Thursday, 28 April 2016

Mild thing

I've just completed Mild Magic, the annual event organised by Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA to promote mild ale.

Since Robinsons of Stockport stopped brewing their two milds last year, Hydes have taken over sponsorship of the event. Hydes brew three milds: the light 1863, mid-brown Mild and dark Old Indie.

Two things have become clear on the way round a dozen pubs:

1. Your best chance of finding a pub selling mild is one tied to a regional family brewery, which in Manchester means Holt's and Hydes (I'm not sure about the availability of mild in those tied to the other independent in the Manchester area, J.W. Lees of Middleton).

2. For microbreweries, mild is a dark beer: the only light milds I've drunk have been from a regional brewery (Hydes) and a national one (Banks's).

Monday, 25 April 2016

All The World's A Stage

I saw quite a bit of the BBC's output marking the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare this weekend.

I enjoyed watching the poet Ian McMillan brew a hopless Tudor ale and laughed at the programme guidance note for Arena's compilation of Shakespeare film clips which warned viewers that it contained adult themes. Well, yes, I thought, murder, adultery, the odd suicide or two.

I didn't do any Shakespeare at school, a 1980's comprehensive, but did get taken to see some of his plays as a teenager by my English teacher Dad. Like many people, I struggled with some of the language and plots, but watching the live Shakespeare show from the RSC in Stratford on Saturday night I was surprised by how accessible and witty his work is. I suppose that's an appreciation which only comes with maturity.

And of course, we all use Shakesperian expressions - "in my mind's eye", "melted into thin air", "wild goose chase", "pitched battle" - without even realising it.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Prince of Pop

The singer Prince, who has died aged 57 at his home in Minnesota, drew on a number of musical genres as sources of inspiration.

The son of a jazz musician, I'd guess he was influenced by that, as well as by funk and rock (his stage act always reminded me a bit of Jimi Hendrix's). As a teenager in the mid-80's, his songs were everywhere and appealed to me more than those of his contemporary and fellow African-American singer Michael Jackson who I always found overly produced and commercial.

It's interesting how American popular music gets categorised, firstly by skin colour, with black performers tending to be called rhythm and blues artists when they'd be classed as rock or pop if they were white, and also African-American music itself, which is somewhat arbitrarily divided, generally by white critics, into secular (blues, jazz, soul, R&B) and religious music (spirituals, gospel), despite numerous artists spanning those sub-sets, including Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Etta James, Sister Rosetta Tharp and Aretha Franklin. There are also many examples of people from one genre influencing another, with clear similarities (and claims of plagiarism) between soul singer James Brown and blues harpist Junior Wells, and fusions such as soul-blues and jazz-rock.

One of the funniest things I've ever read are the liner notes to Muddy Waters' Folk Singer album in which the producer Ralph Bass muses as to whether Perry Como is a soul singer!

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Bikers ride into town

I've just watched the latest episode of Pubs That Built Britain, a new BBC2 series in which Dave Myers and Simon King, aka the Hairy Bikers, tour the country and discuss the history of pubs.

Pubs and beer have featured quite a bit in the pair's travels around Europe and Asia and I also remember reading an interview with them a couple of years back in CAMRA's Beer magazine in which Dave reminisced about sipping a half of Cameron's in the snug of the local while doing his homework as a schoolboy in Barrow.

Last night, they went to pubs in and around Manchester, including many I know well - the Briton's Protection and Peveril of the Peak in Manchester and the King's Arms and Star Inn in Salford - and to Robinson's Brewery in Stockport which I've been round a few times on tours.

It's good that the BBC has produced a programme celebrating British beer and pubs, although I suspect they'll get more than a few complaints from the prohibitionists about it.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The shape of CAMRA to come

I've just completed the online questionnaire issued by CAMRA as part of the Revitalisation Project set up to look at the future of the organisation and will go along to the consultation meeting being hosted by my branch this summer.

It's good that CAMRA is reviewing its aims and I'm quite relaxed about whatever outcome is finally reached. The battle to save traditional, draught cask beer in England was won some time ago and it's inevitable that the focus of the campaign will shift away from that to other things.

The consultation document, Shaping the Future, lists what it sees as the other achievements of CAMRA and the challenges facing pubs. I'm not sure that I agree with most of the things on either list.

On the achievements, while the tax relief for small brewers and scrapping of the Beer Duty Escalator are both obviously good things, all day opening has benefited the diner more than the drinker, making many licensed establishments feel more like restaurants than pubs, and the 1989 Beer Orders led directly to the pubcos which CAMRA now rails against.

As for the challenges facing pubs, the link between the smoking ban, drink driving limit and cheap supermarket booze and the decline in the on-trade is not at all clear. And neither "craft keg" nor inactive members pose an existential threat to either cask beer or CAMRA: the first is a niche product which may well turn out to be a passing fad and the second will probably lead to a looser structure, more emphasis on the social side of the campaign and paid organisers substituting more for volunteers.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

A few thoughts about Brussels

This time last year, I was in Brussels, flying back at the end of my first trip to the Belgian capital from the airport at Zaventem which on Tuesday morning was the scene of two of the three bomb attacks which struck the city.

As I suppose is natural, it's more shocking when a bomb blows up somewhere you've been to or know well, with the inevitable thought of "there but for the grace of God go I". I must admit that, even after I'd been to Brussels, I wasn't really aware that it had a sizeable population of North African Muslim immigrants or that its Molenbeek district was home to large numbers of jihadis who had returned from fighting in Syria: like most people who go to Brussels, I stuck to the the tourist quarter around the Grand Place with its bars and cafes.

After a massacre such as this week's, the inevitable question is asked: what we can do to stop it happening again? Last night, in a special edition of the BBC's Panorama programme, the investigative journalist Peter Taylor sought some of the answers.

For the the last decade or so, Taylor has been investigating the role of the intelligence agencies in the fight against Islamist terrorism (before that, he spent much of his career looking into their covert operations in the thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland). A few things soon become apparent about those suspected of carrying out the Brussels attacks and the ones in Paris last November: they tend to have friendship or family links with others in their terrorist cell, to be from not particularly religious backgrounds, to be involved in petty crime and are often recruited whilst in prison.

If the alienation felt by many young Muslim men in Europe, which leads some of them to become jihadis, has socioeconomic rather than religious roots (albeit that it often take a religious form), the answer to the violence perpetrated on the streets of its cities becomes clear: tackling the lack of integration in housing and schools and providing decent jobs as an alternative to the low-level gangsterism which sees some of them eventually enter the ranks of Islamist terrorist networks like ISIS. The real question is whether European governments have the desire to do it.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Reassuringly inaccurate

I saw the new Stella Artois advert for the first time yesterday and it got me thinking.

Did you, like me, think that the first pale lager was brewed in Pilsen in 1842?  Did you also think that Stella Artois was launched as a Christmas beer in 1926? Well, it seems that we were all wrong and the boys from AB-InBev are here to set us straight: S├ębastian Artois started knocking out the stuff shortly after he took over the Leuven brewery in 1717. The beer history books are clearly all going to have to be rewritten.