Saturday 30 October 2010

Dark Beer Night

It's definitely a dark beer night tonight. Nothing to do with Halloween; it's just that I happen to have two bottles of fine dark ales to savour this evening, and enjoy them I certainly will!

First up is Double Stout, from Hook Norton, a superb dark stout brewed to a 100 year old recipe. Poured into the glass, it is a jet black beer with a real thick creamy head. Taste-wise, it is a full-bodied beer, dry in taste, with roasted malt and chocolate flavours and just the right degree of bitterness to match. It is also bottle-conditioned as well, and drinks far stronger than its 4.8% abv suggests.

Next up is an old favourite; Fuller's London Porter. Slightly stronger at 5.4%, and not quite as dark; this is another recreation of an old recipe. Brewed using pale, crystal, brown and chocolate malts and bittered with Fuggles hops this is a stunning, silky-smooth beer with wonderful chocolate notes to the fore, and just the right degree of subtle bitterness in the background. It doesn't pour with quite the same thick, creamy head as the previous beer, and despite its extra strength, doesn't taste quite as strong as the Hook Norton stout either, but it's still a world-class beer in my book. I hope to see it on draught some time over the next few months, alongside my all time favourite Porter; that brewed by Larkins of Chiddingstone.

Thursday 28 October 2010

More on "Top Pressure"

It seems my recent post about the Pubs of my Youth has sparked a bit of debate, especially with regard to the subject of "top pressure". Our friends in the north have commented that this system was virtually unknown in the northern heartlands, and yet it was pretty common down south. Basically it was a system designed to serve cask-conditioned beer using "top pressure" CO2, which was applied, via an adaptor, to the shive hole of the cask and then, when a tap was opened on the dispenser on the bar, used to force the beer out of the cask and into the customer's glass.

The brewers claimed that the system kept beer better, and prevented it from going off. Whilst the latter was undoubtedly true, the former was not, as the gas applied to the beer had a tendency to dissolve and make the beer overly gassy, and at times quite unpalatable. Nevertheless, during the early 1970 this system was adopted by several of the large brewing conglomerate's that had sprung up during the previous decade, and was particularly favoured by both Courage and Whitbread who owned the majority of the pubs in the part of East Kent where I grew up. To say that "top pressure" was actively encouraged by the brewers is an understatement, and it was the "norm" in most of the local pubs. But not everywhere, as I am about to relate.

Back in 1974, during the summer break from university, I popped my head around the door, for the first time, of what for a while became one of my favourite pubs in my home-town of Ashford. This was at a time when I had started to take a firm interest in Real Ale and real pubs. The pub was called the Trumpeter and, as it was a Whitbread house, I ordered a pint of Trophy. To my surprise the landlady went to a bank of antique looking hand pumps and pulled me a pint. Although my village local sold "Real" Trophy, this beer in an un-pressurised form was like gold dust, especially in Ashford itself. However, here I was in a pub which I had never been in before, drinking a pint of Whitbread Trophy that wasn't full of bubbles.

I told a friend, and fellow CAMRA member, the good news, and he hot-footed it down to the Trumpeter to see for himself. However, on my next visit to the pub I ended up being served a fizzy pint from a gas tap, fitted to the outlet of one of the other pumps. Thinking that the brewery conversion team had been in, and fearing the worst, I enquired about the means of dispense, only to be told that the real thing was still available, but was reserved for regulars only, plus "those in the know"!

The reason for this clandestine approach was that, so far as the brewery were concerned, the Trumpeter sold only pressurised Trophy. However, the locals were not at all keen on having their beer gassed up, so unbeknown to Whitbread, one hand pump had been left in working order and was still connected. I was sworn to secrecy over this matter, as was my friend when he joined me for a drink later that evening. The last thing the landlady and her regulars wanted was for the brewery to get wind of the fact that one of their pubs was serving cask beer by “non-approved” methods.

As well as serving traditional beer, the Trumpeter was an unspoilt traditional town pub. Over the course of the summer, until my return to university, I became quite a regular there and eventually ended up on first name terms with the landlady. Her name was Ethel, and in common with other legendary female licensees, ran the pub single-handed in the time honoured tradition, standing no nonsense and governing proceedings with a rod of iron. Despite this, she always had a friendly smile and a greeting for customers - with the exception of representatives from the brewery that is!

I have related the above story, in depth, to illustrate the point that "top pressure" wasn't universally welcomed by drinkers, and was even unpopular with certain licensees. It was the real "bug-bear" of CAMRA back in the early days, especially as it ruined otherwise perfectly acceptable beer.

I have scoured Google Images for pictures of the Trumpeter (demolished as part of a road-widening scheme during the 1980's), but so far without success.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

Upmarket "Pong"

Although budget supermarket chain, Lidl are continuing to crank out cut-price bottles of ale from the likes of Marstons and Shepherd Neame, upmarket Waitrose are currently mid-way through an excellent promotion on bottled beers. A wide range of bottles from the likes of Brakspears, Fullers, Hook Norton and Jennings are on sale at two for £3.00, and what's even better is you can mix and match!

Some of the beers included in the offer are extremely good value when purchased in this manner. They include Fuller's 1845 and Brakspear's Triple; both premium strength beers, and both fine examples of the brewer's art. Fuller's London Porter, which is another old favourite of mine also features on the list, as does Hook Norton Double Stout. I also noticed Pilsner Urquell on sale at the same two bottles for £3.00, but this might be a different promotion.

My advice therefore is get down to Waitrose quick, whilst stocks last. The promotion runs until 9th November, but with such good bargains available, some beers could run out long before this!

Monday 25 October 2010

The Pubs of my Youth - Part I; Country Pubs

A few weeks ago I posted a piece about why I stopped going to the pub on a regular basis. Here I describe my introduction to the world of pubs and beer as a teenager back in the early 1970's.

I spent my formative years living in East Kent, and the pubs I knew in my youth were a mixture of both town and country ones. When I first started drinking, most of the pubs I visited were real in the sense that they were unspoilt "pubby" type pubs, even though most of the beer sold in them was not, certainly in the CAMRA accepted meaning of the word. (Most of the beer was cask-conditioned back then, but served by "top-pressure" dispense.)

I first began to explore local pubs when I reached the age of seventeen. Shortly after my birthday, my parents bought me a motorbike. It wasn't exactly the sort of thing teenage dreams were made of, but I was grateful to them nevertheless. The vehicle in question was a Honda C 90; a semi-automatic, 3-gear, 90cc machine. The reasoning behind their purchase was to save my father having to ferry me about. Living in the country is all well and good, but when you're a teenager you want to be where the action is, which normally means reaching the nearest town. The other idea was to get me out of the house more. My parents were concerned that I was spending too much time in my bedroom, listening to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull etc. and the motorbike certainly certainly achieved this, as I am about to relate.

One of my school friends had a similar machine, so we decided to make the most of the light evenings of early summer and explore some of the local country pubs. My friend had a head start on me, in this respect, as he had already been "dragged" round quite a few of them by his older brother. He was thus the ideal person to introduce a somewhat shy and introspective sixth former, as I then was, to the delights of some of south-east Kent's best country pubs.

We visited some superb pubs, a few grotty ones and some in between. What most of them had in common though was the fact that they still functioned as traditional pubs, acting as focal points for the communities they served. Most had separate public and saloon bars, the former particularly appealing to the pair of us, as we both were aspiring dart players. Beer was inevitably cheaper in the public bar, the furnishings fairly basic, with lino or tiled floors being the order of the day. The saloon bars, on the other hand, tended to be more comfortably furnished and were earmarked as places where one could take a girl to, should we be successful in asking one out!

Whilst not all the rural pubs we visited fitted the archetypal image of the unspoilt, traditional country alehouse, run by the same family for generations, complete with stone-flagged floors, scrubbed oak tables, high-backed, wooden settles, a simple serving hatch for a bar, behind which casks of beer are stillaged waiting to be drawn off by gravity, most of them existed as pubs which still served their original purpose, i.e.. to serve the local community. These days many have become upmarket restaurants or, worse still, closed altogether.

I have many happy memories of those pleasant summer evenings, spent riding out to local pubs. The territory we covered ranged from Romney Marsh (still home to a couple of real gems), through to the area of the North Downs between Ashford and Canterbury. I won't name the pubs, as they are unlikely to mean much to most readers. More to the point, many of them are either closed now, or altered out of all recognition. What seems remarkable now though is that as seventeen year olds we had no trouble getting served in these pubs. We were accepted by landlords and locals alike and, as I said earlier, happily took on some of the latter at darts, even though we invariably lost!

I look back on those days with a considerable amount of nostalgia. Life in general was much simpler then, with far less restrictions, rules and regulations. Landlords were free to police their own pubs, without interference from, or "sting operations" by the likes of trading standards officials or public health inspectors. Licensees were also much more free to run their own businesses as they saw fit, rather than as the owning brewery or pub company dictated to them. I belong to a generation that was lucky to have known this unspoilt world of pubs, even though it was soon to disappear. As they say, "those were the days!"

Thursday 21 October 2010

Even More Cheap Supermarket "Pong"

Lidl's have done it again with their cheap bottled beer offers. I chanced upon their latest offers earlier this evening, when I picked my son up from the station after work.

First there were two offerings from Shep's, Tapping the Admiral and Dragonfire, both 4.0%. I'm glad I didn't buy the former, having read Beer Nut's rather unflattering review of the beer; but I did succumb to a bottle of the latter, purely out of curiosity as the label claims it is brewed from a blend of oats, rye and wheat, as well as malted barley. I haven't tried it yet, but will let you know what it's like when I have.

Also on offer were two beers from the Marstons stable; Burton Bitter and Banks' Bitter (both at £1.00 each), plus two from Wells & Youngs; Young's Bitter and Bombardier, (£1.19 each). I bought a couple of the Marston's group beers; at a pound each it was foolish not to. Presumably Shep's, Marstons plus Wells & Youngs must be subsidising these cut price deals, but I for one don't mind taking advantage of them from time to time.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

London Drinker

Whilst doing a bit of research for my recent trip round a few choice London pubs, I neglected a rather important source of information. The source was none other that that excellent bi-monthly publication, London Drinker.

I was reminded of this at the weekend, when a friend lent me a copy he'd picked up recently. As well as a good read, the magazine is packed with adverts from good real ale pubs, many of which sound worthy of a visit. For instance The Cask, close to Victoria Station, sounds well worth calling into as do the King William IV (Brodie's Brewery), the Pembury Tavern, the Red Lion (Isleworth) and the Old Coffee House.

The current edition also has a feature on German Beer Pubs in London. I wish I'd read this article prior to last week, as I learned that an establishment called Katzenjammers is situated just round the corner from Borough Market. I was in this vicinity last Thursday, drinking in both the Rake and the Market Porter. Had I known, I could have called into Katzenjammers and sampled some German beers as well!

The silly thing is I've got plenty of back issues of London Drinker at home; why didn't I think of consulting them?

ps. A certain well-known, and somewhat controversial free-house also has a large ad in the current edition. No prizes for guessing which pub it is!

Sunday 17 October 2010

More Cheap Supermarket "Pong"

I popped into Lidl's over the weekend, primarily to stock up on a few bits and pieces. In case it hadn't escaped any one's notice, it's Halloween in a couple of weeks time. I know it's an unwelcome import from across the Atlantic, but unfortunately it looks set to stay, and every year there seems to be more and more ghoulish tat in the shops. Anyway, getting in the spirit of Halloween Lidl's were offering a couple of Wychwood beers, with a loose 31st October theme, at the bargain basement price of just £1.00 a bottle!

The prime contender for Halloween was the appropriately named Wychcraft, a blonde 4.5% abv beer said to be brewed from three different malts and three different hops, (the label doesn't state which varieties though!). Less obviously connected with Halloween was Wychwood's Goliath, a much darker 4.2% beer.

Both beers were pleasant enough, and of the two I much preferred the Wychcraft. Obviously Marstons are promoting, and heavily discounting both these beers. I don't want to get into the territory of minimum pricing, or other health-lobby sponsored nonsense, but what I will say is just because these beers are dirt cheap, and I bought a fair few of them, I haven't been sitting here getting sloshed or used them to "pre-load" before going out on the town! Alcohol Concern, and other similar busy-body do-gooders, please take note.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Last Week's London Crawl

Last Thursday, I had my eagerly anticipated trip around a few London pubs. On the whole it lived up to my expectations, and even threw up the odd surprise. The beer quality was on the whole, good, and prices reasonable, but it was the pubs themselves that were the chief reason for this mini-pub crawl, and I'm pleased to report that none of them disappointed.

Seeing as I was starting out in Docklands (a Dental Show at the Excel Exhibition Hall), I followed Tyson's suggestion and started my crawl in Greenwich. Travelling via the DLR I alighted at Greenwich station and walked the short distance up Royal Hill to the Greenwich Union, my first port of call. The Union is owned by Meantime Brewery, an innovative and forward-thinking brewery founded and run by master brewer Alistair Hook. I have long been an admirer of Meantime's beers, and whilst it might not be CAMRA's favourite brewery (producing just a single cask-conditioned beer), it gets my vote for the sheer quality of both its continental-style beers, plus its authentic recreations of old, traditional English beer styles.

The first surprise, (not a surprise to anyone who knows the area), was that the Greenwich Union is next door to the Richard I, a Young's pub that I have rather fond memories of. The Richard I is also known as Tolly's, as many years ago it was owned by former Ipswich brewers, Tolly Cobbold. I didn't venture inside Tolly's; the sight through the window of two hand pumps dispensing Courage beers was enough to put me off (I know Well & Young acquired the brewing rights, but why they would want to promote the stuff in their own pubs is beyond me!).

I digress; Meantime beers were what I was after, that plus the chance to unwind after traipsing up and down the aisles at a very busy trade show. The Greenwich Union delivered on both counts, with some excellent beer, plus pleasant contemporary surroundings in which to sit and relax. I say the beer was excellent; most of them were, apart from the London Pale Ale, which was first one I tried. The pub had both keg and cask versions on tap. Being a CAMRA member, I opted for the latter and have to say it wasn't quite at its best. Possibly the Union doesn't sell a lot of cask, although having said that there was also Dark Star Hophead plus Ringwood Old Thumper on tap, or perhaps I was just unlucky, but afterwards I moved on to try a couple of Meantime's brewery-conditioned beers. Starting with the 4.4% Helles, a fine crisp and refreshing German-style lager, I moved on to Meantime's Oktoberfest Bier. According to the notice board, this beer is brewed in March, to a traditional recipe, and is then lagered until the autumn. The lengthy lagering period certainly made for a fine, smooth and at 5.6% abv, a well-balanced traditional Munich-style festbier.

I was tempted to linger, and sample a few more beers. The pub was comfortable, with some quality newspapers left out for customers to read. I liked the general ambiance of the place, with is light wood bar fittings and its long narrow stone-flagged bar leading out, via some french-windows, to a small garden at the rear, but there were other pubs to visit and it was time to move on.

From Greenwich station I caught an over-ground train to London Bridge. Alighting from the train and making my way through a Borough Market which was starting to run down for the evening, I found myself approaching the Rake. Now it's confession time; until this moment I'd never set foot inside this revered establishment. I'd walked past on a number of occasions, but it always seemed full to bursting. This time I could see un-occupied floor-space, so I nipped inside just behind a party of visiting Americans. Their slight indecision gave me time to peruse the bar, and the well-stocked chill cabinets behind. Deciding to stick with cask, I went for RCH Steam Fair Bitter, 4.5% abv, and very competitively priced, I thought, at £3.10 a pint. I've long been a fan of RCH beers and this seasonal special didn't disappoint, which is more than can be said of the second beer I tried; S.O.S from Pontypridd Brewery, a pale 4.8% beer that certainly seemed to be lacking something.

I sat out on the covered timber-decked area at the side of the pub, indulging in a spot of people watching, before walking the short distance to the Market Porter; a pub I often pop into when in this part of London. The place was absolutely heaving, and I had trouble in getting to the bar. It was worth it when I did as there were some cracking beers on sale. The Market Porter could be construed as something of a ticker's pub; certainly on the evening of my visit there were twelve ales on tap, but the large number of customers ensures that there is always a rapid turnover of the beers. One thing's for sure, I've never had a duff pint in the Market Porter.

To start, I opted for a pint of Saltaire Cascade Pale Ale which, as its name suggests, is an American-style pale at, brewed to a strength of 4.8% abv. I have enjoyed this beer before, and it tasted every bit as good as previously. After the Saltaire I spotted a Dark Star beer on sale. It was their Oktoberfest offering, but it was unlike any Oktoberfest beer I have ever sampled. It was brewed in the typical Dark Star style, ie. extremely well-hopped.

As I said earlier the Market Porter was busting at the seams. The pub seemed to have been extended since my last visit and tempted though I was to stay and sample more of its wares, I thought it was high time I grabbed something to eat. I re-traced my steps back to London Bridge and boarded a train to Charing Cross. I knew there were a couple of Sam Smith's pubs in the vicinity, and as well as selling cheap beer, they also offer value for money meals. I called in initially at the Chandos, just off Trafalgar Square, but it was almost as busy as the Market Porter. Instead I walked along the Strand a while, looking for the Lyceum Tavern. I was beginning to think it had closed until I eventually chanced upon it, and noticing a sign outside stating that food was served up until 8 o'clock, quickly climbed the stairs to the first floor bar. I managed to grab the one vacant table and ordered a meal at the bar alongside a pint of Old Brewery Bitter.

Served of course with a traditional tight Yorkshire head, Sam's always seems to have a slight sharpness lurking in the background. This is probably a characteristic of the house yeast, and at just £1.99 a pint I really couldn't complain. My meal was equally good value, coming in at just over £5.00 for chicken and mushroom pie, chips, veg and gravy. It was no gourmet meal, but was filling and tasty enough, and certainly acted as blotting paper to soak up some of the surplus alcohol.

I left the Lyceum Tavern feeling full and well satisfied. On my way back to Charing Cross I walked past the Coal Hole, another London pub I used to frequent. The board outside advertised several interesting ales including Ghost Ship, the new beer from Adnams, plus at least one offering from Thornbridge. I resisted the temptation to call in, as by this time I knew I'd had enough after what had been an interesting and most enjoyable visit to the capital.

Monday 11 October 2010

Cheap Supermarket "Pong"?

Cooking Lager, in his humorous and highly enjoyable blog, has made much of the virtues of cheap supermarket lout. Whilst not adverse to the odd drop of properly brewed Czech or German "lager", as opposed to the mass-marketed "international brands", I find myself agreeing with some of his sentiments, especially that of price. Both lout drinkers and "pong" drinkers (as Cookie would call us ale lovers), are increasingly being priced out of pubs by high prices. Just the other evening I was paying £3.30 - £3.40 for a pretty average pint of beer, and whilst I am reasonably well paid, I certainly could not afford to keep up that level of spending by visiting the pub on a nightly basis (however much I might like to!), given other commitments, such as mortgage, council tax, utility bills etc.

The answer for me, like Cookie therefore is to do much of my drinking at home. (I find sitting in front of my computer, with a glass of beer, helps my creativity). However, unlike our canned lout lover, my drink of preference at home is invariably bottled ale. With some judicious shopping around it is quite possible to pick up bottled ales at knockdown prices. Call it Cheap Supermarket "Pong" if you like, but at the sort of prices that can be found, it's hard to resist the temptation on the supermarket shelves. For those who would like to take advantage of these offers, here is a guide to some of the bargains currently available.

Iceland - Brakspears Bitter - 2 bottles for £2.00
Lidl - Brains SA - £1.19 per bottle
- also seen in Lidl's recently Youngs Bitter (BCA) £1.19; Marstons Pedigree £1.00, plus regular promotions on Hobgoblin and Shepherd Neame bottled beers.

Locally we have both Sainsbury's and Waitrose. Both run regular two bottles for £3.oo promotions. Amongst others Sainsbury's currently have Fullers ESB, Pilsner Urquell and Guinness Foreign Extra Stout on promotion at the above price.

Also on promotion, and definitely worth sampling, is the new Sainsbury's Taste the Difference IPA, which is currently on offer at just £1.26 a bottle. This is a fine example of a traditional IPA. Brewed by Marstons, at an abv of 5.9%, this beer is perhaps a little less hopped than their Old Empire, but is still a fine, well-balanced, and well-crafted ale.

Once I get my home-brewing back up and running, things could change, but for the moment I'm enjoying some of the bargain ales (and the odd Pilsner) on offer at our local supermarkets, and saving money in the process.

ps. I know I should be supporting pubs wherever possible, and I haven't forsaken them completely. I attend regular CAMRA socials and still go out for the odd drink, or two, with friends and family. As many of you know, I also like to travel abroad in search of good beer, and the money to pay for these trips has to come from somewhere. Given the dearth of decent pubs locally, I would rather put the money saved towards drinking somewhere (and something) half-decent, be it home or away!

Sunday 10 October 2010

London Drinking

There's been quite a lot of posting recently on various Blogs, Tandleman's and Curmudgeon's in particular, about drinking in the capital's pubs. Thirty years or so ago, I might have felt qualified to comment on the London pub scene as I lived and worked there for a few years. Nowadays, although it is only a 40 minute train journey from where I live, unless there is a specific reason I don't tend to visit London as much as I once did. It's not that I don't like the place, or its pubs, it's just that whilst London is easy to get to, the £11.20 return train fare does mean that a trip needs a bit of forward planning, and possibly combined with an activity such as shopping, visit to a museum or art gallery, to make the cost of the rail fare worth while.

This coming Thursday I am planning to attend a trade fare in London Docklands, through work, which will mean of course that the company will pay my rail fare for the day. In the evening though, I will be free to visit the odd hostelry or two and this time I intend to try a few new ones, rather than my usual habit of sticking to old favourites. I probably won't be relying on the Good Beer Guide in making my selections, (I haven't bought the new edition yet!), but instead will make my decision based on recent blog comments combined with my natural instinct for hunting down a good pub.

l will of course report on my findings, but in the meantime if anyone wants to recommend a few "must visit" pubs, then by all means please go ahead.

Friday 8 October 2010

An Evening in the Sticks

It was a low turnout at Wednesday's CAMRA social, with just four of us making the trip out to Marden, (correction three of us; the other member lives in the village!). It was shame really, as those of us who did make it there found both pubs in the village to be thriving.

For those not in the know, Marden is a typical Kentish village, situated in the flat, low-lying part of the Weald in between the Greensand Ridge to the north and the High Weald to the south. For me it is easily reached by train, being just two stops down the line from Tonbridge. However, although I have passed through Marden station dozens of times during the course of a life lived in this part of Kent, it is probably only the third time I have ever visited the village itself. Like several other villages on the Kent Coast main-line, Marden is a popular place for commuters to live. However, on alighting from the train and walking the short distance into the village, I was pleasantly surprised to see evidence of a thriving local community, with several shops, a fish and chip shop, plus an Indian restaurant. The latter though is a former pub which I believe was called the Chequers. There also used to be a further pub in the village called the Rose & Crown, which closed as long ago as the early 1980's.

There are still two pubs in the centre of Marden though, and we called in at both on our visit the other night. First stop was the Unicorn, a handsome white-painted building that still shows evidence of its two former bars. Harvey's Best plus Sheps Master Brew were on offer as the regular beers, with Wychwood Hobgoblin as guest ale. I opted for the Harvey's; those who read this blog regularly will know I am no fan of Shep's, and I have to say I am not keen on Hobgoblin either. To me the beer contains too much roast malt to be a bitter, and nowhere near enough to be a stout! Enough said; it may be a bit of a cult beer for some, but it just leaves me cold. There was a lively crowd sat at the bar, plus a few diners enjoying what looked like some well-presented food. For a foggy and slightly damp Wednesday evening it was good to see the place looking busy.

I only stopped for one in the Unicorn, as I wanted to meet up with my friends whom I knew were eating first in Marden's other pub, the West End Tavern. I re-traced my steps past the small, but attractive church and back past the station, and entered the aforementioned West End Tavern. It's a good job I'm relatively short as I would have had trouble scraping my head on the low-beamed ceiling! If I thought the Unicorn was doing ok, then the West End Tavern was doing doubly so. Two of my friends had taken advantage of the two meals for £10 deal that the pub was offering and, judging by the number of people eating, plenty of other diners had done so as well! Beer-wise there was Harvey's Best, Shep's Spitfire and Westerham Finchcocks on sale. I stuck with the Harvey's which was in fine form.

I didn't stay all that long as I wanted to make sure I caught the second to last train home. I was the only soul standing on the cold and lonely station platform, and I was relieved when I could see the lights of the approaching train. I sometimes think it is good to visit places one wouldn't normally think of going to, especially when they are as easy to get to as Marden is from here. It was also good to visit a couple of new pubs, although I have a sneaky suspicion I have been in the West End Tavern many moons ago.

What was even better was to see two pubs thriving on an otherwise dull and dismal autumn night. Although situated in an obviously affluent area, it would still seem that these two hostelries are doing something right and bucking the trend. To me both seemed like pubs used to be, and by that I mean "pubby pubs". Both had a cosy and comfortable feel to them. There was no unnecessary intrusions like Sky Sports shoved in you face, and whilst there was music playing in the Unicorn, it was low volume and in the background. If I lived in the village I would feel quite at home drinking in either and that, to me, is the ultimate test of a good pub!

Tuesday 5 October 2010

The Death of the English Pub

Older readers may remember a book entitled "The Death of The English Pub". It was published back in 1973 and its author was a young journalist called Christopher Hutt. Mr Hutt later went on to become chairman of CAMRA, before launching CAMRA (Real Ale Investments), which was a small chain of pubs run along lines in sympathy with CAMRA's aims. Eventually he launched his own chain of pubs, but that's a different story.

"The Death of The English Pub" was a very hard-hitting look at what was occurring in the pub trade back in the early 1970's, and was full of dire predictions as to what might happen to the traditional English pub that we all knew and loved. I first saw the book on sale in the university bookshop, during my first year at Salford University. Despite the cover price of 75p (quite a sum for a student, back in the days when beer was around 12p a pint!) I purchased a copy and was glad I did. I was just starting to take an interest in different beers and pubs, and found the book to be compulsive reading. Now, nearly 40 years on it is worth taking a look back at some of the criticisms levelled at the pub trade, by Hutt, and examining their relevance today.

After a brief, introductory chapter, explaining the reasons for writing the book, the following three chapters of Hutt's critique are all about beer. Starting with The Quality of Beer, he focuses on the disappearance of traditional draught beer, and its replacement with nationally advertised keg brands; something that was common-place back in the early 70's. He argues that this was a move foisted upon drinkers, by the major brewers in an attempt to increase profits. The brewers argued that they were merely responding to public demand and, to be fair, no mention was made of the circumstances that had originally led to the introduction of keg.

I don't remember those days myself, but I have read much about the often poor quality of cask-conditioned ale during the early 1960's, caused largely, but not exclusively, by poor cellarmanship. Keg at least provided a consistent product that was very difficult to "mess up"; it's main drawbacks being blandness, served too cold and definitely too gassy.

Beer features again in the following chapter; this time it's The Strength of Beer that's being looked at. This is not an issue today, as the strength of all alcoholic drinks is quite clearly displayed, whether on the bottle label, or at the point of dispense. Back in the early 70's though, virtually all brewers were extremely secretive about the strength of their products. Hutt was able to demonstrate how some brewers were slowly reducing the strength of their beer, and thereby paying less duty, without passing on these savings to the drinker. This still goes on, as I can think of several well known beers that have been reduced in strength in recent years. The difference nowadays though is that the abv, is shown on the pump-clip or bottle, so anyone paying attention should in theory notice. In practice, most people don't and, as before, any duty saving made by the brewers are not usually passed on to the consumer.

The next chapter is all about The Choice of Beer, and goes on to describe how the choice of beers offered to drinkers was being dramatically cut, especially in those pub owned by the larger brewers. Examples cited, included those of Watneys, who had withdrawn locally-brewed Sussex Bitter from pubs in their Sussex estate, and replaced it with national brands such as Special and Starlight, plus Courage who were replacing locally-brewed Ordinary Bitter from much of their Bristol estate, in favour of a new beer, called "Full-Brew". The aforementioned Sussex Bitter was originally a hybrid brew, introduced by Watneys following their takeover of a number of local breweries during the late 1950's, and following another series of takeovers in Norfolk, the company was doing the same thing there with Norwich Bitter. The chapter ends by reproducing a list of 12 London Breweries that existed as late as 1951, but which were no longer brewing. Again this was used as an example of how the choice of beer, even in the nation's capital, had been dramatically reduced.

The next chapter details the then Big Six Brewers; Allied Breweries, Bass Charrington, Courage, Scottish & Newcastle, Watney Mann and Whitbread, and describes their rise to national prominence during the 1960's. This, of course was largely achieved by takeovers of smaller, local breweries, and mergers between some of the larger regional ones. The resulting brewery closure programme and consequential loss of favourite local beers is well chronicled, as are the "economies of scale" which many of the new brewing giants achieved by constructing a few mega-breweries close to the motorway network for the production of, and distribution from, of a few national, and heavily promoted keg brands.

The fifth chapter is about some of the remaining Independent Brewers, and the sharp contrast between how they do business compared to the activities of the Big Six, chronicled in the previous chapter. Hutt writes about Youngs, Theakstons, Northern Clubs Federation Brewery, Adnams and Boddingtons, detailing the David versus Goliath struggle by the latter company when they successfully fought off an unwelcome take-over bid from national giant, Allied Breweries. The main theme that emerges with all the examples he lists is their willingness to listen and respond to genuine (rather then perceived) customer demand, the way they treat their tenants and staff, and the fact they brew beer suited to local tastes and palates.

The sixth chapter, entitled Notice to Quit, exposes the replacing of successful pub tenants with salaried, brewery-appointed managers. This practice was quite prevalent at the time, and was especially common with some of the larger brewery companies, such as Bass Charrington and Watneys. This policy allowed the owning brewery to take what would have been the tenant's cut of the profits, as well as their own, and it was no coincidence that the pubs targeted for being switched to management were generally the most successful ones. These were pubs where the tenant had worked hard over the years to build up a thriving trade and a flourishing business. In effect, successful licensees were being penalised for their very success; something that was unheard of in other businesses.

The next chapter concentrated on the assault on the pub, where perfectly fine, traditional pubs were being converted into grotesque "theme" pubs, tarted up or otherwise generally knocked about in the so-called name of progress. Entitled The Blitz on the Pub, Hutt goes on to describe the treatment dished out to numerous pubs as a result of insensitive, and totally unnecessary conversions. Of course, things have moved on since then, with many pubs suffering far worse than some of the examples described in the book.

The eighth chapter relates the sorry tale of The Dry Villages, and centres on the notorious pub closure programme inflicted on East Anglia, and Norfolk in particular, by Watney Mann. This came about after Watneys had swallowed most of the local breweries in Norfolk, effectively handing them a monopoly over the county's pubs. Unfortunately the pub closure programme has accelerated in recent years, not as a result of the late, and unlamented Watney Mann's activities, but more a result of the policies of their successors - the Pub-Owning Companies, plus other factors like the smoking ban. In addition, pub closures are not now confined purely to rural areas either.

I will gloss over the penultimate chapter, as much of it is largely irrelevant to today's reader. It is titled Pubs and the Politicians, and details the findings of various commissions who had looked into the operation of the licensed trade in the run-up to the book's publication. Back then, there was no such thing as all day opening, and pub hours were still bound by restrictions originally brought in during the First World War. It seems incredible now that people were worried about the effect that liberalising these draconian measures would have on the pub trade, with many claiming all day opening would have a negative effect on the all important "atmosphere" of a pub.

The final chapter, titled Through a Glass Darkly, is a somewhat jaundiced view of what could happen to the pub trade if things continued along the same path. Few, if any of Hutt's dire predictions have come to pass, but then how could he possibly have foreseen the horror of such things as Sky Sports, Karaoke or, the dreaded smoking ban?

I apologise for such a lengthy article, but it is well worth dissecting this ground-breaking work and looking at it in detail. It shows that even 40 years ago, people were concerned with what was happening to both pubs and beer, and were prepared to stand up and do something about it. If you ever come across a copy of this excellent book, then do yourselves a favour and buy it. Hopefully I have whetted your appetites for the book's contents, rather than giving too much away. Once you start turning the pages I'm certain you will find it a most interesting read, just as I did all those years ago.

ps. This link from the Daily Telegraph explores much the same theme.

Monday 4 October 2010

The End of Pub Going - A Personal Perspective

There has been a lot written recently about the decline of the pub trade and the seemingly endless downward spiral much of the industry has got itself into. Curmudgeon wrote an excellent article a few weeks back describing the late 1970's as the peak of the pub's existence (both in terms of respectability and numbers of regular pub-goers), but since then it's been a slow, but steady downhill decline. From a personal point of view I feel partly responsible, albeit in a very small way, for this decline for it was in the mid-1980's that my pub going started to tail off.

Like Curmudgeon, I started drinking in the early to mid 1970's and for me, as with most of my friends and acquaintances, regular trips to the pub were a way of life. It was what everyone did, and it seemed an entirely normal thing to do. It would be an unusual occurrence for me not to call in to a pub on a weekday evening, and totally unheard of over a weekend. There would also be the odd lunchtime visit as well, back in the days when nipping out to the pub during one's lunchtime was not frowned on, or indeed expressly forbidden.

Things started to change for me late 1984 when I moved in with the lady who is now my wife. Eileen wasn't much of a drinker back then, whilst today she is virtually teetotal. It wasn't so much she minded me drinking, it was more a case of her preferring me to drink at home in her company, rather than clearing off to the pub to drink in other peoples'. This wasn't much of a problem back then as we lived within walking distance of an excellent off-licence that sold draught ale to take away by the pint. This was the very same off-licence that we ended up owning and running ourselves during the first half of this decade. Two or three pints of take-home draught beer a night, drank in the comfort of my own home, at least saw me supporting family and micro-brewers, even if I wasn't drinking the stuff in the pub.

All this didn't totally preclude visits to houses of refreshment. Sunday lunchtime was one session I rarely missed, and for several years I was a regular in a well-known Tonbridge free-house. Things changed though with the birth of our son, but also with a change of owners at the pub. I had less spare time, (and less spare cash), and with new owners behind the bar, my former local didn't seem the same either. To round off a year of change, the company I was working for shifted its production capacity from Tunbridge Wells to Lewes as the result of a takeover. I was now faced with either a 60 mile round trip each day, or looking for a new job.

I chose the former option whilst working on the latter. As things turned out I spent nearly four years making the tedious journey each day, by road, to Lewes and back. Working in Lewes though had its compensations in the form of Harvey's excellent Brewery Shop. For a knockdown price one could (and still can), purchase draught beer to take away. I became a regular at the Harvey's shop, calling in several times a week to re-fill my jug. Best Bitter, Armada and Old Ale in season were the staple beers, supplemented with the odd bottle or two from the Harvey's range.

Throughout this time I remained a member of CAMRA, and tried, wherever possible to attend branch socials. I was therefore still fairly au fait with the local beer scene, even if I wasn't drinking in the pubs that much. Following a further change of owners, I left my job in Lewes and managed to secure employment locally in Tonbridge. By this time I had commenced home-brewing; an activity I became quite adept at, producing a wide range of full-mash brews. At one stage I was brewing every 4-5 weeks and had a constant supply of tasty and well-crafted, home-brewed beers on tap.

Just under 10 years ago, my wife and I acquired the aforementioned Real Ale Off-Licence in Tonbridge. This was a fortuitous move for me and followed on from the voluntary liquidation of my then employer. As well as running a busy shop, I ended up being responsible for the keeping and serving of a range of cask-conditioned beers. We alternated between Harvey's and Larkins as our regular beers, supplemented by a couple of guest beers at weekends. I tried, wherever possible, to introduce our customers to beers that were interesting, well-crafted and full of character, and during winter weekends especially, I endeavoured to always have a dark ale, such as porter or old ale on tap.

The shop was virtually a 24-7 occupation, and with the cellar work on top of all the other necessary tasks it was a rare evening that saw me home much before half ten. As my wife would say though, "there's no point in having a dog and barking yourself", so most evenings I would bring home a couple of pints of draught to enjoy whilst sitting down and unwinding. The home-brewing had of necessity, long ceased, but this didn't matter given my access to a well-stocked beer cellar. The real downside though was precious little free time, and certainly no time at all for regular pub visits.

Now, having sold the business and back in the land of paid employment, whilst I have a fair amount of free time in which to renew my acquaintance with local pubs, I find it difficult to get back into the habit. It's not just me that has changed though over the past quarter of a century; pubs themselves have altered out of all recognition. The trend for knocking down dividing walls, whilst starting to take place 25 years ago, has continued to gather pace, so that today many pubs are nothing more than soulless, single room "drinking barns". Even worse is the more or less universal assault on ones ear-drums from juke boxes, piped muzak or, horror of horrors, karaoke! Many of today's landlords also seem to think their customers want a regular diet of Sky Sports, and many once unspoilt locals now resemble American bars where there is no escape from the all pervasive TV screens, or the morons wearing football shirts! Beer prices seem to have gone through the roof as well, with £3 being the average price of a pint locally.

Things have got to the stage where apart from the odd CAMRA social, or night out with friends, I now prefer to drink at home, and I'm sure I am not alone in this - as witnessed by the fall-off in people who visit pubs, or the number of pubs that have called "last orders" for the last time!

Perhaps my somewhat jaded views are influenced by the lack of decent pubs in my home town. There are some good ones a bit further afield in Tunbridge Wells for example, and there are still some relatively unspoilt rural gems in some of the surrounding villages. However, many of these pubs are forced to rely more and more on the food trade, given the hostility of the local gendarmes towards any driver who has so much as sniffed the barmaid's apron, and whilst they are fine to visit during daylight hours, particularly when combined with an invigorating walk in the countryside, they are not exactly "just around the corner"!

I was only joking when, at the beginning of this post I said I felt partly responsible for the decline of the pub trade. The trouble is there have probably been many hundreds, if not thousands of people who, like myself, stopped visiting pubs on a regular basis either for similar or for totally un-related reasons. As their customer base began to shrink, pubs tried to adapt in all sorts of unsuitable ways. The end result was even less people visiting their local - people like me who would have drifted back had there been something to go back for.

I don't know what the answer is, but if I had the means I might just be prepared to put my money where my mouth is and have a go at running a traditional, good old-fashioned, proper English pub!