Thursday, 13 December 2018

Winter Warmer Wander (w)ended again

I've just completed the Winter Warmer Wander, an annual celebration of porter, stout and strong ale organised by my local CAMRA branch, Stockport and South Manchester, by visiting twelve pubs and drinking at least a half of cask-conditioned beer in one of those styles there.

Actually, one of the first places I visited on it, as part of a pub crawl to launch the promotion, the Arden Arms in Stockport, didn't have their seasonal pin of Robinson's Old Tom (which also sponsors the event) on the bar yet when we called there, so we had to substitute the strongest beer that was, their strong bitter Trooper, but apart from that I've managed to find plenty of winter-style beers going round Manchester and Stockport in the last month.

Of the eleven other beers, nine were stouts or porters and two strong ales, seven were made by microbreweries in the North of England, four were drunk in tenanted or managed pubs (three of them Wetherspoons) and seven in free houses or micropubs, and eight of them in Stockport and three in Manchester.

My favourite beer was one I've drunk and enjoyed many times before, and CAMRA's Champion Beer in 2013, Elland 1872 Porter, at the Paramount in Manchester city centre, a silky stout which doesn't really drink to its 6.5% strength.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

A row going on down near Tsingtao

This month's centenary of the armistice which ended World War I has understandably attracted a lot of media attention, and sent me back to a book which I first read as a teenager, The Great War, by the military historian Corelli Barnett, who also co-wrote the TV series of the same name.

I've just been reading about that war's first military action outside Europe, in late October and early November 1914, when British and Japanese troops jointly attacked Tsingtao, a port on the north-east coast of China which the Germans had occupied since the 1890's as a trading post and naval base. When you think about what happened in World War II in the same theatre of war, it's quite ironic that British troops even donned Japanese gear after a friendly fire incident in which their Far Eastern allies mistook them for German soldiers.

The peace treaties concluded after the armistice in 1919 at Versailles stripped Germany of its colonial empire in Africa and Asia, but left Tsingtao in Japanese hands until the Republic of China, which had also been an ally of the British, French and Americans in World War I, finally gained control of it in the early 1920s.

Tsingtao, now known as Qingdao, is best known outside China for the brewery which German colonists founded there in 1903, and which has had the eventful a history you might expect given China's turbulent twentieth century, passing through the hands of the varying governments which have ruled the country, outside powers and private companies. It is now the second biggest in China, having around a 15% market share there with its flagship 4.7% pils-style lager, part of a wider legacy of German, Austrian and Czech-style beers brewed throughout southeast Asia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Sonny and me

Yesterday would have been the 107th birthday of the blind blues harmonica player Sonny Terry (who died aged 74 in 1986).

A couple of years after his death, I watched a BBC Arena documentary presented by Alan Yentob about the left-wing folk singer Woody Guthrie which included footage of him playing with Sonny Terry and the guitarist Brownie McGhee, with whom Sonny formed a long, if not always harmonious offstage, musical partnership, and a few months after that was in an "A" Level General Studies lesson when the teacher played a Guthrie track and asked if anyone knew who it was (needless to say, I was the only one who did; he also read to us the famous bit in W.C. Handy's autobiography, Father of the Blues, where he recalls meeting a "lean loose-joined Negro" at a country station in Mississippi in 1903 who "pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar with a knife" as he played a song about "goin' where the Southern cross the Dog", which Handy called "the weirdest music I ever heard", before playing Charlie Patton to us, thus planting another musical seed in me...).

Where white teenage blues fans in sixties England began by listening to the Stones and Animals' cover versions before working their way back to the Chicago originals by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, I started with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee accompanying Woody Guthrie, moved on to Bob Dylan's early Guthriesque albums and then the folk-blues of John Lee Hooker, before finally arriving myself at those post-war South Side classics.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee also appeared alongside Muddy Waters, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, pianists Cousin Joe Pleasant and Otis Spann and bassist Ransom Knowling at the disused Wilbraham Road railway station in south Manchester in 1964 for the Granada TV show Blues & Gospel Train, performing somewhat incongruously between stacked coops of chickens and a tethered goat on the platform.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The lines they aren't a-changin'

The publication of the annual Cask Report has prompted reflections on the state of cask beer from bloggers including Paul Bailey, Pub Curmudgeon and Pete Brown, particularly on the issue of pubs having far too many handpumps than their sales of cask beer justifies, leading to slow turnover and tired, off-tasting pints. The figures on falling sales come at the same time as a study showing that about a third of 16-25 year olds now don't drink alcohol at all, let alone in pubs.

Ideally, of course, a cask would be put on and emptied the same day, and failing that in 2-3 days. That gives us the following guide as to how many pints a pub should be selling a day to have x handpumps on the bar, assuming they're using standard 9 gallon/72 pint firkins, with the left hand column being the ideal, the middle one still acceptable, and the right hand one the absolute minimum (there will naturally be considerable variation between how fast different casks sell, and some less popular beers, especially in non-cask specialist pubs, should probably only be sold in 4½ gallon/36 pint pins, but the bottom line is that if you're not selling at least twenty-four pints a day, serving cask beer to your customers becomes a quality lottery for the people handing their money over the bar and a risk to your reputation as a business).

Monday, 8 October 2018

London Calling

London Broncos claimed the final place in next season's Super League last night, beating Toronto Wolfpack 4-2 in the Million Pound Game (maybe it should have been called the Two Million Dollar Game given it was played in Canada). Their win followed equally narrow results for Warrington and Wigan in the Super League semi-finals this weekend, also dominated by defences and the kicking of penalties and drop goals rather than try-scoring, and was the final edition of a single playoff match introduced in 2015 to determine which team takes the last berth in the next season's competition, having just been dropped in favour of a traditional one up, one down system of promotion and relegation.

I found myself rooting for Toronto during the game, mainly I think because having a Canadian team in Super League would be a significant step foward for the expansion of rugby league in North America. London itself has of course long been a target for the game's expansion, with the first professional clubs formed there in thirties, partly to attract workers who had moved south to escape the industrial depression in the North, and partly as a second-string attraction and source of revenue for the owners of greyhound racing tracks, and later football grounds. The recurring problems with rugby league clubs in London are low attendances at matches, only partially masked by large contigents of away fans from the North, and a lack of the amateur clubs which provide the more successful Super League sides with a succession of talented junior players.

Admittedly there would have been travel issues with a Canadian team in the Super League, although those have already been managed pretty successfully for more than a decade with the Catalans Dragons from Perpignan in southwest France, and west London on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon isn't exactly an easy trip from Hull or St Helens given Britain's low-speed and fractured transport system. I'm sure that just as away fans make a weekend of it in Catalonia, either driving up to the ground from Barcelona or exploring the area between the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, so people would enjoy spending a few days in the Toronto spring and summer sunshine before and after a match there. Having only formed two years ago, and set themselves a target of reaching the Super League within five, I'm also sure that Toronto, who topped the second-tier Championship and would have been promoted automatically under next season's rules, will soon achieve their ambition of playing top-flight rugby league.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Eleven days a week

We're about halfway through Stockport Beer Week, an annual event now in its fourth year which celebrates the town's pubs and breweries. I went to both the press and public launches for it last week, kindly hosted by Robinson's Brewery and their market place house the Bakers Vaults respectively, and am planning to go to a couple more events on it this week too.

There are a few things which are notable about Stockport Beer Week:

1. Although termed a week, it actually lasts eleven days (20-30th September), paralleling National Cask Ale Week;

2. It's the only beer week in England hosted by a town rather than a city;

3. It's the only one, I'm pretty sure, which is organised by the local CAMRA branch, the others being commercial ventures promoted by pubs and breweries.

Official beer of Stockport Beer Week, Cherry Cross the Mersey, a cherry stout from Thirst Class Ale, Reddish, at the Petersgate Tap.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Stockport tops the Carbuncle Cup

The Redrock entertainment complex in Stockport has won the Carbuncle Cup, an annual architectural award for the worst-designed new building in Britain whose name comes from Prince Charles' description of a proposed extension to the National Gallery in London.

I've never actualy stepped inside the place myself, but some of my younger relatives have been to the cinema there and seem to like it, and it doesn't strike me as any worse than the other buildings which were nominated for the prize, or lots of others that easily could have been. I also know that, unusually for a place like this, one of its bars serves a cask beer from the Stockport brewery Robinsons, their golden ale which CAMRA's rules on inclusivity preclude me from naming (at least they've changed the pump-clip to a less sexist one).

Stockport really is two towns now: the area around the market place, and to a lesser extent along the main Wellington Road, where there are lots of new bars, eating places, museums and music venues, and Merseyway, the sixties-conceived shopping precinct at its centre which, although perhaps thought futuristic when it was built, has aged badly and, despite a couple of renovations in the last three decades, is now looking a bit sad and forgotten, with most of its large retail units standing empty.

I know that the council has redevelopment plans for the area between the bus station and Stockport's most impressive architectural and engineeering feat, the Victorian railway viaduct which spans both the River Mersey and the M60 motorway, from which Friedrich Engels once looked down (both literally and metaphorically) on the town, and which you can just about see in the background of the photo below, but the thing which I think would really transform the centre is if the council opened up the section of the river which runs beneath the pedestrianised Merseyway, which was hidden with concrete slabs when it was built in the mid-60s, and made it into a feature, as has already been done to a small extent at one end of it. That radical action might not make Stockport the Venice of the North, but it would create a natural feature that could then become a focal point for a hopefully more successful regeneration of that part of the town.