Monday, 31 December 2012

The year in beer

Just some photos today of random beers and places this year. Otherwise known as some of the random pictures I took on my phone and never used.

There’s a prize (a can of Sweetheart Stout) if anyone can name all the beers and all the places. 

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Golden Pints 2012

Yes, I got my Golden Pints finalised! Here are ze results from ze jury at mine:

Best UK Draught (Cask or Keg) Beer

There are too many to name one. I’m going to do a top ten instead, of beers I thought were a just a little bit more special or out of the ordinary. In no particular order, and not limited to ten: Williams Bros Impale IPA (Simcoe dry hopped version), Fyne Zombier, Fyne Fladda Rock, West Unkölsch, WEST Wild West unfiltered lager, Tempest Unforgiven, Cromarty Hit The Lip, Kernel Table Beer, Stewart Coconut Porter, Alechemy Cairnpapple, Tryst Citra Hop Trial. The Clockwork’s special foraged beer made during Beer Week was something of a risk, but the result was splendidly fresh and aromatic.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

People drink bottled beer?? I haven’t been out of the pub enough to drink bottles this year. At least that’s what I say. The pile of empties tells a different story. Let’s see. I have drunk a fair bit of Redchurch beer, nice stuff, kind of Kernel-a-like with less sediment. But not enough to judge an award on. Hang on, there is one bottled beer I bought as much of as I could get my hands on: Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout. It is fantastic. They must make it a regular. I don’t care that they have two stouts already.

Best Overseas Draught Beer

This is always a tricky one as I don't really drink overseas beer and when I do, it’s bottled. Umm. I can only even remember two – some free Maisel’s Weisse and some Sierra Nevada Summerfest lager. Both were drinkable… but the Jever Pils at the Paisley Beer Festival was better than I was expecting it to be, and unlike some of the other beers, lasted long enough for me to get some!

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

I really enjoyed the Russian River Damnation that a friend brought back from America. Very nicely done, balanced beer.

Best Overall Beer

There can’t really be a “best beer”. But there can be perfect beer moments. Though they are something rare, just like hot days in Scotland. The two combined one afternoon when I dropped into the State Bar and had a spectacular pint of Fyne Hurricane Jack. The condition of the beer couldn’t have been better, nor could the ambience as the sun streamed in through the window, just missing my preciously cold pint of golden beer. Pale ’n’ hoppy at its peak.

Best Pumpclip or Label

I haven’t really been wowed by any, though the Loch Lomond Brewery’s branding is quite nice and I really like Offbeat from Crewe’s look. I liked Fyne’s IPA Project artwork a lot too. More and more brewers seem to be moving away from the dull old oval pumpclip, which is nice, but it’s only to be expected that some will make regrettable decisions on the way.

Best UK Brewery

I am going to sound like such a sook; but I’ve thought about it and there is no reasonable excuse I can find not to give the award to Fyne Ales. We have been completely bombarded with new beers this year – Rune, Earra, Cloud Burst, Roxy and some I don’t even remember. There was also the ambitious IPA Project of three pairs of IPAs, each produced in pale and dark versions, with the additional Fladda Rock blonde thrown in just for the hell of it. Not to mention the deadly Zombier stout. Did I mention that all the new beers were fab? All this while continuing to produce their core beers, opening a new bar at the brewery, planning expansion and dealing with the departure of their head brewer. Hats off!

As far as runners-up go, I haven’t had a bad beer from Moor or Tempest this year. They always cause a thrill of anticipation when I enter a pub and see their beers on offer.

Best Overseas Brewery

August Schell, not for their beer, which I have never tasted, but for publicly calling out “craft beer” wankery in the belly of the beast.

Pub/Bar of the Year

I have on occasion considered giving up trailing around town in search of beer, and just doing all my drinking in The Laurieston. I don’t think I will actually go that far, but it is a lovely place.

Beer Festival of the Year

I didn’t make it to SRAF or GBBF this year due to illness. But I really enjoyed working at CAMRA Forth Valley’s Alloa festival. The beer was in top nick and volunteers are well looked after there. A novel kind of distributed festival was the Edinburgh Independents’ Beer Festival with some of Edinburgh’s top bars pulling out all the stops to get avant garde beers on sale. At times it seemed more like a walking festival, and my best pint of the day was a Cromarty Hit The Lip in the Diggers, which wasn’t actually taking part, but it was terrific fun.

Supermarket of the Year

I very rarely buy beer in supermarkets now. When I do, it’s likely to be Tesco or Morrisons as they’re on my way to work. I suppose Morrisons as they now sell three types of Mild.

Independent Retailer of the Year

It’s been a good year for Glasgow bottle shops. The range at the established outlets Peckhams and The Cave has noticeably improved. But the award has to go to The Good Spirits Company – really a specialist spirits shop as the name suggests, but they have a small beer section, and frankly with that small section they have kicked everyone else’s arses.

Mention must be made of Hippo Beers, which looks very promising indeed, but since they only opened at the end of November it’s too early to start giving them awards. Really, it is.

Online Retailer of the Year

I don’t buy beer online.

Best Beer Book or Magazine

There have been several important beer books published this year: Beaumont and Webb’s World Atlas of Beer, Mitch Steele’s IPA, Stan Hieronymous’ For The Love of Hops; but I haven’t yet read any of them. And I hear Mark Dredge’s book is complete and awaiting publication, which should be very good too despite having the C-word in the title, so I can see myself binge-buying books in the New Year.

But the award goes to a magazine I have only just discovered: Doghouse. I haven’t even read the latest issue yet but I can say this is a must-read for anyone who loves pubs.

Best Beer Blog or Website

There is no competition this year. Boak & Bailey. Just read the heaps of fascinating stuff they keep coming up with.

Best Beer Twitterer

Twitter doesn’t really work like that does it? I don’t keep an eye out for tweets from my favourite twitterers. Tweets are judged on merit!

Best Online Brewery presence

I was very impressed by the recently relaunched Marble Beers website. The branding appears effortlessly stylish, which generally means an awful lot of effort has been expended in making it appear simple.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year

Redchurch Great Eastern IPA & Ossau Iraty is a good match. I’ve been practising roasting pork shanks too lately. Still have to find the sweet spot where the skin is just right to eat, has lost its rubberiness but isn’t crunchy yet. At any rate a nice amber Vollbier or two goes down very well with one of those.

In 2013 I’d Most Like To…

Drink more good beer and less shite beer. I am also really looking forward to my trip to Dudley to drink Dark Mild.

Open Category: You Choose

My wish for 2013 is that the pretensions of some new microbreweries will be matched by basic competence in brewing. I’ve drunk possibly more great beer this year than ever before, but I’ve also encountered some real stinkers served up by brewers and bars who – I know – know what they’re doing and who should know better. This applies to some brewers I really like as well as those I don’t. Get the beer right. Especially if you’re charging a fiver for it.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Doing it for the kids

I guess you can’t buy soul.

I’ve been in some quite different bars this week.

I dropped into a relatively new place in the Merchant City, well hidden from passing trade. Brutti Compadres it’s called, whatever that means. It’s a glossy bar with low lighting, attractive staff and the blockbusting premium brands that consumers love.

I hated it, obviously.

But I am seduced by the recherché cachet of Riegeler Export, a beer I’ve only ever seen in one other place in Glasgow. I don’t know why. I didn’t think much of it when I lived in Germany, and I don’t think much of it now; and if you want a beer from Baden-Württemberg it’s much inferior to both its local rivals Fürstenberg and Rothaus.

Then it’s back to Rutherglen for the first day of operation of An Ruadh Gleann. It is absolutely heaving. I think everyone in Rutherglen is here, possibly including a large number of people who haven’t been out in their home town for years. Half a dozen or more Christmas ales with corny names are on offer, but the locals seem keener on the Stella and Kopparberg.

It’s too busy for me, so I retreat to the Victoria at the other end of town, which I have decided is my favourite. Here there is cold Tennent’s. And, as I discover, a secret stash of Sweetheart Stout for a regular who comes in and orders a can of “the stuff”, as if it were heroin. Despite my obsession with Sweetheart Stout, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone drinking it in a pub before. Someone other than me, someone I don’t know, I mean. He’s one of the guys playing cards in the big group occupying the two large tables behind me. In the corner the women’s darts team are having their Christmas get-together. I’ve stumbled on a bastion of women’s darts, something else I find endearing about this pub.

On Wednesday a surprise tweet alerted me to the opening of The Sparkle Horse. This was formerly a jakey pub called The Dowanhill which has been noted over the last year only for closing and reopening again. The pub is now run by Steven Clark, better known as Sci-Fi Steven of locally revered indie outfit Bis.

As might be expected, it’s one of those old-pub-converted-to-scenester-places. From the surroundings it’s not terribly different from how it was before. In an appealingly adolescent sort of way the major change is that all the walls have been painted black. The WEST St Mungo is much nicer than Riegeler, too.

I don’t imagine the Dowanhill played much David Bowie. The old Dowanhill regular doesn’t seem to mind it though, he’s stayed for a second pint. I see lots of plaid shirts. Pubs attract the customers that feel at home there, I suppose. Whereas in Edinburgh’s Hanging Bat the clientele are young prematurely balding men talking about Cantillon, here there are serious young women discussing the film that Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian has been working on.

When I was a scenester nobody had any money and we congregated in the cheapest old men’s boozers in town, not feeling welcome in the ancestors of Brutti Compadres. I suspect Sci-Fi Steven remembers that well enough and wants to offer offer today’s kids an alternative. Nobody’s ever going to get rich catering to the women’s darts team, or to students who huddle over a pint of snakebite all night waiting for the band. In their own way, both the Victoria and Sparkle Horse are real community pubs (The Sparkle Horse still needs to order in the Sweetheart Stout, though).

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Arran expands – so does everyone else

Arran Brewery MD Gerald Michaluk,
and Skye Brewery MD Angus MacRuary.
Photo: Arran Brewery
The Arran Brewery has been in the news quite a bit recently with several ambitious new projects. There have been plans to expand production on the island for quite some time, but it came as a surprise to many when Arran and the Isle of Skye brewery announced a merger.

Arran boss Gerald Michaluk sees huge potential exports to the United States buoyed on the romanticism of the brands Skye and Arran. So he says both breweries will remain open and both will be expanded.

Michaluk is a busy man. The company has also recently purchased and relaunched the defunct Beers of the World magazine. And that’s not all. A brand new brewery is planned, on the site of the former Rosebank distillery in Falkirk.

Wait, there’s something else. As reported in the Scotsman, Arran/Skye has reached an agreement with the legendary Munich Hofbräuhaus to bottle and distribute their beer in Scotland.

Not content with all that, Michaluk is planning a new bar in Glasgow city centre to retail the combined operation’s products. It will be over two floors and one floor will be Bavarian-themed, pushing the Hofbräu beers, roast pork shanks and the like. I am not sure the good folks at WEST will be too pleased by this competition on their own turf.

Arran/Skye is not the only brewery expanding, however. Brewdog’s new brewery has finally opened to pump out more beer for tossers. West has finally got plans and funding in place for their new operation in the north of Glasgow, which will free up the brewpub kit for new specials. Work has just begun on constructing Stewart Brewing’s major new brewery. Harviestoun, Cairngorm and Fyne Ales are both planning substantial expansions. There are even rumours that Innis & Gunn plan to establish their own brewing facility. That’s in addition to the new nano- and microbreweries that continue to pop up at an incredible rate.
The question is, who is going to drink all this beer? These new facilities combined are going to produce a serious amount of beer, not the amounts a new little micro brings onto the market. They are relying partially on exports, but must also also hoping the current beer boom in Scotland continues. Can the market absorb so much extra beer? That’s anybody’s guess, as things are still so volatile. But there is so much dynamism in Scottish beer right now that I think it’s possible. I really do.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Up and down the main street

Rutherglen. The town to the south-east of Glasgow has been a beer desert for decades. So much so that the arrival of a Wetherspoons outlet is a source of celebration for local beer drinkers.

It’s not the only town like this. In the summer the CAMRA branch finds itself moving its branch meetings from one depressed Lanarkshire town to the next, one Wetherspoons after another, simply because there are next to no other local pubs in these places that sell real ale, good, bad or indifferent. (Mention must be given to the exceptions, the stalwart George in Hamilton and the Rowan Tree in Uddingston).
I was passing through, but took the chance to have a look at the new Spoons, An Ruadh Gleann, and give the manager the branch’s best wishes. The new pub is a converted wallpaper store, and vast. The interior design is modern too, in a break from the now rather dated Wetherspoon format from the mid-90s. Some elements are Rennie Mackintosh-inspired, I am told.

A split-level beer garden provides basking possibilities should the sun ever come out. A real innovation are the viewing windows through which punters can gawp into the disco ball-equipped cellar (yes, really). I’m not sure how interesting this will be for the average visitor, but sad beer geeks like me find it exciting to look at rows of stillaged casks and kegs. There would seem to be an opportunity for ale theatre in the event of a cellarman getting an involuntary shower from a lively cask in full view of appreciative customers; but I am not sure how much venting of new casks actually goes on in pubs in the evenings.

It was time to look at the other pubs and guess whether An Ruadh Gleann is likely to kill them off. I admit I approached the task I’d set myself with prejudice. I grew up drinking in towns like these and as soon as I could I escaped to the big city with more interesting beer (like Theakstons, as I thought at the time).

The Picture House across the road is probably the pub with most to fear from the arrival of Wetherspoons. With its interior resembling what Spoons pubs were like five years ago, it doesn’t have much in the way of atmosphere. It’s a Belhaven pub and claims on a sign outside to purvey cask ale, though once I get inside I find out they haven’t sold any for some time. It’s odd that Belhaven, who brew cask beer (although it’s a tiny part of their output these days) and are part of one of the UK’s biggest producers of cask beer, seem so uninterested in punting it in their own pubs.

They do have West St Mungo on tap, alongside the rows of half a dozen “premium” lagers claiming continental heritage: Stella, Staropramen, Estrella Damm. I choose a half pint of Staropramen, as it’s years since I’ve had it and I used to quite like it when it was imported as “Prague Beer”. It has a very slight nose of pils malt and smells and tastes mostly of CO2.

From the outside, the Vogue is one of those no-windows, burly-men-smoking-in-the-doorway affairs that looks intimidating. Inside, it’s a lively Celtic pub and it’s mobbed. There seems to be some sort of Christmas party going on. Or maybe it’s like this every night, I don’t know. There’s karaoke on in the “Lisbon Lounge”. I’m swimming against the stream with my pint of Tennent’s Special; as I look around it’s wall-to-wall Tennent’s Lager.

Around the corner, judging by the Union Flag bunting that festoons the outside, the Burgh Bar caters for the other side of the sectarian divide. Still there are more people (i.e. two) people drinking Guinness here than there were in The Vogue. The feel is decidedly different, more sports on TV, more bottles of Budweiser. As I sip my Tennent’s Lager, I notice too late that they still have the old survivor Sweetheart Stout in the fridge.

Dr Gorman’s, a cosy corner pub. The bright lights at first make me think formica-clad jakey dive, but the pub has been sensitively renovated at some point with a gas fire to set off the chunky bolted-down tables. Whisky here, as the Monopoly fruit machine flickers in the corner.

The pubs seem to cluster around each end of Main Street. I like towns that still have this structure to them. Five minutes and I’m at the other end. The Victoria still has the Tennent’s Taverns livery from thirty years ago; the lettering on the signage looks even older, but it’s become too dark to get a picture. It might well date from Victoria’s time. In the time warp inside, it’s one of these L-shaped pubs with two entrances and high ceilings. Nothing seems to date from later than 1985. Young lads are playing darts in the corner as if Facebook or cable TV had never been invented. I almost expect to see the Flying Pickets sitting in the corner. It’s become rare to see Younger’s Tartan Special in the wild, but here it is, still on the bar. It’s slightly caramel-flavoured.

You know what I’ve noticed? The keg beer in these old bars isn’t served as brutally cold here as it is in the city centre. I have thought for some time that most pubs would benefit from serving their cask beer one or two degrees colder and their keg one or two degrees warmer.

In Chapman’s, a large, looming building on the corner, the exterior is a strange exercise in cladding, while the interior remains Edwardian. From the interior, clearly this was once the posh pub in town. Established in the 1870s, I read behind the bar. The beer offering again drives me to whisky – though if I believe the clock still hanging in the bar, I could once have had Drybrough’s Heavy.

The Stirrup Cup is the last pub I visit. There is still a McEwan’s 70/– font, but there’s none. McEwan’s Export is on, though, so I have that in preference to the John Smith’s the landlord offers. It’s been one of the most popular keg beers for decades for a reason, in that it actually has a small amount of flavour to it, albeit mostly yeast and roast barley. Creamy texture too.

I was expecting a load of grotty, depressing pubs, and was pleasantly surprised to find that actually, most of them were pretty good and not remotely threatening. Rutherglen’s pubs have plenty of character and were full of people socialising over a glass of beer. I don’t think Spoons can compete with these places on community – in any case, they are so different they are surely serving different markets. I just wish the beer in the old bars were tastier.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Decoction and COMECON

Triple decoction. The only real decoction mash, to my mind. Three times a part of the mash is removed and boiled, then returned to the main mash to increase its temperature to the next stage.

Lager brewers have been moving away from decoction for years, as the cost of fuel to do it is ridiculous. It is, however, still proudly practised at Pilsner Urquell, at least, so they say.

A retired brewer told me of a visit to Pilsen shortly after the Iron Curtain came down. He saw the last train of Pilsner beer destined for Russia standing in the brewery yard. Apparently there was a deal with the Soviet Union to exchange Czech beer for cheap gas. Perhaps this was the reason there was no pressure on the Prazdroj brewery to move away from decoction.

I do not know enough about the peculiarities of trade within the Soviet bloc to say whether or not this story is plausible.