Monday, 4 June 2018

Will Travel For Beer

I went to Edgeley Park football ground in Stockport on Saturday afternoon for a talk and tasting session hosted by the Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, part of both a British tour he's doing to promote his new book Will Travel For Beer and the annual beer and cider festival organised by Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA there, with drinkers enjoying themselves in the sunny Cheadle End overlooking the ungrassed, just reseeded, off-season pitch and, on the horizon, the dark line of the Pennines beyond which the rain-hit Second Test at Headingley had lately resumed as we assembled in one of the function suites behind the stand.

I enjoyed all the beers we tasted, from the draught, cask-conditioned Cwtch, a candyish, floral bitter from the Tiny Rebel brewery in Newport, Wales, which won Champion Beer of Britain in 2015, served from a large plastic jug, to the three bottled beers, all of which benefited from being left on a table to come to room temperature rather than being opened straight out of a fridge, an amber barley wine from Arcadia Ales in Michigan, Op & Top, a dry-hopped pale ale from Dutch microbrewery De Molen, and the one which really stood out for me, Rodenbach Grand Cru, a sour Belgian ale in the Flemish Red style.

I hadn't drunk Rodenbach Grand Cru before, one of the beers often listed by connoisseurs as among the best in the world and one championed by the late drinks journalist and writer Michael Jackson, who indeed was responsible for its creation at the brewery in Roeselare, Belgium, where he suggested that they release it as an older, sharper ale rather than just blending it with the younger one also being aged in the giant wooden tuns there. It reminded me a bit of the draught Kriek lambic I drank at the Mort Subite cafe in Brussels, although unlike that beer Grand Cru's appetising tartness is derived solely from the wild Brettanomyces yeast which the oak barrels it spends at least eighteen months maturing in are impregnated with rather than the addition of sour cherries (I was also reminded that I'd bought a bottle online and stashed it away, so opened and drank that too yesterday).

The book which I bought at the end of the session, and most of the talk he gave about it, describe the author's travels around the world in search of great beers, the former tilted towards Europe, apparently at the behest of its British publisher. There are lots of high-quality photos, each chapter is, at one or two pages, short enough to be read quickly before moving on to the next, and it includes every city I've travelled to myself to drink beer (Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bamberg, Munich), ones I've been to for other reasons, including blues, baseball and political history, but have also drunk at specialist beer bars/cafes in whilst I was there (Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Dublin, Brussels), and quite a few I've still to get round to (Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam).

I've also learnt a couple of things I didn't know before from the book and talk about beer styles and cultures around the world which very few people outside the countries they're from must have experienced, including sahti, a Finnish beer partially brewed with unmalted rye and flavoured with juniper twigs, being drunk in saunas there, and bia hoi, a light lager served fresh from metal containers into plastic buckets, from which it's then dispensed into glasses at very cheap prices, at roadside cafes of the same name in Vietnam.


Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Clubbing together

I've just finished reading Not Just Beer and Bingo: A Social History of Working Men's Clubs by Ruth Cherrington, a secondhand copy of which I picked up online after flicking though the pages of one which Cooking Lager brought along to the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch meeting earlier this month (fellow bloggers Boak and Bailey and Shut Up About Barclay Perkins have also written extensively about clubs in the last few months).

The book is primarily a social history, looking at the role of clubs in community life, as the venues for entertainment, family events, sports clubs and political and other meetings, but the author does sketch out their beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century as working-class educational institutes which paralleled the upper-class gentlemen's clubs with their reading rooms and snooker tables. It is also tilted - being partly a personal narrative - towards clubs in and around the author's native city of Coventry. One thing she doesn't get round to looking at though, and admittedly a bit beyond the scope of the book, is the breweries established by clubs, such as the famous Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, to supply them with beer at lower prices than those which they could obtain from outside brewers.

The first licensed premises I drank in was a Labour club in Stockport where, as a teenager in the late eighties, I attended meetings of the local Young Socialists branch. It was supplied by the Greenalls' brewery in Warrington, whose keg bitter I would sip a couple of halves of over the evening. After some financial shennanigans and the running up of a large debt to the brewery, the club closed a few years later (as did the brewery itself not long after that) and is now a children's nursery.

Since then, I've visited a wide range of clubs - Labour, Conservative, Catholic, Irish, football, cricket, rugby, railway and social - for the weddings, funerals, birthdays and baptisms of friends, relatives and co-workers, trade union meetings, works' socials and leaving dos. Although by no means a clubman, I do appreciate their appeal, especially the cheap beer prices.

The number of clubs has been dropping sharply since at least the eighties, for a combination of reasons: deindustrialisation and unemployment, people living further away from their workplace (making a few post-work pints there less common, especially if you're driving), demographic changes (the author shows how some clubs operated an official, and later unofficial, colour bar), increases in beer duty and tax, chain pubs undercutting their prices and offering cheap meals too, the smoking ban and the drift towards a more individualised society in which leisure takes places more and more in the home, thus undermining traditional communal institutions, a similar trend to the one which also affects wider civil society, from pubs and clubs to churches, political parties and other voluntary organisations.

The book ends though, happily, on a much more upbeat note, looking at the things the surviving clubs are doing to meet those challenges and to attract more members so that clubland can continue its hundred and fifty year-long, and almost uniquely British, function of acting as a social, sporting and cultural centre for working people into another century.

Working men's clubs have been the subject of some cheap humour on TV, from the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, Granada TV's seventies recreation of a Northern club (which apparently many people watching thought was real!) to Phoenix Nights in the early noughties with its archetypal entertainment committee before which prospective club acts had to perform.

CAMRA is also doing its bit for clubs, with members, including myself, surveying some of their local ones for WhatPub, the organisation's national database of licensed premises.










Thursday, 24 May 2018

Making a meal of things

The market research company YouGov has published a report on that most fascinating of sociological subjects, what you call your main evening meal.

The basic answer is that north of the Trent it's tea and south of it dinner, but there are lots of class and other differences beyond that.

As you'd expect, I'm a breakfast dinner, tea man, but Northern people who are trying to sound posher than they actually are occasionally called their midday meal lunch, and in the South there's a tendency for middle-class people to call their evening meal supper, an aping (unconscious or not) of the aristocracy who apparently call a formal evening affair with guests served by the staff dinner, but a simpler meal without guests prepared by the butler for them in their kitchen, rather than the dining hall, supper. Supper to me is a light snack - crisps, cheese, toast - just before bed so I'm not sure what people who call their main evening meal that call it, a late supper maybe.

And then there's brunch, a cooked or cold meal eaten later than breakfast (the only meal name incidentally which everyone can agree on), either in the late morning or early afternoon, although I'd call the former a late breakfast and the latter an early dinner (a name which also extends to so much else: school dinners, dinner money, dinner hour, all referring to the midday meal, whether a hot main meal or a substantial snack such as sandwiches or something cooked on toast).

Afternoon tea falls between meals, ranging from that beverage with biscuits or cake to a more formal event with sandwiches, scones (however you pronounce that!) and even smaller cooked items like crumpets or toasted teacakes (another linguistic minefield), eaten between dinner and tea at around three or four o'clock.

Much of the confusion around this question stems from the fact that originally everyone, of whatever class and whether they lived in the countryside or the city, ate their main meal in the middle of the day and called it dinner, a tradition which persists in schools and was once prevalent in factories with subsidised canteens, especially in wartime (I'm not sure why in the South the name of the main meal has followed it to a much later hour, and in the North become tea, which would once have been a simpler repast between five and seven o'clock). As Christopher Hibbert says about a country house in the early eighteenth century in his 1987 book The English: A Social History 1066-1945:

"Breakfast was served at about half past nine or ten, and usually consisted of tea or chocolate and hot buttered bread, perhaps with cheese, or toast...

Dinner was served at about four or five and supper at ten, though by the early nineteenth century the hour of dinner had moved on to nearer seven o'clock, and luncheon was served as an additional meal in the middle of the day....In simpler homes dinner was still served in the middle of the day, although the provincial family with pretensions might sit down at two or three o'clock".





Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Wolfe of Wall Street

The American writer Tom Wolfe who has died aged 88 was known almost as much for his flamboyant dress (white suit, Homburg hat, two-tone shoes) as his prose. Wolfe styled himself a "Southern gentleman" and, despite many years residence in New York, you could still pick up the trace of a Virginia drawl in his speech when he gave TV interviews.

Beginning as a journalist in the fifties, he went on to document the late sixties counterculture movement in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and, like Dickens, used material from his reporting in fiction, especially in his first, and best known, novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which, again like Dickens' early work, was serialised in a magazine before being revised and published as a single volume in 1987.

The Bonfire of the Vanities has been called the quintessential novel of the 1980's, but it also one of the great late twentienth century New York novels which, alongside those of Don DeLillo, explore the racial and class divisions of the city, divisions which, given its geography on three islands connected by dozens of bridges and tunnels, is expressed by physical borders, such as the ever northward-shifting boundary between the ultra-rich Upper East Side and working-class Hispanic and black Harlem somewhere in Manhattan's east nineties and beyond them, across the Harlem River, the equally impoverished South Bronx section of the city into which the novel's wealthy main character, Sherman McCoy, and his mistress accidentally stray coming back from JFK Airport in Queens.

Although he's a bond trader on Wall Street, one of the people whom Wolfe dubs "The Masters of the Universe", rather than a property speculator, McCoy belongs to the same glitzy, greed-fuelled world of eighties New York as Donald Trump. It must be almost twenty-five years since I read it, but given that quite a few of the novel character's are based on real people - such as the Rev. Bacon, a thinly disguised Al Sharpton - it might be worth a flick through its eight hundred or so pages to see if I can spot the Donald.


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Grim news

The monks at Grimbergen Abbey just north of Brussels apparently want to start brewing again, in part because visitors to the site are always asking them if they can take a look round the brewery.

There are two types of monastic beer in Belgium, those with the Authentic Trappist Product logo which have to be brewed within the walls of a monastery, albeit often by secular workers under the supervision of monks, and Abbey beers which are normally contract-brewed by outside companies on their behalf.

Trappist beers have a deservedly high reputation internationally, but some of the Abbey beers are up there with them in quality, notably the Sint Bernardus ones brewed in Watou. One of the Trappist breweries, Chimay, went through a spell of producing poor-quality beer with cheap ingredients a decade or so ago, although they have supposedly improved since I tried them then. I've also tried a couple of Grimbergen beers and found them, well, grim.

Grimbergen was first contract-brewed by the Maes Brewery in 1958 (when I went to Belgium in 2015, Maes Pils seemed to be the beer old blokes drank in cafes first thing in the morning, the equivalent of John Smith's Smooth in Wetherspoons here) before it was taken over Scottish & Newcastle in 2000, who were then taken over themselves by Heineken and Carlsberg in 2007.

The only snag the monks at Grimbergen have hit is that they can't find the mediaeval recipe for their beer and a team of researchers is now going through the documents in their library in an attempt to find it for them. I'm not sure it's that big a deal: they know from invoices what types of hops and malt were used in it, if not the exact proportions or how it was brewed, and they can just say, as other breweries have, that it's "inspired by" rather than a replica of the original. Whatever they come up with must be better than what's produced in their name now, and it's not as though anyone who drank the original beer is still alive to dispute its authenticity.




Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking when I said

I watched a bit of a programme on BBC1 last night in which TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launched a personal crusade against obesity, starting with a missionary trip to the frozen North (Newcastle-upon-Tyne to be more precise) to shame educate the fat-guzzling plebs there into eating more healthily.

There are of course many serious and overlapping issues when it comes to obesity - the amount of sugar and salt in processed food; the labelling of food by manufacturers and retailers; poverty caused by low wages and benefits making better quality food unaffordable - but the point that he doesn't seem to grasp is one that another upper middle-class, ex-Etonian, George Orwell, highlighted in his classic piece of 1930's social reportage The Road to Wigan Pier, and which came to mind as Hugh hectored the bemused populace of Newcastle through a megaphone:

"The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire might enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't...When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'...Let's have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream!...That is how your mind works...White bread-and-marg and sugared tea doesn't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer.."

Later, Hugh drove a van onto a housing estate in one of the poorer parts of the city and tried to tempt its working-class inhabitants with fresh fruit. As Orwell put it later in the same passage, "In London..parties of Society dames now have the cheek to walk into East End houses and give shopping-lessons to the wives of the unemployed...First you condemn a family to live on thirty shillings a week, and then you have the damned impertinence to tell them how they are to spend their money."






Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Changing Times

To mark thirty years being editor of it, John Clarke has just scanned and circulated the May 1988 issue of Opening Times, the magazine of the Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA branch which he's also now the chairman and I'm a member of.

John is planning to write a longer piece for the next issue of Opening Times about the anniversary, but I'd just like to pick out a few things that caught my eye when reading it.

In pub news, the Crown Inn on Heaton Lane, Stockport, had just been refurbished by Boddington's, and the toilets moved inside from the backyard which was about to be turned into a beer garden with close-up views of the famous railway viaduct that spans the building. As well as Boddington's, beers available included ones from Higson's and the Oldham Brewery which Boddingtons then owned (none of those three breweries now exists). The Crown is now a multi-handpump (and multi-award-winning) freehouse and the backyard beer garden hosts regular live music.

The "ABC" Stagger of twelve pubs in the Ardwick, Brunswick and Chorlton-on-Medlock districts just south of Manchester city centre which the branch had just completed and is reported on in the May 1988 issue would now be impossible as all but one of them has since been closed and/or demolished, and the Wilson's mild and bitter which most of them served is no longer brewed either, the brewery in Newton Heath, north Manchester, having been taken over by Webster's of Halifax in 1986, who moved production there before shutting themselves a decade later.

The Pub of the Month, the Church Inn, Cheadle Hulme, retains its cosy three-room structure and is still tenanted by the same family who had it in 1988. As well as Robinson's Best Bitter, now called Unicorn, it still serves equally well-kept cask ales from the Stockport brewery of that name, although not the Best Mild it did back then which, after several name changes, was finally discontinued by Robinson's a few years ago. It had also just started serving meals - now a major part of its trade - but not on Sundays, which is probably now its busiest day for food. The Church was a well-deserved winner of another of our Pub of the Month awards last summer.

Although some of the contributors to the magazine are sadly no longer with us, it's pleasing to see some familiar names in its pages who are still, I'm happy to say, active members of the branch.