Saturday, 29 May 2021

Back to cask

With a second jab of the Covid vaccine in my right arm, I finally had my first pint of cask beer in, or rather outside, a pub since the beginning of last March yesterday afternoon (I've drunk bottles and cans and takeaway draught beer at home across those publess months, but none of it was really the same).

It was the same pub and beer as nearly fifteen months ago, when the pandemic was still, or so it seemed back then, happening elsewhere, in northern Italy and China, and being able to order a pint was something you took for granted. 

It felt almost a religious moment and I sat and looked at it for a minute, delaying the experience of the first sip, which, if not quite Ice Cold in Alex, took a good third of the pint. The beer seemed darker and heavier, and the hops bitterer, but I'm sure that's down to it being the first for a long time. 

There was some talk earlier this year that cask beer was finished, as people had become used to drinking other things at home, and breweries and pubs wouldn't risk producing or stocking it, but thankfully none of that has happened, and, with the initial rush of unreleased demand and fewer lines on the bar, there have been reports of higher quality pints as the turnover essential to keeping live beer fresh increased. The pub I went to is also a tied house of one of the long established family brewers in the Manchester area, so people expect to see their cask beer on the bar there, even if they had to switch to keg and bottled beer sold online and in supermarkets to survive through the lockdown of their premises.

It helped of course that it was a pleasant afternoon with a warmish breeze, and with people allowed back inside the pub the beer garden outside wasn't as full as it had been the last couple of times I've walked past; as someone once said, I shall return.

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Brooklyn beer and baseball

I've just read Beer School: Bottling Success At the Brooklyn Brewery, a cheap secondhand copy of which I picked up online. It's an unusual book, a cross between a company history and a business manual.

I first drank their flagship Brooklyn Lager, an amber, all-malt brew loosely based on the Vienna-type beers produced in the United States before Prohibition, about twenty years ago. In the early to mid 2000s, I also went on three holidays to New York, each time making at least one trip out to Shea Stadium in Queens for a Mets game, and picked up in a bar at JFK Airport the Brooklyn beer mat that still sits on my desk (since the late fifties, when the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, the borough of Brooklyn has been bereft of a major league baseball team, and by the mid seventies lacked a brewery too. In the summer of 1986, as the Mets batted themselves towards their second World Series championship, Brooklyn Brewery's founders were watching on a TV set - drinking homebrew and sketching out their business plan - in the backyard of the apartment building they both then lived in. They are also linked by graphic design: the brewery's swirling logo was based on the Dodgers' iconic "B", while the Mets' combines their colours with those of the city's other lost National League baseball team, uptown Manhattan's New York Giants).

Being based at first in a still edgy section of a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn means that amongst the entrepreneurial advice are stories of hairy experiences in those early years: threatening calls from besuited Italian guys in limos befitting "business agents" of Mob-fronted construction union locals; burglars dropping through the skylight to steal crates of beer later retrieved from a neighbourhood convenience store; and armed robbers holding guns to the heads of warehouse workers before emptying the safe.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

A Different League

Amid the numerous news reports yesterday about a proposed breakaway European Super League, a money and power grab by the continent's richest clubs redolent of arrogance, greed and contempt for fans and the communities around them, it was good to watch a football story that represents the polar opposite of all that.

Derry City, whose ground stands at the edge of the Catholic Bogside, suspended play in 1972 as the Troubles exploded around it and other teams refused to travel there for away matches. It was resurrected by its fans in 1985, joining the League of Ireland, based in the Republic, whose border abuts the city, rather than the (Northern) Irish Football Association and recruiting local hero Felix Healy as well as international players such as Brazilian Nelson Da Silva, black South African Owen Da Gama and Serbian striker Alexsandar Krstic.

For some reason, the documentary, Different League, eschews surnames, so as well as Felix we get to meet former manager Jim (McLaughlin) and veteran Derry left-wing journalist and civil rights campaigner Eamonn (McCann). There are also cameo appearances for Sven (Göran Eriksson), manager of Benfica when Derry played their first European Cup match against the Portuguese club in 1989, and former IRA commander in the city Martin (McGuinness) who made sure that the match went ahead by tying a rope to a suspected bomb and dropping it down a manhole in the adjoining cemetery, on whose cross-planted slopes impecunious fans had gathered for a free, if somewhat obscured, view of the game.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Fifty Years of Beer

I've just got my copy of 50 Years of CAMRA by Laura Hadland, an official history published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Campaign for Real Ale, which was founded on a drinking holiday to Ireland in March 1971.

As you'd expect, the book has material in it from every part of the country and decade of the campaign's history - much of it from its newspaper What's Brewing, which has just been axed to cut costs - but the section on the early days has a definite tilt towards the North West, which is unsurprising given that the four founder members all came from Lancashire, including two from Salford.

So how different does the campaign look now as it enters its sixth decade?

The organisation in the early seventies was obviously a lot smaller - although it grew from the original four to five thousand in the first couple of years - and had a much looser structure, with fewer branches covering larger areas, a single employee, to process membership applications, and initially didn't do either of the things it is now probably most associated with - organising the Great British Beer Festival and publishing the Good Beer Guide - but on the other hand undoubtedly had a much higher proportion of young and active members, ready to turn out for meetings, demos and social events  (more than a hundred and fifty thousand overwhelmingly paper members, who joined at a beer festival or through a gift membership, but are never seen by their local branches, and a national executive elected on a very low turnout, and known only by a handful of activists, are both relatively recent phenomena).

Like other parts of society, CAMRA has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, with pubs shut for most of the last year and financial pressures forcing it to furlough many of its headquarters staff as two of its major income streams - new membership applications and beer festivals - respectively slowed down and disappeared entirely, and the decision to press ahead with a third, publication of the Good Beer Guide with its lucrative pre-Christmas sales, looking more like a commercial decision than a campaigning one.

So what now for CAMRA?

Two of the issues it faces - the ongoing closure of pubs and an ageing active membership not being adequately replaced by younger people at branch level - each predate the pandemic, even if it will likely worsen things on both fronts, and in the latter case is something seen across all voluntary organisations and societies.

In the future, I can see CAMRA becoming something like a beer drinkers' equivalent of the National Trust, an organisation that people have a direct debit to because they broadly support its aims and/or like the benefits that membership brings, but aren't willing to give up their spare time to work at festivals for or interested in becoming involved with the running of, with the labour of a decreasing band of volunteers increasingly replaced by that of paid staff (obviously I will be attempting to swim against that tide myself by resuming activity with my own local branch in Stockport and South Manchester, now like all the others in lockdown-induced hibernation, once I've had my Covid jabs and the pubs are back open as normal).

Friday, 29 January 2021

A beery Cooperstown

The American beer writer Jeff Alworth is running a poll on Twitter asking people to nominate ten beers for an imaginary hall of fame.

As I see it, what we're talking about here is not just people's ten favourite beers, although many of them will also no doubt fall into that category, but rather those of historical importance in world brewing, beers that have helped to define a style or best represent it now. My selection below is of European beers, and limited to those I've actually drunk myself, mostly in the city, or even the pub, where they're brewed, and therefore heavily skewed towards the experience of being in a particular place - or, if you want to be a bit more pretentious, the concept of terroir - where they were first drunk and are still enjoyed. Nevertheless, I think I've included all the major styles, and a couple of minor ones too.

Draught Bass

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

Pilsner Urquell 

Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild

Fuller's 1845

Robinson's Old Tom

Schlenkerla Märzen

Schneider Weisse

Uerige Alt

Westmalle Tripel

Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Books of the Year

I've had a bit more time than expected for books this year, for obvious reasons; getting out into the countryside regularly for long walks also enhanced my appreciation of the rural scenes in some of the novels I read.

The Train Was On Time by Heinrich Böll 

I read this short novel, about a young German soldier travelling by rail towards the Eastern Front in World War II, and what he thinks will almost certainly be his death, after hearing it recommended on Radio 4's A Good Read.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Another novel about a young soldier in World War II, an American prisoner of war who experiences the Allied firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe 

I read this novel about life in a postwar Midlands factory and the terraced streets around it after watching the film based on the book, part of the new wave of social realist film and literature by working-class actors and writers.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

This had been on my bookshelf waiting to be read for a while. It combines time travel and gender switching in a very postmodern way for a novel written in the late 1920s.

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles

Another postmodern novel which I read after seeing the film adaptation of it, starring Meryl Streep as the title character and Jeremy Irons as the upper middle-class fossil collector who meets and falls in love with her while walking along the shoreline near Lyme Regis on the south coast of England (and which I might just get to return to the still closed public library almost a year after borrowing it).

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe 

I don't need to tell you why I read this in March. Some of the parallels with the current pandemic are uncanny: people shielding in their houses, or being confined to them, while wealthier families bribe officials and escape London to their second homes in the country, thus spreading the disease there, cash being seen as a potential source of infection, wild rumours and theories about the causes and origin of the plague sweeping through the city.

Summer by Albert Camus 

A short essay about Camus' native Algeria, famous for the line "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer", a sentiment that seems particularly apt this year.

The Mill on the Floss/Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot 

A mill on the bend of a river outside a small town on the Lincolnshire-Nottinghamshire border and the flat land around it are the settings for a tragic story about a brother and sister growing apart until finally reunited in death. The second book is a collection of three short novels, the first volume of fiction Eliot published, about Anglican clergymen in the Warwickshire countryside of her childhood.

Black Dogs by Ian McEwen

A dark novel which switches between the emotions sparked by  the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the disturbing legacy of wartime German occupation in rural southern France.

The Scorpion God/Envoy Extraordinary/Pincher Martin by William Golding

The first two are novellas set in the ancient world, and the last a short novel about a drowning sailor in the North Atlantic in World War II, in which Golding served as a naval officer, whose plot is almost impossible to describe without revealing the twist at the end of it.

 Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne 

This rambling shaggy dog story about a young man and his battle recreation-obsessed uncle, complete with lengthy diversions, diagrams and squiggles, was considered unfilmable until a screen version starring Steve Coogan was released in 2006.

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

I read this Trumpian tale of a self-made American businessman after seeing this, banned by Amazon, review of it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall/Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë 

The two novels by the youngest and least known of the there literary sisters both deal with the position of women in mid-Victorian society, one the estranged wife of an alcoholic gentleman and the other a farmer's impoverished daughter forced to become a children's governess.

The Good Soldier Sjvek by Jaroslav Hasek

I picked up this long comic novel about the wanderings of an eternally cheerful soldier through the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I after seeing this article by Adrian Tierney-Jones (I finally got round to reading A Time of Gifts, the first part of Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his walk across interwar Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople via Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, for the same reason).

When the weather is warmer, and the virus has been suppressed, the vaccine proved effective and travel restrictions lifted, so probably in the spring of 2022 now, I plan on finally making my own trip to Austria and Bohemia and, as Richard Boston said of his visit to Prague on a mid-sixties rail holiday through Central Europe in his book Beer and Skittles, spend a few days "going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Sjvek".

Saturday, 12 December 2020

I'm A Union Man

I've finally got my hands on some beer from Manchester Union, the microbrewery founded a couple of years ago to brew Czech-style lagers (their head brewer is well known in Manchester beer circles, and to me personally as the mate of one of my brother-in-law's ex-colleagues).

Having only been available as a draught beer in the pubs that stocked it, and at the brewery tap, a railway arch behind Piccadilly Station in Ardwick which opened on Saturdays before lockdown, the pandemic has prompted them to crowdfund a canning line and sell their products online.

The brewery's flagship beer is a golden Pilsner-type lager, but they also now brew a dark lager with a dense white head and fruity nose. At 4.5% and 4.8% abv, they would probably both be classified as a 12° Lezak if they were brewed in the Czech Republic.