Friday, 29 May 2015

Seven years

Seven years in the pub trade was enough. It was great fun and very lucrative, but I've done it now. Life's too fleeting to linger in a job - I'd hesitate to call it a profession - that's so all-consuming.

In the editorial for Spring's BEER magazine, Tom Stainer said that at the Gunmakers I took on "a non-descript London pub" and turned it into "a well-known and liked watering hole". That was very kind of him. Regular readers will know I sold that business - my first pub - last October. The Gunmakers was very special to me and I will never forget my years there. I know that many others feel the same. Some people thought it was rubbish, though, and that the bogs were too moody.

Over the years I'd often looked at grand buildings around London that had once been pubs and wished I could turn the tide, returning just one of them to its proper purpose. At 118 Finborough Road I did just that. When I signed the lease the bar was but an empty shell, after a decade spent as a brasserie then a wine bar and cafe. With the help of friends I was proud to open the Finborough Arms as a pub again on 28th February 2014, my 35th birthday. I sold it on Wednesday. Its now a respected and profitable public house. It has an enthusiastic and ambitious new landlord and I'm sure it'll go from strength to strength.

You should never say never, but certainly for now I'm happy on this side of the bar. Today I met some of my old Gunmakers regulars at Ye Olde Mitre for an entirely liquid lunch then repaired to my old haunt, the Jerusalem Tavern, for a pint of mild. It's great to be a customer again.

The blog will continue. It'll probably get better, in fact. Readers who've followed from the early years might recall I used to use the image above as a sort of logo. It's a photo of the Baptist's head, mounted on the wall at the Jerusalem Tavern.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Humphrey and the rabbit hole

Where my Sam Smith's journey began.
I've fallen down an internet rabbit hole and I can't get out. This is a cry for help.

I've always been fascinated by Sam Smith's pubs. The first I visited was the Three Goats Heads in Oxford. It was a useful place, and not just because the beer was cheaper than any of the other pubs in town: it was right next door to the Oxford Union. There was a strict ban on discussing grubby student electoral politics within the confines of the Union itself. Now I spent much of the time as an undergraduate ascending the greasy pole to become President, so being able to nip next door to twist arms and plot up over a cheap and cheerful pint of man-in-a-box lager* made the Three Goats very attractive.

When I first moved to the capital in 2001 I spent a lot of time in the West End, as you do when you don't really know London very well. The plethora of Sam Smith's boozers with prices suited to a graduate salary was a Godsend. I must have spent at least a few sessions in every single one of them with a W postcode.

Recently - feeling a bit jaded by the aggressive craft beer scene in London - I've become fond of Sam Smith's again and am beginning to seek out the better pubs in their estate for my own personal libations. I've written admiringly of a pint of Wheat Beer at the Angel in Rotherhithe, of the Old Brewery Bitter in Stamford, Lincs, and of the Imperial Stout at the John Snow in Soho. Just yesterday I had a great pint of Sam Smith's Stout at the spectacular Captain Kidd in Wapping. I don't care that it isn't trendy (in fact, I prefer it that way).

This is the only photo of Humphrey Smith online, and it's many years old.
This resurgence in my own interest in Sam Smith's is what led to the aforementioned, metaphorical internet rabbit hole. I discovered this forum, where disgruntled former employees and customers of the pubs sound off about apparently eccentric brewery owner Humphrey Smith. And then I read this article by a self-styled "Pub Doctor"**, absolutely tearing into the state of the Crown on New Oxford Street. Then there's this remarkable, shit-stirring BBC report which presents Humphrey as a despotic "Lord of the Manor" up in Tadcaster where Sam Smith's Old Brewery is situated.

Now it's standard practice in this country to slag off anyone who owns more stuff than you do, so I take all this bitching with a pinch of salt. But it does paint a remarkable picture of someone - Humphrey Smith - who runs a brewery which is itself one of the most singular in the world. All I can say is this: I would absolutely love to meet him.

* if you don't know what man-in-the-box lager is, you need to educate yourself. You mango-infused IPA drinking div.
** pub consultancy? Might try my hand at that. Since I entered the trade seven years ago I've had no end of people telling me how I should be running my businesses, so it'd be nice to give something back.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Pubs in London least contemptuous of lager

Craft Beer London has published a list of five beer bars in London in which ordering a lager doesn't get you a dirty look and a pint of some sort of ersatz Kölsch or a Citra hop monster with a vaguely pilsner-ish grain bill. I'm pleased my own pub the Finborough is included because I think that the finest Bohemian and Bavarian lagers are, quite simply, the best beers in the world.

Back when I first started this blog it wasn't so easy to find good lager in the UK. In 2007 I wrote this article about how few of real quality were being brewed here. Now there are lots of people producing "craft lagers" in the UK but sadly only a very few can hold a candle to the best imports, and a lot of what's being produced misses the point entirely.

Thursday, 21 May 2015


Eight years ago I visited Bayreuth in Franconia and wrote about it on this blog. Here's the post. I toured the Atkien brewery with, among others, beer writer and historian Ron Pattinson, who wrote a better account on his own blog. I remember drinking their Zwick'l Kellerbier in a spartan taproom before touring the brewery's cellars, which were used during the war as air raid shelters for the town's residents.

Now there have been many glorious things about reviving the Finborough Arms early last year. One of them is the lack of a brewery or pubco tie: this is a truly independent freehouse. I can sell whatever beer I like. When my friends at Purity Brewing told me they'd imported Aktien's Zwick'l Kellerbier I ordered kegs immediately. As of today it's on tap at the Finborough.

When I started writing this blog in 2007 I was just discovering the world of beer. Since then I've been landlord of two pubs, but it's only been at the Finborough that I've had a free reign over what beers I serve. As a result I've been able to offer some of my favourite personal beer discoveries from around Europe to customers in London.

The ideal has to be serving beers authentically, as they would be in the place they come from. That's why we've got a shelf full of Atkien steinkrugs and we're serving the Zwick'l in those.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Imperial Stout

I don't handle being poorly well at all. When you're self-employed it's an absolute nightmare. There's noone to phone in sick to, you see.

So as not to spend the whole of today at home moaning I went for a wander earlier. After taking the air I felt that a drink might benefit me. But not any old drink: ordinary beer couldn't be less appealing right now. A bottle of Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout - an old favourite of mine - was what I wanted. The John Snow in Soho had it. I felt a little better. I'm becoming very fond of Sam Smith's.

Other imperial stouts I've written about in years past include Pitfield 1792Podge's Belgian, Ascot Anastasia and Brew Dog TokyoI might be under the weather, but not as bad as I was back in December 2008 when, emerging from a week of misery, I had my first (and to date only) bottle of Pliny The Elder. I had a good self-indulgent moan on the blog then, too.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

More on Meantime

Alastair Hook. Never shy of a camera or a microphone.
Unsurprisingly, there's been some negative reaction on the internet to the announcement yesterday that Meantime is being acquired by SABMiller. But if there's one thing we've learned recently (and yes, I'm thinking of May 7th) it's that those who make the most noise on twitter aren't representative of real public opinion.

So ignore all the knee jerk, anti-big business guff, and read what Alastair Hook - founder of Meantime - has to say. If you can't be bothered to click the link, here's his conclusion:
"I know some craft brewers have reservations about working with bigger brewers, but if this association means Meantime and SABMiller producing a wider range of better beer, in greater volume, served to more and more appreciative beer drinkers, my brewers and I raise our glasses to the future."
That makes sense to me.

Friday, 15 May 2015

SABMiller buys Meantime

Propel has the story. Meantime has been London's second biggest brewer since the closure of Young's in 2006. They've gone through a somewhat painful brewery expansion and move since then. If I'm not mistaken Meantime, founded in 2000, is the first second modern UK microbrewery to be purchased by one of the multinational brewing companies. Which one will be next? Brew Dog?

This tweet from Keith Flett (prolific Guardian letter writer, Tottenham trade unionist, beard activist and beer enthusiast) raises an interesting point: does this make Meantime an industrial brewer? My first reaction is no, it doesn't. If it was craft yesterday, it's craft today. This change in ownership doesn't mean the beer and the brewery it's made in have changed (and I don't expect they will, at least not in the short term). Nevertheless, some of the attempts to define "craft beer" would disqualify Meantime from being a craft brewer after this deal has gone through.

This Meantime employee wasn't too happy to have only heard about the deal after it was announced to the market. It's not surprising the entire staff weren't told about the deal before it went ahead, to be honest. This sort of thing has to be conducted on a need-to-know basis. In any event when companies are acquired employment contracts aren't affected in the short term anyway (in the longer term they might be, but the same would be true if the company had remained independent).

Phil Harding makes the obvious point that this deal was foreshadowed by the appointment in 2011 of Nick Miller as Meantime's CEO in 2011: Miller was previously MD of SABMiller's UK division.

This cheeky tweet from another brewery in Greenwich implies Meantime will now effectively cease to be due to this acquisition. Nice try, but in reality there's no way SAB will close the Meantime plant and move production elsewhere. The entire brand is built around the provenance.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Embrace the murk

The murk isn't going away. Nothing will stop it. The tide will not be turned by any amount of snarky comments from jealous, stick-in-the-mud brewers who know how to make transparent beer. Grumbling killjoys who proudly held their pints to the light before the London beer scene's Year Zero* can forget it. Opacity is here to stay, and must be embraced. And so I present to you glasses of beer we were served - and paid for - on Saturday. They truly were the murkiest we had ever seen, and we felt privileged to be drinking them.

It doesn't matter what it looks like. You drink with your tastebuds, not your eyes.
And if you don't think it tastes right then your tastebuds aren't craft.
* Year Zero was probably 2009. Or maybe 2010. Nothing that came before Year Zero counts and if you think it did you are, frankly, a dick. And probably sexist.