Monday, 25 March 2013

Glasgow’s oldest pub faces demolition

There is some debate over which is the oldest pub in Glasgow. The Scotia Bar in Stockwell Street proclaims itself as such. The Curlers’ Rest in Byres Road is pretty old, but when it was established Glasgow only extended about as far west as Buchanan Street. John Gorevan of Old Glasgow Pubs knows more about this argument than anyone, and he says the oldest pub in Glasgow is the Old College Bar, which is good enough for me.

There are a still quite a few pubs around the area the city’s marketing department calls the Merchant City which have appeared immune to the process of gentrification (this gentrification is, of course, the same process which we can thank for establishments such as Babbity Bowster and Café Gandolfi). The Old College Bar is one of them. When it first opened, it tempted the students of Glasgow University across the road. When the University moved to the West End, a huge goods station took its place until that too disappeared due to the shift of freight off the rails.

Now the pub is surrounded by student accommodation and seemingly interminable construction work on startup incubators. It appears the block on which the Old College Bar stands is to be wiped out to make room for more such.

The corner of High St and George St in 1930. On the far left is the British Linen Bank building and the Old College Bar
is on the ground floor of the tenement next to it.
Photo showing the proposed phases of demolition. Bizarrely, the two shops outlined in magenta
are to be retained. Picture from planning application.
The bar has been down on its luck for some time. The last time I was in with a friend, we tried to order Macallan and Bowmore. These drinks were apparently too out-there for the barmaid to have heard of them, and we nearly got served Magners and Bulmers instead. I popped in again more recently and the drunks arguing loudly at the bar had by the looks of them been there since opening time.

But still, it’s the oldest pub in the city. Is that worth nothing? I know Glasgow specialises it demolishing itself, and yet: would any other city just rip such a pub down without a second thought?

More on the subject from Bar Biographer here.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

A night on the Alechemy

I was going to try to come up with some dreadful, tortured play on words based on the fact that Alechemy Brewing were having a beer launch at the Stockbridge Tap. You know, turning base metals into gold, taps are made of metal, that sort of thing. But do you know, I cannot be arsed.

I have told myself repeatedly that going to Edinburgh on a school night is not worth the effort, especially with the extortionate fares ScotRail demands and the fact you can’t even have a beer on the way home on the train any more. But I have been impressed by the beers of Livingston-based Alechemy Brewing Co. They have been brewing commercially for just about a year and the beer is properly bitter and very drinkable, so the promise of five of their beers from the cask tempted me to make the journey after all.

I appear to have unwittingly caused a bit of scandal. Last week I encountered a murky pint of Alechemy Galaxy Burst in the Pot Still in Glasgow. Assuming that it was one of these new-fangled unfined beers, and not the end of the cask, I drank it, enjoyed it and tweeted complete with photo about how good it was.

Little did I know that it actually was the end of the cask and the brewers had intended it to be crystal clear. “Look what they’re doing to our beer in Glasgow,” was the cry. Moreover, tweets about it were not supposed to get out at all, as the launch of it was not until tonight at the Stockbridge Tap.

I am told of another pub in Dunfermline which broke the embargo. They put it on and within an hour ten blokes had arrived in taxis from Edinburgh to sup it, and the cask was gone in two hours. But I’m not sure this is all that bad: for a brewery, these are good problems to have and certainly make a much better story than “A pub in Dunfermline put the beer on, nobody wanted it and it sat there for a week and went sour.”

On the recommendation of Rich BeerCast I try Fruit Salad IPA. Being Scotland, this is not made with actual fruit – that would be ridiculous – but with chewy Barratt’s Fruit Salad sweeties. It is surprisingly good, with the sweetie aroma prominent on the nose before dissolving into a long bitter finish. Although I described it as like drinking melted raspberry-flavoured plastic at the time, it’s not any weirder than some of the other beers I’ve encountered in the last couple of years, which get Um Bongo and raspberry ripple flavours from the trendy hops used.

The most popular beer seems to be the new one, Ruskie Business, an 8.5% stout. It’s rich, sweet, oily and smooth and ever so slightly hot.

I am not sure whether the lager has a real name. It is the lager that Alechemy have been brewing for Crate Brewery in London for some nine months. Crate weren’t ready to brew their own lager on site when they opened, and it appears they still aren’t, because Alechemy are still making it nine months later. This was the first keg of it ever sold on Alechemy’s home turf, and incredibly enough, the first time the brewers have even tasted it themselves in its filtered and kegged form. It is very rich, full, sticky and malty, what the Germans call “mastig”. Possibly it’s so good because there is a good wodge of diacetyl in it too; not too much, just enough to give it a nice buttery undertone like the old-school Czech lagers.

I have given up on trying to drink the whole board. I came expecting five beers to try, and found out there were seven. Too much to cram in in an hour and a half. Call me a wimp. I’ve run out of time and have to go.

For this is not the only beery event in Edinburgh tonight. There is a Meet the Brewer going on at the Hanging Bat with Wild Beer Co. I want to like their beers, but haven’t been impressed with the two I’ve tried so far. Fresh was decent but didn’t seem to have anything wild about it. Epic Saison was very far from being epic: it was one-dimensionally bitter.

On the way to the Hanging Bat I am wandering about in the streets of the New Town. Suddenly I think “This looks familiar. Isn’t this where the Oxford is?” Sure enough, looking down the very next side street there it is. I can’t pass it by. I slip in an have a half of Cairngorm Trade Winds. There is a folk session going on in the side room. It is instantly relaxing. If I had any sense, I would stay until shortly before the last train, but I am afflicted by the itch to hunt beer and must seek out the next unexperienced experience.

It’s not much further to the Hanging Bat. I am aware that I only have a little time left. The last connexion that I can get all the way home is in twenty five minutes. There are later trains to central Glasgow, but that would involve taxis or walking to get home. I am willing to accept that, if the beer is worth it. Let’s see.

Well, there is some cask Wild here – I had been led to believe they only do bottle and keg. Let’s try that, probably won’t see it again. Spellbound it’s called. It tastes of sweat. Not sexy sweat, just sweat. A little bit of mould, some balsamic vinegar, but mostly sweat.

It’s not easy to like this, and God knows I’m trying. I appreciate what they’re hoping to do with strange yeasts, and I’ve had much worse beer from brewers using ordinary yeast. But for me the results are not enjoyable. Another time I might persevere, but on this occasion the brisk walk to the railway station for the last comfortable connection home wins the competition.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Cromarty, CAMRA and crazy cask cancellation

Outrage on Twitter towards the end of last week. The abbreviated and over-simplified story so far: Cromarty Brewing was making keg beer. In a deeply bizarre twist, CAMRA had reacted to Cromarty making keg beer by, er, refusing to buy their cask beer for a forthcoming festival.

That seemed weird to me, as it did to many others – both Craig and Rich have already written about it. The next Scottish CAMRA beer festival is Larbert, run by the Forth Valley branch, and I recalled drinking Cromarty at the same festival last year as well as at the same branch’s Alloa festival in the autumn. What had changed?

Enquiries uncovered that this decision came from higher up in CAMRA, above branch level. But why does it matter that the brewery makes keg beer, if the CAMRA festival is buying the cask version?

Well, CAMRA has something with the unglamorous name Internal Policy Document which embodies policy as decided by the AGM.

The relevant paragraph is as follows:
“Beer festivals are not to stock or admit for any award, any beer brand which is produced in both cask and keg versions that mislead the drinker into believing that there is little or no difference between the versions.”
It should be immediately clear that there is considerable room for interpretation of this rule. But the Scottish & Northern Ireland Director interprets this text to mean that a beer cannot be stocked at a CAMRA festival if both keg and cask versions are sold under the same name and has been pushing this line on festival organisers.

The important word, though, is “misleading”.

I don’t know any microbrewer who isn’t happy for customers to know whether they’re buying cask or keg. But, with some justification, they might well say that they have every right to sell the same beer under the same name, as the keg and cask versions both come from the same gyle.

CAMRA would certainly like brewers to clearly indicate when a beer is keg and when it’s cask, but the failure to do so is quite different to a deliberate intent to deceive. That would be e.g. the passing off of a keg beer as cask or the supply and use of fake handpumps. The latter is a battle which CAMRA successfully fought against Scrumpy Jack keg cider, and one which cask ale activists in the United States had to fight against (the importers of) Greene King and Fullers. In the case of Fullers I seem to remember it was eventually resolved by John Keeling himself stepping in to put a stop to it.

There’s no such intent to deceive in the case of Cromarty – and nobody claims there is. The only objection is that the beer is sold with the same name and the same branding.

It’s important to recognise that visual clues at the point of sale are not always just on the pumpclip any more. Of the outlets where I’ve seen Cromarty’s keg beer for sale, generally they either didn’t sell cask at all, or had huge blackboards on the walls listing THESE ARE OUR CASK BEERS and THESE ARE OUR KEG BEERS. That’s enough information for most people to ensure that customers know what’s what – and if they don’t, why not ask if it’s cask, as we were once urged to do?

Reinterpreting “misleading” – to mean the potential possibility that someone, somewhere, might be confused – is no use, because there are always some people who are pretty easily confused and you can’t legislate just for them.

The policy dates back to at least the late 1980s. I remember the local branch having a bone to pick with Maclays over the brewery’s desire to sell their Oat Malt Stout in both formats.

But it hasn’t been an issue for a long time, for one simple reason. As the mass market shifted more and more towards lager and huge global megabrands, the big brewers started to abandon cask. And the new generation of microbreweries, for the most part, brewed only cask (or, in a few cases, only keg). So the policy only became an issue again in the last couple of years since micros have started creating keg versions of their beers.

It’s worth pointing out that the Internal Policy Document contains all manner of stuff that is cheerfully ignored as a matter of routine. There’s the sweeping statement:
“Beers (and ciders and perries) dispensed under any system, except the traditional Scottish air pressure system,  which applies gas (be it carbon dioxide, nitrogen, or any other gas or mixture), shall not be recommended in any CAMRA publication.”
If this policy was as strictly applied as the “misleading dispense” clause, not only would Roger Protz be stopped from going on about Budweiser Budvar in every other issue of What’s Brewing, but BEER magazine would have to severely restrict its choice of articles, Des de Moor’s guide to London would lose its comprehensive character, and the Good Beer Guides to Belgium and Germany wouldn’t exist.

I brought the matter up in my branch last week. I was trying to get an idea of how many people thought this interpretation of the policy was a good idea and how many thought it was nonsense.

The justification for the hardliners is that CAMRA is basically guaranteeing the beers it offers for sale at festivals are real ale, and that when people see a beer in the pub with the same name as what they drank at a festival, they might reasonably assume that it is also real ale. (Amusingly enough, the two people most strongly defending the hard line were both happily drinking Cromarty’s AKA IPA at the time).

I understand this argument, though I disagree. But even if you accept the hardline argument, surely the cure is worse than the disease.

We are supposed to be promoting real ale, but have ended up refusing to promote it. We are denying people the opportunity to experience some excellent real ale and to discover how much better it is cask-conditioned. This is stupid.

I cannot defend this to my beer-loving friends outside CAMRA. Nor would I like to be the poor beer festival organiser placed in the embarrassing situation of having to phone up a brewer and cancel an order already placed.

Who will be to blame if a hypothetical young drinker tries some keg Cromarty and thinks “Ooh, that’s nice. Better than the stuff they had at the real ale festival” – and then tells all her mates?

Well, it will be the fault of the person who threw his weight around to stop a CAMRA branch giving this imaginary drinker the chance to try the Cromarty beer in cask.

It’s incredibly fatuous, it makes CAMRA look ridiculous, and it gives ammunition to CAMRA-bashers everywhere.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Stringent laws and less than stringent journalism

I realise the Metro is best known for recycling stories that were on the internet six months previously but this caught my attention. Stringent laws prevent the sale of unpasteurised, unfiltered beer, do they? I must have dreamt all those pints of cask ale I’ve consumed, then. Or the majority of British brewers are living on the wrong side of the law. Yeah!

Sarkiness aside, I am all about fresh beer these days, drunk as near to the source as possible, so I applaud this development. Sadly, I’ve never yet had a Meantime beer that I thought was any better than decent. Even when I went to the Union and Old Brewery in Greenwich, I thought the guest Schönramer lager was much better than any of their own beers. This is rather a shame because I admire Alastair Hook and Rod Jones immensely. Perhaps the brewery freshness will give the beer the extra edge that I find lacking.