Tuesday, 30 June 2020

How will the Bermondsey Beer Mile manage next Saturday?

As someone who takes a keen interest in all things beer, brewing and pubs, one of the first things I do on a Saturday morning – even before breakfast and switching on “Saturday Kitchen Live,” is to log on to veteran bloggers Boak & Bailey’s site to look at their weekly review. Entitled,  “News, nuggets and long reads,” the review opens with the words, “Here’s everything on the subject of beer or pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week.”

Now I’m glad that the blogging duo have the dedication to read through all the beery stuff that’s published each week, as it saves the rest of us a job. I normally find at least one, and often several more, of the links referred to in their summaries, well worth clicking on to, so their labours are not in vain.

Last Saturday it was a link to Will Hawkes’s site which featured an in-depth interview with Partizan Brewing founder, Andy Smith that particularly caught my eye. For those not in the know, Partizan are one of the original pioneers of the brewing renaissance in London, having been around since 2012. Their brewery is housed in one of the numerous railway arches beneath the congested rail approaches leading into London Bridge station.

Partizan Brewery is one of the stops on the famous “Bermondsey Beer Mile” (BBM); a crawl which now takes in 14 brewery taps, although originally there were only half a dozen. The taps are normally only open to the public on Saturdays, as the owners are busy brewing beer during the rest of the week, but unfortunately, since its inception as a loose-knit brewery crawl, the BBM has become a victim of its own success. That is until the lock-down intervened and stopped play altogether.

With restrictions on pubs and bar being lifted next Saturday, Partizan’s owner was wondering how the brewery would cope with the expected influx of visitors, and this was one of the topics raised in Will Hawkes’s interview, and highlighted by Boak & Bailey last week. It’s something I want to discuss as well; not that I have any intention of  attempting the BBM next Saturday, or indeed  any Saturday, but then I’ve had previous experience of this crawl.

Son Matthew and I undertook the BBM back in June 2014. You can read about it here, and although we enjoyed the experience, even then it was far too crowded for our liking, attracting various groups such as rugby clubs or “stag do’s” in strange costumes, all out on a “piss-up.” What made it worse, were those moments when it ended up being a bladder-busting experience, and this area that I wish to concentrate on, especially as it was one raised by Andy Smith in the interview.

As you can imagine, the toilet facilities at most of these brewery taps, are pretty limited. They are perfectly adequate for the number of staff present during normal working hours, but are definitely not sufficient to cope with large numbers of visitors, all of whom will need to empty their bladders during some stage of the crawl.

A couple of WC’s, for use by both sexes, is pretty much the norm, with queuing more or less inevitable. This is bad enough during normal times, but with enhanced hygiene and social-distancing requirements  necessary to meet current pandemic restrictions, I can envisage nothing but problems for those wishing to undertake the BBM.

Partizan’s owner touched on this during the interview, but apart from expressing his concern over the issue didn’t really put forward any solutions to the problem. I know in the past several bloggers, most noticeably Pub Curmudgeon, have written about inadequate toilet facilities in establishments such as micro-pubs.

I have also highlighted the issue after visiting other “brewery taps;” last year’s stop-off at Cellar Head’s, Flimwell premises, is one fairy recent example, as is a visit made with friends to the Thomas Tallis micro-pub in Canterbury, last autumn, but it needn’t be like this.

Two years ago, I spent a few days in the Commonwealth of Virginia, one of the original 13 colonies that went on to become the United States of America.  This was whilst participating in the 2018 Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference held at Sterling, just a short distance from Washington Dulles Airport. During my time at the conference, we visited several “brewery taps” and without exception they all had well-provisioned toilet facilities – sorry restrooms/bathrooms, for both sexes. So none of this breaking your neck for a slash whilst queuing for a single, and totally inadequate closet

If our American friends can do this, why can’t we? Is it because individual state laws, governing such places, are much more strict than they are here? Admittedly there is much more space in the US, and some establishments we visited were obvious “grand designs,” laid out to impress.

First and foremost of these was Stone Brewing’s Richmond facility, and if ever that most over-used American word “awesome” was an apt description, then Stone’s East Coast plant was worthy of  it, but in the main I am talking about much smaller breweries, such as some of the others we visited in the former Confederate capital. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, all were bustling places, full of life and all busy pouring a myriad of different beers from an array of taps. Contrast this to a pokey little English micro-pub, converted from a lock-up shoe repairs business.

I’m digressing somewhat and not really comparing like with like, but if one thing is really going to gall when our pubs reopen, it will be queuing for the toilets. So, back to Andy Smith and Partizan Brewery, who has mixed thoughts on the possible reopening of the Bermondsey Beer Mile.

Like other brewers on this mile and a half route (it’s rather longer than a mile, as your feet will tell you if you ever undertake it), the regular stream of Saturday visitors is an important revenue source, that was abruptly cut off by the lock-down. As referenced above, the BBM is crowded during normal times, with customers queuing to get served and find somewhere to sit and drink. Matthew and I found this ourselves, four years ago, so how will  the area cope with the dreaded “social-distancing” and other measures applied? And what about those dreadfully inadequate toilets?

Andy is obviously concerned, but fortunately branched out during lock-down by opening an online shop, and carrying out local deliveries. Sales have been 50 per cent higher per month  than the brewery was taking over the bar, so does he really need to reopen on Saturday?

Only he can answer that, as whilst online sales have been buoyant, sales to pubs and bars dried up completely. This side of the business could take some time to recover, so it’s a tricky situation deciding whether or not to open up for the thirsty hordes, this coming weekend.

Personally, I think people will remain wary and for the time being at least, will not return in anything like pre lock-down numbers.  I certainly won’t be amongst them on Saturday, but then the whole lack of adequate toilet facilities had already put me off. Like other observers though, I will be maintaining a close interest in what happens on 4th July.

 

Monday, 29 June 2020

Stuck in limbo

Just a short post to push June’s total towards double figures. The sixth month of the year has been slightly leaner than the preceding months. I’m not quite sure why, but looking back I sort of ran out of steam halfway through the month.

With pubs still not open (not yet, anyway), and virtually all social life still on hold, it’s perhaps not surprising that June has been on the quiet side, but that could possibly change as pubs, bars and restaurants slowly come back to life, from next Saturday onwards.

Barbers too will be allowed to reopen, but despite allowing my hair to grow to the longest it’s been for the past 30 years, I shan’t be rushing back for a trim. Mrs PBT’s says longer hair suits me, and some of the women at work have said the same thing. These particular colleagues have just returned from furlough after a period of several weeks, so my unkempt look must have come as something of a shock, but they added that my long hair makes me look younger! There’s nothing like a bit of flattery and this has now confirmed that my new look is here to stay, for a while at least.  

Whilst on the subject of reopening, the Tonbridge branch of the hardware chain, where son Matthew works, opens its doors to the public today, for the first time since 20th March. He was in the store last week, with a few of his colleagues, getting the place safe, compliant and ready to admit shoppers. Although slightly apprehensive, I think deep down he’s looking forward to it.  The company has installed the now familiar Perspex safety screens around the tills, along with appropriate one-way walking and distance markings, so things should be OK.

Mrs PBT’s continues to work mainly from home, although she does spend a day at the local scaffolding company where she’s been employed these past 10 years or so.  With Matthew back at work though, she’s lost her chauffeur and will have to rely on taxis to get her to and from the company’s remote location on the edge of Tonbridge.

As for me, I’m still soldiering on at the dental products company I’ve been at these past 14 years. Orders remain slow, as despite dental surgeries being allowed to reopen, the Covid-resistant working practices imposed by Public Health England, have meant dentists are only seeing around a third of their normal patients.

Despite the lull in my niche, I have noticed a significant increase in traffic volumes these past couple of weeks, and this morning’s drive to work seemed almost on a par with those one would expect during the school holidays.

The lad and I took a stroll down to the town yesterday. I had a few bits and pieces to pick up, as well as some pre-ordered draught beer to collect from the Nelson Arms. One thing I have really missed during lock-down is a decent cup of coffee, and whilst our local Starbucks is now doing takeaways, I’d much rather support an independent local trader.

With the thought of a proper cup of coffee in mind I was delighted to see an “A” board advertising that TOFS (Tonbridge Old Fire Station) was open for take-outs. Quickening our pace, we headed off in that direction and found TOFS had two areas both fronting onto the pavement, offering various goodies to passers-by. One counter offered cocktails and the other coffee, bottled beer and cider.

Although tempted by a beer, I was even keener to secure a cup of coffee, so after purchasing a takeaway cappuccino (complete with chocolate sprinkles ), we set off towards Tonbridge Sportsground to find a place to sit and enjoy it. A bench, overlooking the river, proved the ideal spot, as we watched the local canoeists struggle to navigate along one of the narrower channels.

I have to say my coffee was rather good – Matthew isn’t a coffee fan, so he didn’t quite appreciate my enthusiasm. After finishing my drink, we made our way across the Sportsground to the Nelson, where our pre-ordered and pre-paid beer was waiting for us. After we’d rang the doorbell, landlord Matt appeared with our order – Goacher’s Gold Star for me and Hacker Pschorr M√ľnchener Helles for the boy.

We stopped for a brief chat with plans for the pub’s imminent reopening featuring high on the agenda. If truth be known Matt seemed a little apprehensive, but I suppose much is a stake. He has sectioned off certain areas inside the pub and will only have four tables for drinkers. I didn’t ask him about the food side of the business, but from what he said, the Nelson will be concentrating on the garden/outdoor side of the trade for the immediate future.

We walked home, pleased to have clocked up a distance of four miles. Our respective beers went well with roast pork dinner that Mrs PBT’s had cooked, so that was a good way to off the afternoon. I did a stint in the garden afterwards, before making up my sandwiches ready for work this morning.

So, the routine of work interspersed by short interludes of domesticity continues.  It’s rather like living in limbo, and no-one’s really sure quite where we go from here.  This applies both nationally and internationally, but one way or another we will get through this present crisis and gradually return to some semblance of normality. We just have to be patient!

 

Saturday, 27 June 2020

A parting of the ways

This is the post I thought I’d never have to write. The article I waited six months before writing; the action I never mentioned at the time, but last November (2019), I took the decision not to renew my membership of CAMRA - the Campaign for Real Ale.

After 45 years continuous membership, it wasn’t an easy choice to make, but during  the last few years, I’d felt increasingly disillusioned with the direction the CAMRA had been taking. I’d been a member since my student days, having joined in 1975 at the relatively young age of 20. 

Unlike today, CAMRA was very much a young persons' organisation; although there was a healthy mix of older members as well. It was good talking to them, as many had been drinking beer before the advent of keg and top-pressure dispense, back in the days when virtually all draught beer was cask-conditioned “real ale.”

There was still a healthy sprinkling of local independent brewers spread throughout the country, and whilst this number had slowly dwindled, there were still quite a few family-owned independents plying their trade when CAMRA first came on the scene in the early 1970’s.

Fast forward to the present day, where the beer scene in the UK has changed beyond all recognition. There are now almost 2,000 breweries operating in the country, many producing a range of beers that would have been unimaginable 45 years ago. The beer scene in these islands would certainly have been far poorer if CAMRA hadn’t have come along. Furthermore, there has been a massive upsurge of interest in beer which has spread right across the world.

In its four and a half decades of campaigning, CAMRA has achieved far more than its founders, and early members, could ever have dreamt of, so it’s no exaggeration to say that CAMRA acted as the catalyst for the creation of hundreds, if not thousands of new breweries, all over the world. Drinkers in countries such as the United States, as well as many other parts of the world, owe the campaign a huge debt of gratitude for showing them the way forward, and inspiring them to re-create long-lost beer styles and start up new breweries.

Times change and success too, sometimes comes at a price. CAMRA has increasingly become inward looking and lost its overall focus. More and more it seems like a ship adrift. This loss of purpose has accelerated  in recent years, with people aged sixty and over now accounting for most of the membership. We now have a situation that is almost the polar opposite of that prevailing when I first joined the campaign.

Like many older members I warned that the shortage of young and enthusiastic volunteers in their twenties or thirties would have a detrimental effect on CAMRA activities, and unfortunately these dire predictions have come true. The campaign’s inability to attract new blood onto its ranks has led to many local CAMRA branches struggling. Some are dying on their feet.

My disillusionment with CAMRA set in several years ago, when the group had already arrived at a crossroads in its existence. After 40 years of dogmatically using cask-conditioning and dispense methods as the sole yardstick of quality, CAMRA had backed itself into a corner. Things had changed and time had move on, there were plenty of  excellent beers on the market that, whilst not cask-conditioned, were every bit as good.  The well-intended, “Revitalisation Campaign,”  set up to re-dress this in-balance, proved a disaster and ended up making matters worse.

As the campaign softened its approach to beers which didn’t meet their definition of real ale, the reformers within the campaign were met head-on by the “dyed in the wool,” old-school, diehard CAMRA stalwarts, who refuse to accept any beer which has so much as looked at a cylinder of CO2. This effectively drove a stake through the heart of the organisation, despite the best endeavours of the national executive to try and patch things up. 

It really did seem like it was time for either the Campaign to call it a day, or for CAMRA and me to part company. However, there was still something deep in my unconsciousness which didn’t want to let go of an organisation which had been part of my life for four and a half decades. The fact I had put my heart and soul into the campaign, made any decision to quit even harder, and at times, I agonised over what to do.

In the end, I knew what my answer would be, so I cancelled my direct debit mandate and wrote to the campaign’s membership secretary, explaining my decision. You can read my full resignation letter, at the end of this post. 

Had I been a life member, then things might have been different, but when this facility was made available to members, I couldn’t afford it. Life membership, costing ten times the annual subscription rate came at a time when I was financially embarrassed. I had recently changed jobs; a move which involved a long commute into work. We’d bought a bigger house, with a larger mortgage and my wife had given up work owing to birth of our son.

Instead, I continued renewing my membership annually, by direct debit paying considerably more over the past quarter century than life membership would have cost, but that’s just the way of things. To be honest, I didn’t expect CAMRA to be around for as long as it has, so I was wrong on that score too!

To wrap up, there are many more things I don’t miss from not being a CAMRA member, than the handful of things I do miss. Top of the “don’t miss” list are Good Beer Guide surveys and GBG selections meetings. The later are often divisive and can be biased as well. The guide itself is now way past its sell-by date and, despite claims to the contrary, exists primarily to generate income for the Campaign.

CAMRA committee meetings come a close second, as do being involved with organising local beer festivals – an unbelievably stressful and time-consuming occupation, especially when you’ve got a full time job as well..

I also don’t miss the CAMRA Discount Vouchers; Wetherspoon or otherwise. Back in the day, I only used a fraction of them and besides,  I don’t agree with CAMRA supporting large pub chains at the expense of small, independently run locals. Tim Martin isn't exactly my favourite person either.

The social side of the Campaign has always been for me, one of the most important aspects of CAMRA, but despite no longer being a member, I still keep in touch with what is going on within the branch, either via friends or by means of the various WhatsApp groups set up to keep people informed as to what is going on at a local level.

The one thing I really do miss is receiving copies of CAMRA's award-winning, quarterly Beer magazine. This publication is a real credit to the campaign and is an asset which should be exploited by being made more widely available.

 Finally, here is the letter I wrote to CAMRA, tendering my resignation.


Dear CAMRA

It is with regret that after 45 years as a member of the Campaign, I have decided not to renew my membership.

It's been a lot of fun along the way, I’ve met scores of interesting people, made many good friends and got to drink some amazing beers in some equally amazing pubs, but all good things come to an end.

Had I been a life member my decision might have been different, but I feel that CAMRA has lost its way and is no longer relevant in today's fast changing world.

CAMRA can hold its head up high though, for providing the spark which led to the totally unforeseen rise in interest in beer around the world, and the creation of hundreds, if not thousands of new breweries, producing an unprecedented and ever expanding range of different beers.

I'm proud to have played a part in this incredible achievement, and for this reason alone I think it's best to go out on a high. With this in mind, I have instructed my bank to cancel the direct debit mandate, in respect of my membership.

Wishing the Campaign all the very best for the future.

Best Regards

Paul Bailey