Wednesday, 31 December 2008

About turn for a (not so) near ale production unit

The main reason for my trip to Oregon was to check out Ted's pub, Brewers Union Local 180. I've probably told the story many times about how Ted became involved with The Woolpack Inn but it's told here, if you are not up to date.

It would be somehow wrong if I didn't submit a whole post to bestowing the virtues of the hard work of this slightly crazy guy, along with the stabilising influence of his wife Patti. Off course as our sister pub this will be a completely biased report, but hey, this is my blog and Ted, Patti, Sonya and Jaslin put up with us for 2 weeks. Not to mention imposing on the staff, in particular running amok in the kitchen when trying to emulate Cumberland sausage.

One of the most striking things about Ted's place is the large number of windows. Not on the outside of the building but between the rooms. I think it's subliminal compensation Ted's refusal to accept anything other than MacOS as an operating system. What ever, it works. The public area is split up into various sections but you can still see through them making a nice compromise of open plan, but with seclusion. For live music the windows can be opened.

Various little touches are provided by Patti, showing off her artistic talents and adding that feminine touch that us x deficient men cannot manage. This helps to make the Public House all the more homely. All the hard work they have put in makes me a little jealous that we have yet to get our place to the same standard. I wonder when the Sobels are visiting England again.....

The atmosphere was homely. Magically capturing the "local" feel and truly a 180 turn on the regular American bar. Ted sure has a group of loyal and friendly customers, perhaps a little too small in number, but this can only grow. Conversation seems to flow easily, whether it be about skiing, next or last summers mountain biking, the state of the economy, what's left of it or just the extraordinary weather.

In contrast I visited a place down the road that seemed to be typical of American bars. It's not even fair to mention the name of the Bar and Grill down the road, that happens to be on The Corner, in the same post - Significantly less imaginative name and significantly less friendly towards Englishmen. Thankfully Trish and friends made me feel safe during my brief visit.

Most important factor though about Ted's pub is the beer. I've joked about teaching Ted how to brew beer. You can teach anybody the rudimentary stuff about any skill, be it painting, cooking, carpentry or writing, real flair comes from the soul. Ted approaches the subject of beer brewing with great enthusiasm and the results speak for themselves. Tanninbomb is my favorite of all his beers but every beer was good and the range of styles superb.

So, the Brewers Union Local 180 captures all the best of a British pub, sprinkles in just the right amount of American culture to make it palatable to the rebellious colonials and rightly, in my view, deserves the title of Anglo-American brew pub.
We're off now to The Strands for some of their nice beer. Look out for the first blog post of the New Year which should feature them.
Meanwhile:
Happy New Year

Chain pubs aren't all bad

I'm back in the UK and feeling very little the effects of timezone travel. Getting back home was greeted with some bad news, I found out that a pub that was part of my formative drinking experience is about to fall into the hands of a big brewery. Not only that the brewery is one of the worst around for the quality of ale. I can't blame the outgoing owner though, he deserves to get the best price he can for his assets. The independent property market is not fairing well so anyone's best bet is to sell out to larger companies. I just hope nobody is stupid enough to take on the lease.

While in Oregon I was introduced to a chain of pubs that seemed to really work. They all served their own beer and each have an individuality and friendliness that our own UK industry could learn from. If the reader knows a little about US liquor laws then they might question how a chain of pubs can serve their own beer. It would seem that at least every other pub in the chain is a brew pub. This enables them to comply with the liquor laws.



The pubs are McMenamins and across Oregon and Washington they have 24 Breweries and 57 Pubs. We were only introduced to two but they were both nice and individual. Edgefield is actually a large leisure complex and would be plastic and tacky if it were in the UK. As a large venue of a large organisation the care and individuality of the decor and conviviality of the staff was amazing. Mind you, not for the first nor last time, my English accent was a noticeable asset for the female staff, if only I were young, single and handsome again.


High Street Brewery and Cafe has significant individuality. All the properties have hand painted wall decor. The service again was superb. Perhaps the tipping culture here helps. This makes for interesting economics. Leaving food aside, which frankly does not deserve a high price tag, the beer is typically $3.50 upwards a pint (16oz) for quality beer. At current exchange rates this is starting at around £3.20 for a 20oz British pint. You are expected to tip at least 10% on top of this. 15-20% is common for a large group. This is effectively retailing the beer at around £4 per pint and sometimes more. But boy do you get good service.

No snow? yeh, I pinched this picture off their web site and all the others on this post.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Dave Bailey is NOT unwell

There does appear to be a growing fashion to announce ones medical state on ones blogs. Well today was Christmas and I think it was the best Christmas I've had since I was very, very young. This first picture is the contents of mine and Teds stockings. The background is our view as we ate Christmas Dinner (Goose, Duck and Rock Cornish Game Hen). So how can I claim to be less then completely replete with joy, let alone dare to be unwell?

A few days ago we visited the Bier Stein in Eugine to pick our Christmas dinner drinks. The girls had however excelled themselves in providing a surplus of beer.
I have to point out that the American Ale was bought by Ted just to annoy me, along with a hamper of all American Culinary treats that included Twinkies and Cheese Whiz. Thankfully Ted is a confirmed beer snob, which makes up for his heathen attitude to food......
The accompaniments for dinner though, the two superb beers we had picked ourselves, Damnation and St Fruillien, took center stage - or should that be center table?

I was amused at the cork and label on the Damnation. It left no doubt about the expected use of a goblet rather than standard beer glass. As you see, we duly adhered to the brewers wishes.

I am falling in love with these Belgian style beers when it comes to paring with food. Sure, the west coasts IPA's work really well with spicy foods, but when it comes to finding a beer that is robust enough to work with a wide range of foods you can't beat a dubbel or triple.

While in the Bier Stein it surprised me the number of British bottled beers on sale. Included was Coniston XB. This beer is a favourite of mine for general session drinking. But I wasn't going to buy this bottle. Why buy a bottled beer brewed under licence when I can get a full 72 pints of cask conditioned beer at my own pub and serve it through a sparkler?

By the time I hit the "PUBLISH POST" button most of the world will be in Boxing Day. I've had a great time here in Oregon, made possible By Ted and Patti to whom I'm very grateful. I need to return to our little Inn in Eskdale soon. I mentioned to Alan before we went to Brussels that we might remove the ceiling in the gents and replace it with a new one. I don't have to ask Alan twice to demolish things. He trashed the gents and uncovered a rotten purlin whilst we were in Brussels. I guess the rebuild will be up to me.

The hand in this picture is Ted's along with his blasted IPhone. When out with Ted if you ask a question, the answer comes in the form of an IPhone thrust into your hands accompanied with the words "Google it!". Of course I can live life without such technological niceties, can't I?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Clever to be bright?

It's unusually snowy here. Another 8-12" of snow fell again today. Looks like we'll be skiing right up to Christmas and we'll then get a white one when we get there. Visibility is no further than a block or so and it made me think.

Bright beer: why does it have to be? I don't know when the widespread use of processed fish guts in beer started, but I'm guessing it's a 20th century phenomenon. Earlier drinking beer out of metal tankards was common, maybe even wooden or leather was not unusual. The amount of roast grain was probably greater increasing the natural opacity of the beer and also the carbonated fine particles probably helped to clear the beer a little.

Either way clear beer is a modern phenomenon. Some craft beers are naturally hazy. Both Belgian and Oregonian beers can have a little bit, or even sometimes a lot of murkiness about them. I've drunk many a beer at home that has not quite "got there" but I fancied it. It's my place so I'll drink it cloudy if I want. I have never noticed any ill effects drinking a beer that I know is OK, but just not quite bright. Why then, do we insist on using so much additives just to make bright beer? It is, after all, aesthetic.
Just in case I don't get back to blogger before the 25th, have a good one and peace to you all.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Strength to your elbow

It is nearly 5 years since we bought our very own alcohol retail outlet. It is just about exactly 3 years to the day since we first mashed in at our little brewery. It is also 2 years, and nearly 7 months since the owner of the little "Anglo-American" brewpub I am currently sitting in came to my hostelry and made up his mind to set up brewing "Craft Ale".

I have always found the flavour and enjoyment of stronger ales to be more satisfying. Sure, you can't "neck" them quite so quickly, but watery ale is just not my thing. In the UK, for many years 3.5 - 4.0% seems to be the acceptable strength for "session ale". Any strength above this falls out of the classification of session ale.

During past 5 years the number of times I have had a 4.1% beer on the bar and a customer has said they can't possibly drink anything over 4% staggers me. How can 0.1% ABV make that much difference? There are many 5% beers around that are fantastic examples of ales, but customers very often turn their noses up at them. If the reader is any good at maths, (or just the singular math, as they say here) there will be a realisation that 4 pints of 5% ale is exactly the same as 5 pints of 4% ale.

I'm sitting here in this little pub in the sleepy and snowy town of Oakridge in Oregon drinking, early afternoon, a 6.2% ale called Tanninbomb. A malty, not overhopped ale that has been aged with oak chippings in the cask. It's warming in this unusually cold weather and drunk carefully with responsibility it is causing me no adverse effects.

Equally interesting to me is the fact that I am drinking the pint in the manner that the Brewers Union Local 180 intends, dispensed through a sparkler. The sparkler, of course adding to the enjoyent. Indeed, the widespread disbelief that any citizen of the USA understands the traditions of northern English beer customs can hereby be completely dispelled. Ted really is serving true cask conditioned ale, no artificially introduced gas whatsoever, through handpulls and with a very interesting back bar visible cellar.

There is a tradition of brewing ale in the west coast USA with strengths 6% and up. 8% is not unusual and over 12% being frequently found. When I was in Belgium recently the best ales were in the order of 6-8% and above. Why then are we quite so bothered about ABV in the UK? I believe this is part of a blinkered mindset that is inhibiting the movement of the UK beer industry into much more interesting territory.

A very interesting time is being had here. The beer is great, if just a tad too hoppy even for me on occasions. I can't say that most of the food here is even OK in the bulk. The strong bias of fast food is apparent even in the places that state they are restaurants. Cooked vegetables don't seem to be an option and salad is widespread even in the depths of winter. But, visiting the Trail Head Coffee shop did find me consuming a El Bacondilla de Teodoro, Dedicated to Ted it would have to been rude to not try it, as it's his birthday. Very simply it's flour tortillas with cheese and bacon between, heated on a griddle, served with sour cream and salsa: it was scrummy. The Mexican biased food has always been the best in my 3 trips over here. Needless to say, The Brewers Union has good food with a significant proportion being fully prepared on the property, including the bread. The Etouffee that Nick made was good. Oh, and as Ted points out, Nicks Lasagna was great too.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Similar differences

Being here in Oregon, as I've previously eluded to, I'm having a struggle rationalising the apparent failure of the British pub with the fact that the bars here seem to be doing alright. To help me and possibly the reader to understand this, it might be helpful to simply describe the tangible differences.

The whole of the USA is in a post prohibition era. OK, it was 75 years on the 5th December since the 21st amendment was ratified, but even today there are noticeable laws here that pamper to the prohibitionist views. Additionally, the brewing industry was all but wiped out by the prohibition period. Only the major big brewers traded by exporting but craft brewing was annihilated.

The very curious aspect of the liquor laws here in Oregon is the strict control of "hard liquor". Bars serving any type of spirit have to also provide a minimum food menu consisting of 5 clear menu items for the whole period of trading. There are other more subtle aspects such as where "minors" can be in the property and under what circumstances, such as only for the purposes of consuming food. These laws appear to be specific to the state of Oregon and can be different in other states, but shows the clear link that the lawmakers make between reasonable drinking and going out for food. This a stark contrast to the correlation between the drinking only bars that exist world wide and arguably irresponsible heavy drinking.

A clear federal law exists as a concession to the prohibitionist movement. In this law there is a three tear system where no company may make alcohol and also wholesale it and nor can a wholesaler own the retail outlet. Here, Safeway has to buy off a wholesaler who in turn has to buy off the brewery. This prohibits any tied outlets.

The relaxation to this recently has been the allowances of the Brewpub format. A pub can brew it's own beer providing it only owns one other pub. Effectively limiting a tied estate to one or two pubs. There is no doubt that this has seen an incredible increase in the number of brewpubs in Oregon. My sources here tell me that providing the brewpub produces less than 1000 us barrels a year they can sell direct to a retailer.

I find it interesting that there is resistance to the removal of the beer tie in the UK but generally there seems the there are few complains about US tie limitations. There are complaints about the middle man wholesaler restricting trading abilities but it is very much appreciated by beer drinkers here that there are no outlets controlled by big breweries.

The "regionals" here tend to be chains of brewpubs. Larger establishments where every other pub in the company has a brewery to enable the laws to be adhered to.

A key difference that applies to the States and the European mainland alike is the attitude to food alongside drinks in bars. Here the industry standard for sales split is 60% food and 40% drinks. In the UK there is general outcry where an establishment majors on food over drinkers. But here in the USA very few places would work without the reliance on food sales.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

State side style

There seems to be a problem understanding how to make a lively pub scene. I am aware that as a licensee I have a biased viewpoint that can dilute the authority of my opinions. Having just been to Brussels and now being in Oregon I feel that we, in the UK are missing something very important, but I just can't put my finger on it.

Could it be the tied system? No you cry, that's not it.
Too much emphasis on cask ale and price of a pint? No, not that either, comes the chorus.
Anti-smoking, gastro, neo-prohibitionist, family friendly, consumer protection, public safety...........
I don't know, but something is different.
Our great pub culture is different to anywhere else. Perhaps this difference is the problem. But we don't want to loose it, quite rightly.
I feel we skirt around the issues rather than looking at it head on, and honestly. So come on, lets get the discussion going properly, and lets think outside the box rather than saying, "It's OK the way it is"

I'm here in snowy Oregon, in a nice little "Anglo-American Brew Pub" that apparently was inspired by the British Pub culture. Ted needs some more custom right now.
I need some writers inspiration. This trip is supposed to inspire me into working out what we could learn in the UK. I'm struggling to make sense of it so if the readers have suggestions than let's hear them.















The journey continues

Finally we landed, yesterday, in PDX, Portland International Airport in Oregon. Mission: to find out how the West Cost of USA does beer, bars and breweries.

Perhaps also we'll do some skiing.

Ted and family met us at the airport and we were quickly whisked off to find our digs for that night so we could dump our luggage. Then search for a brew pub for lunch. This was not difficult as Portland is reputed be the city with the most breweries in the whole world. Totaling 28 breweries. But this is America where everything is bigger and better.

Except their pint, oh and gallon.

Roots brewing company is typical of the Portland brew pubs in that the brewery is clearly visible from the bar.

Later that day we visited Amnesia. The smell of the boiling copper was very pronounced. The owner very kindly invited me right past the "EMPLOYEES ONLY" sign into the heart of the brewery to take pictures.

Several other pubs were visited and much beer sampled. The beer community here likes heavily hopped beers. After a while I was pleased to get a more malty beer at Horse Brass Pub until Ted decided to have a Racer 5 which had an incredible orange peal nose and really nice very definite orange taste.

We then visited Bridge Port Brewing company, which seemed like it had gone too far down the wine bar look with all bricks and steelwork making it feel very impersonal. Finally Lucky Labrador beer hall which is a delightful spartan place and I got a very satisfying pint served with a sparkler.

There is too much to cover in the short time I have here. I need to do some comparing of British pubs with these very interesting establishments out here.

Meanwhile I am sat in the Brewers Union local 180 while it is snowing heavily outside. So it looks like a while Christmas here and a very good chance of some skiing.

I believe we may show up on the Gordon Swindlehurst show on Monday, perhaps.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

More than just a little miffed

Right now I should be in Portland enjoying a pint or six of some kind of West Coast blow-your-socks-off-with-hops beer. Sadly I'm stuck in Amsterdam, and as I have 4 children and Ann with me I can't even enjoy what this town is famous for.

It seems the NWA pilot and technical bods, couldn't get the plane to work. Ted reports, I think a little erroneously in his comment that it is the starter and solenoid. I'm afraid that I would have checked the leads, spark gap, points and perhaps firing angle before TDC.

After all WD40 is reet cheap at Woolworths now.

The beer today has been particularly crap. Having been up all day yesterday and setting off from Cumbria at 1am I hoped to get a couple times 20oz in before boarding the plane to help with some sleep. Sadly, the over-chilled smooth-flow did nothing to inspire. For the rest of the day I have suffered Heineken until tonight. At least the rather posh hotel that NWA has put us up in has some De Koninck which is significantly better.

TDC = Top Dead Center (Centre) you have to be particulaly old and sad to understand that.
We're booked on the same flight tommorow - snow threatens the landing, but hey, no snow, no skiing.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Smoawkin'!!

I'm off tomorrow morning early to fly to Oregon to see my friend Ted. I hope you'll all miss me. But just in case you don't, I believe that Ted has the IT facilities to permit me to carry on bloggin'

I thought I'd leave you with my current thoughts on smoking in pubs.

Up to about five years ago I was an occasional smoker. I enjoyed going to the pub, which was the only time I smoked.

We then bought our pub. I only smoked when in a pub, but as I lived and worked in one I could smoke all the time, so I did. But I still believed that smoking would have a detrimental impact on pubs.

I started to realise that I was smoking more and more. When in the pub and when not. I also realised that many of our nicer customers didn't smoke. Ann decided to ban smoking in all but one bar.

Eventually the smoking ban came in, no more smoking in the pub, and so I eventually stopped. I feel better, the pub smells better, and we've not noticed any problems with the trade.

In Brussels they still allow smoking. In Mort Subite (see crap picture) the sight of smokers brought back the craving. After taking myself outside and giving myself a beating, reminding myself how long it had taken me to give up, I felt a little better.

Is the smoking ban good? I think so. But then ex smokers are the worst anti smokers you can get. I know, there are many sleazy pubs that are suffering, but they need to wake up and smell the fresh air.

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Oh yes, and because I want you all to carry on commenting, I'll take off the comment moderation - but you'll have to have a Blogger account or similar - be good, anybody who isn't good will get banned.

I do hope Ted has some nice big fat cigars we can try in his firepit.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

What makes a great pub?


I know that there will be plenty of you will disagree with me on this one. I will of course make broad sweeping statements here that will have many, many exceptions. I think though, it is an interesting question worthy of airing.

I would say, without doubt, the best pubs are freehouses. This is a non negotiable point in my view. It is just not possible for a tied house to do everything that I want from a pub. There will be an element of predictability in the beer range and rarely anything at all from a good microbrewery. Generally there will be ties in other areas of the business such as bottled beers, wines and spirits which will limit customer choice. There will be a product range which generally leaves me feeling cold. I like to see things that I have never seen before when I visit a pub, not the predictable range of mass marketed products I can get down the supermarket for a fraction of the price.

Now I know Tandleman and Tyson will jump in and tell me how good the tied houses are around their neck of the woods. I will certainly be disappointed if they don't comment. But while tied houses can be good, the best of them are never as good as the very best free houses. Tied houses are a reality though, despite some of us, me included, wanting to put an end to it, I rather think it's a futile struggle.

It is possible to make a tied house very good, not the best but putting on a good show. The best example in my view, that I have visited recently, is Jeff Bells pub of Stonch's blog which gets a mention here. I hope Jeff doesn't mind me using his pub as an example, but having visited and talked to him he clearly is working the ties he has to his advantage. When I was in there I had two good beers. He had Timothy Taylors on, which I can get easily anywhere, but two others of a reasonably interesting rarity for me. I believe he chooses carefully off his list to give good variation for his customers. My only complaint was the lack of use of a sparkler on northern beers.

The key though to a great pub is the right ambiance. This is affected by so many things. Lighting, furniture, temperature, decor, music and hosts welcome; a thing that Jeff Bell clearly works very hard at. The ambiance is also affected by the customers themselves. This can be a difficult ingredient for the publican to get right. What I find is that for me, the more pleasant clientele are generally to be found in the freehouse. The tied system normally encourages a volume style of trade. The landlord, be it pubco or regional brewery are looking to maximise barrelage and so marketing and promotions are on a sell more save more basis. These pubs tend to push the higher profile, mass produced and mass marketed products such as "cooking lager" and "Alcopops" that are associated with, in my view, less savoury clientele and "binge drinking".

In discussions with a friend of mine who runs a highly regarded pub we shared our experiences of "regulars" affecting the ambiance in the pub. In my friends case the existing customer base sat right in front of the handpulls in a way that was intimidating to new customers. Effectively staking their right to be sat exactly where they were. Eventually this group had to be banned for the pub to progress. This is one of several pubs I hold in high regard, where they are completely and proudly free of tie. The lack of any mass produced products make this type of pub very special. Lager HAS to be properly lagered rather than some fast fermented thing that is effectively a light mild just gassed up and chilled to death.

Another great freehouse closer to me has the most wonderful ambiance due to it's refusal to serve any mass marketed products. Keeping out the "cooking" lager reduces the mass brand conscious types that are, in my view, the source of the social problems facing the pub industry. The sense of belonging to the establishment is so much appreciated by the regulars that they positively welcome all comers to peruse the array of handpulls, and if Continental fizzy is your thing then you are directed to the discreet gassy stuff that might contain many true pilsners or lambic fruit beers.

Clearly some of the smaller tied houses are suffering. Looking at the reports from the Pubco inquiry that is currently getting going there seems to be some worthy grilling being given to the pubco's. Jeff Picthall has provided some links. It is my belief that the tie is not good. It may help some regional breweries to survive, but this is at the expense of small community pubs being able to be flexible. I have tried to take a balanced view here but I believe that the disadvantages of the tie far outweigh the advantages.

For me the tie restricts the abilities of smaller community pubs to be flexible and limits the customer base to a bland, one size fits all, mass produced, mass marketed and go large style product range. It encourages volume consumption by the methods of promotion brought down from the pubcos and breweries.

Yes, phasing out the tie may well result in some regional breweries failing. But why is that a problem? We have more new microbreweries springing up all the time. Loosing Tetley's for instance is no bad thing. There are so many newer beers around and many more to come, I expect. If that is the price to pay for better pubs then I'm all for it.

I have found myself damning the tied system here more than I intended to. My intention was to support the freehouse. I maintain that the best pubs will always be freehouses. So why then is it that the industry is stating that it is the freehouses that are more likely to close? I think the main reason is because when they could, the pubcos bought up the more viable properties leaving the rubbish to the free market. Although I have no firm data to hand, the number of free houses as a proportion of the overall number of pubs has been falling for many years. This has to be a concern for the beer drinker.

The pubcos and the regional breweries alike are only interested in money. Yes sure, I am too as a pub owner. But I also care about what I'm selling. Pubcos and big breweries alike only really care about money for the shareholders. They may own the precious rights to the brand of beer that you grew up with, but they can't all live forever.

We must remember one thing, and if the rest of what I have said does not ring true, then I hope these final words you can agree with. We need to do something fast about our pubs. With so many closing we need to rethink what we are doing, and rethink fast. This is happening with the pubco inquiry, but as Nick Bish has pointed out “evolution” and not “revolution” is required and that any dumping of the tie overnight would be "cataclysmic".

I just hope it is not too late for many pubs.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Media interview

As far as I can work out part of this clip went out on CFM on Wednesday and perhaps some other radio stations.

Radio Interview

The picture on the right was taken as I was being interviewed. As you can see Mike Benner is quite clearly more untested in doing a good job of disposing of my surplus beer at this point. But to be fair, he had just made a rather good speech

The synopsis

"MEPs in Brussels were sampling Cumbrian real ales at a mock-up version of a Lake District pub last night (Tuesday night)(02/12/08). The owners of Eskdale’s Woolpack Inn and Hardknott Micro Brewery were pulling pints from a scaled-down version they’d made of their own bar. It was a fun stunt with a serious message. Dave Bailey and Ann Wedgwood were trying to raise awareness of the plight of the industry, with 5 UK pubs a day closing down. CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – wants a change at EU level that would allow the UK government to put lower excise duty on draught beer sold in pubs than on supermarket bottled beer. That’s an idea the Woolpack’s Dave Bailey is backing."

Update 09/12/08 also a nice piece in the NW EveningMail

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Quality beer?

A CAMRA official, a beer writer and myself were assembled savouring some nice beer. A question arose that is being increasingly asked by many; Does quality beer have to be cask conditioned as specified by CAMRA?

I am going to say outright that I think the answer is no. My beer writing colleague also agreed. The Belgians for instance get along very well having no cask conditioned ales whatsoever. They have bottle conditioned and it's highly likely that some of their draft beers are still live. None of their beer, to my knowledge, would pass the definition of real ale - it is still quality beer and there are even CAMRA books on the subject of Belgian beer.

The west coast of the USA has a large number of craft brewers. The Czech republic is regarded as a quality beer producing nation and Germany can also kick out some interesting stuff. Even in Australia there is a growing interest in craft ale.

Nowhere else in the beer producing world am I aware of such a thing as cask ale - it's unique to the UK beer world.

Ah, but that's the point. Cask conditioned ale is special and should be preserved as a style of beer production, the CAMRA guy proclaims. I can't disagree with that either. But is that a reason to determine keg beers, or filtered bottled beers unworthy of consideration? If a pub does not have the throughput to be able to sell cask conditioned beer then why not recognise that compromise will permit a better range of beers to be available?

But that's the thin end of a very big wedge. I don't agree. Cask ale is cask ale and that is an end to it. If artificial gas is introduced then it ceases to be cask ale. But that does not mean it is not quality beer.

Furthermore, handpulls put some people off drinking the stuff. They don't trust it and will plump for the Guinness or Carling instead. The ability to promote microbrewed ales via more reliable dispense systems might just also be the wedge that gets people to be more adventurous with their beer drinking. Jeff Bells blog sneers at the idea a little when Adnams tried to release such a beer.

The beer drinking market seems clearly split into two. Those that will drink cask ale and those that will not. The not camp are generally filled with lager drinkers. It is possible to get lager drinkers to try real ale and I have been successful. The jump though is far too much for most. A "crossover" light coloured fizzy beer might just bridge the void.

A final point on our British attitude to quality beer is price. In reality most cask ales in this country are actually cheaper in the pubs than keg lagers. In Belgium the quality beers are much more expensive than the mass produced stuff. 330ml is typically €4.00. With the exchange rate being nearly on equality to the pound this is somewhere around £6 a pint.

I would say, that despite everything that has been done since CAMRA started, we are very much behind the Belgians in my view. The main reasons for this is that we are too hung up on price, full pints and cask conditioning.

The beer bottle pictured above is a Belgian lambic beer. Hurrah, I've finally found a non-fruit beer that Ann will drink. I can not get her to drink cask beers. She's tried but the best I can get is "that's OK" as opposed to the normal face of a bulldog licking wee wee off a thistle. This time I lost my glass and had to find a new beer to drink.

To Bar or not to Bar?

What makes a good pub? What is the difference between a food pub and a restaurant? Can an establishment major in food and still call itself a pub? Why does the café bar culture not work in the UK?

That last question might seem like a tangential issue. I believe not, the key word of course is culture. We have a pub culture in our great land. For centuries we have congregated in the public house for social reasons. Until very recently we did not, on the whole, eat out as a nation. Conversely on mainland Europe, there is a long tradition of socialising that entails a mixture of food and drink, sometimes formal dining and sometimes snacking. The Brits used to just go out for a pint, perhaps a packet of crisps, or if you where really posh had scampi fries.

The above constitutes sweeping generalisation. This is no better than saying all lager drinkers are numpties or all UKIP MEPs are nutters. Cultures change over time. Whilst in Brussels recently we went into several very pub like places; Delirium Café and Mort Subite being examples. Food here was very simple, consisting for example of Croque Monsieur or Croque Madame, which are toasted cheese and ham sandwiches, the madame variation including an egg....indeed in Delirium the food appeared to be completely packet snack foods and ordering from the bar was compulsory. There is a sign outside declaring that in fact the place is a pub. There is evidence that the Belgians respect our pub culture and in some cases are embracing it as their culture changes.

Our culture is also changing. In the good old bad old days pubs tended to be male dominated boozers. Drinking, smoking and being bawdy was the order of the day. I have myself enjoyed many an enjoyable evening in this environment engaging heavily in all three activities. This is indeed a grand part of our culture and never may it die out. It is fact thought that this style of pub is becoming less popular. The more diverse, mixed culture we now enjoy, a unisex attitude where comfortable surroundings, a larger choice of products and a more refined style are in increasing demand. This refined style also justifies a higher price.

The pubs where drinking takes centre stage are important. But the male dominated, spit and sawdust pub of the past, where gents toilet is a shed in the back yard, and the women stayed at home to do the ironing are fast failing. Most would agree this is a good thing. Pubs need to become something else to survive. I have a strong conviction that the "anti-gastro" brigade is actually inhibiting the progression of pubs. Why are pubs changing to something more like restaurants? It's because it works for them. We can't just keep pubs as they used to be as some sort of museum piece, they are businesses that must move with the times.

In a recent post on Jeff Bells Blog questions are asked about the issue of "gastro pubs". There appeared to be general condemnation of the pub that majors in food. I resisted in jumping in to comment for a while. I'm glad I did resist because in the end it would seem we all agree. Comparing the British restaurant pub to the bars on the continent reveals a very stark contrast. Jeff and his commenters points out very well that when you enter a pub and it is set out with cutlery on every table you have to ask "can I just have a drink?" Our Continental beer cousins have their bar tables left clear so that you can just have a drink, the Maître d' just politely asks if you are having food, without pressure.

Perhaps though we are too sensitive, after all the government wanted to encourage a "cafe culture" for our pubs, and is that such a bad thing? Perhaps implementation in this country of the continental style bar has been less than ideally executed, but we can't just keep damning every attempt by pubs to move the offering away from the traditional.

Conversely, because there is a shift in culture, many more couples go out for a meal rather than just a drink. Restaurants are becoming popular these days and pubs run the risk of loosing out. Changing demographics and the long term increase in spending power results in less people going to pubs. Perhaps some pubs have to behave more like restaurants to be able to attract customers and compete in a different market rather than the indifferent trade of the old fashioned pub.

Perhaps we need to embrace diversity in our pub industry rather than complaining about pubs that are trying to be innovative. Perhaps a changing culture upsets some, but that is progress and that progress is ultimately for the better. Perhaps we need to blur the divide between the pub and the restaurant. Yes many pubs that major in food also need to learn how to accommodate casual trade. But we also need to remember that diversity will result in some pubs not being able to satisfy everybody. Perhaps if we can learn to do it like the Continentals it will be part of the answer to the problem of closing pubs.

The astute Brussels visitor would know that the two bars mentioned in the text are not shown on the pictures. The first picture is the outside of a brew pub called Les Brasseurs the second is inside a rather nice cafe bar that I forget the name of.  I have in front of me a "Palette Dégustation 5 bières". I had also ordered a light snack.

Friday, 5 December 2008

I believe they care

So what did we go to Brussels for again? We went to take Cumbrian cask conditioned ale to some MEPs and show just what is special about the British pub. Maybe I just wanted to prove I could take cask ale all that way, rack and tap it and be able to serve it at the right temperature. Paul Nunny of Cask Marque checked the beer. 11.8 centigrade I believe was the temperature. More importantly Mike Benner, chief exec of CAMRA (right) said "You've set a new standard for cask ale in Brussels". Wow, can't get better than that eh? If they had looked very closely they might have seen some beer was just not quite as bright as I'd like. It had travelled 550 miles by road and a cross channel boat ride to get there. I'm guessing it was a little shook up.

Many MEPs appreciated that effort. Godfrey Bloom (UKIP) has to be the best. We only took 2 pint glasses. Godfrey, bless him, snatched one and held onto it all night. "Can't drink out of them 1/4 litre things, people will think I'm a Lib Dem or something." mmmm...

Irrespective of party, the assembled MEPs seemed genuinely concerned about our pub and brewing industry. If only I could remember who they all were.

Anyway, Mike made a great speech which then got backed up and gaps filled in by, oh, now I forget, was it the SIBA guy or the BBPA fella? Well, a great amateur journalist I am. Tosh, whoever it was, good points were well made.
On the Saturday before we sailed I sent out a press release about our endeavour. Well you didn't think I was going to go to all that trouble and not raise at least a little bit of publicity did you?

Within an hour I had the local BBC on the telephone. Radio Cumbria I believed. They wanted an interview for the news bulletins and I agreed they could telephone me before I crossed the channel the following morning. I told them we were crossing around lunchtime. Wrong!

Finally I got the call as we were waiting to board the ferry at about 10am. Just as we were reaching the end of the interview the queue started to move. Starting the engine cuts out the bluetooth hands free - the interviewer said, once I picked up the phone, that he had everything he needed. I still get that feeling something was left unsaid....

Most of the setting up was done on Sunday afternoon. On Monday morning we returned to finish a few tasks and then off around Brussels for some sightseeing. No sooner had we found the Christmas market than the mobile rang. It was ITV wanting to film our bar, today in fact, soon. Not only that they wanted to film somebody drinking the beer.

OK, rush back across town to the hotel and get changed into something respectable. Back to the Brewers of Europe. Damn, the lines haven't been cleaned yet! Will the beer be clear? A quick, but significantly insufficient line cleaning procedure was undertaken. My beer was like pea soup still, Keswick's was not quite there. David from CLA cheats and uses conditioning tanks, a fair bet. Yup, his Wicked Jimmy was ready to roll.

Over the course of 4 days I think we did 6 media interviews. Our main theme of course was the number of pubs closing. 36 a week. 1 in 8 before 2012. What can the MEPs in Brussels do? Not much in reality except perhaps loosen the EU rules on VAT and duty so that draft beers can have a favourable rate over packaged drinks. But still, I met some interesting people and my pub got mentioned on local radio and TV.

The next morning we had to get back to the venue early to pack up. InBev had an event there that evening. I had got there early enough to park right outside the door. The InBev event organiser then complained because his lorry had nowhere to park. So I had to park across the road because their many people could not possibly carry everything that few extra yards, sorry, meters. Great I thought. Massive global brewer muscles tiny micro out of the way.

But before we left we saw a couple of interesting things. First the dispense technique for Stella Artoir. In the picture the text reads

"The Removal
Your bartender then closes the tap...........and moves the glass away from the font to prevent any drops from falling into the glass. These drops come into contact with the air, and oxidise, making them unworthy of your glass of Stella Artois."

Now firstly, any oxidisation will add flavour to the beverage, which in this case can be no bad thing. Secondly, do we really think that any Stella Artois drinker is going to give a hoot about oxidisation, or know it if it hit him in the face?

Still, it's nice to know that beer production is such an ancient art form. We also found in the same building a stone tablet depicting Egyptian beer making.

The best bit about the trip was the return cargo of beer. I'm currently drinking Bush Amber 12%, before that I had an Orval 6.2%

Tomorrow I think I'll post about Belgian bars, beer and food and smoking.

We're back...

Sorry, I've not posted for a while, still, saves you reading the verbose, rambling sh.... excrement I sometimes write. I could come out with all sorts of excuses like the hotel WIFI was crap, or I had to lend my travel plug to somebody and the laptop battery ran flat, or perhaps I was spending too much time researching Belgian beer for review....

....but no, I was in Brussels with Ann, we don't get much time off when running the pub so we just enjoyed ourselves after we had done serving Cask Ale to very appreciative MEPs. Yes we drank beer, but most of all we relaxed.

So I'm afraid my blog began to fade from my the front of my mind, but I'm guessing as there are not many of you who pop in to read this I've not disappointed many.

Now we're back I'm full of thoughts but only 4 days before we set off for more research in Oregon. Watch out for posts soon. I'll have to blog like mad.

OK, as Robert Humphreys points out, I'm already "quite mad". But at least I don't slip on imaginary snow and ice.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

In Brussels

Well we're here, in Brussels, making our case that the Government are partly responsible for the problem of 36 pubs per week closing. The WIFI system in the hotel is giving low signal level so internet connection is not good.

I miss my Simons internet connection - it flies!

Hope this gets through though.




video


We sent out a press release on Saturday. That worked, we should be appearing on various local T.V. and radio as well as local papers over the next few days. Like I have said before, the issue of pubs closing HAS to be raised above that of binge drinking and alcohol related disorder. There are only a minority of licensed properties that cause the problems and the way the government are tackling the problems it will only be these places left before long. The problems occur in a few large night clubs, not community pubs, but the community pubs are the ones that suffer most by the actions of legislation.