Tag: Pubs

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Beer? Books? Classic Albums? Perfect Pubs? GIN?! It can only be Stokeylitfest

If you’re in North London, or fancy making the journey, you should wear your clever drinking boots on Jubilee Weekend.

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival is organised every year by my wife, and it takes place this year on 1st to 3rd June, and between stocking bars, introducing acts on stage, running to CostCo and directing volunteers, I’ll be doing a couple of events you might be interested in.

On Saturday 2nd June I’m teaming up with Robin Turner to talk perfect London pubs.  Robin is one of the co-authors of this excellent book, which you should definitely read, and not just because I’m in it:

I’ve often spoken about my huge admiration for The Moon Under Water by George Orwell, the best thing anyone has ever written about pubs.  Robin and his co-writer Paul Moody, who together run the excellent Caught by the River, travelled the country trying to find Orwell’s vision.  Yes, they looked in Wetherspoons, and they looked in many other places as well, including London.  As my new book is about a legendary London pub, the George in Southwark:

we thought we’d get together and chat about some Perfect London Pubs, and what makes them so.  We’ll be doing that over a beer upstairs in the White Hart (one of my perfect London pubs) on Saturday 2nd at 1pm.

The following day, I’ll be back in the same place for a beer and music matching event.  Last year I did beer and book matching and it went down pretty well, so I’ve moved it on this year.  I wrote ages ago about how scientists have proved that listening to particular styles of music can actually change the taste of what you’re drinking.  It’s called Cognitive Priming Theory, and means that particular combinations can create a greater overall sensory experience.  I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and in February I put it to the test with a feature in WORD magazine where I matched up ten beers with ten classic albums.

Duvel, for example, poured from the bottle into its tulip glass, is so feisty it tries to climb up the walls off the glass as if it’s trying to get out and claw your face off.  This is exactly the same experience as the opening chords of Debaser by the Pixies.  Put the two together and it’s wildly exhilarating.

Hopback Summer Lightning is too mellow to go with the Pixies and would jar slightly, but put it with Higher than the Sun of Slip Inside This House from Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, and you create a woozy, sun-kissed tip that takes you half way to Ibiza.  Brew Dog Abstrakt 08 with Public Enemy? Thornbridge Jaipur with the Stone Roses?  The possibilities are endless.  I’ll be choosing six at 1pm in the White Hart.

The link back to books from that one may be tenuous, but Stokeylitfest has always had a strong musical bent too, and this year we’ve also got Wilko Johnson, a retrospective on the NME with some of its most illustrious former hacks, a review of indie music, and loads more.  Check out the website for full details.

And that’s not the end of the booze.  Refreshed after my event (some beers will be included in the admission price) you may want to toddle along to the talk being hosted by festival sponsors Hendrick’s Gin.

They’re going to take us on a tour through the history of gin, and some of the legendary writers and characters it has inspired, with some free samples throughout.

With a unique festival beer brewed by Redemption, and other bar sponsors including Aspall’s and Budvar, we’ll be showing how brain food and booze are the perfect combination.

See you there.

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In search of a Black Country Legend

“So you like beer then.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your favourite?”

“I don’t really have one.”

“Have you tried Bathams?”

“No.”

“Ah.  Well then.”

Some beers go beyond rationale analysis and objective evaluation, and attain mythic status.  The affection people have for them is not based simply on a hoppy aroma and firm malty base; it doesn’t have much to do with ingredients or flavour.  It transcends the liquid itself -or perhaps, that liquid becomes something divine and attracts all the clothing of religious devotion.

Westverleteren has it, though it’s carefully stage-managed by the Belgian monks who take pains to control its scarcity.  Timothy Taylor Landlord has it – a beer which excites old ale drinkers and new crafty beer drinkers alike, which elicits simple sighs from beer writers who have used up all the words they have in trying to describe its perfection.

These beers are revered.  I knew of them within about five minutes of entering the beer world.

But I happily published two books, made my mark with this blog, and gained at least one column in the pub trade press before I’d ever heard of Bathams.

I was doing some freelance advertising work with a bloke from Birmingham when I first had the conversation above.  I’ve since the same conversation about six times, each time with a native of Birmingham or the West Midlands.  Each time, my ‘no’ got a little less “No?” in that tone that goes up at the end as if to say, “Should I have?”, and a bit more “Nooooooo…” swooping down like a Messerschmitt in flames, defensive and frustrated and increasingly certain I was missing something special, fearing I was a lesser man, never mind a lesser beer writer, for not only having never drunk this beer, but for not having even seen any evidence of its existence apart from the word of an increasing number of Brummies who didn’t know each other, and therefore could not have been winding me up.

But I never see Bathams at festivals.  I never see anyone writing about it.  I don’t see it in shops.

Its acolytes try to describe its power to me.  It’s a session beer, they say.  But that doesn’t do it justice.  It’s more than that, it’s… oh, you just have to taste it, they say, and then, every time, they say, “Of course, there are only about five pubs in the world that sell it.  And they’re all in Birmingham and the West Midlands.”

The last person I had this conversation with was Charles Campion, food and drink writing legend and one of the most decent men on the planet.  And because Charles really is one of the most decent men on the planet, he resolved to put me out of my misery.  So a few weeks ago, nursing a brewers’ conference sized hangover, I found myself in the back of a car while Charles directed the Beer Widow to the Vine (or, if you’re in the know, the Bull and Bladder), the Batham’s brewery tap in the West Midlands.

It’s a cracking pub, one of those places that has withstood every single trend, technological development and interior design fad of the last thirty years.  It has carpets.  And separate rooms.  Aged banquettes that create a barrier between groups but still allow those groups to eye each other up.  A hierarchy so clear that as you walk in for the first time, you immediately know which rooms are open to you as a stranger, and which are not.  And a random collection of brilliant and nonsensical stuff on the walls that could keep you gawking for hours.

I was quite nervous when I got my first pint of Batham’s.  It’s made with Fuggles and Goldings hops, and contains invert sugar for a bit of extra sweetness.  It tastes quite sweet. And very nice.

I’ve noticed in some great session beers that the balance between malt and hops is not just about sensible balance, neither one being too extreme.  It’s about the combination, the mix of malt sweetness and hop fruitiness that combine to create a kind of glowing, floral perfume that hovers just above your palate.  This may sound horrible, cloying, sickly and effeminate, but is actually the opposite of all those things.  And Bathams does this very well.

But detailed analysis of the flavour is beside the point – that’s not what this beer is about.  It’s a beer that can be drunk easily and yet is satisfying, and it’s a beer that brings a smile to your face.  It doesn’t overwhelm you – you don’t have the first sip and go, “My God, that’s awesome!”  But the more you like it, the more you drink.  And the more you drink, the more you like it.

It also comes in bottles:

and I got to bring a few home with me.

This is not to be taken for granted.  Because over the weekend that followed this Friday night session, the stories began to come out.

You can’t find many places that sell these bottles, they say.  We visited one pub that does, but allegedly you have to take your empties back if you want some more, meaning it’s very difficult to get onto the Bathams ladder in the first place.

On cask, demand always outstrips supply, they say.  There are only certain pubs that get it, and these are known to serious drinkers.  Stocking Bathams wins a landlord instant admiration.  Some of these pubs have been known to order an extra cask, and then sell it on at a profit, on the thriving Bathams black market that exists in the West Midlands.

Weeks later, when I opened my final bottle at home, I wrote, ‘When you drink Bathams, it just make you feel NICE.’

That might sound like the most facile thing a beer writer has ever written.  But I believe there is truth and beauty in its simplicity.

I’m hanging on to the empties.

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Yeeeessssss, it’s in(n)!

The George Inn, Borough High St, SE1. A while ago.

After a couple of false starts (or false endings I suppose) I’m back in the real world.  On Thursday I pressed ‘send’ on the manuscript of my new book, and this weekend my editor becomes the third person in the world to read it (after me and the Beer Widow).  From here it’s full steam ahead with edits (hopefully not too many) cover designs, bound proofs out to reviewers and so on, leading up to the launch later this year.

I started this book almost a year ago.  Then in October I had my laptop stolen.  It wasn’t backed up (it is now) and I lost every last bit of work I’d done on the book.  I started making my notes again from scratch on 7th October.  I sent the book off on 1st March.  I hope I never have to work to that kind of timetable again, but I think I got away with it.

It’s been confirmed that the book will be called SHAKESPEARE’S LOCAL: Five Centuries of History Seen From One Extraordinary Pub.  It tells the story of the George Inn, Southwark, South London, and everything that has happened in it, to it and around it, and the people who have eaten, drunk, stayed, worked, performed and fought there.

It’s not really a beer book as such – it’s a bit of a departure on that score (though there is one chapter that centres on one of the most famous breweries the world has ever seen).  But it is a book about pubs – not just this one pub, but all pubs, especially inns.  These days we use words like ‘inn’, ‘tavern’, ‘alehouse’ and ‘pub’ interchangeably, but at one time the differences were so stark they were enshrined in law.  One aspect of the book is the story of how inns were essentially the lynchpins for Britain’s entire economy, facilitating the movement of goods, money and people that enabled both the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a mercantile class.  Before we had town halls, municipal buildings, assembly rooms, theatres and concert halls, the inn was the only building in town with large meeting rooms and spaces, and it performed all these functions.

It’s also the story of Southwark – an extraordinary town that was once the centre of the world.  London Bridge was the only bridge across the Thames from Roman times until 1750.  Anything coming to the capital from the south east or Continental Europe came up Borough High Street and past the George – that’s why this pub was just one of twenty or so inns along a half mile stretch of road, along with innumerable alehouses and taverns.  The bottleneck across the bridge meant many people simply stayed in Southwark.  It was just outside London’s jurisdiction and the Citys’ laws didn’t apply, so Southwark became home to nonconformists of every stripe, fugitives and refugees from across the world, villains, rogues, whores and wasters, most of whom popped in for a pint (all except the puritans, who dismissed pubs as the ‘blockhouses of the Devil’.)

The story of the George is the story of the last survivor of these great inns.  It was never the biggest, most famous, most beautiful or important – even though it was big, famous, beautiful and important.  Chaucer chose the inn next door to the south as his start point for the Canterbury Tales.  Both Dickens and Shakespeare chose the inn next door to the north as the setting for key scenes in their respective works.  But they all knew the George, and the George is the one that survived, carrying the legacy of what was once the most important street of pubs in the world.

The story of the George is also the story of some bizarre characters who once drunk there.  There’s Sir John Mennis, Comptroller of Charles II’s Royal Navy and inventory of a literary genre I’ve chosen to call Stuart-Era Fart Poetry.  There’s John Taylor, the Water Poet, who once rowed from London to the Isle of Sheppey in a boat made from paper with oars of salt cod tied to sticks.  There’s Shakespeare, Dickens, Chaucer, Dick Turpin, the Sugababes, Samuel Pepys, Philip ‘the most miserable man in the world’ Stubbes, Samuel Johnson, a monkey riding a horse, and possibly the greatest pub landlady who ever lived.

But the main character is the pub itself – just a pub, and so much more, like all pubs are.  When you see what it’s been through, the survival of the George makes a mockery of anyone who says pubs are dying out.

That’s the gist of what I told my publisher’s sales force when I had to present the book to them a couple of weeks ago.  It wasn’t easy – I had to follow a debut novelist whose book is already tipped for great things and is in discussions about movie rights – and Rastamouse.

Wha’ g’wan? I share a publisher with this mouse.

The creators of Rastamouse had them a-rockin’ and a-rhymin’, grown men and women squealing with delight.  “Follow that,” said my publisher.  I tried.  It seemed to go down well.

So well, in fact, that they moved the publication date.  Shakespeare’s Local will now be published on 8th November, right in the middle of the peak Christmas book buying period, competing with comedians’ memoirs, ‘Katie’ ‘Price’ ‘novels’ and glossy cookbooks.  The cover design hasn’t been finalised yet, but even from early designs it’s going to look like a very nice present to buy someone.

So now, finally, I’m back to blogging.  I’ve got loads to write about as I reacquaint myself with the beer world and start leaving the house again.

I hope you all played nice while I was gone.  It’s good to be back.

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The Rules of Drinking

There’s light at the end of the tunnel.  Switching metaphors at the points, if it were a loaf of bread, you’d just be able to see it start to rise.
It’s been a very long three months, but on NYE I printed off a rough, shaky first draft of my next book.  The chapters that aren’t quite finished are bloody awful.  The chapters that are finished are pretty good – or at least, my long-suffering editor and wife think so.  And I have two weeks left to kick, bitch-slap, coax, polish, persuade, trick and massage the rest of it into shape.
This week, then, represents a partial return to the blogosphere.  Don’t try to pretend you missed me, now.
I’m ashamed to say my first post-book post is a shameless plug, but it is for something I think you’ll like.  
Last May I spent an afternoon in the Jolly Butchers with a BBC film crew.  I’d just about forgotten about it, and then I got a call this morning to say that the programme is finally going out this week.
It’s a Timeshift documentary called The Rules of Drinking, and it charts our relationship with booze, particularly since the Second World War.  Me and a chap called Iain Gately, whose book on the History of Drink you should have on your shelves, are the two main contributors, only you’re spared having to watch much of me by some fantastic archive footage they’ve found to go over the things we’re talking about.
Here’s the blurb, from BBC4:
Timeshift digs into the archive to discover the unwritten rules that have governed the way we drink in Britain.
In the pubs and working men’s clubs of the forties and fifties there were strict customs governing who stood where. To be invited to sup at the bar was a rite of passage for many young men, and it took years for women to be accepted into these bastions of masculinity. As the country prospered and foreign travel became widely available, so new drinking habits were introduced as we discovered wine and, even more exotically, cocktails.
People began to drink at home as well as at work, where journalists typified a tradition of the liquid lunch. Advertising played its part as lager was first sold as a woman’s drink and then the drink of choice for young men with a bit of disposable income. The rules changed and changed again, but they were always there – unwritten and unspoken, yet underwriting our complicated relationship with drinking.
The waspish and lovely Grace Dent gave the programme a fantastic write-up in the Guardian last Saturday,  acknowledging that there is such a thing as binge drinking, without being judgemental about it or trying to build it to a point of hysteria.  She concludes:

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A jolly weekend in Cockermouth (stop sniggering at the back)

Great weekend last weekend, but I have to slow down and get this damn book written.

After the Social Media Beer Tasting in Glasgow, I went down to the Lake District for Taste Cumbria.  They’re really doing an awful lot to promote Cumbria as a food and drink destination, and it’s working really well.

Friday night I stayed at the Kirkstile Inn just outside Cockermouth, one of those pubs where the thick stone walls, wood fires and silence outside save for the hiss of river and tree lull you to sleep like a baby.  Another reason to go there is that it’s the brewery tap for the Loweswater Brewery, also known as Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  Their Loweswater Gold was named Champion Golden Beer of Britain at this year’s Great British Beer Festival, and the only thing better than sinking a few pints of it would be doing so after tramping across some of the irresistible mountains just outside.  They were calling to me, I tell you. They just weren’t calling as loudly as the comfy seat by the fire, or my bed, or one other very noteworthy beer.

CLA also brew Croglin Vampire.

Completely out of keeping with a range of beers that’s very nice but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a Cumbrian brewer, Croglin Vampire is an 8% Doppelbock, rich and spiritous, dark and brandy-like, and utterly wonderful.  Currently the Kirkstile Inn is about the only place you can get it.  Don’t worry, it’s a worthwhile trip.  Just as well they have rooms.

Next day we were off into Cockermouth – yes, Cockermouth – for the festival itself.  This is where Jennings Brewery is.  Again, the beers are good quality but nothing that you wouldn’t expect here.  But I love the story of Jennings brewery.  I’m not an apologist for big regional brewers – I just have an open mind about them.  I find this quite an interesting place to be. When Jennings was bought by Marston’s in 2005, the local CAMRA branch shouted that Marston’s were going to close the brewery, and continued to shout this even when Marston’s invested £250,000 improving the brewery.  If Marston’s had the slightest intention of closing the brewery, they had the perfect excuse to do so when it flooded in 2009.

Photo: Vanessa Graham on www.visitcumbria.com

But they didn’t.  They invested millions getting it open again.  I don’t know if anyone still thinks Marston’s are going to close Jennings, but if anyone does think that, I’ve got some magic beans you might want to buy.

But I digress.  On the first day of the festival, Jeff Pickthall and I were doing a beer and food matching event.  We’re both a bit vague about organisational stuff, and so were Taste Cumbria, so we ended up with about two hours to put some pairing suggestions together from food and beer being exhibited at the festival.  Not everyone was keen to have their stuff featured.  It was like an episode of the Apprentice. But as people filed into the room, we were just about succeeding in putting plates together for the following:

Mitchell Krause Hefe Weizen with goats cheese from Wardhall Dairy

Hardknott Cueboid with smoked cured boar

Jennings Sneck Lifter with lovely raisin fudge from Duerdens Confectioners of Burnley

Coniston Brewery’s Blacksmith ale with an amazing chocolate cake from Ginger Bakers in Ulverston

(We swapped these two around – people were split on what went best)

The aforementioned Croglin Vampire with Parsonby, another cheese from Wardhall which has been rind-washed in The Black Galloway porter from Sulwath brewery.  Beer washed cheese is the future, if you like your cheese smelly and overpowering like I do.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to donate stuff for us.  Amazingly, despite time constraints, exploding hefe weizen bottles and seventy extra people turning up just when we thought we’d done enough plates of food, it all went rather well, and the matches were ace.

Later, we sampled the delights of Cockermouth nightlife.  And encountered the Boogie Bus:

The ‘Big Boogie Bus’ – does that mean there’s a little one somewhere?

As you can see, it’s a pink bus that has pole dancers and lap dancers and glowing dance floors inside it. It roams the streets of Cumbria, stopping to lure stag and hen parties on board.  Then it glows brightly, drives off, and the stag and hen parties are never seen or heard from again.

Jeff and I decided to pass.  Instead we roamed the pubs in search of good beer.  And finally, after trying everywhere else, we found Cockermouth’s perfect pub, a place I’d be happy to see in any town.

1761 is modern and stylish without trying too hard.  It has Guinness, Strongbow and Carlsberg on the pumps because that’s what people want.  But it also has a good selection of local cask ales, and a small but perfectly formed range of craft beers in bottles including Little Creatures, Orval, Duvel, and Pietra.

There isn’t a full kitchen, but they do something I wish more pubs would do – a small, simple tapas menu.  We had stuffed jalapeno peppers, a cured meat platter, cheese platter, and some chorizo cooked in wine, which formed a great alternative to the curry and Cobra we were planning on.

I write about 1761 because it deserves to be written about.  It’s not a fully fledged craft beer pub, but it’s a pub with aspirations that understands the needs of its local community, is independent, and friendly.  It’s not boring like some.  It’s not too raucous like others.  There should be more pubs like it.

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April Vlog: Burnley and Moorhouses

Our wayward ramble through the UK continues, and this month we hit the north west.

Why?

Because Lancashire Brewer Moorhouses has spent over £4m on a staggering expansion with a brand new brewery that increases their capacity by a ridiculous amount.  A confident investment for the future?  That’s an understatement.  Moorhouses MD takes a clearly jealous Peter Amor around the brewery, showing him where the money went.  As the most ambitious micros grow to the level of small regional breweries, some shrewd business people clearly believe the revival of interest in good beer is here to stay.

Then we go to Burnley town centre.  I have a strange relationship with Burnley because it’s in the north, has a crap football team and sounds a bit like Barnsley, so people often think I come from there, because I come from Barnsley, which is in the north, has a crap football team and sounds a bit like Burnley.

Anyway, I wish Barnsley had a pub as good as the Bridge Bierhuis (which is in Burnley).  If it did, I might not have left town as soon as I was able.

In various publications as well as this blog, I’ve written quite a bit over the last 12 months about ‘craft beer pubs’ – often moribund or failed pub sites that have reopened or repurposed themselves with a single-minded emphasis on interesting beer – real ale and otherwise.  One criticism that’s been fired back is that these fancy establishments might work well in That London, or maybe Leeds, but you can’t expect people in northern provincial towns to enjoy microbrewed cask ales, imported Belgian beers and German lagers.  The Bierhuis proves them wrong, by doing something quite rare – it combines being a beer shrine with being an excellent and important community Local.

I say all this in the video, actually – but I say more besides, so please give it a view and let us know what you think.

Next month: Scotland.

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The strange relationship between the Local and the Regular

So it’s looking like the Publican mag is on its way out – shame, I’ve really enjoyed writing for them.


Here is the piece I’ve done recently that I’m most proud of.  They haven’t put it on the web edition so I thought I’d share it here.

It’s one of the most complex and enduring relationships in modern life.
Statistics recently showed that we’re more likely to get divorced and remarried than change your bank.  Well, if that’s the scale of comparison, we’re probably more likely to change our bank and love the new one so much that we divorce our partners and marry our bank managers than we are to voluntarily change our choice of local pub.
The ‘Local’ and the ‘Regular’ – each a British icon on their own right – together tell you approximately 84.3 per cent of everything you need to know about the rituals, rigmarole and rhythms of the Great British Pub. 
“The usual, John?”
“Jeff been in yet?”
 “You can’t sit there, mate.  That’s Bill’s chair.”
I remember the important rite of passage to maturity of becoming a regular in my first local, as clear as if it were yesterday.  I’d been at St.Andrews University for about six weeks.  My new mates favoured one particular pub, the Niblick, because that’s where the second years said they went, and we wanted to fit in and appear urbane.  It was run by Tony, a man as physically tiny as his presence was huge, one of those special bar managers who imprints his authority on a pub with effortless ease. A man whose approval you craved and anger you feared, whether you were an eighteen year-old student or a windcreased, hard-as-nails Old Course caddy.  This one November night, I walked through the door and looked towards the bar’s golden glow.  It was busy, one or two deep, with two people serving.  One of them was Tony.  He peered over the punters’ heads (not easy if you’re five foot three, but that’s what I mean – once behind that bar, he could do anything), nodded and smiled at me, “Alright Pete!” and had my beautiful pint of Tennent’s Lager – yeah, alright, Tennent’s Lager, I was eighteen – waiting for me on the bar by the time I made it through the crowd.
Tony knew my name!
We were spoilt for choice for pubs in St Andrews.  But nine in every ten pints I drank during my university career from that day on were sunk in the Niblick.
The Regular is the person who has his own tankard on a hook behind the bar, and woe betide the newbie who serves him a beer in a different glass.  He’s the guy who sends a postcard to the pub on the rare occasions he goes somewhere else on holiday.  Who takes quiet pride when a photo of him from New Years Eve gets blu-tacked up beside the optics.  The guy who a Leicester Local has to keep an Everard’s Beacon pump on the bar for, because even though he and his mate (they’ve never been to each other’s houses – only the pub) are the only punters who drink it, it’s the only beer they will drink, and they get through a nine between them every week.
This is a relationship with as much loyalty, love, bickering and fractious argument, frustration and fatalism as any great marriage.  Each needs the other to survive. 
All of which brings me to my shameful confession: I’m currently a bigamist.
When I first moved to Stoke Newington, my closest pub, the White Hart, spoke to me in a way no other pub had since the Niblick all those years ago.  I could tell you about the food, the beer garden, the Sunday afternoon footie… It was all of that and none of that.  It just felt like my local.
And then, last year, the Jolly Butchers opened just up the road.  Eight handpulls standing proud along the centre of the bar.  Staff keen to hear from me what beers they should be getting in.  Cracking food, a beer and cheese pairing menu I helped put together. 
Now, every time I’m in one, I miss the other.  And the smiles of the respective guvnors are growing brittle.  Whenever I walk in either, it’s “Oh, we haven’t seen you for a while.  Been there, with them I suppose, have you?”  Recently I’ve been so busy with work I’ve hardly been in either, and now each thinks I’ve abandoned them for the other.
Guys, if you’re reading this, I love you both, very much indeed.  It’s just… complicated. 

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2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part three)

A day late thanks to laptop crashes. Here are my final reflections…

Source of cautious optimism of the year: The rebirth of the (good) pub

Is the worst over?  The number of pubs per week that are closing their doors for good fell from 49 in mid-2009 to 29 in 2010.  That’s still too many – but it’s an improvement.
That’s actually a net figure – more pubs are closing than that, but some of them reopen as pubs.  In fact Christie & Co, a big pub estate agent, claim 60% of the closed pubs that pass through their books reopen as pubs.
And everywhere I’ve gone in 2010, I’ve seen great new pubs opening, and flourishing.  In every one, the story is the same: here was a pub that, before the end, had chased the lowest common denominator in search of shoring up its income, with brighter lights, louder TV screens and music, karaoke and promotions on lurid drinks.  In every one, the new landlord said to me something along the lines of “Before this placed closed, there was more money changing hands in the toilet cubicles than was being passed over the bar.”  Pubs signal the kind of place they are as soon as you walk in, and attract custom – or not – accordingly.
And whether we’re talking craft beer pubs like the Jolly Butcher’s on my doorstep, the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico or the newly opened Thornbridge pub the Greystones in Sheffield, or revived community pubs like the Chesterfield Arms in Chesterfield or the Morgan in Malvern, these boarded up shells have been taken over by people who get that a good pub should be about good beer and good conversation.  They’re reclaiming their roles as community hubs.  People who haven’t sat together and spoken for years come together once more. 
It’s not foolproof, but decent beer pubs offering good beer in the right location are thriving.

Buried hatchet of the year: The Great British Beer Festival

Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity.  I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done. 
The first slagging I gave our consumer campaigning body was in my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, and the main focus of my ire was the Great British Beer Festival.  I used to be drawn to it every year, and I used to hate it every year.  I hated its unfriendly staff, its singular lack of atmosphere, and the fact that every single aspect of it seemed to actively alienate anyone who was not already a fully paid-up CAMRA member.
In 2009, I grudgingly admitted that much had changed, and despite reservations, it was getting pretty good.  In 2010, I enjoyed it unreservedly. 
We could still point to the appalling acoustics, the ludicrous situation whereby Meantime, a brewer of incredibly authentic traditional London beer styles, is not allowed to exhibit those beers in a London beer festival thanks to an irrelevant technicality, or the apparently growing hostility to the large regional brewers who kept real ale alive until the micro boom came along.  It’ll never be perfect. 
But there’s been a lot of thought given to layout and navigation, the foreign beers now get the space and respect they deserve, and the staff of volunteers have undergone a massive charm offensive, and are, on balance, as unfailingly polite and helpful as they were rude and hostile a few years ago.  More than that, festivals are made by the people who attend them.  The craft beer revolution and CAMRA’s more open body language have attracted a much broader spectrum of people, and GBBF now actually feels like a festival.  It feels like a celebration of great beer on a grand scale – which is what it ought to be.
Congratulations, CAMRA.

Big night out of the year: Kelly Ryan’s Euston Tap Farewell

Most sadly missed, Britain’s loss is New Zealand’s gain etc. 
At the end of the year Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge brewer, brilliant public face for the brewery and perfect foil for the gifted but shy genius that is head brewer Stefano Cossi, decided to return home down under. He announced that he’d be having a few drinks in the newly opened Euston Tap on 1st December, if anyone wanted to come along and say goodbye.
Earlier that evening I’d already been to a Beer Genie Christmas beer tasting with my oldest friend, Chris.  This was also a leaving drink of sorts, with Chris leaving London after 16 years to return oop north.  Kelly’s party was in full swing when we arrived, with many familiar faces.  Thornbridge Alliance, one of only two casks in existence of a beer brewed three years ago in collaboration with Garret Oliver, was on the bar, alongside several other Thornbridge solo and collaborative brews.  I was asked for my autograph when I walked in, which was weird – I’ve signed lots of books and stuff, but never actually been asked for my autograph before, and certainly not on the basis of my appearances on a long-lost food TV programme four years ago.  
There was already a certain giddiness in the air.  With heady beers of 10% or 11% on the cards, I planned my night’s drinking carefully – three or four different halves, building in flavour and intensity, until finishing on the Alliance at about 10pm then heading home. 
This would have worked if I was buying my own drinks, but on nights like this in the Tap that’s not always easy.  Various indeterminate pints and halves began appearing in front of us.  And then in burst Jamie, proprietor of both Sheffield and Euston Taps, bearing a heavy plaque that had been awarded him by a bunch of railway enthusiasts for the restoration of the Sheffield Tap, presented by none other than celebrity trainspotter Pete Waterman.  More drinks all round.
And then it started snowing, heavily, and then pizzas arrived, and then it was snowing inside, because a bunch of polystyrene appeared from somewhere and Chris was tearing it into smaller pieces and throwing it in the air.  Jamie was challenging people to arm wrestling contests at the bar, goading them with slaps around the face if they proved hesitant.  I don’t think the stoic bar manager, Yan, ever actually called time or declared a lock-in.  It just reached a point deep in the night where anyone who came to the door took one look inside and hurried away again.  Kelly and his girlfriend Kat looked delighted, accepting endless drinks and occasionally even trying to buy one.   The snow continued to fall and barley wine followed Imperial Stout followed Double IPA, and we stayed there, drinking irresponsibly, until about 2am.
One of those nights you’ll remember for years to come – the sheer joy of drinking great beer with great people.  In the snow.

Local triumph of the year: London finally catches up with Microbrew revolution

In 2006, Ben McFarland and I spent a day touring Boulder, Colorado, while visiting the Great American beer festival.  At that time Boulder (population, 85,000) had 15 breweries.  London (population 7 million) had two that people knew about, and maybe two more that were known to real aficionados.  It seemed bizarre that, in the midst of the UK microbrewing revolution, the nation’s capital, home to legendary historical breweries like Whitbread, Courage, Watney’s, Truman’s and Barclay Perkins, had fewer breweries than places like Sheffield and Derby.
In 2009-2010, that all changed.  When the explosion came, it was all the more forceful for having been kept waiting so long.  Sambrooks opened at the end of 2008, Brodies in 2009, and in 2010 we gained Redemption, The Kernel, Saints and Sinners/Brew Wharf, Camden Town and, a little further out, Windsor and Eton.  With Fuller’s breaking new ground, Meantime moving to a new level, Battersea Brewing somewhere below the radar, Zero Degrees in Blackheath and the Twickenham brewery, London finally has a vibrant brewing scene once more.  Not only that, across the board there’s a level of variety, experimentation and cooperation that gladdens the heart as it excites the palate.
So, lots of moans about 2010, but lots to be very happy about too.  I think the trend towards interesting beer has proved not to be a fad.  Now, when I tell people what I do for a living, about half of them say, “Oh yeah, beer’s pretty cool at the moment isn’t it?  I was trying something new and interesting the other day.”  I don’t know if we’ll ever get the sudden explosion of interest that cider got with Magner’s.  But compared to when I started writing about beer, the variety and enthusiasm surrounding it now is phenomenal.
Here’s to more of the same in 2011.

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Pub closures: is the worst over?

I was at a presentation the other day by CGA strategy, the company who does all the market stats for the UK on-trade market.  Over the past couple of years, when you’ve seen grim headlines about the number of pubs closing every week, it’s been based on their figures.

Enough already.

Well, perhaps I’ve been too busy, or maybe it’s because good news never tends to get as much coverage as bad news, I seem to have missed their latest figures, whenever they came out.  But while pubs are still closing at a depressing rate, it does seem as the the worst might be over – and the closure rate is falling faster than CGA had forecast.

They calculate the figure every six months, and the trend is as follows:

June 08 to December 08 – 39 net pub closures every week
December 08 to June 09 – 52 pub closures a week – the figure that really hit the headlines
June 09 to December 09 – 39 closures a week
December 09 to June 10 – 29 closures a week

As I said, 29 pubs every week is still a shocking rate of decline.  We’re losing about five per cent of Britain’s pubs in less than a decade.  But it has fallen by almost half in a year.

CGA reckon that the pubs that are closing are those that didn’t adapt to suit changing needs in the recession.  That may be too much of a generalisation, but they’re probably right when they say the pubs left behind may be smaller in number, but will be stronger.  They reckon proper recovery in the pub market will begin in 2013.

Another interesting stat is what happens to those closed down pubs?  Property company Christies says that 60% of the boarded-up pubs they sell on eventually reopen as pubs.  That will be included in CGA’s net figure.  But it does show that there is still some dynamism in the pub market.  Both the Jolly Butchers and Cask and Kitchen were failed pubs before they were taken over and relaunched as craft beer pubs.

So – hardly joyous tidings to shout from the rooftops.  But as I’ve always maintained, reports of ‘the death of the pub’ are greatly exaggerated.