Sunday, 25 September 2016

Going underground

I went on a tour of two pub cellars yesterday afternoon as part of Stockport Beer Week.

The Boar's Head and Baker's Vaults are early nineteenth century buildings, remodelled somewhat in the second half of it, which stand facing each other on opposite sides of Stockport market place. Although only thirty or so feet apart, it would be hard to imagine two more different pubs.

The Boar's Head is a Sam Smith's pub and has all the things you'd expect from Yorkshire's most traditional brewery: a Victorian interior,  an older, mainly male, working-class clientele, no TV or music, a single, cheap  cask beer, the malty, brown Old Brewery Bitter at £1.90 a pint, drawn from 36-gallon wooden barrels stillaged in the cellar, and their own brand keg and bottled beers. On Saturday dinnertime, despite not serving food it was busy, with people constantly coming in and and going out, some of them for a smoke before returning to their drinks on the bar,

The Baker's Vaults is a Robinson's pub which is operated by the same people who run The Castle in Manchester city centre. It's airy and modern with filament bulbs suspended on long cords, high stools at tables with ornamental bottles and candle holders on them, an extensive food menu, a more mixed, upmarket, and considerably sparser clientele on a Saturday afternoon, with young families dining and older couples drinking coffees at the bar. It sells half a dozen of Robinson's cask beers, as well as guest ales and "craft keg" and lagers from tall founts, rather than the boxy ones at the Boar's Head, The cask beer is a bit dearer, but still pretty reasonable at £3-3.60, depending on abv, and equally well-kept.

As on brewery tours, you always see or learn something new when you go down into a pub cellar. On a busy day, the Boar's Head can shift the contents of an entire 36-gallon barrel  (that's 288 pints for the mathematically-challenged like me), which must rank as the most cask beer sold by a pub in Stockport. The Baker's Vaults foundations are even older than the pub itself, with still unexplored tunnels which may connect it to watercourses or other buildings, outcrops of the sandstone on which the nearby Roman fort and later the mediaeval castle were built, and beneath the cellar the high brick bins which once held wine and gin barrels and give the pub its name.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Inter-city cricket

It looks like the England and Wales Cricket Board is going ahead with an inter-city Twenty20 competition, provisionally starting in 2018. The plan is to have teams in eight cities, playing at Test cricket grounds.

I'm not a fan of shorter forms of cricket like Twenty20, and not sure about inter-city sport either. In the mid-fifties, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the predecessor of the UEFA Cup and Europa League, began as a tournament between representative XI's from different cities (London, Frankfurt, Milan), although some (Birmingham, Barcelona) were effectively just the clubs of that name, before switching to club sides by the end of the decade, and in the mid-nineties, when rugby league switched to a summer season, the new European Super League narrowly avoided the monstrosity of merged clubs, with the owners eventually voting down the proposal that, amongst others, Warrington should join up with Widnes as Cheshire (!) and Salford with Oldham as Manchester (!!).

I can't see the teams which play in the new competition at Old Trafford or Headingley being any different to the Lancashire and Yorkshire county sides who currently play Twenty20 cricket there, or attracting more fans under their new names.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

RIP Prince Buster

I've just heard of the death at 78 of the Jamaican ska pioneer Prince Buster.

Ska began in Jamaica in the early 1960's as a combination of musical styles: mento, the form of calypso native to the island, jazz, influenced by the Americans who played the hotels before sitting in with local musicians in after-hours jam sessions, and the rhythm and blues records beamed across the Caribbean by radio stations in New Orleans and other southern cities or imported by U.S. servicemen stationed there in World War II and just after.

In the late 1970's, there was a ska revival in Britain in the form of Two-Tone. Here's one of the bands associated with that movement, Madness, riding the Tube in London (in the days when you could still drink on it) as their musical inspiration Prince Buster performs the song they got their name from.

Friday, 2 September 2016

In the footsteps of the Beer Hunter

Tonight in Leeds, three episodes of The Beer Hunter, the TV series presented by the late beer writer and journalist Michael Jackson, are being shown as part of a Beer Week in the city.

I was 18 when Channel 4 broadcast The Beer Hunter in 1989. I'd never heard of Bamberg, let alone the Rauchbier brewed there with smoked malt, nor what Jackson called in one of the episodes being shown tonight "The Burgundies of Belgium", the strong ales produced by its Trappist monasteries. Later, I picked up a couple of his books - The World Guide to Beer and Great Beer Guide - and later still made it myself to Franconia and to Brussels, drinking the beers he had drunk in the same pubs and bars he had spoken and written about. I'm sure I'm not the only beer drinker to have followed his footsteps to the brewing towns of Germany and Belgium whose specialities he was the one of the first to explore.

Until a few years ago, all the episodes of The Beer Hunter were available on YouTube, but Channel 4, who hold the rights, has since blocked them on copyright grounds (in Britain at least: they might still be viewable elsewhere in the world). I've not got a problem with them doing that, but why don't they make them commercially available on DVD so that beer lovers can once again enjoy them?

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Beyond A Boundary

I went to a rugby league match between Swinton and Workington at Heywood Road, Sale, yesterday afternoon.

Since leaving their Station Road home in 1992, Swinton have played at a few grounds, including Gigg Lane, Bury, and Park Lane, Whitefield. Their new home at Sale is shared with the amateur rugby union club of that name whose professional offshoot, Sale Sharks, left for Edgeley Park, Stockport, in 2003 before moving into the AJ Bell Stadium in Barton-on-Irwell with Salford Red Devils rugby league club in 2012.

Sale is quite a distance from Swinton, as is Barton from Sale. In relocating to Barton from their home at The Willows, the Red Devils moved within the City, but outside the traditional boundaries, of Salford. Manchester United's ground at Old Trafford is just outside the boundaries of the City of Manchester, having moved there from Newton Heath in 1910, and Arsenal began life in Woolwich, south London, before moving north of the river in 1913. So how far can a club move before the connection between its name and history and geographical location is severed?

Most people would, I think, regard AFC Wimbledon as the continuation of Wimbledon FC rather than Buckinghamshire outfit Milton Keynes Dons, although neither side now claim the honours of the historic club. The real difference seems to be between moving outside a conurbation (London, Greater Manchester) and relocating within it, especially if, as with Swinton and AFC Wimbledon, you're still looking to build a ground back in the place you originally came from.

Of course, in the United States, not only would such moves within cities not even register with all but the most diehard of fans, nor seemingly do the multiple moves franchises in the four major sports (American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) make, so baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants can relocate from the East Coast to the West without dropping their nicknames or records and in the NFL the Cleveland Browns can become the Baltimore Ravens while the Oakland Raiders leave for Los Angeles before moving back to Northern California and resuming play under their original name.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Derby day

I was in Derby last week and managed to get to a few decent pubs, most of them only a couple of minutes walk from the railway station.

I've been to Derby before, on the way to Burton-on-Trent, but a combination of a wrong turning out of the station and electronic ticket barriers meant I ended up trudging for a couple of miles on the wrong side of the tracks without finding any of them. Having learnt my lesson, I set off with a CAMRA guide to the pubs of Derby in hand, included in which was a map of the city centre.

The train journey from Manchester to Derby via Crewe and Stoke passes through some very pleasant countryside, fields of crops bordered by small lakes and streams. The square outside Derby station, with the Victorian Midland Hotel on one side, is quite impressive too, as is the row of terraced houses built for railway workers opposite. You can imagine how busy it would have been when Derby was a railway hub connecting the North West and East Midlands (the last direct trains to Manchester ran in 1968).

The Standing Order is not just the grandest of Derby's three Wetherspoon's pubs but also has one of the most impressive pub interiors I've ever seen, having been transformed from a former bank. The Draught Bass I had, the cheapest of the pints I drank in Derby, was flanked on the central island bar by beers from local microbreweries.

The Station Inn on Midland Road is more of a local's boozer than a destination pub, but stands out by advertising "Bass Served From the Jug". Although on entering, the barman asked me whether I minded one from a hand-pump and as it had been a warmish day I readily agreed to a cellar cool pint rather than one transported from a gravity-dispensed barrel of unknown temperature somewhere else.

The next two pubs I went to are within a few feet of each other on the corner of Railway Terrace and Siddals Road.

The Alexandra Hotel is a railway buff's pub, with train-related advertising in the bar, station signs in the beer garden at the back and a disused locomotive in the car park. It also had half a dozen cask beers on the bar, including a mild and a stout, and a 20p a pint discount for card-carrying CAMRA members.

The Brunswick Inn is a brewpub, owned by, but operated independently from, Everards Brewery, which is Derby CAMRA's Pub of the Year for 2016. Inside the triangular, brick building is a Victorian-style interior of red leather benches and wall-mounted lamps, and half a dozen cask beers from their own range as well as guest ales from other breweries.

All the beer I drank in Derby was in good condition and, at between £2 and £3 a pint before CAMRA discounts. pretty cheap too. As General MacArthur said, "I shall return".

Saturday, 20 August 2016

That Was Then, This Is Now

Beer bloggers Pub Curmudgeon and Tandleman have been discussing what pubs looked like in the early 80's.

I didn't reach legal drinking age until 1988, but went in pubs and social clubs a fair bit before that. I remember quite a lot of the things they mention: afternoon closing, the dominance of tied houses which only sold products from the brewery which owned them, a bit like Sam Smith's pubs now I suppose, including bottled beers (the first pub I drank in was a Whitbread house which sold their Gold Label and Mackesons Stout), the mixing of bottled and draught beers by older drinkers to make "splits" (mild and brown ale or bitter and Guinness), probably a hangover of the poor quality cask beer in the decades when they'd started drinking, and the unavailability of food in many pubs, even cold snacks like sandwiches and pies, which is rare now,.

Other things I remember include separate children's rooms in some pubs, plastic, brewery-branded ashtrays (probably illegal now), people coming in to sell things (legally), including potted shrimps on a Friday night (which might have been a Catholic thing) and on Saturday afternoon the football "pink" (now also defunct). There also seemed to be more middle-aged bar staff, possibly a result of differentials in the minimum wage making it cheaper to employ younger staff now.

In 1990, I went as a student to Staffs Poly in Stoke and entered another world of pubs, not just Banks's, Bass and Marston's Pedigree instead of Holt's, Robbies, Wilsons and Boddies, but trays of sandwiches passed round by landlords at closing time, older women coming in with plastic jugs to be filled with draught beer for their husbands at home, and beer a couple of pence dearer in the lounge compared to the vault where (unofficially, and unlawfully, even then) women weren't allowed, leading to some comical situations if you were in a mixed group with men nipping in to see their mates and buy a slightly cheaper pint.