Posts tagged ‘pub’

January 9, 2013

Another one bites the dust

Given the rate at which pubs up and down the country continue to close, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see the final demise of The Railway Tavern in Penkridge in the past few weeks, or to hear the news that apparently it is to be converted to become a dentist’s surgery. After all there are still 7 more pubs in what is a moderately-sized village.

I can’t lay claim to it as a regular, or even irregular drinking spot, although I have used it in the past on occasions. In recent years it has gone steadily downhill, and some short-lived tenancies in recent years have each added to the woe with issues of environmental health and licence revocations due to breaches. Beer selection was not to my tastes, and nor as I recall was it in great condition on the more recent occasions I visited. But it st some history, apparently gaining its name from the railway navvies of some 175 years ago who were not welcomed at other pubs in the area, and as a local village pub some amount of charm, despite its run-down appearance. Sad then, but clearly not viable. Or was it?

It’s been niggling me for a while now, particularly since finding out about its supposed fate. It’s recent history has certainly been one of decline, but has this been a natural process? Or a planned outcome to enable the sale of the building for other uses. Why would anyone even want to do that?

Let’s look a bit deeper. A quick check of the local licensing database confirmed my understanding that the Railway was owned by Punch. And wait, because a few hundreds yards down the road there are two more pubs also owned by Punch. So I could envisage a desire to offload one of those three, and I can see the business sense in it, especially for a company as debt-laden as Punch. Now the value is really in the building, and if it is sold to another pub operator (whether a group or individual) there is a chance they will make a success of it, increasing competition on the two other pubs still retained in an area where there are a further three pubs within a very short distance. So if you were thinking purely about your own profit, I guess you’d want to make sure no-one else wants to take it on as a pub, just in case. A few problems with licensing wouldn’t hurt that plan, along with a lack of investment and unsuitable tenants with little or no support. I’m being very cynical here, and I’m not saying this did happen, but it seems plausible.

Now, as has already been noted, Penkridge is still well-populated with pubs, although there’s little to get hugely excited about (the recent introduction of some interesting bottled beers at one of them being an exception to that). So the loss of one is perhaps inevitable. But what does that mean to the consumer? It certainly hasn’t provided an opportunity for someone to open up the local beer market to a bit more variety. Maybe it has maintained the viability of the remaining pubs, which isn’t bad in itself, but does it instead limit competition?

So a cynical viewpoint perhaps, and we’ll never truly know. in this case the impact is relatively low, but if this is the behaviour in other locations it could have a much more significant impact in communities with less choice to start with.

What do you think? Is this an unfortunate effect of market forces or a active mismanagement to force a fire sale and remove another pub from the market altogether? Another failure of the lax planning situation that allows this to happen so easily, or a welcome reprieve for other pubs in the area that will presumably pick up a little extra trade?

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January 3, 2013

So long, 2012

Well here we are, at the start of a new year, and for me that also (roughly) marks the start of my second year of this blog. A perfect opportunity perhaps, to take a look back on the past year, and forward to the next.

I actually started this blog on Dec 23rd 2011 with a little pre-Christmas warm up, but blogging proper began in January first with a look at local pubs, and then I asked the question that led to my most popular post (based on number of views, anyway) of the whole year – where is the Birmingham Tap? So, almost a year later, do we have the answer? Well, things have certainly started to change. December saw the long-awaited opening of the new Brewdog bar in Birmingham, which was quite ironic timing for me – two weeks before it opened a change of job caused me to be London-based almost every day and travelling a route that avoids Birmingham, rather then being in London for just part of the week and travelling through New St to get home even on those days. Of course, one of the inspirations for that post was what is perhaps my truest “local” – the Euston Tap, so there’s still a silver lining…

But is Brewdog Birmingham the answer? Well, no, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful by that. Brewdog bars are great, and when I have the chance I’ll be a regular visitor, but they still lack for me the full breadth that places like Euston and Sheffield Taps or the Craft chain provide. So Brewdog is a start, but only that. Fortunately there is more to come! Further new bars are expected to open in the area later this year that should be the perfect compliment to the Brewdog offering and finally bring the breadth of choice that Birmingham hopefully deserves. It has even been hinted at that the operators of the Euston and Sheffield (and other) Taps have been looking for premises. Whether or not there is a “Birmingham Tap”, there should soon be a great range of beer on offer that finally puts Birmingham on a par with other cities.

As I’ve gone through this first year of writing, I’ve perhaps inevitably been trying my hand, and searching our both a style and a purpose in what I write about. Subject matter has included observations on drinking and the bar scene in Birmingham especially, my own brewing endeavours, beer festivals, and various other subjects as they came up. Naturally I hoped that I could look back at the popularity of various posts and determine what worked best for me in order to focus in the future. Well, that didn’t work. My second most popular post was of a completely different subject to the Birmingham Tap – the Saison brewday that recently took place – while in third place was a review of the inaugural Twissup in Birmingham. Three completely different posts on completely different subjects. I guess I’ll have to find other ways of deciding what to focus on in my blogging for the coming year, or just keep up the random approach I’ve had so far…

Going back to that Twissup post, this was a big event in the past year. It brought together a number of bloggers and tweeters in the region, and as a result I’ve got a number of new friends, more than just acquaintances. Saison a’Trois wouldn’t have happened without that initial meeting, and hopefully 2013 will see further developments that can be traced back to that first meeting. Since then, over the Christmas break, the second Birmingham Twissup attracted an even bigger crowd and I’m sure the next one won’t be far away. Twissup wasn’t the only event I attended in the year, and the European Beer Bloggers Convention was another great opportunity to meet more fellow bloggers, drink some great beers, and learn a bit more about this blogging lark.

The autumn saw one of the real highlights of the year drinking-wise with IndyManBeerCon somewhat redefining the beer festival. Is it too soon to be eagerly anticipating this year’s event which will no doubt be bigger and better? Something to aspire to in the Midlands perhaps? We’ll have to see what can be done…

On the home front, brewing progress has finally picked up following a slightly difficult time as new and larger equipment was put together (a task that is far from complete although now advanced enough to be reaping benefits). An exciting possibility of a commercial opportunity arose part way through the year, although all is quiet on that at the moment. It is still potentially on the cards though, and in the meantime I’m focusing on getting the beers I make right, and keeping an eye out for the right opportunities if they should come up.

So that’s the highlights for me. But what of the year to come? Well I have a few plans and ideas. Firstly on the blogging side of things I know I have to get writing more regularly. It has been tricky this year – work often eats up all the available time and the new job gives no respite from that. Although I’ve averaged about two posts every three weeks there have been some big gaps, and even if I don’t write a greater number of posts I’d like to keep more of a steady momentum. I’ve got to keep up with reading other people’s blogs too – there’s been so much good stuff lately and I know I’m missing more than I’m getting to see.

This year the brewing is going to step up a gear too. I think I’m starting to hit my stride now – I just need to get all those irritating little jobs around the place done to make each brewday go that much easier, and now I’ve made the dual steps to fully temperature-controlled fermentation and liquid yeasts I’ll be expanded the beer repertoire accordingly. I’d like to take the opportunity, if opportunities can be found, to get some hands on experience of a commercial brewday (all offers gratefully considered!), but the real challenge I’ve set myself is to get a recipe made commercially, somehow (again all offers considered!) – both of those should give some fantastic experience as well as valuable blogging material!

It’ll be tough to deliver on the challenges I’ve set myself, but it should be fun trying. Hopefully at least some of you will drop by to keep an eye on progress, and thanks for reading during this past year. Here’s to a fabulous 2013!

August 21, 2012

Finding pub perfection?

It was a beautiful warm and sunny evening last Friday when a friend and I popped into the cool dark interior of a London pub that was a much awaited first for me.  The beer options were immense and the first pint was hugely refreshing after the rather warm wander from the station.  It wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t so busy there was a problem finding a seat and no huge queue at the bar.  An old-fashioned grand street corner pub, it was pretty much perfect.  At least, it was, right at that moment, and that got me thinking.  FOrtunately for my drinking companion, I did my thinking out loud so he could join in rather than be completely ignored!

The perfect pub, like that immortalised in Orwell’s Moon Under Water, oft sought and rarely, if ever, found.  Was this it?  Was it at least *my* Moon?  Fleetingly, yes.  But then I realised that at least for me, the problem with finding the perfect one is that it is only perfect at a given moment in time.  That moment might be repeatable, might be due to various other conditions coming together such as weather, company, beers available and chosen, the size of the crowd filling the place, all sorts of reasons.  Or it might be more specific, that particular pub just at that exact moment in time, in those precise circumstances.  Either way, I realised that the reason that perfect pub is so elusive is that the target keeps moving.  What makes it perfect at a given time just isn’t the right think at another.

As I write this on the train I’ve not long departed what was, briefly, another perfect pub – a fairly regular and familiar haunt, practically on the station where I found myself with just enough time before my train, not too busy inside to get served quickly, and with a beer list of which the only fault was its role in creating indecision thanks to the excess of quality choices.  The right place at the right time.  There’ll be other times when it doesn’t quite cut it for me, and I couldn’t have substituted many other pubs for it at that time either, but while I waited for that train it was unbeatable.

It could have been quite disappointing to come to the concusion that there isn’t going to be a single one perfect pub for me, but on the other hand, I now know that there are lots of them, I just need to be there at the right time.  That’ll be worth a drink when I get to my next perfect pub…

July 25, 2012

The Italian Job

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks for me, in terms of both tweeting and blogging.  Simply a case of there not being enough hours in the day and too many things going on at the same time – I’ll go into that in more detail in another post soon.  However, a major reason is because I was lucky enough to go to Rome two weeks ago for a conference.

Now before you start getting too jealous, this was for work (i.e. non-beer-related work) purposes with little opportunity for free time outside the conference agenda (no, honestly, that’s true!).  Even when you did have some free time Rome itself was actually some 15 miles away from the overpriced hotel in which we were holed up.  However, the opportunity did arise for a few hours in the city itself, and as would be expected I made the most of this time to sample a taste of the growing craft beer scene in Italy.

I’d seen favourable reports on Rome’s beer opportunities, with Mark Dredge’s Pencil & Spoon blog being particularly useful preparation.  A few minutes with Google Maps before I left and I established just how close three highly recommended venues were, so once I got into the city and left some colleagues cooing at the tourist sights (which I’d seen on a previous visit) I headed off to find Open Baladin.

The limitations in detail on the free map from the hotel became obvious as soon as I got within a couple of streets of where I knew I wanted to be.  It took a few circuits of the narrow back streets though until I found the one that I was looking for – on the map, for future reference, it is the unmarked road between the two other unmarked roads…

Nearly empty when I walked in, it was cool and refreshing compared to the fairly sweltering heat outside.  A vast array of bottles behind the bar, and taps upon it, greeted me and it took a few minutes to take it all in.  Sitting down with a menu I felt it only right to plump for the house brewry, and settled on Baladin’s Nora – a 6.8% Saison.  It was a good start.  Refreshing, just slightly tart, a fine example of a style I am beginning to really get into.  Of course it didn’t last long, and so back to the menu for another look.  Having already decided I’d try as many different Italian breweries as I could I moved onto an IPA, with LA9 (6.5%) from L’Olmain – nothing wrong with it but nothing special I’ve since concluded (as on checking my notes it didn’t drive me to write anythning further at the time!).  Time for a third beer, to be my final one here, and it was back to a Saison style.  My eye was well and truly caught by the description which my rudimentary mastery of the Italian language seemed to tell me was a Black Saison, and when it arrived indeed it was!  A collaboration between Extraomnes and Toccalmatto, Tainted Love (4.7%) tasted all Saison, but was definitely approaching black in colour with a malty aroma.  Possibly not quite as tasty as the Nora, but another delicious beer all the same.

With some reluctance I dragged myself out, and headed on just across the river to Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa (aka the Football Bar).  I was glad I decided to tear myself away from the beer selection at Open Baladin, because there were some crackers here too.  A much smaller, cosier bar panelled in wood as opposed to the open, slightly industrial feel at the previous venue, I felt quite at home here.  Tipopils (Birrificio Italiano, 5.2%) was on the bar giving me a chance to try this beer which I’ve seen raved about.  It was nice, and better than many pilsners I’ve tasted, but didn’t exactly set things alight for me.  So that gone, I moved along to yet another Italian brewer, Brewfist, and their Spaceman IPA (7%).  This was a marked improvement, and is a beer I’ll keep an eye out for in the future.  It was overshadowed though by what followed – D’uvabeer (brewed by Loverbeer at 8%) was a sour ale and I loved it.  A dirty, cloudy, raspberry red in appearance, and a gorgeous tangy taste, I think I’d have stayed for a second if time wasn’t running out, my appetite building up, and the bustle of Bir e Fud calling me from across the street.

So, I picked my way through what was becoming an increasingly busy Friday evening street scene and found a space inside the bar where I could see the beer selection and order some food.  Back to a Saison with Duchessa by Borgo (6%) and followed by Rehop IPA from Toccalmatto (5%).  This was definitely the top IPA from my selections of the evening – it cut through the strong flavours of tomato and basil from my plate and asserted itself forcefully but deservedly onto my tastebuds.  Really good stuff.  Too quickly though it was time for one last throw of the dice, and I plumped for a nice light(!) Imperial Stout to finish off on.  Verdi (Ducato, 8.2%) was a fine bold beer and a pleasant way to finish off a tour of 9 Italian beers from 9 different brewers.

So, conclusions?  Well I’d now love to go back and spend some more time discovering the craft beers of Italy not least through the bars of Rome, and would advise anyone visiting there to call into one or more, and make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to appreciate it!  The two highlights were Rehop and D’uvabeer, though in fact I’d quite happily drink any of the beers I tried again, and again, and again.  Clearly Italy knows a thing or two about making good beer, and in Rome at least there are some great places to sample them.

As a footnote, I had to double-take as I wandered back past an off-licence window, when I saw various bottles of Hardknott and other UK beers lined up on the shelves…

July 6, 2012

The Session 65 – So lonely…

There are two ways to drink alone: by yourself, and with other people. I enjoy both but prefer the latter. The initial setup for this month’s Session, by NateDawg27, suggested that I’m not the only one, and this was backed up by some of the early comments on that post.

Maybe you’re wondering what I mean. Well, I often choose to sit in a pub by myself, enjoying a pint and maybe reading a book or newspaper. But although I’m on my own, I’m also not. There’s always something going on around you, a cross-section of human life passing through and bringing the place to life. I can rarely avoid a bit of people-watching while I’m there – if you haven’t tried it maybe you should. It can be fascinating. Other times you may end up chatting with staff or even other customers – there on your own, but not really alone.

Or you can shut off completely, lose yourself in your drink and anything else you’ve got to focus on, and then you’re much more by yourself. There are times when this suits me too, but I usually end up drifting back to observing what’s going on around me pretty soon. I generally prefer drinking alone with other people.

There is definitely a bit of a stigma with being out in the pub by yourself, and i think this is because it goes against the stereotypical drink with mates – that’s seen as the “normal” or even “correct” way to go for a drink by many and so those who are happy to break from that are seen as strange or sad.

But that leads me to my main point. The title for this Session was “so lonely”. I’ve not talked about being lonely, just about being on your own, which really isn’t the same thing. Just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you are lonely. And, conversely, just because you are with other people doesn’t mean you aren’t lonely.

Sometimes that drink with a group can be one of the loneliest drinking experiences. If you’re on the fringe of the group, maybe you don’t know everyone or don’t have the relationship that you can see others have, it can be very easy to feel excluded, or feel that you’re missing out on the rapport and relationship others have. It doesn’t even need to be a large group – three is quite sufficient on the basis that conversations tend to work between pairs and there’s always one person slightly left out.

So we should be careful not to confuse drinking alone with loneliness. Don’t assume that person over there drinking by themself is lonely. If they are taking up the only available table why not ask if you can share it – they’re not necessarily waiting for someone like you to turn up so they can latch onto a new best friend in order to fix their loneliness. They’re probably just enjoying their drink, their own company, the buzz around them – and will generally be quite happy to share the pub with you.

I shall carry on enjoying drinking by myself from time to time. I’d prefer not to be lonely though. And certainly not drinking because I’m lonely!

June 12, 2012

Penkridge Jubilee Beer Festival – a review

It’s a week now since the beer festival here in Penkridge officially came to an end, although some of the festival beers were still kicking around later in the week – i should point out that not all had been brought on at the start of the festival so this wasn’t a case of beer hanging around too long, just the ones that didn’t make it onto the taps earlier getting their chance. So, this was something of a first for the village. Was it a success? Will it be repeated?

Three pubs all got involved and all had a different approach. One brought more handpulls into use than they normally would, and had about six ales and ciders on at a time. With a quiet word to the right people the beers waiting in the wings were coming up direct from the cellar too, in absolutely stunning form. The place was quite rightly heaving and it is all a good sign for the future here when proposed brewing activities start on site. Smiles all round from the landlord and a buzzing atmosphere reinforced how well the weekend’s events were going.

The next venue was not known for being a beer destination, much more as a (good) restaurant, but this was a preconception they wanted to change. To demonstrate how much more they can do they set up an outside bar alongside the BBQ with six ales, and although the weather didn’t really help, early on the third day the first of these had already run out. Had the weather improved this would have been a runaway success, and despite that I think they achieved what they set out to do and proved they can cater very well indeed for the ale lover as well as their restaurant side. I look forward to seeing more from them in the future.

Finally the third venue was, sadly, a bit more disappointing – logistical issues meant that their input wasn’t ever going to be as strong as originally intended, and with just three handpulls available it was a case of cycling the festival beers through as quickly as possible. Subject to them being consumed of course. Unfortunately the beers on the Friday night had been on all week and weren’t at their best, and two days later were still on – a catch 22 situation because there was little temptation to drink them with so much other good beer available elsewhere.  As a result most of the other very tempting beers on the list didn’t even make it on over the course of the event. However the Oakham Citra which came on on Monday was replaced again by Friday which shows that a good beer in good condition will sell, and so it is just a shame that the first impression of the festival here was marred by the beers available for the first few days.

So, was it a success? Yes, definitely, overall and for at least two of the pubs involved it seems to have been a great weekend. I’ve yet to get full feedback from the landlords but conversations over the weekend suggest they’re were more than happy.

Will it happen again? That remains to be seen. Even if the combined event doesn’t take off I’m certain there will be more beer-focussed events at pubs in the village on the back of this. But it would be great to repeat this in even bigger and better style next year, and with the parish council also considering an annual event to build on this year’s jubilee weekend there may be a place for a Penkridge Festival in future.

In the meantime the Penkridge Round Table are planning a beer festival for later in the year and so an exciting range of beer will return to the village in just a few months’ time. Knowing the RT guys they will be putting a lot of effort in and aiming to raise plenty of money for some very good causes, so best of luck to them and please support if you can.

Maybe Penkridge will now be starting to earn its place on the beer map…

May 9, 2012

Throwing in my tuppenceworth, and getting change back…

I went to the pub last Saturday – a little trip out for the afternoon to Derby, where I met with a group of about 20 other like-minded people.  The common link between us all?  Home brewing.  The point I’m making?  Well I’ll come back to that later…

The most recent issue of the CAMRA members’ magazine, Beer, contained the latest in a series of debates – two contributors argue for and against a given statement on a beer-related subject.  This time round the topic under discussion was home brewing, and in particular whether an increase in home brewing results in greater presssure on pub profitability.

Even before I’d gone to Derby, I’d very defintely taken one side of the argument, and could see via discussions taking place on Twitter that I wasn’t the only one to come down very firmly in the camp that thinks that more home brewing is a good thing for pubs, not a bad thing.  However I can see how the easy, obvious answer ought to be quite the opposite.  Inevitably the debate in Beer was limited by the space constraints, so I thought I’d add my own thoughts to the argument.

Make and drink your own beer, and you don’t go out to the pub and buy someone else’s.  It’s obvious, right?  And in times of increased hardship through recession, coupled with the increases in the cost of going to the pub, I can see how more people are going to turn to homebrew as a far cheaper alternative to the pub.  But is it really that simple?  I suppose it is in some cases, some people will be happy enough with the results they get from a few kits and the cost benefits will be enough to make up for the time and effort (and please don’t think I’m suggesting that there is anything wrong in only being a kit brewer, it’s all horses for courses) .  However, for most people a drink down the pub is more than just the pint in your hand.  It is a social activity, and even if you’re happy to sit at home drinking your homebrew, your drinking buddies might not be.

And that’s just those who take up home brewing and are happy with the cheap beer they can get quickly and easily from kits.  However, lots of home brewers take the hobby further.  Many home brewers move on to (or even start with) all grain brewing, which involves a much greater investment of time and (usually) money, but gets you far more involved in the process.  At this point it is questionable whether the cheap beer which results is the driving factor any more – certainly all the home brewers I know are far more interested in turning out quality beer than turning out cheap beer.

On a personal level, I’ve found that during the time I began brewing for myself, I’ve also been developing my interest in drinking beer into something of a passion for beer and brewing. Learning how to put together ingredients, flavours, techniques, has given me a new understanding of the raw materials that make up a good (or bad) pint.  That has helped me to better understand the beers I drink at the pub, and to want to seek out more.  It has encouraged me to push back the boundaries, and try a wider and more diverse range of beer styles, utilising my increased understanding and at the same time developing my understanding further.  That has seen me arguably going to pubs more, not less, although there is the obvious counterbalance to that in that I am perhaps also drinking more than I did before I started brewing myself!  As well as pubs I’m also buying more, and more varied, bottled beer too.

Seeing some of the conversations triggered by the debate in Beer, especially those triggered on Twitter by David Bishop (@BroadfordBrewer / broadfordbrewer.wordpress.com), it is clear I’m far from alone in this.  And that takes me right back to my opening paragraph – 20+ homebrewers gathered together in a pub, where between us we must have got through the best part of a firkin of beer in all, maybe more, not to mention the buffet that we bought too.  That seems to me to be a reasonable contribution that home brewers have made to that pub’s takings for the day, and while it is fair to say that was a one-off, it is an example of how an interest in beer, and brewing it for yourself, is far from the end of your interest in drinking in pubs.  How many of us would even have gone to the pub that afternoon if it wasn’t for the meeting?

Another good point made in the Beer debate was that a significant number of the rising stars in commercial brewing have started from home brewing origins.  Again I can relate to this, as a home brewer who is aspiring to brew in a more commercial form, and one for whom the dream has a real chance of making it to reality over the next year or two, if plans work out.  Demonise home brewing as a threat to the survival of professionally-made beer and you risk cutting off at least part of the supply of adventurous and talented brewers who can make a real difference to the commercial brewing scene.  And if you really side with the “Yes” vote in the Beer debate, surely that is saying CAMRA shouldn’t support home brewing – so that’s one regular article to remove from Beer and a few books to stop publishing at the very least!

Finally I’ll pick up a point I recall originally seeing made via Twitter though apologies to whoever it was as I can’t remember or find out who to attribute it to.  Through home brewing, and particularly the level of interest and understanding of quality beer it can generate, as it has for me, surely we raise the profile of good beer, and become more demanding consumers.  We introduce others to good beer, hopefully pass on some of our own passion, and with a bit of luck we create even more interest and demand.  No matter how much beer you brew yourself there is always that need to compare, contrast, explore new beers and old favourites.  Whether it is to see how close you’ve got to that beer you’ve just cloned, to find out what your favourite brewers have done with a style that you’re going to make yourself, or to see what new ideas there are out there to expand your repertoire, there is always a reason to keep seeking out great beer from pubs and shops to keep yourself developing as a home brewer.  If that means that you’re asking more of the pubs you visit, then all this can only help put the pressure on, in a good way, for breweries and pubs to produce and sell the best beer they can.

Now, to be honest I’m not sure that I’ve added a great deal to the arguments in the Beer debate, and when I set out to write this post I had hoped to do more than just reinforce the arguments that had already been made.  I think I’ve been able to give some personal perspective on why I agree with the “No” view, and some practical examples of that.  I do accept of course that for some people brewing at home will result in them drinking less in the pub, but for plenty of others the opposite applies.  But have I really contributed much to what has been said already?  Possibly, possibly not.  But as I wrote this, I found my thinking moving more and more towards the post I was already planning to follow this with, as a precursor to EBBC12 next week.  To the extent that I think now this post has become much more for my own benefit than for that of anyone reading it, so apologies for that.  It’s had the benefit of clearing the mind a little, providing me with some focus that hopefully you’ll get the benefit of in a few days.  I’m afraid that for now you’ve just had the pleasure of sitting here watching my thoughts develop, though I’ve not really told you all that much of what I’m thinking.  This post has to some extent effectively become a scene-setter, part 1 to next week’s part 2, in which I think I’m ready now to delve a little deeper into my own recent surge of interest in beer and brewing and how that has developed.  I hope you enjoy that one when it comes, and forgive me the indulgence that this post became!!

May 4, 2012

#TheSession63 – The Beer Moment

In this month’s session Pete Brown invites us to consider “The Beer Moment” and what it means to us.  In keeping with his appeal for us to switch off and float downstream, my mind immediately latched onto the word “moment” and it took me straight back to A-level physics.  In between setting things on fire, putting scary quantities of electrical current through them, and generally avoiding anything too mentally strenuous, there were actually a few things that stuck, and “moment” was one of them.  Rather than thinking about a moment as a point in time, my mind turned to its meaning as a force causing movement around a turning point.  Or, I suppose, a tipping point.

In the context of the beer scene in Birmingham (which is, by a small margin over Stoke, my nearest major city, and at least sometimes my work location too) much has been written already this year about how we lag behind other major (though generally smaller) cities in terms of the beer revolution.  There are glimmers of hope on the horizon, with the opening of the Post Office Vaults just before Christmas, and plans for Brewdog to open up in the city later in the year.  Interest in great beer is growing, or rather it is becoming more vocal, and surely there are exciting times ahead.

So, for me, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of Birmingham’s “moment”, both in the sense of it being a time where something is happening, and (back to the physics here) a powerful turning force, creating change in the drinking scene in the second city. 

As mentioned above, at the end of 2011 the Post Office Vaults came onto the scene, and that has been a breath of fresh air (figuratively at least, being a somewhat subterranean venue!) with a rapid expansion in the range of foreign bottled beers alongside a good selection of British ales.  Almost every time I go in the place is busy, and there is a buzz there that is great to see.  A buzz that is fuelled by the great beers that are available, and it is fantastic to see just how popular so much of the wide variety of styles and flavours is becoming.  Clearly the demand is there for exciting beers of all types.

Then a few weeks ago Twissup hit Birmingham, and a number of the more vocal enthusiasts for Birmingham’s beer scene got together and enjoyed a few hours of extremely responsible drinking, mostly meeting up for the first time with people with whom we’d all been communicating via Twitter for a while, and forming stronger relationships as a result.  It may have been the first of its kind here in Birmingham, but it certainly won’t be the last.  You can read more about that in recent posts on the subject, from both myself and Danny Brown.

And the future, well, it is fairly well known that Brewdog have been looking at a venue in central Birmingham to open up another in their rapidly expanded chain of bars, and word on the street is that all being well later this summer we’ll be seeing that venue opening up.  That can only be a good catalyst for further growth and expansion in the variety and quality of beer available in Birmingham.  I welcome their arrival and the challenges they will present to the local beer scene, although its location pretty much right on my direct walking route from the office to the station will be its own personal challenge to me, and a temptation I shall enjoy giving in to.

Three individual moments in time there, two past and one future, all contributing to the growing force for change that I think will finally see 2012 being Birmingham’s “Beer Moment”.  Returning once more to the physics, a moment is a force, and the more force applied the greater the change.  Come and be a part of that change; come and be a part of the moment. Let’s turn a moment into momentum.

And, of course I couldn’t leave this today without saying, may the fourth be with you…

March 19, 2012

A brewing dilemma… or a no-brainer opportunity?

I’m in a little bit of a quandary.  I guess I’m being given the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is on the one hand, and being asked to sell my soul on the other.  But before I tell you about that I need to go over the background…

Just (I suspect, anyway) like many other people who write blogs about beer, and about the countless other subjects that drive people to share their thoughts in this way, I have a full time day job that pays the bills.  Once upon a time, if memory serves correctly, it represented the career in Engineering that I at least once wanted, and I was maybe even lucky in that I genuinely enjoyed what I had chosen to do for five days a week, fifty or so weeks a year, and have been doing now for some 15 years – sadly that is less the case now though.  I do still realise how lucky I am in that it pays me well enough to allow me to indulge my interests outside of work though.  If circumstances were different I might be happy to jack it all in to pursue something much more rewarding to me personally, but I’m not quite in that position just yet.

When I’m not working (and assuming my boss isn’t reading this, then sometimes when I am too!), however, my thoughts turn to those other interests.  Mostly to beer (my 3-year-old daughter frequently asks me if I’m “thinking about beer again” which is a running joke in our family, but is also usually pretty close to the mark!).  And what a wonderful thing it is to be interested in, to be passionate about.  But when I started this blog it wasn’t actually with the primary intention to be writing about drinking beer in the way that I have so far – that’s just what my thoughts and beer-related activities have led to recently.  The real purpose behind this blog was to try and document a journey into a different aspect of enjoying beer – brewing it, firstly as an amateur, and then, hopefully, eventually, as a professional.

So what of that journey?  Well progress is slow.  I expected that, but even so, it is slower than I thought.  The opposing claims of full time work, and a full time family, leave precious little spare capacity for getting out there and brewing, and in the time that can be set aside to brewing I have to make a further choice – get on with making beer, or spend the time building up the newer, larger, more reliable brewery that I’ve been working on for the past 6 months or more.  The latter doesn’t directly help develop my brewing skills (though it is starting to improve various aspects of my brews), it doesn’t help me work on the recipes that I want to try and refine, and it doesn’t provide me with my own stock of beer that I can enjoy drinking.  On the other hand, if I spend all my time making beer as best I can with the hotchpotch of equipment that I currently have to use, constantly trying to work around the debris of the new build, the longer term aim remains a distant dream.

I didn’t entirely help myself by coming up with a smart idea for our local pubs to put on a beer festival as part of the village Jubilee celebrations in June.  Not because it isn’t (at least in my opinion, anyway) a great idea, but because it means a lot of things for me to organise in order to make it happen that I’d naively expected to get some support in.  In hindsight that was a predictable outcome!  For the next ten weeks or so I have to pull out all the stops in order to make that thing actually happen – rallying the landlords who have agreed to take part (herding cats now seems trivial by comparison!), finding advertisers / sponsors, producing copy for the booklet, getting the word out.

But that will all be over in a few weeks, and I can concentrate again on my own beery pursuits.  And there’s been an unexpected side-benefit of all this, which is where my issue, the real subject of this post, lies.  Through getting involved with local pubs, I’ve met a few local publicans.  One of these has his own aspirations to turn his pub into a brewpub, and having got wind of my own plans, has proposed a collaboration.  This is, of course, very exciting, especially as a taster of my recent beers hasn’t seemed to put him off.  Instead of just cobbling together a 0.5 BBL brewery in my spare time, brewing up my own recipes in fairly short volumes and selling the odd barrel here and there in order to cover my costs, I could instead be looking at operating on anything between 2.5 BBL and 10 BBL, with a guaranteed outlet for a reasonable quantity of beer and enough capacity to supply other pubs and beer festivals in the local area.  For the time being this would have to be a part-time venture – I can’t afford to throw in the well-paid job just yet and put my house, my family’s wellbeing all on the line, just to pursue a passion. I have to give up a lot of free time at weekends, and evenings, but it will result in more time brewing than I get now.  As part of a longer-term plan it probably isn’t too bad a sacrifice as long as I can still balance it up with sufficient family time.

However, to do all this the focus shifts from being a one-man operation with no real ties, to being the partner in an enterprise that has different priorities.  To keep a pub stocked with its core beers means brewing primarily those same two or three beers on a regular basis.  Yes, there’s scope for seasonals, festival specials, trial brews, but only brewing part time keeps this quite limited.  I can no doubt set up a small pilot plant alongside the main kit, so every time I’m brewing I can also churn out a new recipe before risking the full brewery capacity on an experiment.  But I certainly won’t have the freedom to brew whatever I want, whenever I want, every time I fire the equipment up.

It seems to me too that the target audience probably changes a little with the increase in output – the odd barrel of something different and unique usually goes down well at festivals and in the odd pub with an appetite for interesting beers, but when “one-offs” are produced in batches of the order of 10, 20, or even 40 firkins at a time then a good portion of these will clearly need to be sold through the parent pub, and others that may be prepared to take on the beer.  That means it has to be acceptable to the landlord (and major partner in the brewery) and of course to the regular clients on whom he depends to keep his pub business afloat.  And for all the excitement and passion for big hoppy flavours, high-strength artisan beers, obscure, exciting and challenging beer styles, and so on, amongst a proportion of the beer drinkers in this country (I know that many readers of this blog will identify themselves with this group) there is also a probably much larger range of drinkers who are, to be fair, still the lifeblood of many pubs up and down the country.  People to whom that pub is their local.  People whose tastes might be (perhaps unfairly) criticised by some as conservative, but yet they are still often absolutely essential to a pub’s survival, especially in a village location where there is otherwise relatively little incentive for beer tourism footfall.  If the locals who turn up every day aren’t interested in what lies outside the core range, then there will only be a limited market for the specials that represent, to me as a brewer, the more interesting things to produce.  Obviously that core range doesn’t have to be bland and uninteresting, but it has to appeal to those to whom the pub is relying on for its existence.  Over time a successful venture will see changes – success with the basics provides a great platform to experiment more, and a successful brewpub would hopefully start drawing in more custom that will provide an outlet for a greater range of more adventurous beers over time.  There’s a bit of a catch-22 though – if you don’t have the exciting beers to offer then the new customers aren’t drawn in, but if you don’t look after the core clientele, then there is no business left to draw new customers into.

Of course, I could choose to stick to the solo approach, and eventually jump through all the hoops I need to in order to continue making what I believe is great beer on a very small scale, and to sell the odd cask here and there.  It is quite likely that it wouldn’t ever be more than some sort of personal “vanity” brewery, and realistically it will take me a lot of time to get to that stage on my own, but I would remain my own master and no-one would need to tell me what to brew.  Even then though, there is only so much I can drink myself and if the surplus can’t be sold then there is no point in brewing it.

On the other hand I could accept that an opportunity exists to do so much more, but I would need to be able to compromise for a while and focus in the first instance on what satisfies that core range of drinkers, while doing so with enough commitment to good beer that I avoid being labelled as a brewer of bland and uninteresting beers.  Maybe that is actually the whole challenge of brewing.  Bland and uninteresting certainly isn’t what I set out to brew for myself and it isn’t what will keep my passion for brewing alive and healthy.  And there are enough great small (and not so small) brewers out there that are producing exciting beers that appeal to an increasingly wide range of drinkers to see that it can be done.

There’s a balance to be had, its just a question of finding the right way to reach that balance.  It seems to me that taking the opportunity by the scruff of the neck ought to be a no-brainer, but then again, is it really that simple?

February 29, 2012

The constant quest for variety…

Variety. It’s a double-edged sword. I guess like everything else it is best applied in moderation. When it comes to beer I have a preference for trying new things, seeking out beers and brewers that I haven’t tried before, or dabbling in styles that are new to me. On arrival at a beer festival I’m almost certainly going to be heading towards the names of breweries that I haven’t had the chance to sample in the past. Sometimes this can result in finding a little gem, other times I find something I’ll know to avoid next time – that’s part of the beauty of beer, there’s so much scope for variety, as long as you open yourself up to the risk that there are some that simply don’t appeal.

On the other hand, taking this approach sometimes means I’m torn between the new and unknown territory waiting to be explored, and the more comfortable, familiar, favourites that you know are worth a revisit. Especially when it is a known favourite that you only get to have once in a blue moon. Exploring new things was what brought me to taste Magic Rock High Wire, which instantly became one of my top beers of 2011. Even better that I was able to taste keg and cask versions on consecutive nights and discover both great similarities and subtle differences in the two. As a result of this discovery, what was a new beer to me is now one that tempts me away from experiencing other new beers on the occasions when I encounter it again.

My favourite venues are also those that provide a good variety, particularly where the range is sufficient for me to swap between pale and dark, strong and light, hoppy and mild. But more than that, ideally I want to move between cask, keg and bottled beers too. For a new pub to really capture my heart it needs to offer me the maximum variety. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about how my nearest city of Birmingham needs to have a great new beer venue, and for me it will be one that offers me all of the above. The most recent new addition to the central Birmingham pub scene does well in the cask and foreign bottles stakes. The whispered-about rumours of a Brewdog bar would bring some great keg and bottled beers. Both will be priority detinations for me (assuming in the latter case it actually happens). But if swapping between cask and keg also means changing venue then I’ll reserve the right to remain just a tiny bit disappointed. I keep in my mind another firm favourite – the Euston Tap – which is not unique in its offering of a wide range of good cask, keg and bottled beer and very much look forward to the day when a similar “one stop shop” opens up a little closer to home.

However, the big question for me when constantly seeking variety is whether a one-off tasting of a particular beer can be a reaonable basis on which to make a proper judgement of it. Is it right to dismiss a brewer’s range because you tried it once and it wasn’t to your taste? What if it was badly-kept (confidence here depends how well you know your venue I guess) or at the end of a barrel? I’ve had the same beer in the same pub a few days apart, and it can make a huge difference. What if you’re basing your experience of a whole style on a single example which might even not be classified very well? If you never try anything of that style again on that basis you could miss out on something you actually would really like. And sometimes I find it takes time for some beers to grow on you, when it would be easy to dismiss on a first tasting.

I think the answer, for me, is that you can’t make a sweeping judgement based on a single sample, it is necessary to revisit, maybe at a different time, in a different context or a different place, and try again. But in the quest for variety, for new experience, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t always come again, or by the time it does, you’ve forgotten the details of the previous experience altogether. That’s what I find anyway. Maybe I should be keeping notes of what I’ve tried, so I can check back more readily. I certainly don’t want to give up on seeking out new beers, sticking just to what I already know. But perhaps there is also some merit in returning to old favourites more often as well.

What I do know above all else is that there is a stunning variety of beer out there, and I’m happy to keep experiencing as much of it as I can!