August 19, 2014

The East Indiaman Story

This has also been published as a guest post on Phil Hardy’s Beersay blog.

IMG_20140728_163229327If I look back on the stories I have, or could have, told over the last two years or so, I’d probably have to start all of them along the lines of “It started over a beer”.  This is no exception.  It’s a story in its own right, but really its just a chapter in a longer story that isn’t yet complete.  But it is becoming a significant chapter.  Enough though of the self-serving prelude.  Let’s get this tale on to the Friday night in the first half of 2014 where this actually begins.

It started over a beer.  A beer in a brewery as it happens, but that isn’t entirely relevant.  A beer in a brewery one Friday night, where I was enjoying the rare pleasure of chatting with Phil Hardy.  I should point out that the pleasure is rare because we don’t cross paths often enough, not because Phil is only occasionally a pleasure to chat with.  I’m digressing.  You may need to get used to it.

Roll back the clock further to June 2013 and I was otherwise engaged when what started innocently as the now [surely] infamous “Macc Twissup” took place.  The simple concept of a bunch of tweeters and bloggers  meeting for drinks in a given town, and enjoying a few establishments of note, was taken to a new level.  The effort Phil, and those who supported him, put in to creating a day with treat after treat for the faithful was by all reports a massively well-received and successful event.  Don’t trust me on that – I wasn’t there – but seek out the reports of others who were…

Back to that Friday night in 2014 and Phil was beginning to tell me all about his plans for the  sequel.  By this stage in the tale I must have been onto about my third pint, and I expect anyone reading this is too, either that or they’ve given up already.  But we’ve only just begun, and so had he.  Rather than it just having been a one-off twissup, the plan was to make this a regular event.  Annual perhaps.  And why not?  Unfortunately by this stage the timing was such that the start of June was out, and the rest of that month, plus July and August, were pretty well sewn up with a glut of rather notable events.  September presented a chance to sneak something in though, and so that was the plan.

The date wasn’t the only change on the cards though.  Even despite the added extras Phil managed to coordinate last year, the idea of “just” having another twissup wasn’t enough, and to be fair wasn’t going to make this anything more unique than other events happening round and about, other twissups locally and further afield.  So Phil told me of his plans for “Back in Macc”.

At that early stage it was still a concept.  But a great concept.  Especially, it seemed, for me.  A showcase for new and upcoming breweries.  Talented homebrewers.  New startups.  Fresh shining brewing stars.  And, what, sorry?  Me?  You want to include me?  Well flattery gets you everywhere.  But why me?  Maybe some background is in order.

"I've brewed for a few years now" - The evidence

I’ve brewed for a few years now.  Not as often as I’d like, but as often as I can.  I’ve made some beers I like.  I’ve made quite a few more that other people like far more than me, but I’m a perfectionist.  I can fault most of them in one way or another, even those I like.  But the feedback has always been good and pretty positive in almost every case.  Obviously there have been some disasters, that is all part of the development process, but the number of beers to be rapidly recycled through the waste water services of Severn Trent are actually minimal.  Only one full batch has ever gone that way so far, along with a few iffy bottles.  More recently, opportunities have arisen which have allowed me to play at brewing on a wider stage.  I’ve been incredibly blessed by contacts in the brewing world through my small involvement in a certain Beer Bash in an equally alliterative Midlands city.

Dave in his more familiar guise as "Grand Master of the Bash"

As a result I got the opportunity to visit Blackjack in Manchester in the autumn of 2013 to re-brew what I think was a moderately successful American Pale Ale recipe that I home-brewed earlier that year.  And so came about the first commercial collaboration brew I can lay claim to.  This was followed in December by a second brewery collaboration that brings me full circle back to where I was standing talking to Phil.  Or rather listening to him being much less long-winded than I am currently.

bjb-web-593x363So, I needed a beer (well, it was a long-winded conversation after all!) but more importantly I needed to brew one, not just drink it.  In time for a September event.  Homebrewing probably wasn’t enough, it felt like it really needed to be commercially available at the time.  I can’t for the life of me remember right now if Rob, from Blackjack, was standing with me at the time or if I pitched the idea to him later, but somehow an agreement was reached that I’d return to Manchester to brew, and this wasn’t just a collaboration that boosted the ego of a two-bit home brewer, but a genuine cuckoo brew.

The idea gained momentum, in my mind at least.  What to brew?  Dust off the APA again?  No, it needed to be something new.  What about another homebrew I’ve been pleased with?  Hmm, nothing is jumping out at me. I’ll tell you what.  Let’s take the same concept of the last beer I brewed at home, the one that got infected and was an unmitigated disaster.  One that I therefore have so far not managed to get any reliable track record for (for the purposes of discussion I count having done it once successfully as having a reliable track record).  Let’s take that concept, go back to the basics of what I want to come up with, and rock up at the brewery one morning without a complete plan how it is actually going to be achieved.

IMAG0083What of the concept then?  I wanted an IPA that had plenty of character but managed to achieve it with all-English hops.  A robust body with a strong hop presence.  Not lip-curlingly bitter; I wanted the hops to be all about the finish rather than punching you in the face before you start.  As I walked into Blackjack on the brewday I had a few thoughts on what malts and hops might work, and an idea of the sort of strength to aim for, but that was it.  The plan evolved – malts had to be decided on before we could get down to mashing-in, obviously, but the hopping could, and did, follow after.  Just-in-time brewing I guess!  So, the grist developed quickly, with a good dose of pale malt supplemented by something darker to get towards the deeper copper colour I was looking for, and to impart some extra flavours; this was achieved by a fairly small amount of dark crystal malt, balanced by wheat and cara malts to provide extra body.

I already had two hops in mind – First Gold and Admiral – which both feature high in the list for intensity amongst the English varieties.  Keeping an open mind though a rustle through the hop store brought Summit to my attention.  There was an appealing fruity aroma which fitted perfectly and so the decision was made to use a combination of all three.  A bit of Admiral at the start of the boil to get the desired bittering, and a goodly quantity of all three combined late on – half 5 minutes before the end of the boil and half 10 minutes later.  The hop selection seemed to be well vindicated judging by the sample taken during the transfer to the fermenter with a good fruity aroma and flavour showing through.  And that’s how I had to leave it.  It’s slightly strange leaving your beer in someone else’s care like that but needs must.  The next time I was going to see it, it would be handed to me across a bar!

It was about three weeks later that the moment finally arrived.  The beer had been at the Craven Arms in Birmingham for a week or so, but I managed to time walking in with the freshly collected pump-clip down to perfection, as I was handed a sample glass that had quite literally just been drawn through.  Time for the first taste!  It was a pleasingly robust colour, and the solid body I had intended to achieve was all there.  Enough bitterness to enjoy without being overwhelmed, and yes, as planned a nice fruit finish, a little subdued but very definite.

Since then I’ve followed East Indiaman to a number of other pubs and festivals, and it has been an interesting experience to learn how different cellaring techniques and timings have affected a single batch of one beer.  It has given me good appreciation of what care and attention the beer most benefits from, at least while young.  It will be interesting to see how some of the casks which will have had the benefit of much longer conditioning in the brewery fare as well.  And to see how the kegs compare.

c57c9518db1e2b00c6b01940013c9149So, when this batch has all gone, what next?  Well there’s some discussion been had about brewing a further batch, and while I want to make some tweaks I am generally quite happy with where this recipe has ended up.  In the meantime another rather exciting offer has landed that could see a turn to something slightly more continental, making best use of facilities geared up to kegging.  Beer number two is definitely on the cards for Otherton in the coming months!

For now, here we are (nearly) Back in Macc and this first batch of East Indiaman gets one of only three outings in keg.  I’ll get what is almost certainly my first sample in that format, and I’m naturally hoping it works out.  I’m pretty sure I’ll get some direct feedback regardless!  So come along to what promises to be a marvelous event, say hi, have a taste, and be gentle!  See you there!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 25, 2014

Not so young enterprise…

tavern

This is The Tavern.  It occupies a position in the centre of Stafford at the end of the pedestrianised section of the main shopping street, and in my experience has never looked either a busy or a particularly appealing pub, despite what should be a really prime location for a town centre drinking hole.  Five minutes walk from the station, even closer to taxis and buses, and right in the centre of town.

Owners Enterprise Inns want to sell it, have it advertised for sale in fact, and as they have (in my view anyway) not managed to make any sort of success out of it I can’t really blame them.  And last week they had some very serious interest from an experienced publican who’d done some careful research and had come to the conclusion that they could turn this into something that would fill a pretty large gap in Stafford’s market.

Stafford is a fairly typical historic market town which is somewhat overshadowed by the dominance of Stoke-on-Trent over the county to which it gives its name.  At times or in places it seems tired and run down, sure, but at others there’s a liveliness about it and it is certainly far from written off.  But from a drinkers point of view it rarely gives me cause to venture into town.  More so in the past few years since I’ve been living a few miles out of town, and more significantly a station stop further south that means leaving Stafford railway station to venture to the pub is a mission in itself*.

The overwhelming impression of the town centre (possibly the whole town, though there are maybe one or two pubs further out that serve a more suburban market fairly well) that the research previously mentioned backed up, is that Stafford appears to have no real independent free houses.  At this point I will invite anyone who can genuinely correct me to do so, but let me explain that thinking first.  There are a small number of clearly brewery-tied houses – Joules run one, there are the inevitable Marstons-group pubs, and the other that springs to mind is perhaps the best of the whole town centre, the Titanic-run Sun Inn, which was born out of the Everards’ Project William and serves up mostly Titanic, and a couple of Everards, beers with the odd guest.  Then there are the usual pubco premises that abound and all appear constrained by the usual restrictions that such ownership brings. Then there are the free houses, at least some of them independently owned yet seemingly wrapped up in tight deals with certain breweries or other suppliers that no doubt provide them a low-effort way to offer cask and other beer but with precious little option for the more discerning beer consumer. In fact the odds are that the best chance to find something different is by visiting the Wetherspoons that, regardless of me not being a huge fan of the chain anyway, I find one of their less inspiring outlets.

So, what Stafford could probably do with is a genuine free house that puts on a wide and varied selection of quality cask beers, and maybe even supplements that with a UK and International keg offering as well. Done properly, truly independent, and providing an oasis for those who want to seek out something a little different. Something that (especially in my own case) might make the five-to-ten minute stroll from the station to venture into town a worthwhile experience, especially given that there is virtually nothing even uninspiring within the same time window. Or that might mean the trip into town is a worthwhile experience for those searching for something of interest in their pint/half-pint/third-pint glass, rather than heading outwards towards Stoke, Stone, Crewe, Wolverhampton, Birmingham or even further afield.

I understand that was exactly the sort of concept that certain parties had in mind when they attempted to make an offer on The Tavern. I say attempted, because Enterprise Inns won’t be considering the offer. Why? Because they know that quite possibly someone other than themselves could turn the pub into a successful one. Possibly a really successful one. They don’t want that because they own other premises in the town. They want the custom going to their pubs rather than being swayed by a bettering offering. And so the sale is restricted. This building cannot be used as a pub once sold. The resstrictive covenant, which prevents a purchaser keeping a pub a pub, is being applied, in order to ensure that drinkers are forced to accept the more mediocre offerings which their other premises in the town, and those controlled by other equally protective organisations or owned by beer-ambivalent companies who are happy to just dumb-down the beer offering that they don’t understand. It’s almost like a cartel except that many of those complicit in it are completely oblivious and frankly don’t seem to care.

What is there to do? I have no idea. Change of use from a pub is a much easier matter than getting new premises licenced. As ever the pubcos seem to be able to call the shots and prevent market forces from ever having a chance. If they are so sure they are the custodians of the pubs that ought to survive, commercially if nothing else, then they ought to have the courage of their convictions and let others have a go at providing them a challenge. Instead they are allowed to exert a monopoly influence safe in the knowledge that reversal of the damage they do is prohibitively costly and sadly the law supports them.

Shame on you.

DISCLAIMER: I have no involvement in any attempt to purchase the Tavern, but do know someone who is.  I’m no more or less pissed off as a result as I would have a vested interest in drinking there if it was turned into the kind of venue that was described to me!!

* most notably since the always interesting, if not always successful, Stafford Arms next to the station was run down by one or other of the pubcos (I won't say which as I'm not 100% sure) and eventually became overflow parking for a Mercedes dealer.
March 26, 2014

A matter of taste?

When tasting beer I’ve made myself I find it difficult to have the same detachment that I do when tasting that made by other people.  And rather than being a case of rose-tinted glasses, of failing to find fault in your own work, if anything it’s the opposite.  There’s a streak of perfectionism in there, for sure, but it is more than that.  I can’t make up my mind if it is just being overly critical to compensate the risk of self-congratulation, or if it is just a product of being to close to the whole thing.  I know that when I make a beer I tend to have a perception beforehand of what it will be like, the target I’m aiming for.  Sometimes that target is missed, not always by a long way, but I end up with something that doesn’t match the expectation, and maybe that’s the problem.  Rather than considering a sample on its own merits or at least to a fairly broad expectation of a style, as you would any other beer, maybe the problem is comparing to a perception of precisely what it was meant to be.

It doesn’t help when my own views on which beers I’ve made have been good and which haven’t aren’t echoed by other people – there are beers I’ve been quite unhappy with that have gone down a storm, and others that have been just what I wanted them to be that have been less popular.  It all adds to the sense of doubt in my ability to critically consider my own beer – am I being unfair? Are others just being polite? Do I even know what I’m talking about??

I had a very early sample of my chilli stout yesterday.  This has been brewed, at least in part, for the Northern Craft Brewers competition in Saltaire.  It was the second attempt due to problems with the first batch – some modifications were made and this attempt went much better. OK, it has only been in the bottle for just over a week so it is still young.  It has a couple more weeks to properly condition before it gets to Saltaire, but already the carbonation was getting there so any concerns I had about that aspect can probably be put to one side. Aroma? Hmmm. Not convinced.  Something seems not right to me, or then again does it, I’m just not sure.  I pass it to Lisa.  “Why did you screw your face up?” is her first question.  It smells great apparently.  I’m still unconvinced.  A taste.  Again, not sure.  Slightly oxidised perhaps?  I hope not, Or am I trying to find faults where there are none? 

Certainly it’s drier than I expected.  Rather than a full-bodied, slightly sweet malty chocolate base it is slightly thinner, more subtly chocolate.  It might even be all the better for it.  But the chilli seems absent.  Another sip – larger this time.  The flavours are reinforced but then, too, suddenly there it is.  Not in your face, but a gentle warming at the back of the throat.  The verdict, again, from the other end of the sofa is all positive, but I’m still not convinced.  It isn’t entirely the way I’d envisaged it turning out, but much of that is “different” not “wrong” – and all part of the learning experience.  The chilli doesn’t dominate, just as I’d hoped, but there is a risk that it is lost altogether in early sips.  Might that cause it to give the wrong impression in a competition tasting?  Hopefully not, the flavour should come through in time to make an impression.  So, there’s just that issue of whether there is something wrong with the overall taste, or if it is just me being harsh.  I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks…

March 1, 2014

My, how we changed

I’ve been quite anticipating Boak and Bailey’s “long read” for March 1st, but as it has got closer I’ve drafted and deleted more posts than I think I’ve actually published in the two and a bit years that I’ve been doing this for now. The problem is it keeps turning into a rant – there’s always an underlying point to it but in the effort to keep writing that little bit more it just gets all flabby and unnecessary – a sort of middle aged spread if you will. Or the self-indulgent waffle we’re urged to avoid!  This will be my last effort, boosted by the extra words this explanatory paragraph has added, but if I can’t get to the end of it and be happy with what is written, well you won’t be any the wiser as you won’t be reading this!  By the time (and if) the end is reached it may or may not actually meet the “long” target, but if it doesn’t, well let’s just keep that as our little secret, eh? And it is probably still waffle, and undoubtedly self-indulgent, but you can’t win them all.

Sometimes you really have to stop what you’re doing, lift your head up and look around to realise how much has changed while you’ve been lost in the detail.

Without knowing it at the time, about two years ago I set off on a journey. I met up with some strangers I’d only previously been in contact with through the internet (how many horror stories in tabloids and the coffee table magazine market share that theme!?!) and we had a drink. We had a few more. If I’m honest we got a teeny tiny bit tipsy. And then finished it off by getting drunk. On that day we never discussed doing anything more permanent then maybe doing it all again sometime. But the next time was different. From somewhere we had formed an idea. I don’t know any more where (or who) it came from, or how it got shared, but initially sensible discussions fuelled by beer became bolder. A vision was born. Only an outline at first, blurred but recognisable. We created the Birmingham Beer Bash.*

The lack of variety in Birmingham’s beer scene was a key driver. We’d recognised, and some of us had written about, the lack of some key pubs and bars (in terms of style and offering, rather than a specific chain), certain beery developments, that we saw as being indicative of the problem we bounced around amongst ourselves. We recognised the odd recent improvement, for sure, and there were always the exciting rumours of more to come. But we didn’t want to wait for change to come, especially if we’d end up getting it in a form we would all individually be just that little bit disappointed by.  We chose to bring about a bit of change ourselves.

Since then, the change has been happening. It’s steady, to be sure. The Scottish punks moved in, and made their mark from the start; weeks later a tired old pub was revitalised so effectively that in less than a year it had its traditional cask ale brewery owners installing keg lines and relaxing the tie, while the pub powered straight into third place for the local CAMRA branch’s pub of the year. And then the summer came.

Before that, although Leeds were strictly speaking first in line, it was Manchester that made everyone sit up and say “Wow!” with a new kind of beer festival. Paying it a visit I admit there were mixed feelings – a stunning beer selection, in a stunning venue, but a clear indication of how high the bar had been set. Suddenly the lack of a venue wasn’t a problem for us – the lack of a superlative one was.

London got in on the act in the spring, but Liverpool upped the game completely. The bar was adjusted upwards once more. London actually had two goes before Liverpool, and the second of those was when the bubble burst. Overnight, in a torrent of tweets, fallibility was detected. Not only did it show that success was not guaranteed just by wanting to put on the best beers around, but it was the penultimate such event before our own. By the time we got to late July the negatives were still fresh in everyone’s memory, despite Liverpool restoring the faith to some extent. But we weren’t a brewery or a bar, an established business or simply backed by wealth, we were just a bunch of seemingly crazy amateurs.  We earned the faith of some, to be sure, but others clearly thought “hmmm” and watched and waited.

More than that though, we were committed, in every sense. Thousands had been spent, and thousands more were owed. There was no backing out – there had been one point where we could have walked away, lost a chunk of money and licked some wounds, but once that moment passed we were on a treadmill that wasn’t going to stop again. Lessons were learnt from what we had seen happen to others, and fortunately many of the perceived mistakes were already being dealt with differently. This could be done.  There was no room for complacency though.

The first day of set-up was greeted with pouring rain. The outdoor space in particular looked and felt grey and miserable and our incumbent saboteur** was gleeful about our impending failure. He’d bought the cheapest ticket he could to get a ringside seat at the disaster.  All we had to do was do what he’d failed to do so far, and bring about our own failure.

The day came. So did the (relatively minor) disasters.*** So did the sunshine. And so did the people. They liked what they saw, and they loved what they drank.

Our saboteur liked it too. Enough to come back that evening for the second session. It was such a shame**** we’d sold out by then. By the final session even a downpour didn’t dampen the enthusiasm. We built it and they came. Maybe we’d count the cost later, but we had succeeded in creating an event that was more than any of us had dreamed it could be.

Once it was over, there was time to look up again, at what was going on around us. Change was still happening, one step at a time. It continues to happen. Anticipated developments, perhaps inevitably, run late, but one by one they finally happen, or soon will do. The landscape has changed, not unrecognisably perhaps, but significantly. Were we a part of that? Undoubtedly. Would it have happened without us? Of course, but possibly without quite such a shot in the arm. Are we proud to be in the middle of it? Oh yes.

The clock winds on. A festival that at times we felt was treated with caution is back, but this time the name is not unknown, the prospects are not unsure. The flicker of recognition in a respected brewer’s eyes when you introduce yourself is a reward in itself. The friendships, acquaintenances and professional relationships that have developed form proof of the successes achieved, as does the rapid take-up of tickets months away from the actual event. The oft-mentioned friendliness of the industry is witnessed at first hand again and again. And yet, greater awareness attracts greater interest. It seems not everyone remembers to be friendly, or even polite. Unreasonable expectations and demands from strangers grate when you’re putting your all into something for no more reward than the love of the job. They’re thankfully few and far between, the utter amazingness of most you deal with more than making up for it. Except for those brief moments when your button is pushed, and you’d snap if it wasn’t for those who have your back, acting as your safety valve. The lows are inevitable, and surprising regular, but manageable. The highs, well they just keep cropping up by surprise when you least expect it.

It’s a little ironic, given that blogging and tweeting is what got me into this to start with, that the effort of bringing about a repeat event has seen both of those activities diminish. The opportunities to write, and even to keep up to date in order to have something to write about, are lost to the myriad of other tasks that need to be fitted into the sparse time available. Not to mention the difficulty of not always being able to write about the one thing that is taking up all your attention. It was during a snatched few moments on the train that I wrote the past few paragraphs, when my ears tuned in late to the exceptionally loud Liverpool accent directed down a phone elsewhere in the carriage. I’d been blocking it out, focusing on my own small bubble for a moment, when my ears pricked up at snippets of conversation. I detected “Beer Bash”… “Birmingham”… “yeah, could stay with mates, get a hotel even”. A chance in thousands at least, but one of those amazing little highs that make the lows seem so small. And something more. Something meaningful. A little sign of how things have changed. How people are talking about coming to Birmingham for beer, because it has become more of a beer destination. Because we’ve become a destination event. Because things have changed.

And things are changing still.

*We didn’t know this at the time. If I recall correctly we started without a name, then came up with one that was thankfully shortlived. But whatever we called it then, it became the Birmingham Beer Bash.
**No, really. His amusement at our apparent poor luck with the weather was one of the lesser crimes.
***Quite a few actually. Not that anyone really noticed. Whatever was happening behind the scenes wasn’t allowed to filter through to the “front of house”. I’d be surprised if many people were aware of any of it.
****Of course it wasn’t. Surely you didn’t believe that!
February 23, 2014

Brewday – spicing up a stout

It’s brewday today.  Not as frequent an occurrence as I’d like at the moment.  But I’m on a mission, so the time had to be found.  Actually I’m not even brewing what I had originally got in mind for today.  I should be making an IPA with all English hops for the May meeting of the Midlands Craft Brewers, a motley collection of amateur brewers with which I associate.  But when I last brewed a few weeks ago, well let’s just say it all went a bit pear-shaped.  The end result being that I haven’t ended up with the beer I wanted – quite literally in that the fermentation stopped about half-way through and nothing I tried could get it to do more.  But also in that tasting that half-finished beer, I realised that I hadn’t really achieved the flavours I set out to.  So today I’m having another go.

There’s a slight sense of urgency, because this beer is for entering into a competition – the Northern Craft Brewers annual competition held at Saltaire Brewery.  This is probably the last chance I’ll have to make something in time to enter.  The theme this year is to brew something with an “extra ingredient” – something aside from the usual malt and hops.  I’m going for a stout, flavoured with chocolate and chilli.  There’s also some orange peel in there for added effect.  Last time I tried it there wasn’t enough of any of those flavours, and too much bitterness up front – so this time I’m looking at upping the game a little.  I’m aiming for more of a milk stout base, with lactose adding some sweetness, compared to my previous effort, and as well as adding cocoa nibs and orange peel late in the boil I’ll be looking to add extra once primary fermentation is done along with the chilli which will be in the form of extract to give me an element of control over the strength.

So, the mash is on, the pH is checked (higher than the target but within the acceptable range) and there’s a myriad of jobs waiting for me.  Best get cracking.

February 12, 2014

Change? I’d rather you didn’t…

A warning: I shall repeatedly use the phrase “craft keg” to refer to a cross-section of beers currently available that do not fit in with CAMRA’s definition of Real Ale. I can’t think of a better term that would mean anything to enough people so that’s what I’ll have to use, even though I dislike the term. If you can’t deal with that, don’t read on!

Yesterday I picked up on a blog post by Tandleman here that itself referred to a letter in CAMRA’s What’s Brewing by Tim Webb. Apparently Mr Webb wants CAMRA to change and embrace the brave new world of “craft keg” and other great improvements in the world of beer. In his blog post Tandleman is, perhaps not surprisingly, somewhat more reserved about the level of change CAMRA should make, but agrees there should be some change.

What surprised me more, as a CAMRA member myself who has long said that the organisation needs to change it’s attitudes to avoid being left behind, and as part of the team behind one of the different sorts of beer festival that have grown up in the last couple of years on the back of the “craft” boom, is that I thought, “No!”.

I thought it quite vehemently actually. But I think I have sound reasons. I don’t suggest CAMRA doesn’t need to change in some ways, to become a little more tolerant and accepting of other’s (including a portion of its own membership) foibles. To modernise its language and eliminate misinformation. But to embrace and extend beyond its Real Ale focus? No.

The thing is, we now have a newly vibrant and I believe still growing beer scene where Cask Ale and Craft Keg can co-exist quite happily if proponents of one don’t take that to be the same as opposing the other – in fact you can be “for” both as many, if not most, drinkers are . A number of events have sprung up catering for the new market who want a mixture of great beers in both cask and keg – I should know, I’m involved in one of them. But what happens if CAMRA changes completely to embrace this? What if every beer festival they run starts to look like an IndyMan, a Craft Beer Rising, or a Beer Bash? Gradually, those events that set out to be something different all round start to lose some of their unique qualities. They start to look less different to every other event and eventually you might reach the point where they are simply an independent event of no real difference to the CAMRA one down the road. And when these events are seen as no different to any other, those with modest resources as opposed to backed by a large organisation, will be the ones to disappear. The (re-)homogenisation of beer festivals, just like the homogenisation of beer that was part of the reason CAMRA came to be in the first place. *

So yes CAMRA, acknowledge there are other good beers, be welcoming of the fact, don’t oppose them, but continue to fight for Real Ale, for pubs, for what you stand for. Strive for improvement. Leave room for others to do their thing and coexist happily, collaborate and be friends. But don’t feel you have to change because all good beer has to have a CAMRA-approved badge. Just to do the above well is change enough, and UK beer will be all the better for it.

* maybe that’s extreme. Maybe it would never go that far. But can you be sure it wouldn’t?

January 22, 2014

Not so scary really…

Not scary. True enough. Nerve-wracking though, I’ll stand by that. I look forward, cautiously, to impressions over the coming days and weeks. It’s hard to be a truly fair critic of something you’re at least partly responsible for.

Do I like it? Yes. Would I change it? Yes again (but only really tweaks).  Happy? Well, no, but I can count on the finger of one thumb how many beers I’ve been truly happy with. Like I say, hard to be a fair critic of your own output.

On the other hand, Manchester Beer Fest was a cracking event, despite all the stairs and the trek to the toilets. Intriguing venue.  I wish them luck over the next few days.

January 22, 2014

When did beer festivals get scary?

Beer festivals have never, as a rule, been something that get me nervous. I’ve a strong enough disposition to cope with beards, sandals, entrenched views, and all the other stereotypes that seem to be attached. Ok, Morris Dancers put me a little on edge, but that’s understandable, surely? Last summer’s Birmingham Beer Bash was an exception but having a lot more at stake with that one it was always going to be nerve-wracking. Otherwise, generally, no beer festival would face me.

Today is slightly different. Later today I head up to the Manchester Beer Festival, with more than a little trepidation. I think that is a first for me, so what’s different today.  Well, unless this is the first time you’ve read my blog you probably know I brewed my second collaboration beer at the end of last year, with Offbeat in Crewe. Unlike my first collaboration this one was previously untested. Before we even brewed it Manchester Beer Festival had ordered it. And so that beer is on the bar today. It’ll be the first time I’ve tried it. I have no doubt it’ll be fine – I’m sure it would never have been allowed to leave the brewery if it wasn’t up to scratch – but still, has it worked? Is it what was envisaged? Do people like it? Do I like it?

We’ll know later…

January 2, 2014

Looking backwards, looking forward.

I’ve just been scanning back through my blog posts over the last year, eventually ending up back at the start of January when I reviewed the previous year and set myself some aims for 2013. So, if I had good intentions then what became of them?

Well, I failed on the first count – to write more regularly. Arguably I wrote more frequently, but that was heavily weighted towards a flurry of writing around Birmingham Beer Bash in July. Verdict: must try harder in 2014.

Second up was the plan to read more of what other people out there are writing. Oh dear, definitely not achieved that – just haven’t had the time. Verdict: a downward trend that needs reversing.

Finishing off those little jobs that need doing around the brewery at home? Well, some progress here but it feels like two small steps forward and one big step back each time, so the results haven’t really borne fruit yet.  Verdict: maintain progress and hopefully 2014 will see the improvements start to show.

The final two aims I’ll wrap up as one item – to get some hands-on experience in a commercial brewery, and to get a recipe brewed commercially. Well, I think I can put a big tick against that one. Despite a false start earlier in the year, I’ve ended up with two collaboration brews with real breweries under my belt – firstly with Blackjack and more recently with Offbeat (due out this month, including an appearance at the Manchester Beer Festival). There’s even something already in the pipeline for 2014 with yet another brewery. Verdict: a success to continue building on.

So, not all good, but not all bad either. And against the backdrop of Birmingham Beer Bash, which took up an unbelievable amount of time, I’m reasonably happy overall. The plan for the next year is to try and improve on those things I didn’t really achieve in 2013, and build on the brewing success. Add to that another (hopefully) successful Bash, and throw in some other ideas that aren’t ready for sharing yet, and I reckon there’s a fait challenge for the year ahead.  Lots to do, and we’ll see where we are in another 12 months!

Happy new year…

December 25, 2013

Golden Pints

I’ve not attempted a Golden Pints list before, and within seconds of starting this I’ve realised how difficult it actually is. This has surely been my beeriest year to date and yet I feel in some ways even less able to pick out the highlights. Maybe that’s a good thing – I’ve been simply too immersed in good beer to be able to single out individual experiences as head and shoulders above the rest.

Still, I can try…

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Best UK Cask Beer
Tough one this. There’s been a lot. Not all good of course. But lots and lots of good, and a fair amount of very good. Having recorded most of these on Untappd I thought it would be easy to quickly pull up a list of those I’ve rated highest. But it simply isn’t that easy (hence I won’t be completing the best app category this year!).  Although there’s been loads of brilliant cask ales amongst the mediocre (and a fair few worse than mediocre, to be fair), I’m not sure that any one stands out above all others. If you were to hold me at gunpoint I’d probably say a good pint of Thornbridge Jaipur on cask is still pretty unbeatable – I have certainly had some good pints of it in the past 12 months, and it always a beer I’m happy to return to. There might have been a contender in Magic Rock High Wire, a previous favourite, but as I haven’t come across it on cask this year it doesn’t count. So, I’ll give Jaipur an honourable mention but I don’t think I can declare a winner for sure.

Best UK Keg Beer
There are again quite a few to choose from. Everything I’ve had on keg from Wild Beer for example – Modus Operandi, Ninkasi, and Schnoodlepip all spring to mind. Beers from Weird Beard and Siren have stood out too. Harbour’s Pale Ales, and those of the Kernel, are also up there. What would I put above all else? I’m going to have to go for Wild Beer, who’s name immediately puts a smile on my face when I see it on a bar, and I’d have to plump for their flagship Modus Operandi.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I’d have to say it’s one of two here for me. Wild Beer Ninkasi or Kernel 1890 Export Stout. Both are beers I keep returning to, which to me illustrates the point.  I might have to call this one a draw.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Only really one contender for me. De Molen Rasputin which I had on keg at the Birmingham Beer Bash. Decadent and glorious. Loads of others that came close, the most memorable runner-up being Black Malts and Body Salts by To Ol – possibly at least in part because at IndyMan this marked a downward spiral towards higher strength beers and consequently is the last beer I can reliably recall from that day…

Best Collaboration Brew
A number of categories here have me divided – I can come up with a best in terms of the quality of the beer itself or best in terms of the experience I had with it. This is one of those categories. I’ve drunk a number of different collaborations this year but one was an experience like none other – my own collaboration with Blackjack Beers, an American Pale Ale called Phoneticus. As my first commercial effort it was an unrivalled experience. But honestly, the best collaboration beer I’ve had this year? It’s up there, but there are many others. Juggler by Magic Rock / To Ol, or the latter’s Buxton collaboration Carnage are both beers I enjoyed greatly. Wild Beer’s Schnoodlepip (which quickly became an adjective for brilliance at the Birmingham Beer Bash), and another from Magic Rock – Salty Kiss, these stood out. There were yet others, but favourite of all for me was the Weird Beard / Northern Monk Bad Habit.

Best Overall Beer
Really? No, sorry, just can’t do it. I think there’s too much a case of “the right beer at the right time” to say that in a fair fight any one would win.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
As I started writing this at the beginning of December a late entry in this category popped up when I saw a picture of the new range of bottles from Liverpool Craft. They’ve taken the fairly simple theme of their existing branding and developed it further to apply to a great set of bottle labels. At the same time I continue to love the raw simplicity of the Kernel brand, and Wild Beer’s printed bottles have a feel of quality oozing from then (although as a recycler of such bottles for my own beers at home I find it a pain not having a label you can just remove!). Another honourable mention goes to Magic Rock whose branding continues to catch the eye – there’s no doubt whose bottles they are on the shelf without having to go anywhere near to read the labels. And that’s the thing – your pumpclips and labels have to draw the customer to the beer, and all those mentioned above do that incredibly well. My winner? I think I’ll give it to Liverpool Craft.

Best UK Brewery
For consistency, quality, variety, innovation, and for simply being a jolly fine bunch of people too, it’s a clear winner for me. Not a brewery I’ve named as a clear winner in any specific beer category (although there was a late honourable mention for the cask beer), but probably the one where I’d be most happy to walk into a pub and see no-one else’s beers along a very long bar. Thornbridge it is.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
As I’ve pondered over the past few weeks two names keep popping back into my mind. Siren, and Weird Beard. Another draw. Honourable mention for Northern Monk too. Though I begin to doubt myself and wonder if they are all 2013 startups…

Pub/Bar of the Year
For me, one place stands out clearly as the pub of my year.  Back at the start of 2013 a rather run-down, tired and uninspiring pub just the wrong side of Birmingham’s inner ring road got a new lease of life. More than just a lick of paint, the sensitive refurbishment returned a bit of glory to what is an attractive building, and the arrival of Chris and Sharon Sherratt made more than a modest difference behind the bar. Over the course of a year the Craven Arms has become a proper local for me, despite me living 30 miles away and not even working in the next-door Mailbox any more. It’s about a sense of belonging, being able to walk in after however long it’s been and feel you’ve come back to “your” local. And a cracking selection of beers guaranteed. I don’t think I’ve ever found a pub I’ve become so familiar with before, and so this is my clear winner.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
As long as reopening under new ownership and new management counts, then my answer has to be as above.

Beer Festival of the Year
Another category where the element of experience interferes with the more subjective view. There can’t be many who read this who don’t know of my involvement as part of the team behind Birmingham Beer Bash. Naturally for me that was the festival of the year. It has to be. Not because of the sheer self-promotion of that, but because it was a truly incredible experience to bring that event to life, to build a festival that was how we wanted it to be. And, to be fair, moat people thought it was a pretty good effort. Was it better than the other festivals? No. Were any of them better than the Bash? No, actually. The real winner here for me is the whole range of modern, progressive beer festivals, in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London, that can’t quite be compared like-for-like because they are all different. United through their independence, and their sometimes radical approach. Here’s to those new wave beer festivals!

Supermarket of the Year
I have a rather grudging relationship with supermarkets. I’d rather buy from local independents but realistically that isn’t possible for everything and so there is a dependency on the supermarkets for some things. Beer isn’t one of those, and I generally find supermarket beer selections rather depressing. If I was selecting this category based on best selection for me I’d go with Waitrose because a) they have more beers that interest me than the other stores, and b) because they are slightly too far away to be a regular shopping trip and infrequent visits mean the selection always feels a bit fresher. However, I’m not going to award this category on the basis of which supermarket serves me best, but the one I feel has done most for promoting beer in general – that goes to Sainsbury’s, thanks to their Great British Beer Hunt which is probably the most positive promotion of beer from any supermarket.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Having no truly local independent in my corner of the land (for now, anyway) Stirchley Wines is my usual go-to retailer as they are most easily accessible for me and have a range that more than satisfies my needs. They face a stiff challenge from neighbours Cotteridge who I get to much less often but who always manage to provide some different options when I do – between these two retailers the south part of Birmingham has seen fantastic development in the quality of beer choice available and have done great things to help move forward the local beer scene. However, I can also head north for bottled inspiration now, and visits to Beer Dock in Crewe have started to feature in my occasional visits to that town. They’ve made the bottled beer shop slightly sexier, and added value with the ability to drink in (from bottles, keg or cask) and adding meet the brewer events to the repertoire. Quite a debut for them, so they get my vote this year.

Best Beer Blog or Website
I enjoy reading so many blogs but rarely get enough time to do most justice. Winner for me in this category is the one I can’t stop myself constantly dipping into. Ron Pattinson’s Shut Up About Barclay Perkins is an absolute treasure trove that keeps on drawing me in again and again.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
I enjoy the tweets of many, and it feels unfair to single one out. I can get round that, if stretched, by sort of picking two – Boak and Bailey have probably given me the most beer-related Twitter interest this year and so I’d plump for them as my winner.  Special mentions also to Phil Hardy, who used his beer tweet powers for good rather than evil when he arranged the reportedly excellent Macclesfield Twissup, and to Nate Dawg for his unrivalled services to swearing.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
This year has seen the pairing of beer and food become a much more dominant theme. I’m not going to try and pick out a single match that stands above the rest. For me the winner is simply beer, paired with food.

Inevitably the list above overlooks plenty of great breweries, people, and events, but like anyone else there’s only so much one person can experience in a mere 12 months. There are beers I’ve not had chance to try this year that might have changed the list dramatically, and there are people I’ve met or even worked with who are probably just as deserving of a mention as anyone else, but I couldn’t quite find the right reasoning while compiling these Golden Pints. To all in the wonderful beer community, thanks for being part of 2013, and I look forward to what the next year brings.

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