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The cask ale revival – a sample of one

One of the best things ever written about pubs was George Orwell’s essay, the Moon Under Water. This was the name of his favourite pub. The atmosphere was perfect, the clientele friendly, the food was basic but just right, and the beer was good.

At the end of the essay, Orwell confesses that there is no such pub. It was a composite of elements from his favourite pubs. All had something that made them special, but none seemed to be able to pull off the whole thing.

Little has changed. In Stoke Newington, the pub that serves the best beer won’t let you take dogs in. The one with the best pub quiz serves terrible food. The one that serves decent beer and lets you take the dog in, and has the best juke box, serves no food at all.

My local is the White Hart on the High Street.

It does a cracking Sunday lunch, they bring Captain a bowl of water and occasionally a chew when he comes in, they have an immense beer garden, big screens for the game, fantastic vibe and brilliant, eclectic crowd of characters – and shit beer. It’s the kind of pub you visit more than any other, and only ever drink Guinness while you’re there. There’s a Spitfire font in the corner of the bar, on its own, and you just know you don’t want to drink the stuff that comes out whenever someone disturbs the cobwebs on the hand pump.

That changed a few weeks ago. One Saturday afternoon, I walked in, and there, next to the dusty Spitfire font, was a brand new, shiny handpump, with a Timothy Taylor Landlord pump clip on the front. I pointed at it, open-mouthed, and Andy, the landlord, said, “You like that one do you?”

I nodded.

“Yeah, I only put it in on Thursday night and I’ve sold one cask already.”

“Well, it is one of the best beers in the world,” I replied.

“Yeah, I know that now,” said Andy.

The next time I went in, three days later, that second cask had gone too, and he was awaiting the next delivery.

This is a pub with a very hip crowd that has, until now, seen no need to take on the hassle of stocking cask ale. And now he’s selling more than two casks a week of Landlord – not exceptional, but certainly comparable to the throughput the beer would have in a decent real ale pub. Sticking it on the bar has unleashed a latent demand for cask ale among a clientele you wouldn’t automatically consider cask drinkers. I promise it wasn’t me drinking it all.

The perfect pub? Not yet, but it’s a damn sight better than the Wetherspoons in Leicester Square that set itself up for a fall by nicking the name of Orwell’s fantasy boozer.

By the way – apologies to anyone who is interested for the very infrequent posts at the moment. There’s loads I want to write about, but the IPA book is past its deadline!

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What’s going on at The Guardian?

It’s galling when the newspaper you read is one of the very worst of a bad bunch for beer (and Barnsley FC) coverage. Since Roger Protz’s column was axed a few years ago they’ve carried no regular beer coverage. I’ve soke to Matthew Fort, the Weekend Magazine’s food and drink editor and a passionate cask ale fan, several times about it, and he says he’s simply not allowed to feature beer by his wine-drinking bosses.

But now this seems to be changing.

Two weeks ago, there was a full page feature on Thornbridge, one of my favourite breweries. Now, two weeks later, here’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with the lead food article, saying “Forget wine – beer is our national drink, and it’s time we used it more often in our cooking”, giving recipes including beef in ale stew and Guinness and walnut chocolate brownies, plus a separate supplementary piece on sourcing great beers.

There’s probably nothing here that’s new to hardcore beer bloggers – that’s not the point. The point is one of the most notoriously anti-beer newspapers in the country (ask any freelance beer writer on that one) seems to be having a Damascene conversion to the cause.

All this, and they fronted the sports section with a full-length, intelligent, non-patronising feature on Barnsley that only mentioned Dickie Bird once.

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Quaffing at Spitalfields market – for now at least

Much as I adore everything about Utobeer at Borough Market, and shop there on a weekly basis whenever I’m home, it’s always nice to have more than one of something, which is why I was very pleased some months ago to receive an e-mail from Chris Gill telling me he’d just opened a speciality beer stall, Quaffs, at Spitalfields Market. Stonch got down there straight away last July and liked what he saw, but what with one thing and another, a three month boat trip here or there, it’s taken me about nine months to find a Sunday when I could get the bus down and have a look.

I’m glad I did. There are over 150 beers, about half of them Belgian, the rest consisiting of British, German, and the full range of American beers currently being imported by James Clay. The set-up is neat, clean and airy, there are tasting notes for each beer pinned to the shelf, and there’s a really nice touch whereby branded glasses for each beer are displayed with them, enticing you to imagine the pour, and helping demonstrate beer’s diversity. All the glasses are for sale too.

Chris is a very affable bloke and was doing great business while I was there. Quaffs also do mail order within the M25, can host beer tasting events and cater for private functions.

There’s just one problem. They’ve just been given four weeks’ notice to vacate the site.

There was a huge outcry a few years ago when large sections of Spitalfields, a shabby but hugely popular and utterly unique market, were ripped apart and replaced by glass, concrete and upmarket, aspirational chain brands. I’d much rather eat and drink in a Giraffe or a Leon than in a Pret a Manger or a Pizza Express, but I’d also rather see these brands on the high street where they belong rather than displacing individual traders in what used to be a quintessentially London landmark.

One of the compensations of the market being done up was the opening of the food marke in 2006. It was originally intended that this should consist of butchers and bakers, but instead it’s gone more boutique (hardly surprising in the context of how the rest of the market has been gentrified), with people selling artisanal bread, beer, cured meats and the obligatory three thousand different types of olive, as well as 150 speciality beers. While this luxury market-style set-up is almost becoming a brand in its own right, if you love food and drink you can’t walk around a place like this without a big grin on your face.

Unless, that is, you’re the manager of a chain cafe.

The big boys have protested, and insist the market is damaging their custom. Given that there was a queue of approximately fifty people waiting for a space at Leon when I passed, I can’t really believe this is true. But these big shiny chains pay very high rents for the privilege of being there, and so when they complain, small, artisanal businesses are shown the door.

As things stand, you’ve got four weeks to enjoy the delights of Quaffs. Get down there, buy their beers, and sign the petition that the market stall holders have got up against this latest example of the homogenisation of every corner of our lives.

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Good reasons to go to Wetherspoons

Is this really a pub? If the beer’s good enough, does it matter?

Wetherspoons fascinates me as a chain. It’s a car crash of the really, really good and the irredeemably shit – there’s nothing just ‘alright’ or ‘not bad’ about it. Someone in the press recently commented that the chain has replaced the working man’s club, which I suppose is true in a functional sense, though it lacks the charm and the sense of belonging and ownership of the old WMCs that were still around when I was growing up. A group of beer aficionados recently told me they didn’t consider Wetherspoons to be pubs, but retail outlets: they don’t have real landlords, there’s no personality behind the bar and no individual character to your local branch. Well, there is – they make a point of making each branch reflect the local area and history – but it’s decoration rather than something in the soul of the pub.
And yet, a higher percentage of Wetherspoons outlets have been accredited with Cask Marque status than any other pub group, there’s always a range of decent real ales and while they may not be kept in as good condition as a top real ale pub, they’re always drinkable.

Anyway, right now the really good outweighs the irredeemably shit by some margin, because the Wetherspoons InternationalReal Ale Festival has started.

“International real ale?”

Yup, as well as nearly fifty beers from around the UK, and a selection of international speciality beers, there are cask-conditined beers from countries you wouldn’t expect.

I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.

Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.

The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale.

It slipped down distressingly easily. After a couple of minutes I noticed I’d sunk half a pint, and casually asked Mitch what strength the beer was. “Well, we had to compromise,” replied the man I suddenly remembered was responsible for beers such as Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, “so it came in just over 7 per cent.”

Not a lunchtime pint then. But this, together with the cask-conditioned Tokyo Black from Japan’s Yo-Ho brewery, brewed a few weeks ago up at Marston’s, makes it worth enduring any number of mad shouting old men to grab a pint.

The festival is on until April 14th – I can’t see the Stone IPA lasting that long.

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Did you have a good weekend?

I did. Here are some things I can remember about it:

  • Kayo Odejaye taking the ball on his chest, turning and simply running at some of the world’s best defenders. Time, after time, after time. They didn’t like that. They were rattled by it, and all they could do was foul him. After twenty minutes of this, we started to believe.
  • Barnsley defenders throwing themselves into every tackle as if their lives depended on it, putting too many bodies in front of Ballack and Anelka, showing no fear: they shall not pass.
  • Martin ‘Disco’ Devaney keeping his nerve and waiting… waiting… waiting… until the perfect moment to send in his cross and pinpoint Odejaye’s head.
  • The sheer audacity – seasoned by a sprinkling of knowing irony – of Barnsley fans – their club four points off the relegation zone in the Championship – singing to Chelsea – one of the best teams in the world – “You’re shit, and you know you are.”
  • The sheer audacity – seasoned by a sprinkling of knowing irony – of Barnsley fans – their club four points off the relegation zone in the Championship – singing to Chelsea – one of the best teams in the world – “Are you Wednesday in disguise?”
  • The Barnsley fan, minutes after the final whistle, being interviewed by Look North. While the rest of us were still trying to get the result to sink in, he’d already jumped past the prospect of a semi-final, an FA Cup final for the first time in almost a century, and was talking enthusiastically about Barnsley winning the EUFA cup next season. The life was crushed out of this town twenty years ago when Thatcher gang-raped it and left it desolated. It’s a town that can now dream again.
  • Meeting the chaps from Acorn Brewery, who brew Barnsley Bitter, in the town’s only decent real ale pub half an hour after the game. Everybody in the pub was drinking Barnsley Bitter – how could you not? On the bar next to it? A guest ale by the name of London Pride. Sometimes you find perfect poetry in the most unexpected places.
  • The deluge of text messages, phone calls and messages to this blog over the last day and a half, as if I’d scored that divine goal myself. Only football can do this.

So what if the Sunday Mirror dropped their feature on me? They probably figured that I would become unbearable if it had run on top of all this. What a weekend…

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A Turning Point?

It’s been a busy week.

Complaining about the lack of coverage given to beer and pubs has become such a reflex reaction now for so many of us, I suspect I actually mumble in my sleep about there being not a single regular beer column in any UK national newspaper, Sunday supplement or magazine.

But after years of saying, “It’s got to change,” it just might be starting.

On Sunday I was quoted in a Sunday Mirror piece on Carlsberg’s most expensive beer in the world. It was a tabloid piece so they were looking to knock it, but I did manage to get the journo to include some flavour descriptors of a typical barley wine style beer. As we got to talking I mentioned my India trip, and this coming Sunday the Mirror will be running quite a big story on it – they’re coming to take my photo in about an hour. This, three days after I was on Market Kitchen talking about the same trip.

And yesterday I got a call from the Independent. Today they’re running a very even-handed piece on the new figures from the BBPA on how pubs are closing at the rate of four a day. Of course it’s a bad news story, but again, they quoted me and used some of my stuff as background to giver the case for the pub as a balance for the problems – it’s by no means a doom-mongering piece.

Also yesterday, there was the news that Men Behaving Badly star Neil Morrissey is filming a three-part series to be shown on Channel 4 this summer about his quest for the perfect pint. He’s opening a microbrewery, and is currently talking to ad agencies about launching the beer. “Beer should not just be for men with sparrows in their beard or lager louts. I want to create the everyman’s ale,” said Morrissey. This will be the first series about beer on British TV since Michael Jackson’s Beer Hunter in 1990. While I’m a bit gutted personally because it probably finally kills my own long-running attempt to get Man Walks into a Pub used as the basis for a TV series, it’s a huge step forward for the image of beer.

It’s possible to pick fault with any of these stories individually – the Mirror won’t treat beer as seriously as we might like; maybe you’d choose a better celeb than Neil Morrissey; maybe the Indie could be more positive – but I can’t remember a week when there were so many different, unconnected people wanting to talk about beer and pubs. And in the week when many other media outlets resorted to bare-faced lying in their coverage of the government review of licensing reform, that’s got to be a good thing.

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Beer writer gets pissed off when travel writers tell him he can’t be in their gang.

Having written one book that took me on a 45,000 mile journey around the world, and being in the middle of another that sees me doing an 18,000 mile sea journey that hasn’t been attempted by any other living writer and which the leading sea travel companies told me was impossible, I now consider myself to be as much a travel writer as a beer writer. Given that those book stores kind enough to stock Three Sheets invariably put it in the travel writing section (next to Bill Bryson – get in!) rather than the food and drink section, I’m obviously not the only person who thinks this way.

So when a fellow scribe suggested I joined the British Guild of Travel Writers, I thought, why not? The British Guild of Beer Writers is a great laugh, a good bunch of people, with social events that are both great fun and good opportunities to meet people. Straddle two different genres of writing, get double the fun.

But it was not to be. Because I, my publisher, my agent and the nation’s bookstores are mistaken. You see I’m not a travel writer at all. I’m a beer writer who travels, and that’s different. It’s not as good.

The impliction seems to be that if I’d done exactly the same journey without beer, then I would be more of a travel writer. It seems you’re either one thing or the other, so Bill Bryson must be confusing the hell out of everone at the moment: he seems to think you can just write in an entertaining manner across various different genres, and so long as the core idea of your book is appealing, it doesn’t really matter what genre you call it. What an idiot; he’s clearly going nowhere.

“If, however, your situation changes and your work becomes broader in scope, do please let me know and I will arrange for your application to be reconsidered,” said my rejection e-mail.

Broader in scope than going twice around the world? “Beer in space” anyone?

If I had satisfied them, that would have got me to an interview stage. An interview. To decide whether I’m really a travel writer or not.

As Oscar Wilde said, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that wouldn’t have me.” Hang on, that’s not right…

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Fine Beer?

Working through my backlog of of trade press reading, I came across an interesting article in the Morning Advertiser written by Andrew Jefford a couple of months ago. He talks about the sheer obsession with increasing product quality in the St Emilion wine-growing region, the reverence the producers have for their product, and the excitement that’s generated by a partiularly good vintage.

Then of course he compares this with beer, and discusses how we don’t have great vintages because beer makers focus on consistency of product above all else. He talks about how most people buying beer don’t have a clue what it’s actually made of, and how we lack that reverence. He argues that there’s a category – fine beer -that doesnlt yet exist: superlative beers that people are prepared to pay top dollar for.

I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s an interesting argument and I wondered what beer geeks would think of it.

Of course we can all point to examples of fine beers that do exist – Utopias from Sam Adams, the super-strength speciality beers from Dogfish Head that redefine what beer can be, Deus, a bottle of Thomas Hardy’s Ale from 1968… but I think Andrew would argue that you have to know an awful lot about beer before you’re even aware of their existence, whereas anyone who has ever been to Oddbins will have at least taken a glance at the fine wine section in there.

Should brewers invest in creating more ultra-special beers? Should we be demanding, say, a greater range of 12 month wood-aged stouts that retail at twenty quid?

I would imagine the beer blogging community would instinctively say yes, because they’re the kind of people who are constantly searching out challenging, full-bodied, interesting beer. And Jefford’s argument that the existence of fine wines has a halo effect on the whole wine market, which could be replicated in beer, is a valid one.

I’ve got just one counter-argument, and I’m wondering how it might divide people.

One of the strengths of beer is its unpretentiousness, its accessibility. I don’t agree that beer can only ever be a ‘working class’ beverage – Burton pale ale was the most fashionhable thing you could drink for twenty years or so in Victorian society – but I do think that beer is different from wine, and I occasionally get frustrated with people who want to turn beer into ‘the new wine’.

We all know beer can be more complex, can go better with food etc, but when people start trying to talk about beer as if it was wine, they have a tendency to make it elitist. And when people want wine to totally replace beer, drawing battle lines between grape and grain, I lose patience. Anybody who appreciates the subtleties of flavour in a great craft beer and says they ‘don’t like’ wine is either delusional or a liar, and just as bad as those ignorant people who say they ‘don’t like beer’ after drinking one warm can of Bud when they were nineteen.

Elitism is part of wine’s character, so it’s going to be much easier to build in snobbery, mystique, and a sense of specialness. The frustrating part of this is that people can order a bottle of cheap, industrially produced pinot grigio, drink it super-chilled, and while they’re drinking the wine equivalent of Carling Extra Cold, believe they’re actally superior to someone drinking, say, cask ale.

Beer would lose a lot of its soul if it simply aped the culture and mystique around wine.

So I’m not sure. I’d love to see ‘fine beers’ more commonly on the shelves, but can we have that and keep beer as the democratic, sociable drink it has been for five thousand years? Can beer successfully challenge wine at the top level – I’m talking about popular perception, not just among aficionados – without becoming arsey and pretentious? I hope so, but I’m not sure…

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Pete the shameless self-publicist

Next Monday,3rd March, if you’ve got cable or satellite please tune in to UKTV Food for Market Kitchen. I’m on for about five minutes chatting to Tom Parker Bowles about the IPA trip, and tasting a little of the beer (there’s still a bit left in Burton).

Market Kitchen replaced Great Food Live last year, just when I’d become a regular on that show. I don’t think MK features beer as much as GFL used to (Tana Ramsay doesn’t really like beer) but given the dearth of media coverage of beer in the UK, it’s great that they feature it as much as they do. And if everyone watches the show on Monday their viewing figures will spike and they’ll ask me back! Or maybe not.