Monday, 2 March 2015

Laters

Time for a break from everything. Me and my hiking boots are back off to the Frankische Schweiz in Germany to tackle some freezing cold hills and a few mugs of cool landbier. Consequently the blog will be silent this week, but I'll have plenty to write about when I get back.

This is how I feel.

"The future of pubs - if CAMRA keeps winning"

You must read this transcript of author Christopher Snowdon's speech to a conference on the future of pubs last week.

In November Parliament legislated to the effect that tied publicans could, upon certain trigger events, demand a free-of-tie, market rent option from their pubco or brewery. It was hard to cheer the apparent success of CAMRA and the anti-pubco campaigners because it wasn't clear that they'd thought through the consequences of their actions. I opted for a rather dry analysis on the day, but did raise a concern about the effects in another blog post twelve days later. It'll probably take years for us to see the effects play out.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

The Ram Brewery

Photo from the Londonist
I've been caught napping. I had no idea that brewing had continued at the old Ram Brewery in Wandsworth, the former home of Young's. In my defence, it's been pretty low key, as this fantastic article in the Londonist describes.

Ex-Young's brewer John Hatch was retained by the developers who bought the land in 2006 as a site manager. He built a small nanobrewery in the old stable block. He produces small batches of beer about once a week, but can't sell any of it. Young's imposed a ten year prohibition on commercial brewing on the site when the sale went through. But that means that next year the Ram Brewery can go into business.

There are scores of commercial breweries in Greater London - isn't the total number nearly 80 now? - which is probably too many if truth be told. Few have much to distinguish them from the next. But this one will be a welcome addition when it goes public, continuing Wandsworth's centures-old brewing tradition.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Give thanks to InBev

Breathless beer fanatics can confidently list off the breweries they consider to have blazed a trail: Brew Dog, Kernel, Camden and what not. And to some extent they're right to identify such microbreweries as game changers on the British beer scene. But beer geeks, bless 'em, do have a tendency to be short-sighted and ignore what came just a few years before. There are a few products that changed the UK beer market more than any of the craft players, and they came from the multinationals. If these beers had not come first - backed by marketing muscle - it wouldn't have been possible for the sort of differentiation in presentation, style and crucially price necessary for a craft beer scene to break out. There simply wouldn't have been a precedent.

I remember my first pint of Hoegaarden. It was tremendously exciting. By putting it in a chunky glass and floating a bit of fruit on top, it somehow convinced British drinkers - accustomed to a pint being more or less the same price, whatever it was - to spend at least a quid more. Then there was Leffe, also Belgian and also from InBev's stable. It was considerably stronger than anything else on the keg taps, and therefore it was easy to justify serving it in a half pint measure. Stick that half in a stemmed glass and all of a suddenly it looks like a proper beer, and a much higher price per millilitre doesn't seem like a rip-off.

What I'm suggesting is that, in the particular conditions of the mainstream British pub, beers like Hoegaarden and Leffe laid the ground work for a very different beer market today compared to ten years ago. It wasn't the echo chamber of beer writing or the "craft beer movement". It wasn't even the impressive work of the leading micros that, in the space of a very few years, have obtained major supermarket listings and presence on pub company bars. The market needed to be softened up, and it was the multinational brewers that did it. Their successes in introducing "super-premium" beer to the UK was what came first, and provided fertile ground for "craft".

What prompted me to bash out this post was a visit last night to an old favourite I've seriously neglected in the last few years. The Sutton Arms on Carthusian Street, next to Smithfield Market, is part of the low profile Remarkable Restaurants chain. You can tell you're in one of their pubs because the house lager is always Litovel, a Moravian beer the company imports itself. As we sat at the bar - Eddie on lager, me enjoying a decent and keenly priced Aussie shiraz - I noticed they were pouring a lot of Leffe. I used to always drink the stuff in there and other pubs in the area when I was a trainee at Clifford Chance around the corner. It's a beer with happy associations for me. So much so, I don't want to drink it now as I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy it.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The inside out pub

I'd hardly be breaking new ground if I wrote about how great the Marble Arch in Manchester is, so I won't. It would be about as dull as a post about gender issues or a bottle of beer I drank in my kitchen (both beer blogger favourites at the moment, it seems). Suffice to say my first visit to this famous pub was a joy and the beer was excellent. We were joined by Tandleman who took us on a frenetic educational pub crawl across the rainy city. I'd have happily stayed put if I'm honest - I was in pub heaven.

One thing I've never seen anyone observe about the Marble Arch is this: the decor's inside out. The sort of glazed bricks and decorative lettering you often see on the exterior a late Victorian or Edwardian boozer is inside the pub. It looks marvellous and creates a really unique effect.

Last month I visited Dusseldorf and marvelled at the decor in Uerige. Next week I'm off to Bamberg and then the Frankische Schweiz again on one of my hiking getaways, so I'll get to soak up the atmosphere in the Schlenkerla and Mahr's taverns again. But it's easy to forget that here in Britain we have our own magnificent pub interiors. The Marble Arch is surely one of the very best.

I was in Manchester not just to go on the piss, although that's certainly how it turned out - I got absolutely twatted. I was with my elusive Australian pal (who prefers to remain anonymous). He's opening a new craft beer bar right by the entrance to Piccadilly Station. I had a poke around the site, which is about to be fitted out. The Piccadilly Tap - a sister pub for London's own Holborn Whippet and Pelt Trader - will open on 20th March with the best beer selection in North West England.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Don't complain!


I came across this photo of a British craft beer bar on Facebook. I don't know where it was taken. It's hard to imagine a more aggressively stated policy toward customer complaints about iffy looking pints. I can only assume it happens to them a lot. The specific issue the blackboard addresses, of course, is the resistance of many consumers to being served cloudy beer. The point the bar owner wishes to put across is that "natural" beer (by which he or she means unfiltered and unfined, one would assume) is cloudy, and if you raise this issue when you're served a murky pint you're being unreasonable.

That would be fine if it weren't absolute nonsense. Now the vast majority of the beer I serve is unfiltered: all the cask ale and most of the keg beers too. I also serve unfined beer frequently, although I don't generally seek it out. Some of my favourite brewers, for whatever reason, choose not to use finings. Hastings is a good example (I ordered some of their beer today, as it happens - great stuff, if a touch pricey). But I don't serve truly cloudy beer*. If it looks that way I send it back to the brewery before a single customer has the chance to hold it up to the light and worry they've been served a wrong 'un.

A slight haze in an unfiltered and unfined beer is to be expected, but when it looks like muddy soup, then something's gone wrong. As a customer, if you get a dodgy looking beer, don't be fobbed off with a shrug and "it's supposed to look that way". If you're a publican and you've been fed a lazy brewer's excuses, don't pay and insist they uplift it as ullage. Standards will only improve if we all make a stand on this.

* exception: German-style wheat beers. Obviously.

Manchester

I've been to Manchester twice. The first time was in 1998 with uni pals in the break between Hilary and Trinity. I remember we had this amazing, revelatory doner wrapped in a naan. It was the best kebab I'd had to date.

Six years later I went again to see England play Iceland in a warm-up match before Euro 2004. That night we went out to a place by some canals where there were some people who looked like they were off of Hollyoaks, and even some people who actually were off of Hollyoaks. Later I insisted on wandering the streets looking for a kebab shop. My mate Mike got really hacked off as he wanted chicken, then some students poured a bucket of water over his head and he had a meltdown and locked us out of the hotel room. I never got a kebab.

Anyway, I'm going to Manchester tomorrow (Thursday). A good friend of mine is opening a new pub there very soon and I'm going to take a look at the site. Afterwards we'll be going for beers elsewhere in the city. I know there's a famous pub with a brewery called the Marble Arch because people always bang on about it (indeed there's an old boy who drinks in the Finborough who used to own it). But where else should we drink?

Obviously I could have just emailed Tandleman and he'd set me straight but, you know, got to keep the blog going.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Kout na Šumavě

Outside the brewery ...
I went to the trade session of that Craft Beer Rising event in Brick Lane. After too many beers there I went straight on for a boozy night of stand-up comedy in the cellar of my own pub, the Finborough Arms (comedy is third Thursday of every month, details of upcoming nights here). As a result I'm absolutely hanging today and don't really want to think about beer at all for a couple of days.

I'll surely be feeling better on Monday when we'll be serving something very special at the Finborough. All this week on tap we've been serving Kout na Šumavě 10, the lighter, 4% version of one of the Czech Republic's finest beers. We're already on our fourth keg. I have a single barrel of the stronger, 12 degree plato version in its unfiltered form. I've tasted unfiltered Czech lagers before and they're usually a treat.

... inside the brewery.
One of our regulars Nicola has been tucking into the Kout with gusto. He has history with the brewery. A few years ago he ran a bar in North Eastern Italy, and used to drive all the way to Bohemia for kegs of Kout. These are his photos of the brewery, taken on one of his beer buying missions. It's in a small town near Pilsen, and was first founded in the eighteenth century. In 1969 brewing stopped, but was restarted in 2006. As you can see from Nicola's photos, from the outside you'd think the place was abandoned and derelict, but step inside and there's a modern brewery.

I first read about Kout back in 2008 on the excellent Pivni Filosof blog, written by Max, an Argentinian beer lover resident in Prague. He wrote excitedly about getting a bottle of the brewery's unfiltered 12 and trying it at home. Back then it wasn't available anywhere in Prague. It's a sign of the times in the beer world that I can now serve it on tap in London. I'm not complaining, of course.