music Store. Even Marks & Spencer has the slightly cramped interior that I remember department stores having when I was a child.

Aitchie’s Alehouse across from the station is evidently an oil rig workers' pub. Bags are piled in the corners, and the place is filled with men presumably having a last pint before going offshore, or a first one on returning. Some still have a train journey ahead of them and are buying cans of McEwan’s Export at the bar. The staff, older men smartly turned out in white aprons, helpfully add a plastic tumbler to each carry-out bag. The “alehouse” sells only one cask beer — Orkney Dark Island is on. A plate of stovies or a pie and beans each cost less than a pint of beer.

Aberdeen has a number of remarkably tatty, run-down pubs slap bang in the city centre.

In contrast, shortly ahead of where the Gallowgate turns into a mass of 70s concrete, BrewDog now have a smart modern bar:

In some areas, it still smells of fresh plaster. The bar staff are cool and friendly, wearing uniform black Punk IPA t-shirts. There is no music until later on. The guys from Aitchie's Alehouse wouldn't, I think, feel comfortable here. The crowd is slightly older than I’d expected, mostly under 40 rather than mostly under 30 — and overwhelmingly male. The number of women barely reaches double figures.

In advance of the opening James had once again made waves by announcing the bar was only going to serve kegged and bottled beer with no cask-conditioned beer whatsoever. I don’t know whether this is deliberate contrariness, or just an infatuation with doing things the way the Americans do — this goes as far as spelling draught “draft” on the beer list. The irony here of course is that American craft brewers generally love playing with cask conditioning these days.

Since I’m hardly going to be a regular there anyway, I’m relaxed about it; it’s their brewery and their pub. I just find it hilarious that they have chosen to abandon real ale just at the precise moment when it’s finally becoming fashionable after nearly forty years. Later, standing at the bar, I overhear another customer “asking if it’s cask” and the barman explaining. I suspect the staff will be doing a lot of that.

The last time I drank kegged BrewDog I wasn’t impressed: Punk IPA was not even as good as the bottled version and certainly not a patch on the cask; 77 was a shadow of itself, merely good rather than the superb beer it is in the bottle. But I’m not a bigot, and happy to give it another shot. On my way between the railway station and the BrewDog bar I had dropped into Musa, where female staff wear chunky woolly jumpers and male staff look like members of Kraftwerk, and get a half of Punk IPA. Served in the rather nice BrewDog half pint tulip glass, it costs £2.20. It’s excellent, tighter, leaner, harsher than the cask version, with more soap and urinal-cake aromas. It’s not over-carbonated either, which lets so many kegged beers down.

At the bar itself, it’s already open well in advance of the announced 6pm start and there are no speeches, just a dimly lit bar which gradually fills up.

On the beer list, there are Dogma, Vanilla Porter, Punk IPA, Zeitgeist and Hardcore IPA. I don’t like Dogma so go for the Vanilla Porter. It’s decent, not the best thing they’ve ever done. The vanilla varies from restrained to hardly noticeable, which is preferable to it being overwhelming.

There’s one draught guest beer, 3 Floyds’ Pride and Joy Mild Ale. It’s fizzy, tart and lemony.

Back at the bar, they are selling shots of Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck! for a fiver a pop. I was intrigued by the description of Bismarck when it came out, but never bought any because of the pathetic Kraut-bashing that accompanied it. Thank God I didn’t — it’s a boozy, syrupy mess.

As well as the draught, sorry “draft” beers, the entire Brewpooch range is available in bottles. There is also an extensive guest bottle list from the likes of De Struise, Stone and Alesmith. They’re not cheap. Guest bottles start at £6 and many are in the £12–16 bracket, with the likes of Older Viscosity and Dark Lord going for £30 and £45 respectively. I suppose some of them are big bottles, at least I certainly hope so — it doesn't say on the menu. Yes, these are strong specialist beers, yes it is expensive to ship beer across the Atlantic, but I wonder who is going to pay these prices. Norwegian tickers I guess. Draught beer, on the other hand, is much more affordably priced: a pint of Punk is £3.50 which is not bad for Aberdeen. It seems odd, though, that there are only six draught beers.

I finish off with some Hardcore IPA. Wow! What a beer. One to restore your faith in these guys. It's too cold and overcarbonated, but still superb. I can still taste it on the train home.

BrewDog are certainly onto a winner here. Definitely a place worth visiting if you happen to be in Aberdeen.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

My favourite pub jukebox

This week’s trend in beer blogging is the pub jukebox. It’s an easy post to write and it’s either this or the development of the Prussian beer market in 1869, so here goes.

I’ll be upfront and say right at the start that I don’t like canned music in pubs. I go to pubs to chat to my mates, not to listen to someone else’s CDs or iPod. There is no appropriate level for pre-recorded music in pubs, it seems. Either it’s so quiet that you subconsciously strain your ears trying to figure out what the hell it is they’re playing, or it’s so loud that you can’t hear what your pals are saying.

Clubs are different. There the music is the main event and I’m in the frame of mind to appreciate (or not) a playlist that, say, follows Autechre with the Just Joans and the entire side three of Metal Machine Music at ear-splitting volume, seguing into Klaus Wunderlich’s instrumental cover of “Good Vibrations” before finishing with a twelve-minute mash-up of Lady Gaga, Jandek and the Wombles mixed by a drum ’n’ bass obsessed madman in his bedroom in an unfashionable suburb of Lisbon. But I don’t want that in the pub.

In the pub, I want live music if there’s to be any at all, and music to complement the chat rather than dominate it. There is still a bit of folk music in Glasgow pubs and I quite like that. What annoys me, though, is that although a couple of guys with fiddles and guitars were for years loud enough to entertain a pub without amplification, for some reason the two guys nowadays appear to need a 200 watt PA system in the same pub. It’s too much, too loud.

There is one pub jukebox I like. It’s the one in the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow. It’s free to use, but that’s not why I like it. I like it because it doesn’t quite work properly (which is the reason it’s free). Most of the time it functions normally, but occasionally, rather than playing the song you’ve chosen, it just plays “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” from Hair instead. Really rather charming in its own way.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I owe you a beer

Are people these days really so busy that they can't make time, even occasionally, to go for a beer in person?

An interview on the blog of the US Beer Bloggers Conference in Boulder caught my attention.
“My interest in beer grew exponentially since I started working with a company called Beer2Buds. They built a variety of methods for people to send a real beer to friends online to be redeemed at a local bar or restaurant. I love the concept because I can’t tell you how many times someone said to me, “I owe you a beer.” Now they have no excuse not to pay up.”
I don't want to be harsh about a service that I'm sure the owners and users regard as a nice gesture and a bit of fun. I will, however, do exactly that because the sentiment “Now they have no excuse not to pay up” makes me sad.

“I owe you a beer” is a great phrase. I use it a lot. And, obviously, I like hearing it. But it’s not about just settling a debt. It means more than that.

We have drinking rituals, like buying each other drinks, for a reason. They create social obligations and bond us together as people. When I say “I owe you a beer”, I am really saying: I recognise that I have obligations and responsibilities towards you. I recognise you are not a stranger. I respect and trust you enough to drink beer with you.

Reasonably erudite beer drinkers already know the story in the epic of Gilgamesh of the wild man who drank beer, thus becoming a cultured human; and about the elaborate drinking customs medieval artisans had that created, or enforced, loyalty to the group.

When we drink beer together, we recognise that we too have social connections that we cannot escape, that we are part of society, that the beer we drink is only possible by human beings cooperating. That's more important than the £3 a pint costs, and might be the reason why, no matter how short of cash we might be, we always seem to be able to scrape up enough for some beer.

Sending someone an electronic voucher they can redeem at a bar just doesn't do it for me. You might as well just give them money.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

No deposit, no return

Returnable bottles instinctively make sense to most people. Why destroy a perfectly good bottle and make a new one, when it could be washed and used again?

For a long time I thought I was alone in wishing we could return glass bottles like they do in Germany, Belgium and other places. It never seemed to be on anyone's agenda. But it seems there is an undercurrent of other people who want it too. When you bring the topic up everyone likes the idea. At least, I've never met anyone who came back from a visit to Germany and said "They charge a deposit on every bottle. That was really shit."

The Campaign to Protect Rural England has called for a national deposit scheme on drinks containers (Cooking Lager put his oar in too.). CPRE's scheme is kind of rubbish really. It's not nearly ambitious enough, considering that courageous steps will have to be taken to achieve it. All they are talking about is a deposit to reduce litter.

What I want — and what all the nostalgic commenters on various websites seem to want, if their vaseline-smeared reminiscences of collecting bottles for pocket money are anything to go by (nobody seems to have been an adult in the 1970s) — is a refillable bottle scheme, not just a deposit scheme. This is what they do in Belgium and Germany (not to mention much of the rest of the world outside Europe and North America) and in Germany 91% of packaged beer is in refillable containers.

There are two things that need to be looked at here. Firstly, we had a returnable bottle system in this country in living memory and should look at the reasons why we got rid of it before we consider introducing a new one.

Secondly, we need to look at other countries and see the problems (if any) that their systems face.

It is relatively easy to determine why reusable bottles vanished. You just need to read the trade press of the 1960s. It is full of adverts for canned beer and non-deposit bottles, aimed at retailers. No taking back dripping, mouldy empties! No setting aside storage space for dirty crates and smelly bottles!

Consumers too were seduced by the idea of containers that you just throw away. Today, now that people feel obliged to take their empty cans and bottles for recycling anyway, the effort of returning bottles may not seem so great.

There are two major factors working against the returnable bottle system, even in Germany. Firstly, the retail trade hates it. It is a lot of labour and storage space that generates no profit whatsoever. The cheapskate discounter supermarkets like Aldi basically boycott the system and only sell one-way bottles and cans. It can sometimes be very difficult to actually get a cash refund as many shops will insist you spend the credited amount with them.

More ominously, and becoming more common in recent years, the marketing departments of the big breweries love creating wanky new custom bottles for each beer for "brand differentiation."

But the system only works as long as the bottles are standardised and pretty much interchangeable. Otherwise, the immense effort in sorting all the bottles undermines the entire returnable system. There's also the factor that a standardised bottle can be sent back to the local brewery. A custom Beck's bottle, on the other hand, can only go back to Bremen, even if it was sold in Berchtesgaden at the other end of the country.

All these factors are equally present in the UK, if not substantially more so. An additional issue is the abnormally high proportion of imports in the UK beer market, which understandably enough are usually in one-way bottles.

Furthermore, there are important differences. Pretty much every German brewery has its own bottling line, which is perhaps sometimes antiquated, but that also means it is long since paid for. In the UK relatively few small brewers own a bottling line, so beer is regularly tankered around the country already and reintroducing returnables would lead to large cargoes of empty bottles being transported long distances, as well as obliging the bottling facilities to invest in bottle washing and testing equipment.

I am afraid that I cannot see a returnable bottle system being reintroduced in this country any time soon, much though I would love to see it. Big retailers would have to be forced into it. Small brewers might like the idea but be put off by the investment required.

The pub trade might be a different matter. I was surprised at first to read Chris Maclean writing this in The Publican:
“I'd like to see a return to a bottle sourced from a local supplier that is used and then returned to the supplier. Disposable bottles are the invention of companies who wish to market nationally (and internationally) without the responsibility of collecting them.
I liked the returnable bottles in their cases stacked in the cellar. The deposits on them weren't huge but it felt like money in the bank. It was good to collect them and sort them. The same sort of warm feeling I mentioned earlier.”
But when you think about it it makes sense. Pubs, especially those that sell oceans of stuff like Magner's, see at first hand the waste involved in using a bottle once and dumping it. And they often, as Chris Maclean points out, have to pay for their glass disposal on top of that.

It's worth remembering, too, that the greenest way to drink beer is drinking draught beer in the pub. Or taking it home from the pub in a reusable container. No one-way packaging, no rubbish, no unnecessary transport. Perhaps the green angle is one way for pubs to thrive.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Daevid Fyfe

I just found out that Daevid Fyfe, the brewer at Glasgow's Clockwork Beer Co, died suddenly last week.

I wish I could write a proper tribute, but the truth is I didn't really know him. He struck me as a lovely, rather reserved man, and the couple of times I did meet him his love of brewing was evident.

One time he was nice enough to show me around the brewery. It was after Maclays, formerly a brewer and now a pub company, had taken over the Clockwork. Technically, having closed their brewery in Alloa a few years earlier, they were re-entering the brewing trade by acquiring the tiny Clockwork plant, and Daevid was amused at the thought that he had by default become Maclays' head brewer.

I went down to the Clockwork today to drink a pint of Amber Ale in his memory. He told me that of all his beers, that was the one he preferred to drink himself.

RIP Daevid.

Monday, 20 September 2010


A few men were drinking in a pub. Substantially over middle age.

“Seen whit I’m drinking?” said one.

“Wheat beer! Tucker’s! [Tucher] A totally different taste aw thegither!”

Consumers are often more adventurous than they’re given credit for. The marketing “experts” are still trying to flog McEwan’s Export to these guys.

This happened several months ago when I was sitting in a Wetherspoons waiting for a train, or something. I wrote it down, in case I forgot. Which is just as well, because I did forget and only just found the scrap of paper.

Monday, 13 September 2010

German IPA

A few months ago Ron posted details of some 19th century German beers including one from an unknown source in Bremen claiming to be IPA.

At the time I speculated that, since Bremen is a port, it might well have been English beer just bottled and/or sold locally.

Turns out I was probably wrong. There was a Bremen brewery making IPA and it seems pretty likely that that could have been the one in Ron's table.

A brewery in Hemelingen, Bremen, founded in 1868 was using the name Erste Norddeutsche Actien Ale-und-Porter-Brauerei by 1878. Were they already brewing IPA in 1870?

It also might not have been the first. Another Bremen enterprise founded in 1815 was trading as “Englische Bierbrauerei Deetjen et Claussen” by 1832.

I must admit I have done no great detective work on this. Both the information and the label scans come from Klaus Ehm's fascinating breweriana collectors' site.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

The only pub in the village

If you look over there on the right you will see that for the last few months I and some other people have been using Twitter to try to spread the word about which interesting beers are available in Glasgow. It’s very simple: whenever we go to a pub and see something good, interesting, unusual, new or rare on draught, we tweet about it using the #glasgowbeer hashtag. It automatically gets retweeted and anyone who follows @GlasgowBeer gets an update about it. We now have quite a few people using it, which suggests to me that people appreciate knowing when it’s worth going to the pub for a particular beer.

The real aim is to get pubs to use it; after all, they are more on the ball with which beers they have on than we mere punters can ever be. Unfortunately, up until now we’ve singularly failed to get a single Glasgow pub tweeting about their beer in the way that, say, the Gunmakers or the Rake in London do.

We did, though, start noticing tweets from @TheAntonineArms, a pub none of us had ever heard of before. At first we were slightly irritated when it transpired the pub wasn’t actually even in Glasgow, but when we started looking at the beers they were tweeting, we couldn’t help but be intrigued.

Before I continue I should explain that the “nice country pub” that people love in England isn’t really very common at all in Scotland. There are some surviving old inns and pubs in rural areas, but in general they are stuck in the timewarp of Tennent’s Lager, Belhaven Best and Guinness. Exceptions prove the rule, of course, and happily these exceptions are slowly increasing in number.

We looked at a map. Then we rubbed our eyes and looked again. A pub there was selling those beers?

We had to go and investigate. It’s a 15 minute train journey and a 20 minute cycle from the nearest station to the pub. Not as far as it looks, though we got lost in the forest the first time. Once you know the way it’s easy.

It is lovely. The bar has been sympathetically renovated; there is old varnished wood, little clutter, yet the bar has an airy feel. There are big-screen TVs for those who want to see the match, but they are not intrusive and you can forget they’re there if you’d rather have a quiet chat. It combines all the best features of new-wave real ale pubs and of my favourite jakey pubs.

There are generally only a couple of real ales at a time but they are from the most progressive local breweries — Tryst, Tin Pot, Fyne Ales and others; and supplemented by carefully selected bottles. It puts a lot of pubs in Glasgow city to shame.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The innocent question

In the guardian, David Stubbs is out of his depth in criticising that Heineken advert.

He seems genuinely confused at why on earth characters in a Heineken advert might be speaking Dutch.

Then, rhetorically, he asks:

“Who the hell lays down lager as if it were Châteauneuf-du-Pape?”

If he only knew.

Curlers’ Rest

Up in Glasgow’s trendy west end the other day, I was passing the Curler’s Rest and noticed it had been refurbished. It’s an inn with a long history and is one of the half dozen or so that claim to be the oldest in Glasgow. But unitl now, I’ve only ever known it as a grotty student pub. If university chums suggested going there, you knew it was time to make an excuse and go home, and possibly think about finding new chums.

Well, what a transformation. The interior has been redone with lots of exposed wood and big tables. It’s a little too dark for the North London Sunday lunchtime gastropub feel they’re so clearly going for, but none the worse for that. To me it has a sort of wine-cellar vibe. The menu too is a bit Observer Food Monthly with its slow-roasted pork belly and grilled halloumi (what, no lamb shank?). That’s not a dig; I like it a lot.

More importantly, the beer selection was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to find perhaps one real ale and maybe Erdinger in the fridge (or Schneider Weisse if I was lucky). Instead, Deuchars IPA, BrewDog Alpha Dog, Black Sheep Bitter, Purity Ubu were on offer from handpump. Not bad; someone clearly knows what they’re doing and hasn’t just chosen the usual dreary regional beers.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager are on tap, and from the megabrewers at least there is Pilsner Urquell and Paulaner to supplement the Staropramen and Heineken.

A pint of Purity Ubu was served, heavily sparkled, into a dimple mug (this retro affectation is amusing; it must be in some gastropub handbook, for I’ve encountered it in various similar places several times now). It’s a fruity, malty brown bitter that has a nice hop balance to it. The only thing wrong with it is that it’s much, much too warm — almost room temperature.

If the place had been this good when I was a student, I’d never have got any work done. If they can get the cellar cooled and lose the sparklers it looks like we could have a serious addition to our drinking scene in Glasgow.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Old Glasgow Pubs

I went to a talk last night by John Gorevan who runs the website Old Glasgow Pubs. The Old Glasgow Club had invited him to speak and there was an impressive audience of over a hundred people to hear him. It’s encouraging to think that so many people are interested in this stuff.

Do you need to know where the Squirrel Bar was, when the Auld Hoose was demolished or who was running the Fox and Hounds in 1884? John’s site answers all these questions and some you never knew you had.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Dreary beers

It’s as well to take advantage of what remains of the summer, so I met a friend for a weeknight pint.

Blackfriars was busy as usual, even though it was a Monday night. But something wasn’t right. Someone nabbed the last table while I was at the bar, and even the BrewDog Trashy Blonde wasn’t spectacular. We decided to move off somewhere else. Alas, this proved in retrospect a mistake.

We passed the Ingram Bar and looked in. Still only Greene King IPA on sale. Much quieter than Blackfriars with just half a dozen or so customers. The pub is up for let. No bloody wonder. We didn’t stay for a pint.

If the Ingram was quiet, The Auctioneers just around the corner was deserted. The single beer on offer was Marston’s EPA. Oh well, it gives me a chance to try the revolutionary Fast Cask technology. Marston’s can’t be too bothered about convincing people of Fast Cask. EPA is shit to begin with and remains so in any format. Slight mineraliness and the odd creamy blandness found in under-hopped beer. Is Fast Cask to blame? I don’t think so.

The Auctioneers is an odd place. When I entered my first impression was that it was like Wetherspoons, but without the smell of vinegary chips. After a while I decided that it was more like the awful plastic pubs you get grafted onto motorway hotels. I think it was the proliferation of menus, TV screens and lurid posters, half of which promoted cut-price drinks and the other half sensible drinking. It’s probably bouncing on a Friday night, but seemed rather sad on a Monday evening.

A couple of blocks westward we reach the Drum & Monkey, a Nicholson’s pub. The chain has made a recognisable effort to improve its cask beer offering, and the pub now has five handpumps. But oh dear, the beers on sale: Caledonian 80 and Deuchars IPA, Fullers Summer Ale, Brains bitter and St Austell Tribute; perhaps we got them on an bad night. The Fullers beer was somewhat grainy and just blah; Brains a fair bit better with slight traces of malt and hops discernible; Tribute had an intriguing citrussy lemon-meringue-pie nose, but failed to live up to expectations.

Why are so many beers so dull?

Is it me? Am I too picky?

Perhaps I was just in a bad mood. But shouldn’t going to the pub cheer you up?