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A Life In The Pub Part 1: Not Yet In The Pub

October 29, 2010 5 comments

Ballyclare, Northern Ireland in the 1990s was not the best place in the world to fall in love with good beer. Not that there weren’t any pubs. There were, and more than there are now. Around the Square alone there were six. However, for me there were a number of problems with the ones we had.

Firstly, it was very, very difficult for me to get served. I was young for my year at school and so I was under 18 until a month before I left and went to university. This was due to a diabolical masterplan my mother had concocted to give her the option of holding me back a year to resit the 11-plus if I failed it first time round. Fortunately I passed and went to the nice state grammar school with the nice teachers and the annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, so the real world was held at bay for another seven years.

As a result, I was the youngest of my friends, but this problem was compounded as I also looked young for my age. Clive Anderson once said something like, “I looked 14 until my mid-20s, at which point I started to look 40.” I had a very similar experience, so the big hairy full-time carpenter/part-time bouncer on the door of The Grange Bar wasn’t in any way convinced.

Secondly, most of the pubs were a bit rough. I was young, fat, sheltered, middle class and, to be completely honest, simply too scared to try my luck at getting served in most of them. Largely this terror was instilled without ever having been in them, such was their reputation. They had a symbiotic relationship with folk selling duty-free cigarettes, the bookies, the flute bands and occasionally the local paramilitaries (the last two groups not necessarily being entirely mutually exclusive).

But, peeking through the glass of the six around the Square (metaphorically, as largely this wasn’t possible or would have at best been frowned upon) this was how it seemed:

  • The Comrades Club definitely looked like a rough pub from the outside. It was and remains one of those one-storey flat-roofed bunkers of a place, tied to the local Irish League football club and with grills over the windows.
  • The Farmer’s Inn (latterly Henry’s) was reportedly run by, erm, not sure how to put this… people who were neither farmers nor landscape gardeners but might well have an alternative use for fertiliser. That was the rumour in any event. It closed ages ago and may since have re-opened without a licence as a café.
  • I don’t think that The Red Hand Bar was ever actually run by the paramilitaries, but… let’s just say that it was not a name that encouraged multiculturalism and integrated drinking from all sections of society. It was bought up by a former boss of mine who owns the Grange, who knocked it down and rebuilt it in the 21st century as a genuinely good off-licence that now even sells a small selection of bottled ale.
  • The Square Bar was clearly for farmers: just beside the entrance to the livestock market, on summer weekdays it always seemed to have tractors and wrinkled, soil-encrusted men sitting smoking in flat caps and wellies outside. I can only assume it smelled of dried manure inside. The last time I was in Ballyclare it had been bought up by a local tee-total Christian businessman and closed down. The market’s gone now too, so maybe it was inevitable that the pub would die as well.
  • The Grange, as mentioned above, I couldn’t get through the door of. In retrospect, this was probably indicative of a responsible pub.
  • The Ballyboe, however, not only tolerated a bit of underage drinking, but was also a pretty good pub. It burned down in suspicious circumstances in 2008 (pictured). I did some of my underage drinking in there and it was fine, and relatively safe, and the selection of beer was terrible.

And this is the real issue: when I got into the bloody places, there was bugger all worth drinking. In the 1980s and 1990s there was, to my knowledge, absolutely no real ale culture in Northern Ireland. To be more specific, there was no real ale and less culture (with the obvious exception of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta).

I’ll pick this up again soon.

Summer Wine Meet-The-Brewer @ Mr Foley’s

October 28, 2010 2 comments

On Wednesday evening I attended a “meet the brewer” event with James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery at Mr Foley’s. I didn’t know that much about Summer Wine beforehand, other than they were a microbrewery in Holmfirth (hence the namecheck to Compo, Clegg and Foggy) and that Mr Foley’s have their beers on quite regularly. I’d previously only tried (and enjoyed) their Houblon IPA and their “Project 6 Brew 5”, the latter of which I’ll come on to in a moment.

I confess to not having taken any tasting notes at the event, but given that descriptors are not really my strength, I probably wouldn’t do the guys justice anyway.* However we tried a range of their beers and they were all excellent, lots of flavours but always superbly balanced. Tiberius was a nice, light hoppy session-strength ale; Portcullis was a surprisingly good, complex ESB; and Treason Treacle Stout was an excellent autumn beer (roasted coffee and, unsurprisingly, treacle).

Perhaps the most interesting thing that Summer Wine are doing is “Project 6”. They’ve released five different versions of a strong, American-style IPA onto the market and are about to release a sixth. We got to compare Project 6 Brew 5 (on cask) to bottle-conditioned samples of Brews 2 and 3. They were all really good and I’m not sure if I prefer 2 or 5 more. It’s notable just how different they were, whilst playing to the same strengths. I’m not sure about the ABV, but I think Brew 2 might be a slightly better companion over the course of an entire evening.

Beyond the fact that these were great beers, I thought there were two things that are especially of interest about Project 6:

Firstly, it isn’t simply the case that Summer Wine are foisting a bunch of rough drafts** of beers on the buyer. Whilst these are experiments, they work very well as beers in their own right and by no means is the drinker being short-changed.

James and Andy mentioned at one point in the evening that the first beer they ever brewed in bulk, they agonised over for about a week before deciding it wasn’t fit to release. Given the financial constraints facing a fledgling microbrewery (and the lack of consistency I’ve noted from certain others), it’s admirable that they should exercise such a commitment to quality.

Secondly, these are also genuine experiments, in the true sense of the word. They’re not just seasonal one-offs, or indeed limited editions for no good reason other than to exploit the collector-like impulses of beer geeks.

They’re trying to find a beer that they want to go on and brew on a larger scale. Summer Wine’s Project 6 is therefore the evolution of a real beer that we can enjoy.

James and Andy have big plans for Summer Wine, including upscaling their kit and getting Bath Ales to do bottling for them. They’re aiming to compete on the same level with interesting regionals like Saltaire Brewery, and I’ll be very happy to see more of their beers around. Currently they sell to Mr Foley’s, the Grove and the Cross Keys in Leeds and hopefully we’ll be seeing their bottles in places like Beer Ritz and on MyBreweryTap.com.

Other than the upcoming Project 6 Brew 6, we can also look forward to a new Black IPA from Summer Wine. I’ve just seen that James has a thoughtful blog, which I’ve added to my blogroll.

It’s a credit to Mr Foley’s and Dean that they held this free event and also threw in some nibbles. The exciting and constantly changing range of beers is the thing that keeps me coming back to Mr Foleys and, helpfully, you can keep up with what’s currently on at their It’s Your Round page.

I think Leigh from The Good Stuff (who interviewed James in June) and Fletchthemonkey from Real Ale Reviews were also there on Wednesday. Sorry I didn’t say hello, but I wasn’t entirely sure who was who with just their avatars to go on! I was looking out for a chimp who appeared to have been drawn in Microsoft Paint, though.

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* My vocabulary in that respect just about stretches to “hoppy/grapefruity/malty/biscuity/chocolatey/coffee-ey”. Presumably if I ever get to try anything with Citra hops, “mangoey” will have be added to the list.

** This is not a pun. Please move along, nothing to see here.

The Guinness “Surger”

October 27, 2010 2 comments

For reasons which I shall go into at length in future posts, Guinness is an important beer to me, in a way that isn’t necessarily connected to how good it is.  However, I do also think that it’s a good, comforting beer and in those (thankfully increasingly limited) number of places that I end up in with work or friends that has no cask beers, no interesting bottles and otherwise only lagers on tap, I’ll usually have a Guinness.

If you go to the Guinness visitor’s centre and read between the lines, you’ll quickly realise that Guinness has been brilliantly marketed over the years, going back to the 1920s at the very least.  However it does make the occasional misstep, usually when it tries to be innovative or expand its range.  These are rarely horrible disasters, but always seem short-lived and are presumably commercial failures (see Guinness Red).

The most successful Guinness innovation in my memory has been the widgeted can.  Guinness developed the widget technology, launched it in 1989 and improved on it with the floating widget in 1997.  It was an clever, scientific solution to the problem that draught* Guinness (i.e. the nitrokegged version which has been on bars since 1964) seemed like a very different drink to the original “fizzy” Guinness available in bottles or cans.

As an aside: I think my tastes may be changing as I learn more about beer.  I might sit down soon and compare widgeted and unwidgeted canned Guinness.  I suspect I might start to prefer the latter as I always remember it having a stronger flavour and being much less creamy, which put me off when I was younger.

However this does create a problem when there’s no Guinness on tap but you want to sell it from pub fridges.  We don’t seem to like cans in pubs.  I don’t know if they seem cheap, or perhaps fail to fit into the pub experience.  I’ve caught a little bit of the current debate about American craft brewers using cans and it possibly being the way of the future.  However I would say that, in my experience, beer out of a can always tastes slightly of the can.

Diageo’s (Guinness’ parent company) previous solution to this has been to sell widgeted bottles.  I don’t really know what to do with one of them: they’re covered in opaque plastic and usually presented without a glass, so you can’t see the beer.  Then you end up drinking from a glass bottle with a plastic widget (which is larger than the neck of the bottle) floating in it like a ping pong ball. 

A can of “draught Guinness” and a pint glass is a more appealling solution to me, as at least you can see it settle.  Diageo appreciate that the visual experience of a draught Guinness settling is something that is part of the attraction.  Which has resulted in a new and peculiar delivery technique which I’ve started to see in pubs: the “surger”.

A couple of months ago I went into the Lazy Lounge (Wellington Street, Leeds) with work colleagues and saw that, contrary to my expectations, they had Guinness on the bar.  I ordered it, except what appeared to be a Guinness tap actually turned out to be a “surger” point.  The barman went to the fridge and pulled out a slightly unusual can of Guinness and poured some flat black liquid into a smaller-than-pint glass.  He then put the glass of flat black liquid on a metal disc on the surger point.  Ultrasonic waves passed through the glass and suddenly the usual cloudiness and creamy head started to appear.

Except… when I tried it, it tasted exactly like widget-canned Guinness: mainly like draught Guinness, but a bit tinny.  Moreover, I felt I’d been cheated, as the thing on the bar looked like a tap from where I was standing.  I can see the point of the system in that it adds a bit of a show to ordering a can of Guinness and gets a lit-up bit of black plastic that says “Guinness” on the bar, in the customer’s face.   But frankly it just seems like an uneccessary piece of faffing – smoke and mirrors which doesn’t improve the beer in any way.

This Morning Advertiser article says that the that the Guinness surger was originally sold as a home device a few years ago but – and this is a wonderfully dry piece of journalism – “was dropped following ‘borderline’ success.”   Following success in bars in the Asian market, it’s apparently going to be rolled out more widely in the UK to many more pubs that don’t have room for Guinness in the cellar. 

As Tom Waits said:

I got the style but not the grace,
I got the clothes but not the face,
I got the bread but not the butter,
I got the window but not the shutter,
But I’m big in Japan, I’m big in Japan…

* Here’s where I show my ignorance: is it draught or draft?  Is this an American English/British English thing?  I’ve been trying but can’t identify consistent usage on either side. Guinness themselves use “draught”, albeit to refer to something which isn’t.

Pride (In The Name Of Love)

October 26, 2010 2 comments

For nine long months from December 2008 to September 2009 I was sent away to work in London and Milton Keynes.  Everything that you could possibly describe as a pub in Milton Keynes was a Wetherspoons in a glass and steel shed.  London, of course, was different.

I was reading Pete Brown’s very enjoyable and informative Man Walks Into A Pub at the time and becoming more interested in pub culture.  Moreover I somehow managed to be in a legal job in London with decent hours.  So at lunchtimes and after work I explored quite a few pubs, mainly between Soho and Euston.

I’m not going to get into the issue of sparklers, but other than the beer usually being missing from the neck up, Fullers could usually be relied on for a good pint (or half, if it was lunchtime – some of us have work to do), usually London Pride.  More recently I’ve also tried Chiswick Bitter whilst in London for training, which was nice for 3.5% (I had a whole pint – it was only training). And last weekend I tried a (Fullers) Gales HSB in The Hop, Leeds, which was both hoppy and had a rich spicy maltiness.

But, whilst they’re reliable, I’m not completely in love with Fullers like I am with say, Thornbridge, Saltaire, Ilkley or Hawkshead.

However, I see that Fullers have been in the news a bit recently.  Firstly I saw that David Cameron continued his beer diplomacy (started with Obama and a bottle of Hobgoblin) by giving the Chilean Prime Minister 33 bottles of London Pride for the miners.

Then I saw that in fact Michael Turner from Fullers signed a letter to the Telegraph supporting the Comprehensive Spending Review. This has made some people very angry, but hasn’t it always been the case that (successful, larger) brewers were Tories?

The thing that I do have mixed feelings about is Fullers’ new James May-fronted advertising campaign. The first ad’s not very funny and doesn’t really say anything. It seems to be based solely on May being quite well-known and reasonably likeable: this is James May; you like James May, he’s nice and a bit geeky and middle class; here’s James May holding a glass of London Pride. He’s gentle, quiet and looks a bit like a newly-shampooed Afghan hound in a paisley shirt and velvet jacket who just happens to like the music of Yes. Aww.

And that’s fine. I kind of like James May too. I find Top Gear pretty much unwatchable these days, but I liked the wine programme he did with Oz Clarke and then the subsequent Drink To Britain series. That got Brewdog, Thornbridge and Stalybridge Buffet Bar on the telly, so more power to them.

Also, to be fair, the second advert with its focus on British Craftsmanship does work better in a “shared values” sense. And James does in fact go to the trouble of doing a slightly awkward tasting session on Youtube:

However, if you look at the full advertising campaign, they’ve also got this poster:

Possibly I’m being oversensitive, but isn’t that a bit homophobic? Now, it’s not as bad as very many examples, most notably the Spitfire “Rear Gunners Drink Lager Shandy” ad preserved for the ages on Pump Clip Parade. Also, it’s not really that offensive, but rather childish, lazy and couched in faded, jokey innuendo in the way that Top Gear often is.

It’s just that it’s a bit close to the subtext, “If you don’t drink this, you’re a homosexual, and if you drink it in halves, you’re at least a bit of a homosexual. For the avoidance of doubt, homosexuals are funny”. Although, if you watch the tasting video above, you’ll see James drinking a half without comment.

In my opinion beer advertising, especially for real ale (and a drink called London Pride, no less) should have gotten past this by now. In fact, maybe that’s it: perhaps Fullers have got really sick of that Wikipedia disambiguation page. But you’d think if they wanted to go down that route and focus on a shared value of casual, sniggering homophobia, they would have employed Clarkson instead.

“Proles and animals are free.”

October 25, 2010 1 comment

As this is my first post, I suppose I should set out who I am and what I intend to do with this blog.

I used to write an embarrassingly unfocused Livejournal under a different name for a few years, when I had much more time on my hands. The bit of blogging I did and the comments I received kept me going through some long, boring afternoons that would otherwise have been filled solely with eating own-brand crisps and watching old Doctor Who videos from a video rental shop that no longer exists.

I’ve got out of the habit recently*, partially because I do a lot of writing in my job and feel particularly uninspired when I get home at night.  I wanted to do something to help myself enjoy writing for its own sake again.

I’ve decided to write a blog about beer and pubs because I happen to be most interested in them at the minute.  However, I should explain that this blog is intended to be a record of someone exploring beer as a relative novice, with some experience of bar work and more of drinking, but no special knowledge of brewing, beer styles or even a CAMRA membership card.  I am therefore, in beer terms, definitely not a member of the Inner Party, or even the Outer Party.  I am a  beer prole.

This blog will likely come across as the uninformed ramblings of an overenthusiastic wannabe beer geek, relative to the excellent beer blogs that I enjoy reading.  For this, I apologise.

However, I do really like good beers and good pubs.  I regard the relative merits of both as almost entirely subjective, but also worthy of explanation and discussion. 

I intend to write a few posts over the coming months about how, from what might be described as an inauspicious start, I have come to love beer and pubs and why that is the case.  In particular, I grew up in County Antrim, Northern Ireland for eighteen years, went to university in Scotland for four and have ended up in living in Yorkshire for the last eight.  I hope to say something about the relative beer and pub cultures as I experienced them.

I also intend to write about my favourite pubs and beers now.  Difficult as it might be to believe, Leeds provides a great range of pubs, from friendly traditional locals like The Grove in Holbeck, with its real fire and pub dog to excellent, more modern bars like The North Bar, with a huge selection of imported bottles, cheese & bread and free wifi.  For home drinking, Beer Ritz is the best beer off-licence you could hope for.

I chose the name of this blog partially, as explained above, because I don’t want to make any claims to being an especially sophisticated or knowledgeable beer writer.  But I also chose it because I’ve always liked George Orwell and, whilst beer people always bang on about The Moon Under Water, it’s good to remember the vivid but less pleasant picture of a pub he painted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the rambling old prole going on about how he can’t get pints any more and how the beer was better before the revolution. 

“May I offer you a drink?” he said.

“You’re a gent,” said the other, straightening his shoulders again. He appeared not to have noticed Winston’s blue overalls. “Pint!” he added aggressively to the barman. “Pint of wallop.”

The barman swished two half-litres of dark-brown beer into thick glasses which he had rinsed in a bucket under the counter. Beer was the only drink you could get in prole pubs. The proles were supposed not to drink gin, though in practice they could get hold of it easily enough. The game of darts was in full swing again, and the knot of men at the bar had begun talking about lottery tickets. Winston’s presence was forgotten for a moment. There was a deal table under the window where he and the old man could talk without fear of being overheard. It was horribly dangerous, but at any rate there was no telescreen in the room, a point he had made sure of as soon as he came in.

”‘E could ‘a drawed me off a pint,” grumbled the old man as he settled down behind a glass. “A ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.”

You can be assured that that this is not an accurate summary of my opinions on beer, weights and measures or indeed bladder volume.  I don’t feel left behind by history and am especially excited about trying new, innovative, boundary-pushing beers rather than just falling back on “the usual”.  But more to come on that.

Thanks for reading. 

* Of writing, not of eating crisps and watching Doctor Who videos.  Although it’s all Kettle Chips and DVDs these days.

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