Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Golden Pint Awards: 2011 edition

Here we are again. I’m having a quiet Hogmanay this year with just a few selected bottles and it’s time between the mince pies and chimes of Big Ben to announce the winners of my Golden Pints.

My top choices are not the beers I’ve drunk or enjoyed the most this year (that would be Fyne Ales and Harviestoun, who won everything last year anyway). But they are beers that have stuck in my mind through being good, interesting or thought-provoking. I’ve deliberately chosen beers that I haven’t blogged about specifically, but are worthy of more attention than they’ve had.

UK Draught (Cask or Keg) Beer
Harvey’s Mild: possibly the perfect session ale, still packed with subtle flavour after three pints. I worry that old-fashioned, idiosyncratic beers like this suffer from being less immediately accessible than those lovely New World pale ales that taste of Um Bongo.

Runner-up: Belhaven IPA. Yes, yes, yes. Nobody is more surprised than me to be giving an award to a Belhaven beer. Most of their draught products are frankly dreadful, having lost any character they once had. This new IPA is not one I expected much of. The first pint, drunk out of a sense of duty, was alright, better than Greene King IPA. Subsequent pints were better, with the spiciness and sulphuriness that other ales from the brewery lack. At 3.8% it’s obviously intended to compete with Deuchars IPA and does a more than creditable job. It’s never going to be a flavour bomb at that gravity but is a very palatable session pint. And at least their pubs are starting to offer this instead of the ubiquitous Deuchars or Greene King IPA from the parent company, which, quite apart from its defects as a beer, always looks to me like an angel of death when I see it in Scotland, implying that the closure of Belhaven is coming closer.

UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Worthington Celebration Shield: although I only drank it once, it stood out from the crowd. Being strong, it’s rich and boozy, but also dry and minerally as a proper Pale Ale should be. Unique among all the beers I’ve tasted this year.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Haven’t drunk one … not one that stood up to those brewed in this country, anyway. With one exception: Stone Old Guardian barley wine, superb, oily and bitter. I have a lot of time for Stone. You don’t see Greg Koch going around shit-talking Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhardt.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I don’t drink many of these either. As I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve, I’ll just put the last one I had: Odell 5 Barrel Pale Ale, which is fair enough as it’s a very nice beer. I like Odell beers; the problem is that they are too British to do well in the UK. You would think this would be an advantage, but as imports they are inevitably twice the price of a comparable local product.

Best Overall Beer
Tryst Nelson Sauvin Hop Trial. Tryst are a brewery I haven’t written about enough on this blog. Their beers can be inconsistent, but that means when they are poor they are merely good; when they are good they are spectacular. Nelson Sauvin Hop Trial is a beer I have ordered every time I’ve seen it this year, and each pint has been better than the last.

Best Pumpclip or Label
Nollaig, the seasonal beer from Williams Bros. The litre swing-top bottle looks so badass. The label is typographically superb, starkly beautiful so you don’t even notice it’s just white type on a black background. The beer is pretty good too, rich and chewy, a little on the sweet side with a marvellous dense head. There’s probably none left now. They will surely make it again.

Best UK Brewery
No award for this as it’s just not fair. There are so many good breweries now.  Can't think of it as a competition any more.

Best Overseas Brewery
Schlenkerla of Bamberg. I could quite happily drink their beer all the time. Märzen in summer and Bock in winter. Oh yeah. I know there are some people who don’t like Schlenkerla. I secretly subtract about 20% from the value I place on such people’s opinions about anything else.

Pub/Bar of the Year
For me, it has to be the Laurieston Bar. When they put on a cask of Fyne Ales Highlander for Glasgow Beer Week’s Cask Night, I had no idea that it would lead to them serving cask beer regularly. I certainly never expected it, but when I was in for a quick pint a few weeks later I was met with complaints that the brewery hadn’t been in touch to sell them any more beer! One thing led to another: after an interregnum of putting on a firkin at weekends, the pub now has two handpumps and at least one cask beer on all the time. Other places will always have a wider range of beer, but there’s nowhere cosier than the Laurieston for a few pints with friends.

Beer Festival of the Year
Alloa. I’ve been disappointed by the beer quality at a few festivals this year. Alloa was brilliant because it was held later in the year when the weather was starting to get colder. As a result there were no cooling issues and the beer was in spectacular condition. We also seem to have banished the spectre of toffee-flavoured dishwater masquerading as “traditional Scottish beer” at these things, with both brewers and drinkers moving to well-bittered, hoppy beers.

Supermarket of the Year
No award. Sainsbury’s might have been in with a chance if the staff in their stores had actually been told about the Beer Challenge they were ostensibly having. I don’t really buy beer in supermarkets anymore — it’s either in the pub, independent shops or homebrew.

Independent Retailer of the Year
After a couple of years in the doldrums, The Cave at Kelvinbridge has returned to form and now seems to stock everything they can get from James Clay. Pricing can be painful sometimes but that’s the price we pay for access to specialities.

Online Retailer of the Year
No award, simply because I haven’t bought any beer online this year.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
In a world in which a work as sub-standard and sloppily produced as the Oxford Companion to Beer can make it into bookstores, it seems wrong to give an award at all.

Best Beer Blog or Website
I’ve been impressed this year not just by how prolific Jeff Alworth of Beervana is, but how insightful his posts are. Runner-up is Adam’s blog Walking and Crawling, because he goes to places nobody else does and I really enjoy vicariously touring Scotland through him.

Best Beer Twitterer
This would have to be @ThornbridgeDom, just because his tweets make me chuckle.

Best Online Brewery presence
I can't remember the last time I went to a brewery website for information. But they are usually a good source of the type of "we use only the finest malt and hops" woffle that plagues brewery marketing. Twitter is where it’s at for breweries, and here Hardknott has developed a reputation that is out of all proportion to its size. Runner-up is Magic Rock for similar reasons: they’ve achieved coverage far beyond that which rivals of a similar size get.

In 2012 I’d Most Like To…
Drink more tasty beer in great pubs. And to see crappy beer ticking sites collapse under the weight of their own fucking idiocy.

Happy new year, folks!

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Real ale at Tennent's, 1983

In 1983 Tennent’s launched a new cask beer. Tennent’s Times, the house paper of the company, reported thus on the trials in two pubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh:
Almost 18 months ago the Company re-introduced Draught Bass into a number of selected Managed Houses in Edinburgh as part of a test-marketing campaign in the cask-conditioned ale market. The success of the Edinburgh project brought about the re-introduction of the same product into a number of outlets in Glasgow and again the result has been a success.

Now as part of the overall exercise — and to consider all possible options — a new cask-conditioned ale, known as ‘Heriot Brewery Traditional 80/– Ale’ has appeared in Tennent’s Bar in Glasgow’s Byres Road. Brewed at Heriot, it has already been tasted — under the name of ‘Sheep Heid Inn Ale’ — in Edinburgh’s Sheep Heid Inn and was voted ‘a winner’.

Said Marketing Manager, Andy Lowe, “We recognise that the cask-conditioned sector of the market is very small at less than 2% of the entire Scottish market but we have to look at and consider all options, including brewing our own product in Scotland.

After all, Draught Bass is currently having to be shipped north and we would like to consider something brewed locally too.”
Note how cautious the article is. How the reader is repeatedly assured that this is just a test, just considering all options. They didn’t even want to put the Tennent’s name on it (it’s interesting to note that the same approach has been applied to the recent launch of Caledonia Best). Perhaps the project was not popular within the company. Unsurprising considering that they’d spent the previous twenty years eliminating cask beer from their pubs.

Here’s a young George Howell filling casks at Heriot. George is now Head Brewer at Belhaven.

The reluctance with which Tennent’s did this is palpable even 27 years later; next to the small two-column article reporting on the new beer, there is a larger opinion piece denouncing CAMRA. Relations were apparently less than good:
It’s always a very sad thing when people begin to exercise any kind of blind prejudice and particularly when that group is speaking on behalf of an obvious minority. No one denies anyone the right of protest or the right to try to expand the range of choice available to the consumer.

But what is offensive is when a small body begins to make unwarranted attacks upon a quality product which is already enjoyed by many people and one which has stood the test of almost 100 years of taste.

Yet that is what CAMRA in the West of Scotland has done in the recent weeks. They have made blind attacks on Tennent’s Lager on the basis, purely and simply, that they know best. They — a small group of misguided, albeit well-meaning individuals — have decided that Tennent’s Lager, enjoyed by millions throughout the world is not a top quality product!

And this comes from a group of individuals whose own spokesman was unable to tell Tennent’s Export Ale (brewery conditioned) from one of their so-called ‘real ales’ … and even admitted that he preferred Tennent’s Export!

CAMRA has a role to play and it plays that role very well in many parts of the country. However, it is doing itself no favours by ‘knocking’ other brews in a misguided fashion.

Better by far to promote cask-conditioned ale on its own merits, and let the public decide.


Two per cent of the market. I wonder what it is now after the growth in recent years? It’s probably still substantially lower than in England.

The Heriot Brewery was demolished in the 1990s, but the Sheep Heid Inn, which claims to be Scotland's oldest pub, is still going strong, is now pretty focussed on cask beer and apparently still had Sheep Heid Inn Ale brewed for them until recently.

Monday, 26 December 2011

The return of black cork

Inattentive readers with short memories may already have forgotten my post a few weeks ago about Black Cork, the lost Edinburgh beer that was the favoured pre-loading beverage of the villainous Deacon Brodie and his chums before they went out a-robbin’ of an evening. I argued that Black Cork was most probably a strong Scotch ale; “strong” in this particular historical context being 10% loopy juice, and not, as the name might suggest, a type of porter.

Now Edinburgh-based Knops Beer Company has revived the name and launched a new beer called Black Cork. It’s … a porter. This follows in the same vein of previous beers that pick up old beer names such as the previous Three Threads and Musselburgh Broke.

I had to go along to the launch at Edinburgh’s trendy Stockbridge Tap, because it was an opportunity to see the full Knops line-up on draught at once, and I’ll probably never get the chance again to tell a brewer that his beer isn’t a proper Black Cork at all (I’m not really bothered by this in the slightest. If I’ve learned anything from my research it’s that brewers will call any beer by any name if it will sell the stuff. It’s not like anyone living remembers the original black cork, which was only ever made by one brewery anyway).

Well, it’s porter. Coffee dominates with supporting chocolate. A surprising amount of fruitiness and an interesting damp-basement character. It’s easy to drink for its 6.2%. It has an underlying sweetness too, and the more you drink the easier it gets to drink. Dangerous.

I also try Knops IPA, which was launched some time ago but I’d never seen on draught before. It’s a fair bit sweeter than most of the beers I generally drink.  Nevertheless it grows on you; there’s a respectable hoppiness that becomes more noticeable the more you drink. Knops has aimed from the beginning to produce easy-drinking beers; the very idea might send beer geeks running screaming down to the Cowgate but the IPA and Black Cork certainly achieve what they set out to do. Beers that are approachable, yet have enough character to remain interesting over several pints.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

A midwinter night’s dream in Partick

Depending on whom you listen to, the new Bruadar bar at Partick Cross is the best thing to happen for beer in Glasgow for years, or a flash in the pan that will be lucky to last six months.

The bar is in the premises last known as the Millhouse (which embarrassingly proclaimed itself “a great pub” on a sign outside. Erm, we’ll be the judge of that, thanks), the scene of several previous failed bar ventures. It’s the attempt by Fuller Thomson, operators of bars such as the Holyrood 9a in Edinburgh, to create a serious beer establishment in the west end of Glasgow. I’ve never been particularly impressed by the beer on offer in the Holyrood 9a the couple of times I’ve been there, so I was cautiously curious, albeit not wetting myself in anticipation.

Though announced to the public at very short notice, brewers like Williams Bros, Black Isle, Tempest and others have been happy to help out by supplying beer. Indeed the Williams brothers themselves, Bruce and Scott, had turned up for the opening to launch their kegged Profanity Stout.

First impressions were not great. Looking around and wondering where the handpumps were, it was a few moments before I twigged that the cask taps were mounted in the wall, Euston Tap-style, alongside the keg taps. Confusion ensued when I asked the bar staff what was available from cask—I was confidently assured that Profanity Stout was cask, as was 69 IPA from Lovibonds (a brewery who actually produce no cask beer whatsoever). Luckily my cynicism won out and I’d by now noticed the difference in the tap handles so could tell cask from keg. Still fumbling over which beer to try, I ordered Durham White Stout and got a shock when the half pint surprisingly came to £3. It was a strong beer and fairly good, but not worth that much. Fortunately this price point is not necessarily typical, with weaker quaffing beers even a little below the average for this part of town.

Still, these quibbles could be easily fixed with better signage (you have a blackboard, chalk the prices on it!) and when the staff get more experience.

I certainly didn’t let them spoil my night, as Glasgow’s contingent of beer nerds were arriving. We all crowded into a corner and joined brewery people from Williams and Black Isle for drink, burgers and chat.

What several people have been wondering is: is it a good idea to situate this new venture right next to one of the best-known real ale pubs in the city, the Three Judges? My answer is an unequivocal yes—it makes Partick Cross a real beer destination, worth crossing town for in the knowledge that if there’s nothing you fancy in one pub, or it’s full to bursting, you can always try the other.

Moaners will say “it’s not a traditional pub, though, is it?”, to which one can only point out that the weirdly fossilised pseudo-Victorian pub interiors favoured by pub companies are very much a historical aberration. Glasgow bars have often been refurbished in modern style, as the few remaining examples of 1930s art deco bars show. One thing I do find annoying is how loud the place is. It’s hard to hear yourself talk across the wide tables when even a few other customers are in. When it’s full it’ll be deafening.

How is the beer? 69 IPA’s deep, resiny harshness makes it an acquired taste, but I think I want to acquire it. Star of the show, though, was Tempest’s Into The Light, a pale ’n’ hoppy full of citrus flavours. Magic Rock’s Rapture was one of those hoppy red beers that I don’t normally like, but is well made.

Some of us were drinking keg, others cask, some both. Just as at Social Media Week’s beer tasting a few months ago, people are capable of enjoying the products of different brewing traditions without getting their knickers in a twist. Will Hawkes had an excellent piece on the Independent website last week which really hit the nail on the head about what’s going on in Scotland (and I’m not just saying that because he quoted me in it). Scottish brewers and drinkers are developing closer ties based on respect and a love of good beer. Suddenly it’s the sectarian Brewdog cult that looks out-of-touch and irrelevant. Everyone else is getting on great and having a good time.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Disher’s ale and Edinburgh United Breweries beers 1928–1933

Edinburgh United Breweries. Pretty much forgotten today. It was set up in the late nineteenth century to absorb several small breweries, among them Bell’s, sometime brewers of “black cork”, and Disher’s, famous for their strong ale.

Bell’s brewery on the Pleasance remained the brewery for the united concern. Here it can be seen in the background. Splendidly, the pub in the foreground is advertising Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale:

Picture courtesy of David Gordon of the Edinburgh shop Now and Then

Here's what the site looks like today. Hooray, the brewery building is still there!

View Larger Map

Now for some numbers. I don’t know for sure what kind of beer the 54/– to 80/– and the 6d and 8d beers were. Most likely Pale Ale, but I am not going to assume. As 210/– is ten guineas, I think we can take it that they were still making Disher’s Ten Guinea Ale up to the end. But look at the gravity of it and how it plummets by almost 20 gravity points in just five years. More happily, Jeffrey’s continued to brew it after they took over EUB in the 1930s and were still making Disher’s Extra Strong Ale at 1.088 in the 1950s.

Gravities of Edinburgh United Breweries beers, 1928–1933
Brewery Beer name Beer type OG Year
EUB 6d ? 1037 1928
EUB Mild ? 1033 1928
EUB 8d ? 1052 1928
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1103 1928
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1100 1929
EUB 54/– ? 1031 1929
EUB 80/– 1054 1929
EUB Exp St Stout 1055 1929
EUB 60/– ? 1036 1930
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1093 1930
EUB 54/– ? 1031 1930
EUB Mild Mild Ale 1032 1930
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1090 1930
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1089 1931
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1085 1932
EUB 54/– ? 1030 1933
EUB 60/– ? 1036 1933
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1082 1933
EUB 210/– Strong Ale 1090 1933
EUB 60/– ? 1039 1933
EUB 60/– ? 1042 1933