Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The legend of kettle caramelisation in Scottish beer (2)

Following on from my previous post on the subject, this snippet about Wright’s brewery in Perth caught my eye:
The brewing copper is one of the traditional direct-fired open vessels—one of the few of this type remaining in use today, and worthy of a visit by young brewers whose experience is limited to the modern welded enclosed steam-coil heated copper.
Brewers’ Guardian October 1960 (reprinted in Journal of the Scottish Brewing Archive vol. 5 (2003))
So by 1960 at the latest, a direct fired copper was already an anachronism and something you showed to young brewing students to show them how things were done in the past.

Previously to this, English breweries would presumably have been using the same direct-heat technology, but we never hear anything about caramelisation being a characteristic of English beer.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Truman’s, the cunning sods

As someone who likes that sort of thing, I was happy to see that a few people down in that London have revived the Truman’s name and are having beer brewed under contract until they can acquire their own premises — repossession of the historic Brick Lane brewery, before which I genuflect every time I pass it, presumably being out of the question. Their Summer Runner is a perfectly decent bitter, dry and flinty. I think they should really be brewing Porter, but that’s my problem.

It wasn’t until I was wandering about London recently that I twigged what they’re up to.

East London is still dotted with a fair number of these beautiful old ex-Truman pubs with the tiled frontages. Some are still open, some long since closed (and I dare say a great many similar ones have been demolished, but that need not concern us here).

Get the brand noticed, and people will start asking for it in these pubs that say “Truman’s Ales & Stouts” outside, thus putting pressure on them to stock it. Now that’s clever. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Cask night

One of my favourite pubs in Glasgow is the Laurieston Bar. It stands just south of the Clyde in an area which was largely demolished during the 1970s, but the handsome facade of the former Bridge St railway station, the original terminus before the construction of Central Station on the north bank, remains, and the Laurieston is right next to it, although it has lost its original upper storey at some point over the years.

I’d never been in the Laurieston until the book Scotland’s True Heritage Pubs came out a few years back. A friend and I visited one Sunday afternoon and were instant converts. Not just because of the unique formica-heavy 1960s interior which got it into CAMRA’s National Inventory and the guidebook; it was, as my pal said, the friendliest pub he’d ever been in. We started telling people what a gem they were missing and got more and more fond of the place. Not a few evenings have been spent here, listening to the whimsical jukebox that occasionally plays “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” from Hair instead of the track you’ve selected. Sometimes we have a pie from the vintage pie heater that says “McGhee’s” on the front. The pies still come from McGhee’s. I like that.

The only thing wrong with the Laurieston is that Fürstenberg is the best beer they sell. Often I find myself drinking smoothflow mild, keg heavy or even Guinness. It’s worth putting up with all that, just for the brilliant crack.

Comparable pubs in Edinburgh or Manchester would sell real ale. This is a Glasgow-wide problem; a cultural divide rooted in the extermination of cask here in the 1960s. There’s a long-standing notion that quality beer will only sell in the West End and the Merchant City, though thankfully this is changing.

Badgering reluctant licensees to sell cask permanently doesn’t often work; it’s a risk to stock a new, perishable beer when you have no idea who, if anyone, is going to drink it.

A different approach was needed. The Americans treat cask as something special: bars make an event of tapping a cask and invite people to come along specially. Perhaps that would work here. Nervously I asked James, who runs the bar with his brother John, if he would consider having a cask for one night only during Glasgow Beer Week. At first he was cautious, saying “Well, we don’t really do promotions here,” as if I had suggested having dolly birds handing out bottles of Heineken.

But he agreed to let me put a brewery in touch, and Fyne Ales agreed to supply a nine of Highlander heavy and lend the pub a handpump. We set a date during Beer Week, and every time I pop in thereafter James seems more enthusiastic, until he is positively bouncing the day before when I look in to check that the beer has arrived.

The brothers have been in the trade long enough to remember when all draught beer was cask-conditioned. I was lucky enough to be invited to see the cellar. Remember I mentioned the unaltered 1960s interior? The pub itself and the cellar are much older than that; we think it probably dates from 1890, contemporary with the railway station next door. Down in the cellar, raw stone surrounds the delivery hatch, which is big enough for the barrels and hogsheads that would have been in daily use when
the pub opened. James nonchalantly picks up a thermometer to check the temperature in the cellar. It’s a promotional one with the name of a brewery on it. Except the brewery is Campbell, Hope & King (closed 1970). This thermometer is older than me and it’s just lying around in the cellar, a reminder of a defunct brewery.

Every time I see James after that he looks happier, and has some anecdote to relate about the old days when they had to hose the wooden beer casks down with water in the summer to keep them cool. He’s also realised that serving real ale means not having to buy CO2 — an advantage which, it seems to me, CAMRA has neglected to emphasise in its promotion of cask to publicans.

The appointed day arrives and we pile into the pub at the ordained time. We each take our turn to receive our foaming pints — a tad warmer than I’d like it, but in marvellous condition. The pub slowly fills up and the quiet of the afternoon session is replaced by the gentle murmur of an evening’s chat. Charlie has come down from the brewery. Veteran Camranauts are here, attracted by the beer. West End scenesters are here, attracted by the beer. One pint goes down, then another. Same again? we ask, unnecessarily.

This is proper old school drinking. There is one kind of beer. You drink lots of pints of it. Food is crisps or toasties. Entertainment is talking to your friends. It is completely stripped-down, essential pub. And it’s bloody brilliant.

Tom goes to the bar for another pint; the handpump sputters and spits and the cask is finished. We have killed the Highlander. A cheer goes up; we are all talking rubbish and happy. Except Tom, who has no beer left. Poor Tom.

Since this night the Laurieston has put in a couple of further orders for cask beer. I am hopeful. There is a further post devoted entirely to the Laurieston’s wonderful tables over at Glasgow Bars and a Crane.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Details of London pubs

1959 | Charrington | Toby Ale | Pale Ale | OG 1046.6 | FG 1009 | 4.65%ABV

Just off Old Street, this pub has either not long for this world…
… or the developers intend to build around it. If it were going, it’d be gone already, wouldn’t it?

Imagine if there were some way of drinking awesome draught beer at home!

You have to admire the tenacity of this place which still
has a petition in the window even as the building next door is being demolished.

Courage Ales (it’s just a sign mate, we sell Fosters)

Public Bar

Delivery hatch right in front of the door to the public bar – why?

Nice old pub, closed. Not all London pubs are doing well.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

GBBF periphery, grapefruit beer and cat pubs

I like to take advantage of being in London for GBBF to visit pubs, both old favourites and new discoveries. One pub I’d been meaning to visit for years, chiefly because Michael Jackson wrote about it, was the Star Tavern in Belgravia, which according to him was a good place to drink Fullers beers. But times change and I was disappointed there was no Chiswick. Pint of Discovery then. My mission to drink Chiswick on its home turf is thwarted again. You’d think it would be easy, too.

I have met up with a couple of friends and we are just spending a day wandering across the city. The Wenlock Arms? Why not, on a day like this? The threat to the place seemingly less urgent than it was thought to be, we drop in for a pint and to experience what Real Ale pubs were like in the 1970s. Sussex Best. No rush.

Then it’s off to Clerkenwell and the Jerusalem Tavern. Last time I was here the beer didn’t impress, but today it was spot on. Old-Style Porter goes down a treat. After tasting my friend’s Grapefruit Beer I beg the others to stay here for another round, so I can have a pint of that to myself. Gorgeous stuff. The sun is streaming through the windows and it’s just perfect.

Ye olde menu of ye winter fare and ye summer fare
We are passing the alley that leads to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. My friends have never been, so we pop in for one. Ye Samuel Smith’s beer isn’t exciting, but it’s worth a half pint to sit here for a while, even if ye larger rooms aren’t open and we have to crowd into ye small bar. Looking at ye old menus in ye display cases outside, it’s clear they’ve been milking ye great age of ye place for at least a hundred years already, if not longer.

Cat pub
The Seven Stars in WC2 is a pub I’ve never been in, or even heard of before. But we have to go there, as it has a cat that wears a ruff. Alright then. Fortunately the cat is not the only attraction. It’s a nice old pub, rather scruffy in a good way, and serves a delicious pint of Dark Star Hophead.

The cat changes the dynamic of the pub. People come in, pet the cat, and order a drink. Bet there are never any fights in here. Cat pubs are the future. I’m going to start a chain of them.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Schwelm update

The fight to save the Schwelm Brewery is taking a further step today with a second demonstration in the city centre following the first last week.

Campaigners are upset by the lack of support from local politics and the decision by the insolvency administrators to cease production immediately and wind up the brewing business as soon as possible. The administrators say, as they always do, that they are forced to act conservatively in the interests of creditors and owners.

But all sorts of rumours are circulating about the alleged nefarious machinations of the administrators and brewery owners and some suspect there are already plans to redevelop the brewery site.

Certainly the announcement by the administrator that retail outlets will not be able to redeem the deposits on empty bottles and crates after a specific date is a great incentive for these outlets to delist the Schwelmer products immediately, making the restarting of production more difficult.

Campaigners have responded by using their Facebook group, which now has almost 8000 members, to organise flash mobs at beer depots to purchase crates of Schwelmer and show that there is still a demand for the beer.

Cynics say that hundreds of small German breweries have already closed without such a fuss being made, which is true. More’s the pity.

There are also negotiations with potential investors, and the foundation of a cooperative in which supporters can buy shares. No one knows what will happen in the end, but it appears more likely than it once did, that some sort of brewing operation may be salvaged from the wreckage.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A plug

Just a plug today for another Glasgow blog: Glasgow Bars and a Crane. It’s devoted to photographing the interiors of the city’s pubs.

Thanks to Scottish & Newcastle’s and Tennents’ determination to wipe out cask beer in the 1960s, Glasgow has been left with a lot of lovely Victorian pubs that don’t sell anything worth drinking. I thought I’d been to a lot of these, but the blog keeps surprising me with pubs I’ve walked past hundreds of times, but never been into. The author clearly has a deep appreciation of these places, even going as far as writing a piece on the ideal pub table.

With jakey pubs dropping like flies, especially in the city centre, this blog is providing a valuable service.

Saturday, 6 August 2011


Every August, the sole legitimate representative of British beer drinkers puts on its flagship festival, and pilgrims come from all over the world to London to discover (or rediscover) the path of cask-conditioned enlightenment.

I’ve only been going for three years but it’s become a firm fixture in my calendar. I’m a little blase about local festivals of the sixty-firkins-in-the-town-hall type nowadays. The Great British Beer Festival is different both in its vastness and in its complexity.

One thing I have learned is to keep track of my drinking using the Pork Scratchings Index (PSI). It is quite simple: a sober person finds the very idea of pork scratchings revolting. Thus, once the idea of getting a packet of pork scratchings starts to seem attractive, you know that you have consumed too much beer and need to go home.

As I always do, I started with a pint of dark mild. It washes the city dust out of my throat and means I don’t run out of beer while wandering around trying to get my bearings. Last year I kept bumping into people I knew on the way in and due to all the chat it took me about an hour to get my first beer. To avoid that happening was the reason I spent my first few minutes striding purposefully about, studiously ignoring everything around  me (sorry again Pete).  Moorhouse's Black Cat was light and refreshing as ever. I was very glad to find that the cooling systems were holding up under the heat of London in August.

I don’t bother with a tick list these days, as I prefer just to scan the labels and handpumps to see what’s actually available. It’s quicker than reading the catalogue and thinking “Ooh, that sounds nice”, only to find the beer isn’t on. So I'm having a relaxing pint and watching tickers manically filling suitcases with rare and recherche bottles from the foreign beer bar. I think I have the better time of it.

After my mild and a good old wander round, it’s time for a hoppy beer. Sierra Nevada Torpedo to be exact. I wasn’t too impressed by this the first time I had it from the bottle. This is better. The cask version is fresher-tasting, yet only subtly bitter. Where are the hops?

Wander around, talk to bloggers, drink some beer, talk to brewers, drink some more beer.

Over at the Worthington stand, cask White Shield makes a good first impression — it’s properly farty as a Burton pale ale should be. But it’s not bright, it’s overly sweet and not bitter enough. Worthington ‘E’, poured by Steve Wellington himself, is better, with a caramelly touch but a more balanced dry finish. Worthington’s stand is pretty slick with smart new pumpclips and signage in Gill Sans, and they do a mild too!

Am I drunk enough for pork scratchings yet? Definitely not.

One of the exciting things about the beer renaissance is that some breweries who were thought of as sleepy and staid are waking up and starting to brew a wider range of beer. One such is Thwaites. Their new IPA is true to style at 3.9% and pleasant, but in the end still too cautiously hopped for me. I wanted to try their Triple C all-Cascade beer too, but ran out of time.

Back to the American bar for Oskar Blue Dale’s Pale Ale. Perfumey, resiny and syrupy, it illustrates my issue with so many American beers. Too much damn crystal malt and not enough bittering hops! People keep saying it’s because these beers are designed for keg not cask, but that’s rubbish; I have exactly the same reaction when I drink the keg versions. I think it’s down to a genuine difference in palate of drinkers on the two sides of the Atlantic. It’s a pity, because it’s a well made beer … if you like it gooey.

Am I drunk enough for pork scratchings yet? No.

Brewster’s Hophead at just 3.6% is the beer I've been looking for all afternoon. Dry, bitter and austere, it makes my lips smack in the way the supposedly über-hoppy American beers failed to.

Am I drunk enough for pork scratchings yet? I believe I am. Which means it’s time to leave. It’s a terrible shame my liver and wallet won’t allow me to stay longer. GBBF is absolutely unique in the range of beer available; Earl’s Court may be a bit of a barn but you’ll do a lot of travelling to find all these beers otherwise.

Before I do leave, a glass of lambic to help me on my way. Girardin is pleasant and surprisingly (i.e. noticeably) bitter. It does go rather well with the pork scratchings.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Jakey pubs in Wishaw

Jon at The Brew Site is curating The Session this month on the topic of sour beer.  On an apparently unrelated subject, I was in Wishaw recently. Don’t ask why I was in Wishaw. But I’m on a mission to visit jakey pubs whenever I can, so I sought out a couple.

The Imperial Bar in Wishaw. It doesn’t get much jakier. It’s so jakey that it is in CAMRA’s Scottish Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors (Jakey Section).

I was last in here years ago with a female friend. At the time they refused to serve us, because they didn’t have a women’s toilet. It’s possible they still don’t. The gents’ are ancient (The gents are also ancient). A once-handsome interior with booths. Sorry no pictures as I was scared to take any.

Here, you drink lager and whisky. That is pretty much all there is. It’s one of the most spartan pubs I’ve been in for a quite a while. Blended whisky, no fancy single malts here. A pint of Tennent’s Lager during the week will set you back £1.75. They also have McEwan’s light — a rarity these days — at the same price.

Nobody drinks the light. I know because mine had gone off. Even keg beer will go off eventually, or maybe they just hadn’t cleaned the lines. It actually made the beer more interesting, adding a Rodenbachesque acidity to it. I didn’t finish it though, as the thought of what might be living in the pipes spoiled my appreciation of the beer.

That’s my sour beer story. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Carling: there’s more flavor to it because there’s more hops in it

No, really. At least according to the advert there is. Carling Red Cap Ale, that is. You remember, it’s light like beer but hearty like ale.

I genuinely can’t imagine a major beer brand today – one big enough to advertise on TV, I mean –  talking about the amount of hops they put in their beer.

As ever, the advert is from the wonderful collection of ads from the Benton & Bowles ad agency stored at

Monday, 1 August 2011

Ale or beer?

Light and dry as the smoothest beer … but with that hearty flavour only an ale can give. Doesn’t that sound good? Younger beer geeks who have been “educated” by Beer Advocate will scratch their heads and say “Huh? But ale is a kind of beer! Those guys back in the day didn’t know anything!”

In the 1950s of course, “beer” in America meant lager, while “ale” meant, well, ale. This ad just reminds us of it. It makes me feel old realising that some people are unaware of the change in usage.

In the UK the situation was reversed until recently. Beer was the word used for ale, and lager was regarded as something other than beer (the word for stout was Guinness). I remember when supermarkets had a ‘beer’ section and a ‘lager’ section. Now they divide them into ‘Premium Bottled Ales’, ‘World Beers’, and everything else. Our thinking about beer and the terms retailers use have changed quite dramatically in a short space of time. So there isn’t just American usage and British usage to take into account, but also recent usage, 19th century usage, and so on.

We don’t live in a homogeneous beer culture but in a world of many cultures. Our history is a different culture still – or rather a series of cultures. Appreciating that is more helpful to understanding beer than trying to force them all into one universal schema, which is impossible anyway. And you can confuse people by saying things like “Actually, strictly speaking Pale Ale is a Beer not an Ale”, which is why I like it.