Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Christmas Comes But Once A Beer

In the run-up to another quieter than normal Christmas because of Covid, I picked up a box of seasonal beers from local bar and bottle shop Heaton Hops, a few of which I hadn't drunk before in either cask or bottled form.

Anchor Our Special Ale 

San Francisco's Anchor Brewery release a different version of this strong ale every festive season and it's got a Christmas cake spicy fruitiness that feels very appropriate amidst the tinsel and holly.

Gordon Xmas

A Scotch ale relocated to Belgium by famed importer John Martin, this reddish brown beer has a candy fruitiness that reminded me of a Burton ale, especially the recreated Fuller's XX. Definitely my favourite of all the beers in the box.

Harvey's Imperial Extra Double Stout

Based on the strong dark beer bottled and exported from London to the Russian Empire via the Baltic by Albert Le Coq in the nineteenth century, and later produced at the Tartu brewery in what is now Estonia that still bears his name, this jet black stout has a leathery aroma with a hint of dates and a vinous taste not unlike that of Robinson's Old Tom.

Monday, 13 December 2021

Books of the Year

I don't seem to have read quite as many books this year as I normally do, averaging about one a month, although some of them were quite lengthy I suppose.

Between the Woods and the Water/The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I started the year where I had finished the last, on a bridge across the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary, following a young Patrick Leigh Fermor on his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople through interwar Central Europe, and then onto Greece and the monasteries of Mount Athos.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

I first saw the film of this years ago, and finally got round to reading the novel it's based on.

The West Pier/Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse/Unknown Assailant by Patrick Hamilton

The final novels by one of my favourite writers, published in the early to mid fifties before his decline and death from alcoholism, about a psychopathic conman moving around southern England between the wars.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Another TV adaptation I watched years ago where I finally got round to reading the novel it's based on. I especially enjoyed the description of the countryside around the Malvern Hills where it's set.

Oliver Twist/A Tale of Two Cities/Barnaby Rudge/Nicholas Nickleby/The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

Or How I Completed My Reading of the Works of Mister Charles Dickens, Including His Final, and Unfinished, Novel.

A Shabby Genteel Story by William Makepeace Thackeray

Another unfinished novel, about the characters inhabiting a run down boarding house in the seaside resort of Margate one winter in the 1830s.

Monday, 8 November 2021

Hotel Blues

As flights to the United States began again this morning, the news reached me, via a roundup email from Jazz North West, that one of midtown Manhattan's most historic hotels, the Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue, which closed at the start of the Covid pandemic last year, is to remain shut and will eventually be demolished. The Pennsylvania, opposite Penn Station and close to Madison Square Garden, was not only a venue for live jazz in the forties, but also saw its phone number become a swing standard.

On my first trip to the United States in 2002 - a baseball tour by coach along the East Coast from Baltimore to Boston, with stops in Philadelphia, New York City and the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in upstate New York - we stayed at another of midtown Manhattan's iconic hotels, the Edison on 47th Street, whose ballroom also hosted live music in the big band era, and drank in the bar where Luca Brasi met his end in The Godfather.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Ageing (dis)tastefully

I've just picked up online a cheap secondhand copy of Vintage Beer by Patrick Dawson. 

The book includes includes the basics of conditioning beer for months, or even years, at home, from the right environment in which to store it (ideally a deep cellar, but failing that somewhere cool and dark where sunlight or rising temperatures aren't going to affect the taste of your beers) and the beer styles that age best (high in alcohol, dark and bottle-conditioned, so strong ales, imperial stouts, Belgian lambics and sour brown ales). 

The author concedes that, after a revelatory moment sipping a three year old bottle of Duvel, his first attempts at ageing were a disaster, and that many beers still taste best fresh, including IPAs (although Worthington's White Shield is noticeably different at varying stages of its development and, as David Hughes says in his book A Bottle of Guinness, Please, any bottle-conditioned beer is going to undergo changes over time, both good and bad - that natural variability is part of the experience). He also notes that other beers will never taste right until a few years in the cellar have knocked the rough edges off them, citing Thomas Hardy's strong ale (having only drunk it young, I concur).

My main problem with ageing bottled beers - whether Fuller's Imperial Stout or Vintage Ale, Courage Russian Imperial Stout, White Shield or Duvel - is that having bought them I invariably want to drink them, and the longest I've managed to keep my hands off them is a few months before Christmas and New Year, when I've raided my stash until the cupboard is bare (I suppose I need to misplace one and then find it a decade later). The other thing is that, as with fine wine, you really need a century or so to bring out some of the deeper flavours in these beers.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Labour's Lost Love

In the nine o'clock slot filled for the past few weeks by a history of the Premier League BBC2 last night broadcast the first episode of a new series about another modernising project created in the early to mid nineties with the self-proclaimed aim of moving away from a traditionally working-class base and image to attract more middle-class supporters, Blair and Brown: the New Labour Revolution.

The programme highlighted the differing personal backgrounds of the two men, prefiguring the personal rivalry and policy conflicts that would come to define their relationship in government, but conceded that there was very little that divided them in their overall politics. Indeed, beyond the polling and presentational skills of the press and PR officers hired by New Labour, and a centrist message consciously modelled on that of the US Democrats, it found it hard to identify Blair with any real interest in politics except a vague progressivism picked up as a student at Oxford in the early to mid seventies (where he admitted he was more interested in playing in a rock band than the industrial and social tumult of that decade) and later from his liberal barrister wife. Unlike Brown, who worked his way up through the ranks of the Scottish Labour establishment, he seems to have almost accidentally entered politics through a network of legal acquaintances, before discovering an eagerness to become first a MP and then party leader (you can easily imagine him having been elected as the leader of any of the three mainstream political parties).

In outlining the period before the creation of New Labour, the programme threw up a number of what ifs: what if Neil Kinnock had won the 1992 General Election? What if John Smith had led the party into the 1997 campaign? What if Brown had stood against Blair for the leadership after the death of his friend and mentor Smith? All unknowable of course, but we do in a sense seem to be back where we started in the eighties, with a soft left leader ousting a more radical, but electorally unpopular, one before turning sharply to the right, while apparently unable to land a punch on a Tory government with a large majority despite its mainfest failings.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

A Plaque for the Printers

I popped to the Printers Arms in Cheadle between rain showers this afternoon for the unveiling of a Blue Plaque marking the spot where my local CAMRA branch was formed in 1974. It was the first time I'd been to the pub, and my first CAMRA event for eighteen months.

The South Manchester branch formed there forty-seven years ago covered a huge area south of the city, extending from Warrington in the west to Macclesfield in the east, before being broken up into smaller ones over the next few years, including Stockport and South Manchester which I'm now a member of, although there are still some anomalies resulting from historical local government boundaries and the ad hoc way in which it was done (despite its name, the current branch doesn't include the whole of either Stockport or south Manchester).

The Printers Arms is described in the 1976 Good Beer Guide as "A thriving old pub" (that's the entire entry by the way: more expansive write-ups in the GBG of what to expect when visiting somewhere new were still some years off). It still is an old-looking pub, at least externally, but has been modernised inside to create a large, airy space around a central bar, and a conservatory added to the rear, leading to a triangular beer garden.

The Robinson's Unicorn bitter was in decent form and it was good to see some of my fellow local CAMRA members again after a year and a half. Founder member Neil Kellett unveiled the plaque alongside his brother Alan, who was the secretary of Cheadle Constituency Labour Party when I joined it in the late eighties.

Friday, 20 August 2021

RIP Railway

As expected, and widely predicted by the local media, the planning committee of Stockport council yesterday granted permission for the Railway pub in Portwood, on the eastern edge of the town centre, to be demolished to make way for a retail development.

The Railway, whose name comes from the line that once ran behind it, which closed to passenger trains in the late sixties before being buried beneath a motorway, was the scene of many CAMRA events, the recipient of numerous awards and the start or end point of several pub crawls, and the local branch made a forceful, if sadly ultimately unsuccessful, submission to the planning committee objecting to the application in an attempt to save it. It has been known for selling stronger and darker beers and real cider, and was a regular participant in the Winter Warmer Wander, Mild Magic and Cider Circuit promotions to showcase those styles. It was also a favourite of the Good Beer Guide pub ticker and blogger Simon Everitt when some of us took him around the town a couple of years ago. 

The pub's owners seem to have taken advantage of certain aspects of planning law to obtain the council's permission for demolition to take place: relying on an application made and granted in 2005, on which minimal work was subsequently done, and citing the disrepair that the building has been allowed to slip into it, so that it is now allegedly unsafe and impossible, or rather uneconomic, to save it.

In the Railway with fellow CAMRA members and bloggers, October 2019 (photo by Simon Everitt from his BRAPA blog)

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