Saturday, 7 July 2018

Tanks of the Tyne

I'm reading So They Brewed Their Own Beer, a history of the Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, at the moment, having been tipped off about it by this post from Boak and Bailey.

The Fed, as it became popularly known, was established just after the First World War by social and working men's clubs  on Tyneside in North East England to brew beer of a better quality and at cheaper prices than that which they could get from the outside commercial breweries which had supplied them till then (it was also unusual in publicising the original gravity of the beers it brewed, thus indicating their approximate strength, in contrast to the big brewers who refused to divulge them to their drinkers until towards the end of the twentieth century). I'm up to the bit where the Fed switched from cask to tank beer in the sixties. You might think this would spark something of a backlash (my Dad who worked as a waiter in a Sam Smith's pub in Manchester in the early sixties remembers the furore amongst drinkers there when they went over from cask to keg beer) but apparently there wasn't much if any complaint from either drinkers or managers in the clubs it served.

"The efficiency of the tank system caused beer sales to increase and was more than beneficial to the transport department. With a cask wagon there were three men on board to manhandle the beer. With a beer tanker two men are needed. The drayman's work is so much easier that it has led to a noticeable reduction in staff-turnover at the Federation Brewery since tanks were introduced. The innovation also helped to speed up the disappearance of cellars, for centuries one of the main characteristics of any British public house. Modern refrigeration has enabled cold-rooms to be used for beer storage. The only point of digging a hole in the ground was to achieve lower temperatures. The Federation has long had the policy that beer should be kept and sold under temperature-controlled conditions, argiung that as beer is produced under controlled temperature if it is to reach the club members in a perfect state it must be stored at the club in the same way and not allowed to stand in cellars where the temperature fluctuates because of lack of adequate refrigeration."

Tank beer is of course not the same as keg beer, lying somewhere between it and cask beer in being unpasteurised, and in some cases unfiltered, in which case it would be closer to bright beer which is racked into casks without the sediment which would otherwise allow for a secondary fermentation in the cellar.

If the beer was kept under a fairly low blanket of carbon dioxide pressure, only roughly filtered, not overly chilled and drunk while still fresh (the clubs which owned the Fed had been turning over between thirty and seventy 36-gallon casks a week before tanks replaced them), it's possible that the drinkers supping Fed Pale Ale and Special in the working men's clubs of Tyneside didn't notice that much difference, especially since throughout its trading area of Northern England lots of draught beer, both cask and bright, was by the sixties already being dispensed by metered electric rather than tradtional hand-pumps.

Other beer writers of the period also noticed the changeover to tank beer, and generally seem to have approved of it. Andrew Campbell in his 1956 Book of Beer notes that "Some brewers are now delivering beer in bulk. Watney's barrel-shaped tanks are a familiar sight in London's streets. The beer is racked into measured tanks at the brewery, forced by CO² into road tanks, and then run by gravity at the public houses into cellar tanks which hold as much as one hundred gallons" while Richard Boston in his 1976 book Beer and Skittles says, "But fot the real draught Guinness you must go to Ireland where a glass of stout is poured with proper reverence. Draught Guinness in Ireland is still a naturally conditioned unpasteurized beer, and is sold in the living state, though it now arrives at the pub in a container known derogatarily as 'The Iron Lung'."

I've drunk and enjoyed bright/tank beer a few times myself, notably Augustiner Spezial, filtered and racked into the wooden barrels from which it's dispensed by gravity in the brewery's beer garden opposite Munich's central station, and Pilsner Urquell tankovna fresh from metal tanks above the bar of Manchester's Alberts Schloss.




Saturday, 23 June 2018

Mile High Try in Denver

The England rugby league team will play a mid-season Test match against New Zealand tonight at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado.

It'll be interesting to see what American viewers make of rugby league (the match is being shown on CBS TV as well as BBC Two here). Some of it will be familar to them from American football - especially the six tackle rule which is similar to gridiron's four downs - but obviously much of it will be unfamilar, and will need to be explained by the commentators.

The match is of course part of rugby league's mission to expand the game internationally - there's already a North American team playing at professional level, Toronto Wolfpack, and plans for another in New York.

I've heard opposing opinions on the Denver Test match, part of an ongoing debate within the game between traditionalists, who opposed the Challenge Cup Final being moved from the North to Wembley in the twenties and attempts to expand the game beyond its Northern heartlands of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumberland through the decades, some of them successful (Australia, New Zealand, France), others less so (London, Wales), and modernisers who want to see it become a global sport.

The former camp often claim that international expansion of the game is being pushed by the sport's governing bodies at the expense of the grassroots game and less fashionable, once leading but now often semi-professional, clubs in the North such as Bradford, Featherstone, Swinton and Barrow, but the decline of those sides has more complex origins, often combining deindustrialistion with mismanagement off the field.

If rugby league can become even a minor professional sport in the United States, with its huge TV and sponsorship markets, surely it can only be good for the profile and funding of the game as a whole.


Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Votes for Women?

I've just watched Emmeline Pankhurst: The Making of a Militant, shown on BBC Four last night at the same time that the England football team were taking on Tunisia at the World Cup.

I wasn't expecting much from the programme, but it managed to be even worse than I thought it would be. The Guardian trumpeted it as an "excellent biography" of the suffragette leader, but it was actually a hagiography, the life of a saint, with gushing pieces to camera replacing any critical analysis of her politics, and almost everything about her presented in a misleading or partial way.

That slipperiness started at the beginning of the programme with Pankhurst described as a working mother from Moss Side, Manchester, which, while strictly true, is misleading given that Moss Side was then home to the prosperous merchant class, as was nearby Chorlton-on -Medlock which she moved to, and become a part-time registrar in to supplement her income from the store which she owned, after the death of her husband, a radical barrister whose sudden demise she learnt of while travelling back by train from a holiday in Switzerland.

You would never know from watching the programme that about a third of men, in particular unskilled workers, didn't have the vote in 1914, because of property qualifications - a number that rose as men who had the vote moved into the army or munitions factories in the First World War (other men had more than one vote as business owners or university graduates, a privilege that wasn't abolished until 1948).

Emmeline Pankhurst was in favour of women being enfranchised on the same basis as men, which would have had added about a million upper and upper middle class women like herself to the electoral register; the acts of petty terrorism which she inspired (setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows) to further that modest demand is what gained her the repuatation as a miltant compared to other women from the same class background, like Millicent Fawcett, who campaigned
with marches and petitions, as well as the working-class men and women who campaigned for universal suffrage (I once saw the play "Tea with Mrs Pankhurst" at the old Independent Labour Party hall in Nelson, Lancashire, in which the main character, the millworker and trade unionist Selina Cooper, delivers the immortal line to her, "You don't want votes for women, you want votes for ladies!").

While Pankhurst started out on the left, joining the ILP in the 1890's, she later moved to the right, enthusiastically supporting the First World War, and in the 1920's putting herself forward as a Conservative parliamentary candidate (unlike her daughter Sylvia, who, along with several other of her former supporters, split from what had essentially become a personality cult around her mother and moved to the left).

None of this though has put Manchester's Labour council off from commissioning a statue of her which will soon be erected in the city centre.


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.




Sunday, 1 April 2018

April sours

Ahead of the CAMRA AGM in Coventry at the end of this month, plans are apparently already being put into place for a successor organisation which will split off from the main body of the campaign should the controversial and divisive Revitalisation proposals to extend the organisation's remit beyond cask-conditioned real ale to other so-called "quality beers" be adopted by that gathering.

The new splinter group, which will no doubt present itself as being the legitimate continuation of the original campaign should that body slip into heresy, has been given the provisional name of the Campaign for Real Ullage Deposit, emphasising the technical differences which have led to this potential schism in the British beer-drinking world.

A meeting took place last week at a pub somewhere in the so-called "Bass triangle" between Burton, Derby and Leek to sketch out plans for the new group, with several beer bloggers apparently being provisionally offered places on its soon to be formed national executive which will, should the split occur, be chosen by popular acclamation in the public bar of the same pub rather than the traditional, if somewhat unpredictable, method of annual elections held amongst the membership.

Moves are also afoot for a beer festival to launch the new group, pencilled in for this time next year at the venue which is then expected to become its permanent home, the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, although contract negotiations have reportedly yet to resolve the issue of whether drinkers will be allowed to use the tunnels beneath the stands to access the bars in the middle rather than having to cross the track with their pint. A dummy edition of a new monthly publication, with the working title "Brew Believer", has been mocked up, although there are no plans for a website or any other online presence and communications with the new group's HQ, location yet to be decided, but definitely north of the contentious East Midlands "sparkler divide", will be by post only, with all previously-held email addresses deleted for security reasons.

Reports that the new body has approached the Society of St. Pius X, the Steam Railway Preservation Society and the Campaign for Real Cheese to act as advisory consultants on the new project have yet to be confirmed.




Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Stingo by jingo

I've spent a fair bit of time in Sam Smith's pubs of late, mainly Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year, the Blue Bell in Levenshulme.

Sam's Smiths draught beers are famously cheap - around the £2 mark in the North and only a pound or so more in London - but at £4 and upwards their bottled beers, at least in their pubs, aren't.

Just as Tadcaster's most traditionalist, some would say idiosyncratic, brewery only brews one cask-conditioned draught beer, Old Brewery Bitter, only one of their bottled beers is bottle-conditioned, the 8% abv strong ale Yorkshire Stingo, and while I've drunk most of their bottled range - especially their pale ales and stouts - I've never tried this one before.

Although Yorkshire Stingo sells for around £9 a bottle in pubs, I managed to pick one up online as part of a mixed box of 12 Sam Smith's beers for £34.95 from the Real Ale Store. It's a reddish beer with an alcoholic aroma which hits you straight away and reminded me of XX Strong Ale which Fuller's produced as part of their Past Masters series a few years ago.

I watched a few online reviews of Yorkshire Stingo before drinking it, including this one which, despite the guy speaking - I think - Polish, you still sort of get what he's saying.






Monday, 26 March 2018

New balls, please

I can't quite bring myself to welcome or join in the crowd booing and general opprobrium currently being directed at the Australian cricket team after their captain and star batsman Steve Smith and another member of his squad were found guilty of tampering with the ball in a Test match against South Africa.

Yes, ball tampering is against both the spirit and laws of cricket, and yes, it's right that those found guilty of it face some kind of sanction (the one Test ban and loss of match fees from the one in which the incident occurred in this case seems sufficent to me), but all teams have at one time or another done it and it strikes me as a tad hypocritical for the English press in particular to lambast Australia for it.

There's also the idea that cricket, being supposedly a gentleman's game, should be above such chicanery - "It's just not cricket" - and, again hypocritically, that ball tampering is something that might happen in Britain's former colonies but not here.

The only real way to eliminate it would be to do as cricket's distant transatlantic cousin baseball did at the end of the so-called "dead ball era" in the 1920's and change the ball as soon as it becomes scuffed or worn, but that would radically alter the playing of a game in which the condition of the ball, and the point at which it is replaced, can, pardon the pun, swing the outcome of a match, and even then, as baseball discovered, illegal deliveries akin to spitballs would no doubt still continue to be sent down the pitch to batsmen.



Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Home and away

Last weekend's draw for the FA Cup semi-finals which saw Manchester United picked to play Tottenham Hotspur in the last four of the competiton has produced an anomaly, and not a little controversy.

Even though Spurs are officially the away team, they will in fact be playing at their current home ground, Wembley, the stadium used for semi-finals since 2008 and by them this season whilst their White Hart Lane home is being remodelled and expanded.

This situation wouldn't have arisen of course had the Football Association not devalued the competition by playing semi-finals at Wembley rather than at a large neutral club ground roughly equidistant between the two teams, such as Villa Park, which is what happened before the switch to the newly-opened national stadium a decade ago, but is of a piece with the other money-making schemes they have introduced: sponsorship of the competition by corporate bodies, executive seat packages which include all events at the stadium across a number of years, the moving of matches from three o'clock to early evening to maximise profits from global TV deals, with the travelling supporter low down on their priority list, all supposedly justified by the cost of construction, just as the later kick-off time is supposedly more "family friendly" (by not interrupting Saturday afternoon shopping) and finals on the same day as League matches, rather than later in May when the season had finished, were supposedly to help England prepare better for international tournaments, hence their stellar performances at them since 2008.

I know that in international and European club competitions, teams have played finals at their own home grounds, and that England won the World Cup at theirs, the old Wembley, in 1966, just as West Germany, Argentina and France have at theirs since then, but that is pretty much unavoidable when the tournament venue has been picked years in advance and the teams have travelled thousands of miles to play there, but apart from money there is no reason why Spurs should be handed home advantage rather than the tie being played at a neutral ground.










Tuesday, 13 March 2018

It’s a No from me

I’ve just cast my vote on the so-called Revitalisation proposals which the CAMRA National Executive are putting forward, including those which seek to embrace “quality beers” beyond the cask ales that the organisation was founded to save in the early seventies.

Traditionalists/conservatives and progressives/modernisers have been battling each other in architecture, classical music, jazz, the Catholic Church, and about reform of counties, money and measurement, for much of the last century, and now inside CAMRA: you could call it the organisation’s “Clause Four” moment.

The sixties marked the height of this process: probably as a reaction to the militarisation and shared experience of suffering in World War II, revolutionary changes took place in each of those spheres, all predicated on moving with/keeping up with the times, attracting young people, engaging in renewal, modernisation, revitalisation, and stripping away what seemed outdated and unattractive.

I voted against the Revitalisation proposals and hope that if you're a CAMRA member you will too. Here are five reasons to vote against:

1. The proposals dilute the core thing CAMRA stands for, and introduce a new category, “quality keg”, or “craft keg” as it’s usually referred to, which – unlike cask beer/real ale – is not only subjective, but, as the official documents tacitly admit by describing cask beer as “pinnacle of the brewer’s craft” is an inferior product (that’s their opinion, by the way, not mine: while I’ve drunk nitrokeg stouts and keg bitters, I don’t think I’ve ever drunk craft keg, mainly because, and almost uniquely for a preservationist movement like CAMRA, it’s usually served in pubs which also have cask beer. But, having drunk non-bottle conditioned and canned beer from some of the breweries which produce it, I can imagine that at its best it’s as good as some cask beers).

2. They attempt to attract younger drinkers by including craft/quality keg when that may just be a passing fad (many modernisation projects, by attaching themselves to what is currently fashionable, soon come to look dated themselves when fashion and young people move on to something else, sixties clothes, music and architecture, including pubs, being examples of that, and only a small number of young people drink craft keg – most drink lager, spirits or wine, at home rather than in the pub, or not at all).

3.  Snobbery/ageism: underlying the proposals is I think the idea that the older, male, working-class drinker supping a pint of boring brown bitter produced by a national brewer in an estate, town centre or dining chain pub with a single hand-pump should not be championed in preference to younger, trendier drinkers sipping thirds of super-hopped IPAs, kettle sours and bourbon barrel-aged strong ales dispensed in keg form in specialist bars and beer-houses.

4. They will not in fact attract many young people not only to join CAMRA but to become active in the organisation: like many other organisations with large but inactive memberships and fewer, ageing volunteers (some of whom will leave the organisation if the proposals are approved), CAMRA is likely to become a more professional, HQ/full-time employee-led group in the future, with fewer, probably bigger, branches, and more emphasis on socials and festivals rather than the current democratic structures of branch and regional meetings. Online voting – as is now happening before the AGM – is likely to be extended, with virtual rather than “real life” events making more decisions.

I also agree with the point Phil at Oh Good Ale makes here, that what CAMRA needs to keep its local structures going is not necessarily more young people – although they of course should be welcomed – but just more new people, of whatever age.

5.  CAMRA, as the name suggests, is a campaign, formed to ensure the survival, and also quality, of real ales/cask beers (and, later, other traditionally-produced drinks, cider and perry), when it looked as though they might disappear in the wave of new, heavily advertised and promoted keg beers from the national brewers. Craft keg is a niche product which does not need a campaign to ensure its survival, which is not to say that there are others things CAMRA does and should campaign on: preservation of historic pub interiors, the level of tax imposed on beer and the rents pubcos charge their tenants, the hike in business rates and, perhaps most importantly, against the anti-alcohol lobby who are also vying for the Government’s ear.

As well as voting against Special Resolutions 1, 5 and 6, I also voted for Lynn Atack, the “traditionalist” candidate running for a place on the CAMRA National Executive.



Monday, 12 March 2018

The Welsh Codebreakers

I've just watched The Rugby Codebreakers, a documentary shown on BBC Wales last night about the Welsh rugby union players who were forced, as the saying had it, to "go North" and become professional rugby league players in Lancashire and Yorkshire when the union game was, at least officially, still strictly amateur.

Stories about the social ostracism imposed on those who converted from union to league are legion, as are those about the subterfuge scouts and directors of the Northern clubs were compelled to resort to when heading into Welsh rugby union territory to obtain the signatures of star players from the working-class mining villages of the South Wales Valleys and dockland districts of Cardiff - a history outlined again last night, with much of the archive footage coming from the 1969 documentary The Game That Got Away - but I hadn't quite realised the extent of the racism amongst the Welsh union's selectors which meant that up until the mid-1980's the chance of a black Welsh rugby union player being picked for the national side was effectively nil, all but forcing them, as some of their black South African counterparts also did, to accept the generous financial inducements being offered them by the top rugby league clubs in the North.

























Wigan's legendary Welsh wing Billy Boston

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Lancashire League

The Rugby Football League, the governing body of rugby league in England, has announced that it is relocating its headquarters from Leeds to Manchester.

By the start of the 2021 World Cup, the RFL will base itself at the Etihad Campus in east Manchester, the sporting complex which already includes national cycling and squash venues, an athletics track and the two stadia where Manchester City's first, youth and women's teams play their home matches, where the England rugby league team will also train ahead of international fixtures.

Manchester being pretty much equidistant between the sport's two main heartlands, southwest Lancashire and west Yorkshire, with road and rail links between them going through the city, was the reason why the Magic Weekend, the annual event where a round of Super League matches is played across two days at the same stadium, was held here from 2012 to 2014, before moving up to Newcastle's St. James' Park when Manchester City began expanding their ground, towards a projected final capacity of 61,000. I can now see that event taking place here permanently, as well as perhaps the Super League Grand Final now played at Old Trafford (although the showpiece Challenge Cup Final is unlikely to head North again from Wembley, its home since the late 1920's), and international and World Club Challenge matches too.

Although they are unlikely to relocate permanently outside the boundaries of their city, I'd also like to see Salford rugby league club play a few matches at the 7,000 capacity Academy Stadium there (pre-season friendlies to start with, say), both because of the much better public transport services to it compared to those to their home ground at Barton-upon-Irwell (itself outside the historic boundaries of Salford) and as part of the wider missionaty effort to extend the appeal of the game beyond its traditional heartlands.










Sunday, 25 February 2018

A bevvy in Levy

I went to Levenshulme last night for the presentation of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA's Pub of the Year award to the Blue Bell Inn, and also popped into a new micropub, Station Hop, en route to it.

The Blue Bell and Station Hop are contrasting pubs in a numbers of ways: the latter a converted shop with dark, minimalist signage on the main Stockport Road through Levenshulme - I walked past it without spotting it at first - which extends a long way further back than you'd imagine from the narrow shop front through three sparsely decorated rooms lit with suspended filament bulbs and attracts a younger, middle-class crowd, and the former a solid redbrick building with a well-lit separate sign a few minutes walk from it on a large plot amid terraced housing (the original thatched inn was replaced by the current interwar incarnation sometime in the thirties, the only alterations since being the post-war repair of bomb damage) which has the classic multi-room arrangement of lounge, vault and snug and is patronised mainly by older, working-class drinkers; the only real similarity between the two is that each sell a limited number of well-kept cask beers (Old Brewery Bitter in the Blue Bell and two handpumps in the Station Hop) alongside a more extensive range of keg beers, the latter at average prices for a micropub close to the city centre and the former at the very reasonable ones you'd expect in a Sam Smith's house.

I finished the night on Sam Smith's Extra Stout, a smooth, coffeeish beer that reminds you of Guinness at its very best. Somehow though, I'm not sure it's the "quality keg" that those in the CAMRA leadership pushing the so-called Revalisation proposals  have in mind when they talk about embracing all well-brewed beers...




























Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Bradford Northern

Back in Time for Tea which started on BBC2 last night is the Northern equivalent of the series Back in Time for Dinner (north of the Trent, breakfast is followed in the early afternoon by dinner, tea is eaten in the early evening and supper is a snack just before bed) in which a family experiences work, leisure and especially food through the decades, this time set in Bradford rather than London and presented by Bolton's Sara Cox.

Last night's opening episode spanned the twenties and thirties, when wage cuts and then mass unemployment drove down working-class living standards to subsistence levels, and saw the family eating bread smeared with lard and, if they were lucky, rag pudding, tripe and poached rabbit. There was also mention of some of the social struggles of the time, including the "right to roam" protests which saw young workers from the Northern industrial towns battle landowners for access to their estates when out rambling, and a neat synopsis of the origins of rugby league for our benighted Southern bretheren who have to make do with union.

One thing that did make me wonder though was when the mother and father of the family shared a can of beer: I know canned beer was introduced to Britain in the mid-thirties, but surely Bradford millworkers who wanted to drink at home would have either bought some bottles or carried draught beer back from the pub in a jug.






Thursday, 25 January 2018

Hundred Club at Manchester Central


Manchester Beer and Cider Festival rolled into Manchester Central Convention Complex, the city's former Central Station, for the third time last night with an opening session for the trade, press and CAMRA members.

I know some people go to beer festivals to try strangely-flavoured collaborations from obscure microbreweries, but I usually head first for the Independent Family Brewers of Britain bar, this year restyled the Hundred Club for those who have been brewing for more than a century, to drink beers from regional breweries whose products don't normally appear on the bar of pubs in the Manchester area, such as Harvey's and Fuller's, especially dark ones like milds, stouts and strong ales, as well, last night, as two new cask offerings, chewy, treacly 10.7% Fuller's Imperial Stout (normally only available in bottles) and the just launched stout from J.W. Lees of Middleton which seems mainly to be nitrokeg beer when found on draught in their tied estate.

My standout beer of the session though was - as I thought it might be - one from a relative newcomer, the deliciously rich and smoky, and at 6.5% dangerously drinkable, Elland 1872 Porter which was deservedly Champion Beer of Britain in 2013.






Monday, 15 January 2018

RIP Cyrille

The former footballer Cyrille Regis who has died suddenly at the age of 59 after a heart attack was one of the black players who broke through into the game at the top level in England in the late 70s and early 80's, overcoming appallingly racism which was then, sadly, often regarded by fans and managers alike as just harmless banter, to be brushed off as something "normal" and to be expected.

In this, although more vocal and, in the "terrace wars" between hooligan "firms", many of whom had links to the far right, which accompanied them, more violent, those chants and insults were of a piece with the society around the football grounds at which they were hurled at players such as Cyrille, with the streets, pubs and workplaces which black people returned to after matches (if indeed they had been brave enough to attend them in the first place) and with the TV comedies of the era, such as Till Death Do Us Part, with its oft-quoted bigot Alf Garnett, and the awful Love Thy Neighbour, about a white couple living next door to a black one.

In particular, they were of a piece with the West Midlands and Black Country, where, along with the late Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson, Cyrille was one of the so-called Three Degrees of black players signed by West Bromwich Albion and managed  for a time by Ron Atkinson, someone who has had his own issues with racism (albeit not, if what his former charges say is true, with his own black players): the immigrants from the Caribbean and Indian sub-continent who had come to work in its foundries and car factories in the 50s and 60s had experienced a racist backlash from the start, epitomised by the notorious "Rivers of Blood" speech of 1968 in which the Tory MP for Wolverhampton South West Enoch Powell fulminated against their arrival, but the decline of those industries in the 70s and 80s led to white working-class frustrations which expressed themselves politically in the electoral rise of the street-fighting fascists of the National Front, which gained more than eight per cent of the vote at a 1977 by-election in Powell's birthplace of Stetchford.

Above all, though, Cyrille Regis should be remembered for his sublime footballing talent: here he is in his pomp playing for West Brom against Manchester City on a typically muddy Maine Road pitch in 1980.



Monday, 1 January 2018

Another Winter Warmer Wander wended (just)

It was with some relief  yesterday that I completed the Winter Warmer Wander, an annual event organised by my CAMRA branch, Stockport and South Manchester, with prizes for visiting 12, 24 or 46 pubs and drinking at least half a pint of porter, stout or strong ale, or a beer of 4.5% abv or above.

I got off to a good start, beginning with a launch stagger around Stockport in mid-November which ticked off five pubs, another around Manchester's Northern Quarter that added another four and a couple on Stockport's Wellington Road North "beer slope" a week after that, which meant that by the end of the first week in December I'd already done eleven pubs, with just one more to go for the first level of prizes. The rest of the month was pretty much written off though as I was laid low with the lurgy that seems to have afflicted half the country this festive season and it was only yesterday afternoon, the last day of the event, that I felt fit enough to pop into another pub for my twelfth and final sticker.

So what does a wander around pubs in Stockport and Manchester this winter tell us?

First of all, the beers: nine of the beers I drank were stouts or porters, with the rest - including a couple of pints of Robinsons Trooper, in the Arden Arms, Stockport, and the Castle Hotel in Manchester city centre - premium bitters rather than strong ales (I did drink Robinsons Old Tom last month, but not in a pub which was taking part in the event).

Breweries: three of the pubs I went in and beers I drank were owned and produced by local family brewers (Hydes, Robinsons) with the rest being from brewpubs or microbreweries, three of them also local (Fool Hardy, Stockport, Greenfield), and the others from further afield (Saltaire, Five Points, Northern Monk, Harviestoun, Rossendale).

Pubs: three were what you might call traditional locals, albeit with sizeable dining and/or live music areas (the Arden Arms, the Castle Hotel and the Horse and Farrier, Gatley), with the rest being brewpubs and/or specialist beerhouses (the Crown, Hope, Magnet, Railway and Remedy Bar in Stockport and the Crown and Kettle, Piccadilly Tap and Smithfield Market Tavern in Manchester); the Bakers Vaults sort of spans both categories, a modernised traditional pub which mainly sells Robinsons beers, alongside a few guest ones, but also serves food and coffee and has live music.

Best beer: Five Points Railway Porter in the Piccadilly Tap.

Happy New Year to you all, hope to see you at a bar somewhere in 2018.