Saturday, 20 December 2014

The true meaning of Black Friday

In this country, Black Friday is the last Friday before Christmas. It's about enforced fun with work colleagues and battling for space in pubs with Herberts who don't get out much for the rest of the year. It's not the day after Thanksgiving, nor is it about overweight Americans fighting each other in shops like some continent-wide It's a Knockout.

In each of the last five years, Black Friday has been the most frenetic of my year. But yesterday I was off work. You see, The Finborough is more or less done for 2014: our theatre is winding down, our neighbours have already begun to leave London and others who might have visited us were at office parties in town. And of course the Gunmakers - which will have been thronged with tinselheads - isn't mine anymore.

On a blissful and reflective day, I visited the British Museum, bought myself some new boots and sank a couple of Wrassler's XXXX in the Porterhouse. Then I had a quiet night in and dabbled in a bit of homebrewing for the first time in seven years. It'll be a pale ale using Maris Otter malt and Phoenix hops if it works, but I'm not sure it will - I was just messing around.

The Finborough is open today until midnight and on Sunday from 12 to 6pm, when I'll be behind the bar. We'll then be closed until Boxing Day when we'll open at 10:30 for our matchday regulars as our local football club host West Ham at 12:45. If you're in town join us on that day - a few familiar faces are coming down.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Throwback Thursday #6 - my favourite pubs, in no order

Every week at 2pm on Thursday I link to a few old posts from this blog's archives from 2007-2009.

On May 13th I sent a text to Jack and Eddie - who, together with Derek, have been my principal drinking companions of 2014 - listing "my favourite pubs in no order". I don't remember sending it, let alone what the lads did to deserve this missive. What I do know is, in a sentimental, shitfaced condition, I thought it was of sufficient profundity to justify that fruity front button/top button iPhone manoeuvre that saves an image of the screen.

Looking at the list now, seven months later, I'd question it already. Certainly that joint in Venice is a weird choice. But what's pleasing is that I wrote about several of the pubs listed here on the blog, back in 2007-2009. Here are links to those posts.
I visited Edinburgh's Bow Bar and Guildford Arms in July 2007 on my pal Ross's stag do. We also met a man dressed as a huge cock and balls*. 
I've already linked to my post about U Hrocha in Prague in the first Throwback Thursday but here it is again
I first set foot in Schlenkerla, Bamberg, back in the summer of 2007 with Ron Pattinson. I've been back three times since (twice this year in fact) and sell their famous smoked beer in bottles at the Finborough. 
I like the Maltings in York so much I sometimes feel like jumping on a train just to go there and see Shaun, the landlord. I've only been once since that first visit in 2009 which is crackers on my part.
Al Pesador in Venice was simply a great spot to unwind right by the Grand Canal. The location was everything and I remember really enjoying the dark birra a la spina (don't know what it was, don't care). 
I visited Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa in Rome in 2007, before everyone else lumped on and discovered how great it was. Back then it was a truly exotic discovery for an Englishman. Nowadays it's on any beer lover's itinerary when visiting the Italian capital.
Birrificio Lambrate in Milan is absolutely banging, and no mistake. I went back in January of last year, but my first visit was part of a grand tour of Italy with my pal Jon in 2008.
I don't have archive posts about the others because, in the case of Neder, the Sheppey and Mahr's, I've only visited them since I quit writing the blog. I should catch up on myself and write posts about those in the weeks to come.

Olympia was a choice simply because it was where I went for lunch when I lived in Prague. It's part of a chain of Pilsner Urquell tankovas and not even the best among those. Also - and you won't believe this, but it's actually true - Kanye West, Jay-Z and Mos Def went there with my pal from uni Mr Hudson purely on my recommendation, even ordering exactly what I suggested. How's that for some name dropping?

* Do not click the link if you will feel violated by seeing a photo of a man dressed as a huge cock and balls.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

#TryJanuary, not dry January

These people would have a shit month in January,
if it weren't for the fact they're just models on an assignment and
will probably be drinking alcohol responsibly like the rest of us.
No-one I'm friends with gives up alcohol in January, but then I avoid getting chummy with melts. However I am aware that "dry January" is a thing. So it's a resounding cheers to the Morning Advertiser who have launched a campaign to counteract this economically and socially damaging trend dreamed up by third sector dickheads on the make.

So which will you choose? Will you opt for a boring "dry January", bothering people to sponsor you so you can hand over their money to political lobbying organisations masquerading as charities? Or will you choose to "try January", having a great time while putting money into the hospitality industry - the private sector - where jobs and wealth are created?

Allow me to expand on the broader point about modern charities that I'm so crassly trying to shoehorn in here. This recent Guardian article is very telling. The MP who wrote it is complaining, essentially, that charities are being diverted what she sees as their only purpose - political lobbying - because they're doing actual charitable work instead. I make no comment on her contention that the state is failing in its role under the current government - I just object to the assumption that charities are supposed to be solely political rather than philanthropic organisations these days. It seems like a very easy way to get around political funding rules...

Monday, 15 December 2014

What's the best pub name in Britain?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: people shouldn't change historic pub names. The best course of action to take when some vain Herbert tries to obliterate their pub's history is to keep using the old name in front of them and their staff in an ostentatious, passive aggressive manner.

Anyway, moving on from that rather angry opening paragraph, here's a question for you: what's the best pub name in Britain?

My vote goes to The Land of Liberty, Peace and Plenty. It's an ale-led boozer in Hertfordshire I visited a couple of times back in 2007. It was very much an unreconstructed CAMRA favourite then and from what I've been told it hasn't changed much since.

When I re-opened the Finborough Arms in 2014 it had been the "Finborough Wine Cafe" since 2010. Before that it had been the "Finborough Brasserie" since about 2006. I won't deny it - we enjoyed ripping down the garish "Wine Cafe" signs and throwing them in a skip. Then, with the help of signwriter Archie Proudfoot, we restored the pub's original identity from 1868.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

"Stop looking at my hair"

Jim's hair.
A lot of the people who read and commented on this blog in the early days I'd later meet in person when they visited my pub. One such character was Jim, a hearty Scouser of Turkish ancestry. He quit his dead end job in IT and gave his life to the pub trade.

He's currently manager of the Holborn Whippet by Bloomsbury Square, where he serves what he likes to call "juicy bangers". Jim was previously at the Euston Tap, where he was mentored by the pub industry's number one troubleshooter. It's no wonder, then, that he's considered one of the leading lights in London's - nay, Britain's - craft beer scene.

Earlier this year we were in Franconia, Germany, on a jolly boys' tour. As we visited brewery after brewery, sinking lovely beers in every one, I became obsessed with Jim's hair. He asked me to stop looking at it, but I couldn't. As we were being driven through the countryside by Roman, our absolute fruitloop of a guide, I snapped this photo. I want to share it with you now.

If you'd like to see more pictures of Jim's hair, let me know. I have lots of them. Oh, go on then, have a gander at these beauties. And before you ask, no, it's not a wig.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Market rent option - will the microbrewers be disappointed?

This tweet by Paul Charity of Propel set me off thinking again about potential effects of the "market rent option" for tied licensees. The Scottish brewers Paul's referring to are motivated by a desire to access pubs they can't normally sell to due to the tie. But will it really work out that way, or will they be disappointed?

Tied licensees are accustomed to most if not all of their beer coming in one single, scheduled delivery. They'll then get one invoice and make one payment for the lot, usually with credit terms of a week or two. They also get their beer dispense equipment (taps, lines, coolers, gas) maintained free of charge. This is all terribly convenient.

In theory, as an untied licensee you'll get none of this support. You can buy from whoever you want and negotiate your own prices. But then you'll have to deal with multiple deliveries at various (often inconvenient) times. You'll frequently be being required to pay cash on delivery by undercapitalised brewers whose precarious cash flow situation doesn't allow them to give any credit at all.

Empty containers from umpteen breweries will clutter your pub's cellar. Microbrewers who can't afford proper draymen will ask you to help unloading beer from the boot of their car and carry it down to the cellar (make sure you don't put your back out, and pray that if they hurt themselves they don't blame you). There's no single system for dealing with ullage (duff beer) and sometimes you'll have to call the brewer himself to explain what's gone wrong (be warned - they can be pretty hostile). It's all time very consuming with lots of potential for mishap.

Of course, if any of your dispense equipment goes on the fritz you're on your own. As an independent operator you're lower down the technician's list of priorities than pubco and brewery clients, and they'll make you pay top whack when they do find time for you.

So much for the theory. In practice, untied pub operators usually make a deal with a "principal brewer". This brewer will then maintain the cellar equipment and offer the same sort of delivery and payment terms enjoyed by tied licensees. If there needs to be investment made in the dispense equipment or cellar, the brewer is likely to spend that cash up front.

At the top end of the market the multinationals such as Carlsberg, Inbev and Heineken are eager to enter into such arrangements, but then so are the likes of Greene King, Fullers, Young's and Adnams. Smaller players sometimes get involved too. As an untied publican you won't have to pay the crazy prices your tied counterparts do - indeed, it's possible to get hefty discounts for volume and achieve great GPs - but your choice of beers will be restricted again. A certain number of your lines will be, in effect, tied once more. There may not even be scope for guest beers if the brewery's offering you a great deal and lots of money.

Because of this, the market rent option might not offer microbrewers the increased access to market they'd hope for. The multinationals and the larger independents will simply enter into deals with the newly untied pubs and force the minnows out again.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Throwback Thursday #5 - the BrewCam

After a few months of writing this blog in 2007, I started homebrewing with my mate Dave the Goon. We didn't do it properly, with grains and fresh hops and whatnot. We used "kits" - essentially big tins of syrupy hopped malt extract you add to boiling water to create wort.

We brewed some truly terrible bitter in a bin and served it to a tramp on Clerkenwell Green. Then we made a dark beer that was actually quite decent and drank it in the first class section of a train. If you have nothing better to do and want to follow the story from the very beginning, start here.

Our efforts attracted a fair amount of attention and Hop & Grape, an online retailer of homebrewing equipment, provided us with brewing kits and equipment for free in exchange for sponsoring the BrewCam. Dave has some IT knowledge and set up a video camera inside our fermenter. He then produced two time lapse videos, that went sort-of-viral after a website called Fark linked to them. They're pretty amateur but it was all good fun at the time. I think the videos deserve another airing now, seven years later.

Happy birthday Wetherspoons - 35 today

I used to be very critical of Wetherspoons on this blog, but have since got over myself. Back then I spent all my time in London, but I've travelled around the south of England a lot in the last three years and discovered that in lots of towns the Spoons is the best pub. The Willow Tree in Stowmarket - the market town nearest my parents' village - is one such example, offering lovely fish and chips and great beer.

I met Tim Martin once, albeit briefly. In 2002 me and my flatmate Aidan were in the audience of Question Time. We both got picked to ask a question. Afterwards Dimbleby signalled for us to come down and chat with the panel, of which Tim was a member. I was dying to get my grasps on that mullet he sports, but resisted the temptation.