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?