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.