Monday, 8 September 2014

Hail to the ale

I've been watching One Ale of A Job, Channel 5's series about Marston's Brewery.

The dodgy puns - delivered by Pub Landlord comedian Al Murray - don't end with the title and I had pretty low expectations of what looked like, and to be honest is, another cheapo fly-on-the-wall documentary. Having said that, it contains some interesting stuff about brewing, cellar management and beer dispense and is the first TV series about beer and brewing I can remember since Michael Jackson's Beer Hunter in the late 80's.


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Thomas Hardy's ale

I'm on a bit of a Thomas Hardy binge at the moment: in the last month, I've read four of his novels and some of the short stories too.

There's lots of stuff in Hardy about ale, cider and pubs, including landlords and farmers brewing their own beer in mid-nineteenth century South Wessex (Hardy's name for his native Dorset) rather than buying it from breweries. The relatively late arrival of the railway in that part of South West England which he also mentions might have had something to do with that.

One thing that caught my eye in A Tragedy if Two Ambitions, a short story Hardy wrote in 1888, is a character talking about a pub having "the rarest drop of Old Tom that I've tasted for many a year." That blows a pretty big hole in the claim made by my local brewery Robinson's that their strong ale is called that after the brewery cat whose face a brewer drew in the brewing log when it was first brewed in 1899.





Monday, 18 August 2014

GBBF 2014

I went to the Great British Beer Festival in London for the first time last week.

The first thing to say is how impressive Kensington Olympia where the event's held is: it's like walking into a Victorian railway station with its iron and glass arched roof and pillared galleries.

I'd read that the GBBF could be a bit overwhelming both in terms of the number of people attending and choice of beer but I can't say I found that; it was more like an upscaled version of the CAMRA festivals I've been to over the years in Manchester.

We mainly stuck to the brewery bars, drinking beers that you don't see much outside London such as Fuller's ESB and Young's Special and two that could easily join my list of favourites: Belhaven Black Stout and Harvey's XX Mild. I also got to drink draught Schlenkerla Rauchmärzen outside the brewpub in Bamberg for the first time and it was as deliciously smoky bacony as I remember it there.

If you live in Britain and like beer, you really should go to the GBBF at least once. I know that I'm already planning to return.


Friday, 8 August 2014

Batting for cask

I spent yesterday at Old Trafford watching the Test match between England and India.

Although the former Prime Minister John Major, echoing George Orwell, famously listed warm beer and cricket as quintessentially English things, for a long time the choice at matches consisted of lager, smoothflow bitter and Guinness.

I'm glad to say that cask beer has made a comeback, at least at Old Trafford. I first saw it a few years ago in the members' pavilion at a county match and since then the beer  Bomber and Wainwright from Lancashire's sponsor Thwaites – has spread to the bars around the ground and a marquee in front of it.

Cask beer has a long association with cricket, being served at the inns that adjoined the playing fields in the game's earliest days. All I can say about its re-appearance at Test matches is, "Welcome home!".

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Beer Drinker's Companion

I've just picked up a second-hand copy of The Beer Drinker's Companion, Frank Baillie's 1974 survey of British beer and brewing.

I was inspired to look out for it by a reading list on Boak and Bailey's blog as it was pretty much the only book there that I hadn't got.

Some of the things he mentions about the storing and serving of beer ( (metal v wooden casks, gravity or hand-pumps v electric dispense, cellar conditioning v bright, top pressure or container tank beer) aren't really issues now; others, like serving temperature and cloudiness, clearly still are.

One of the things that stands out is bottled beer. Bottle-conditioned beers are now, he says, "very few" (Guinness Extra Stout and Worthington White Shield being the only nationally available ones), compared to the hundreds you can buy today. On the other hand, the number of bottled beers in pubs has dropped. In 1974, according to Baillie, my local brewery, Robinsons in Stockport, produced not only the bottled pale and strong ale they still sell but also a bottled stout and a light and a brown ale. I think this has to do with the decline in mixing bottled and draught beer that I remember from my early pub-going days in the late 80's.


Monday, 14 July 2014

Too much too young?

Seeing the twenty-two year old midfielder Mario Götze come on as a substitute and score the winning goal for Germany in extra time in the World Cup Final last night reminded me of Brian Kidd's goal for Manchester United on his nineteenth birthday in the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley. Where do you go next in your career when the highlight comes so near the start of it?

F. Scott Fitzgerald sums that feeling up in a passage near the beginning of The Great Gatsby which Hugh McIvanney quotes in his documentary about George Best:

"one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax...Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrevocable football game."




Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Bargain booze

Last night's edition of the Channel 4 documentary series Dispatches, which claimed to investigate the influence of the drinks industry on Government policy, was really a propaganda piece for "minimum unit pricing" alcohol.

The beer I drink in pubs and at home is already above the suggested minimum unit price of 50p so a change along those lines isn't going to affect me but I still came away thinking that the arguments the programme put forward are seriously muddled.

How can we stop young people "pre-loading" unsupervised at home with cheap alcohol bought in supermarkets and off-licences before heading out to pricier pubs and clubs? Increase the cost of the alcohol supermarkets and off-licences sell of course, argued Dispatches. But that defeats the object of "pre-loading" doesn't it? And for those who think that it will force them to go straight to the pricier, supervised pub, they won't: unless minimum pricing is European-wide, they'll either buy cheap alcohol from people who've smuggled it in from the Continent or, especially if they live in the South of England, pop across the Channel for it themselves. This point seemed to elude the coffee-drinking professor in Canada who claimed that minimum unit pricing there had cut hospital admissions and arrests for assault. And what about the underage drinkers who get their older mates to buy drink for them from supermarkets and off-licences? They won't even be able to get into pubs and clubs and will be forced to deal with unlicensed vendors.

As I was watching, I had a couple of ideas to curb excessive drinking:

1. Introduce rationing via an electronic ID card, allowing you to buy so many units a day/week/month. Admittedly a little authoritarian, and also vulnerable to cross-border smuggling, it would at least mean that cheap alcohol was still available to "responsible drinkers", as long as the Government didn't use the current, ridiculously low, recommended units.

2. Require all sellers of alcohol to permit drinking on the premises, provide seating and glasses etc. Let's see how much cheap booze Tesco sell when they have to employ bouncers to turf out the teenagers and alcoholics at closing time every Friday and Saturday night.