Tuesday 24 February 2009

Called to the bar indeed

To the Lamb in Axbridge a neat old coaching inn to be found in the middle of an old town of beautiful looking Georgian houses in the shadow of the Mendip Hills (the hell of Cheddar is nearby but this is a better and quieter bet). Butcombe Country I am told, which is why the Lamb is one of the brewery’s 15 pubs — I’m a fan of their Blonde and Brunel IPA and did you know they once had a beer called Wilmot’s, named after an old head brewer. I recall nearly choking on my beer when being told what the long-awaited successor to Butcombe Bitter was called and everyone around me wondering why.

Have been invited to give a 20 minute talk on the pub business from a consumer and beer-writing aspect by the Wessex Branch of the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII). Bit nervous cause the tenor of the talk is that things might be bad but there are plenty of success stories out there and — by the way — here are some other things you should do to make your pub successful (of course I’ve never served behind the bar but given that my journalistic career has often called on me to sound like an instant expert that should be no problem).

Very friendly people, though am even more nervous after a largish chap growls ‘I’ve only been 30 years in the trade’ when I joke that I will be telling them how to do their job. I enjoy talking in front of audiences, always have. It’s about getting a point across, showing off and demonstrating that those of us who care about beer can be articulate and also have a decent suit. Seems to go down well, get a couple of laughs, especially on the Prince-William-in-my-local gag and am pleased to have several questions rather than the harangues I expected. I realise that the folk here have to deal with all sorts of red tape, government demonisation, price increases and general crap, but I’m adamant that good pubs will last out this recession. Am followed by Butcombe’s MD Guy Newell who says what I didn’t have courage to say: that there are some crap pubs out there that deserve to close, but that the rest of them are essential to well-being of the country. Then there’s a lively presentation by BII chap on a scheme that seems to promise even more red tape.

At last the chance for several pints and then a visit to Butcombe brewery and the chance to try their cold-filtered Blonde, which is fruity and full of flavour; a decent ‘gateway’ beer and whatever happened to Spindrift I muse. Didn’t get paid for today but got a lift (thanks Nigel), several pints and the chance to talk with those who are selling beer and doing their best to keep the pub afloat. This I do recommend to all those who communicate about beer — it’s not all extreme beers, sometimes you have to deal with the nitty gritty.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Coke shandy

In the Bridge yesterday afternoon, a chap at the bar orders a half of Coke and a half of Carlsberg. ‘You’ve been living in Germany,’ I say, ‘possibly Duisberg?’ To my great delight, as it furthers my beer ego immensely at the bar, he nods yes. ‘best place for it,’ I then say, meaning the Carlsberg in his glass; this is not really good beer etiquette, people drink what they want to drink. ‘It does ok for me,’ he grunts and then goes to sit down. I think he won that encounter. The last thing I want to appear as is as a fully paid up member of the beer police.

Thursday 19 February 2009

The hell of tablecloths

To a pub on the Dorset-Devon border for lunch, a possibility of making notes for a future review for the paper I write for. Looks shabby from outside but it’s old and — hey, let’s be adventurous. We’ve spent too many times in the past nellying about, being unable to make up our minds whether we should go in somewhere or not. Now, we just do it.

Two things strike us as soon as we enter: it’s cold and the tables in both rooms on either side of the centre bar are set for eating with pink tablecloths, wine glasses with napkins tucked into them and knives and forks. As it happened we wanted some lunch and so snuggle in the corner by the fire. Service is friendly, the beer — Yeovil Ales’ Starstruck (there are also ales from Otter and Branscombe) — hits the spot and the food is ok in a pub-food sort of way. There’s a bar for boozers at the back with pool table, darts, skittle alley etc and the pub hosts various activities (as country pubs must do to survive), but the first impressions of the tablecloth-covered tables rule it out of contention. One side with ordinary tables would have been enough but I like a pub that looks like a pub… am I being unfair?

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Tax breaks beer

It’s not just here that taxing beer is seen as a source of revenue for a cash-strapped government and it’s not just here that scare stories abound about the hike been used to pay for alcoholism. See: www.kgw.com/news-local/stories/kgw_021309_news_oregon_beer_tax.126942e1.html?npc and weep.

Monday 16 February 2009

You handpump boys

At the rugby yesterday morning in Weston super Mare, where my lad was playing for Minehead’s under 10s, and I chat with fellow Welshman Decorator Chris, whose lad is in the under 12s or 13s. We naturally crow over the result the day before, but then talk turns to the recent snow. I tell him about the power cut and how we all went to the pub. He ruefully smiles — he had a power cut as well — then says, it’s alright for you handpump boys. I think he’s a Carling Cold drinker.

The landlord drops a glass

Sunday afternoon pints. My mate’s been in the Bridge since 2pm and you’d think he was celebrating Ireland’s win over Italy given the amount of Guinness he has shipped onboard. I’ve just popped in for a quick Otter Ale and then the landlord drops a glass behind the bar. A cheer resounds, which takes me back to my youth — whenever anyone dropped a glass in the pub a cheer would go up. I had not heard this sound for years. Is the survival of this tradition akin to the sort of folk memories that associate a huntsman on a horse with the marauding Norman knights from hundreds of years ago? Or just loutish behaviour by my mate?

Friday 13 February 2009

And one last thing before a barley wine

If you ask for a Tribute (that’s St Austell’s beer by the way), do you often feel the urge to add: ‘and I don’t want it in song’? I sometimes do and immediately feel that I’ve fossilised, grown roots and become a instant purveyor of the sort of pub cliches I have spent my whole life trying to avoid.

Coming back from the dead

The pub is excellent for most things, but I’ve never had my death announced in it before.
My mother in law sadly died after Christmas and in the past few weeks my wife has been getting flowers from her mum’s old friends who didn’t make it to the funeral. She had some flowers on Monday but the person who delivered them told someone in Dulverton that they were for Mrs T-J whose husband had just died. Someone (thanks Sarah) rushed to my local and asked various folk if they had heard I had died. Don’t be stupid was the general riposte, he was in here over the weekend. No, she insisted, I’ve heard he‘s dead. At the same time I was blithely watching the news unaware I had shuffled off the mortal coil. It’s a bit weird but one has to see the surreal side of things. I did wonder about going into the pub with a white sheet over me but people would have then thought I was showing off. Anyway, if there’s a beer called Resurrection (and I am sure there is), mine’s a pint.

Judge and jury for a day

To the judging for the SIBA national contest in the post-industrial surrounds of the Canalhouse in Nottingham, a spacious waterside former wharf house that is unique because it can boast of being the only pub in the country that has a footbridge. Upstairs is where the 50 odd beers are served to several dozen judges gathered from various branches of the business of beer — brewers, journalists, maltsters, CAMRA men and others. All the beers are dispensed by hand pump and served to the brewers’ specifications — a heartening way of doing things, as one hears stories of certain big fests where brewers’ requests for their beer to be served through a sparkler are ignored. There’s also a welcome dose of reality when SIBA Julian Grocock (yes that’s his real name) gives his pep talk as a woman from the local ITV station roves about: ‘we are an organisation of commercial brewers, so as well as judging what the beer tastes like, we want you to judge how it will sell.’ Am directed to judge two categories. First of all the Milds: all are dark (no golden milds), some darker than others, all have chestnut red tints when held up to the light, one has a bitter edge with hints of fruit, another is as thin as a shadow, while one has hints of ginger and is dusty in the mouth. Finally a couple get the thumbs up: one has liquorice, soot, and milky coffee on the palate while its grainy texture gives it a contemplative chewiness, while another one is an elegant supermodel of a mild, creamy and soothing in the mouth; this is our winner. The strong bitters are not so exciting, though one has the traditional tropical fruit edge from the use of US hops and does a sprightly dance on the tongue, while another possesses a dry and rasping personality courtesy of an excess (to my mind) of chocolate malt. I let the rest of the table take the lead in deciding the winner — maybe one should only judge a single category of beer. As ever, these events are a very useful exercise in seeing (and tasting) what is out there and meeting with likeminded souls in the industry. I heartily commend you to do the same, even if it’s only your local pub having a light-hearted competition.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Beer towel mystery

I’ve got a handful of beer towels in a box — some good breweries:Adnams, Woodforde’s, Morrells, even an ancient one from Everard’s. Looking at them tonight the question strikes me: is anyone still making them and using them? They used to be common currency at the bar and when I was a teenager I remember heavy metal fans who had beer towels sewn onto the baacks of their denim jackets, it seemed to go with thumbs hooked in belts when jigging to Status Quo. Quite an appalling sight really, on a par with the two bikers who on a damp autumn day in the late 1970s once wandered into the now demolished Ancient Druids in Cambridge’s old Kite area with dead sparrows attached to their shredded jeans. How we laughed (or didn’t).

Flooded Devon pub shows true mettle

On the TV news tonight, a report on the King of Prussia in Kingsbridge, Devon. After the heavy rain and snow that has lashed the west in the last 24 hours, the pub was flooded to a depth of a foot or so, but instead of shutting up shop the landlord carried on serving to his regulars. They then helped to clear out the place so that they could have their regular card night this evening. Now I know nothing about this pub and what the people drank (it could be rough cider the colour of cellophane for all I know), but its regulars’ resilient nature and the landlord’s desire to keep trading shows how important the pub is in the fabric of our national life. Yet, dozens of these establishments are closing every week and the handcuffs of bureaucracy and high prices are hampering other— time to remember that the pub is more than just a place for a beer (or glass of Chardonnay if you want, I won’t hold it against you), it is a public house, a refuge from the storm, a meeting place, a convention of like-minded souls and of course it does help if it’s got a splendid drop of beer at the bar.

Monday 9 February 2009

A day without ale

Monday is the designated day without ale (or cider for that matter) — it’s the day for austerity, whatever is left in the fridge from the weekend is heated up; there is soup and tortilla for tea, an early night is planned. Tuesday might also be dry. It’s good to have a break as I believe that my palate gets a bit overwhelmed. Then when I return to a beer it tastes all the better for it. Years ago I used to do three months at the start of the year, but in those days I wasn’t really bother what I drank and all manner of foul potations would pass my lips for the rest of the year. Cocktails would even be considered. Harvey Wallbangers, Manhattans and all manner of sweetish muck; I even had a session on gin once which brought me down for days.

The snow fell and we went to the pub

When the snow struck in the West Country and our town was without power there was only one place to go on Friday afternoon and that was the pub. The place was packed with locals, including the weary part-time firemen who had been out all night in the driving snow, and the licensees were doling out soup that they’d made on the AGA. The ale was in fine fettle, Otter’s robust ale, with its estery fruit notes on the nose, including pear drops; meanwhile the palate was a steady and solid slab of biscuity toffee at first then a balance of fruit before its rich and dry finish. Several pints of this were downed — after all it was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. But what stays with me is the place of the local pub as somewhere were folk made their way to — to share stories, have a drink and a bite to eat, gossip, laugh and generally leave behind their cloistered selves that slumps in front of the telly. Good pubs like the one I was in will not go under — if there were more with that sense of community we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.