Friday 30 January 2009

Which side of the line?

Maybe I complain too much, yesterdays post complained about the worry of the year ahead in this economically uncertain time. Today we got customers, not many, but better than no customers. The first one had Budvar Dark, straight choice, no selling, fantastic. It was worth being open just for that.

I said I'd mention about full pints and stuff. I've been waiting to pull through the first pint on the handpulls, with sparkler, for a while now. Just so I can show you this. Although we serve our cask, or real ale in lined glasses, I'm not convinced of the merits of the idea. I like the idea here, because customers do notice and that helps my trade. However it costs me money.

The first picture here is a typical pint as served by me. Notice the liquid is actually slightly above the line. I'm generous, yes? Well it has to be at or above the line by law, because I serve in lined glasses.
Notice though the very same pint a couple of hours later. It's a good beer because the head is still there, if a little reduced. But notice where the liquid line is. That's free beer. I think I'm quite good to my customers.

Thursday 29 January 2009

A long road

We're just about to open up after two months of no customers. It's scary. What will the year hold for us? We've put so much into this project, we've ploughed any profit, what there is, and all our reserves into The Inn. We really need to make money this year. But the credit crunch, how do we deal with that?

It's obvious that some places are cutting prices and so must, by reason, be cutting costs. The quality is going to drop. A few less cleaning hours here, perhaps a narrow selection of beers so that deals can be done on quantity with fewer suppliers. Perhaps consider that large catering block of processed cheese rather than the local supplied one that is better.

We don't know if we're doing the right thing, but we believe we need to maintain quality. We'll not be doing any cheap deals just to get bums on seats. Of course, this might mean all our customers go somewhere else. So, it's scary hanging on to one's beliefs. But if we compromise we might disappoint the customer base we have now and then they won't be there when things get better.

I've been in the kitchen most of the day preparing food for opening. In some ways it's nice, but in others it's difficult. How much do I prepare? If I over do it I've wasted effort and spent money on ingredients only for them to go in the bin. If I under prepare then I might miss a sale if we run out. Tapping and venting casks has similar problems.

Five years ago we were just about to move in here. Wide eyed and bushy tailed we believed that all that any failing pub needed was a good management team. We knew we could do it, all it needed was hard work and determination. Think of the profit, with the markup on product it can't fail. Get a manager in and we'll be on holiday half the year.

Five years on and boy did we underestimate the amount of hard work and determination. The eating of the margins by overheads and essential repairs leaving improvements to be taken from reserves. Now we have a recession, yippee.

But we're still here and hopefully will be for another 12 months at least. We've well and truly made our stamp on the place and it would be difficult to go back. We've installed a brewery, and the beer is nice, even if I say so myself. We've replaced some of the roof last year, eventually. The surveyor said when we bought that it needed replacing immediately. Well 5 years is immediate in a property that has nearly 500 years of history. We've put 3 more rooms en suite, rebuilt a bar, completely refurbished the kitchen, including a complete new concrete floor, that's a story in itself.

If we go bust due to some sort of recession, then at least we tried. Hopefully we won't. The economy might have shrunk by 3% or whatever, but 3% less turnover for us won't kill us and anyway, lets hope everybody holidays in the UK this summer. That should help pubs and the wider economy, so here's hoping.

Tonight I've put on two cask beers ready for tomorrow. My own Saazy's Wiesse at 4.3%, it's a wheat beer and Hesket Newmarket's Skidaw Special Bitter also at 4.3%. Oh bugger, that makes me realise that yet again, no session ale. There's more beer tapped, I'll check in the morning.

So, if this blog gets a bit erratic later in the year, be pleased for me, I've got customers. Tomorrow night I've definitely got at least two, staying as residents. But I've already got tomorrows post worked out. Sparklers, head retention and full pints. The beer is on the bar with a collapsing head waiting for the second photograph.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

A good image?

I'll have to be honest and say that my beer blog resulted as an indirect conflict between my perception of what CAMRA seemed to be saying and the realities I found in running a pub. The peak of that conflict occurred before we found our feet here, before we started brewing beer, before we gained entry to the Good Beer Guide and most importantly, before I joined CAMRA. Luckily I didn't start this blog until I had gained some understanding that it is all to do with perception, perspective, context and opinion. For sure there is no right or wrong answer. Except when it comes to sparklers.

Today I saw that Melissa Cole is picking a fight with Malcolm Gluck. Good, I thought. But I'm getting bored of this Gluck fella. He's clearly a pillock and a wine snob and his comments are simply being used to gain attention. I was concerned that Mellisa was biting. But still, riding his publicity won't do her any harm. I lazily browsed to find her writings about the situation and found a piece that I enjoyed. I was interested in seeing a comment from some blogger called WellDoneFillet, which of course, for any food aware person is a contradiction of terms. I had to check it out.

I was initially quite offended by what I read. The guy is a waiter in a restaurant and it seems his blog is mainly about things that annoy him during his time at work. These annoyances normally come in the form of customers. I understand this, as we get customers too. Some are not worth the hassle, although normally the annoying types can be spotted by their confusion over the lack of Carling, or similar. This blogger had clearly had a real ale drinker in and had been irritated by the customer's questions over the beer on offer. Mr WellDoneFillet, in his piece, proceeded to attack real ale drinkers in a similar way to Malcolm Gluck's attack on beer drinkers in general. It does bother me that a restaurant waiter is alienating a section of his customer base that would like to eat quality food but would also like quality beer with his food, I could do a whole post on this alone.

Luckily I have learnt to step back from offending posts and take a deep breath. Perhaps sometimes not long or deep enough, but I'm getting there. I decided that his post was a bit of naughty fun making and little more. The problem is, despite the fact that real ale drinkers cover a much wider spectrum of people than is portrayed in this and many other places, it is still a perception held by many.

There are people who have been bothered about this perception for some time. Despite attempts by CAMRA to dispel this perception. Jeff Pickthall being one and pubcurmudgeon another. A very important observation was made by Real Ale Blog recently, which I had to sympathise with. Perhaps Malcolm Gluck has a point about the perception that beer drinkers are sadsacks. If a proportion of the population thinks that beer drinkers are either lager numptys or real ale geeks, then while his observations might insult us, the real beer geeks, there might well be a discerning customer base out there that would only ever drink wine with food, G&T most of the rest of the time and a fizzy lager if it's hot, because they don't want the label of real ale drinker.

Out of the three people in the pictures here, which one is an odd one out? The obvious answer is the last one, he's a normal person. The other two are bearded weirdos. Well although this is true, the last person is our Labour MP - normal? you judge. Actually, I've got my reservations about the damage done by Labour to small businesses like pubs, but still, he is a nice guy and drinks real ale.

The first picture is of a real ale drinker at the NWAF. The second is my father, who does not drink and is always slagging off Labour at every opportunity and I wish he wouldn't. I have a beard, drink real ale, other beers, wine and whiskey - I don't waste my unit allocation on G&T, I might vote Tory next time, but might not.

The correlation between beards and real ale does exist, but it is not as strong as perception suggests and is damaging to it's image.

Yes, I know I've mixed up CAMRA and politics and beards all together. But I'm concerned about perception, not reality, which I know are two different things.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Something special

I haven't said much about the economic situation. I'm hoping the exchange rate is going to stop people going abroad, hopefully the summer, for the pubs that are still open, will be quite good. After all, everyone likes a drink with good company and even better on a hot lazy sunny day.

I don't say too much about Wetherspoons either. I do not like the places and will not ever pretend to. I do admire Tim Martin, however. Anybody who can make people part with money for such a low quality product is a wizard. That does mean I should admire McDollop and Bugger King as well. Perhaps, in a way, I do.

As a result of the Credit CrunchTM our usual man who acquires our continental fizzy stuff has cash flow problems. He's owed a large amount of money by some corporate prats. He owes a lesser amount to James Clay, the company who imports the beers. James Clay is reluctantly putting his account on stop. In normal times the bank would extend my suppliers overdraft and everything would be OK. But despite the government giving money to the banks to stop this happening, they are tightening up on all businesses. Nobody is happy about this, not me, not my man and not James Clay. Perhaps the banks are happy, because they now have taxpayers money and seem to be able to keep hold of it.

Today we had to go to James Clay ourselves, browse through a large warehouse full of beer and choose what we wanted. I was like a kid in a candy store. We came back with rather more than we went for, I just hope we can sell it all. It was worth going though. We got given a much larger than usual quantity of point of sale freebies, you know, branded glasses, bar runners, chalk boards etc.

On the way back we called at a very good pub, chosen by Ann from the good beer guide. We needed lunch so a call at the Fox and Goose was in order. As soon as I walked in I knew it was a good ale pub. I also guessed, fairly quickly that food was not a driver behind this pubs success. 4 hand pulls all with something interesting. Nice beers, nice chap running it and worthy of a visit. But no food for us.

So we ended up stopping at a motorway service station for a crap baguette pizza thing and a coffee. Left on the table was a copy of the Daily Mirror. We wouldn't buy it normally, but it was worth every penny we paid for it. Reading through Ann found an article on Wetherspoons. There he goes again, I thought, the master of PR, Tim Martin. And it just goes to show the target audience he has, Mirror readers.

Eventually, I reluctantly read the article. Through the rather smug comments about how he's still going to do OK, because he's selling crap beer for 99p a pint, he is also pointing out that people want something different in a pub. This is how he is winning. Yes, OK, he's playing dirty by selling volume at knock down prices where other pubs can't, but there is something else there. There is something that has got the run of the mill pubs, well, running. Like no other chain pub they also provide variety. I think there is lots the rest of the pub trade could learn from Tim Martin. He does say "customers are willing to spend a bit extra for something special". It doesn't take that much to be special compared to Wetherspoons.

So now I'm sitting drinking something special, and it's all Tandleman's fault. His blog alerted me to the NWBF, where I tried Budvar Dark. Now I've gone and bought a keg of the stuff. I think it's quite nice and when trade is slow I can still have a dark beer on without the problems of a cask not selling. And I can hold my head high because I'm selling something special.

Monday 26 January 2009

Why do we do this?

This, perhaps rhetorical question, was asked by Tandleman in a post about the NWBF. After being a significant organiser at the event he was understandably tired, I suspect with a capital "F". The concept of giving up a significant amount of time and effort to something that provides no tangible return in the way of, say, money, is well known to volunteers in charitable organisations. I had two thoughts associated with the question. The first was hoping it really was a rhetorical question, after all beer festivals need people like Tandleman and all the other hard working volunteers to make them happen.

The other thought however was perhaps a little bit more sinister. "You think you're knackered? Just try running a pub!". It's tempting to go into a Monty Python style tirade about how we often get up half an hour before we went to bed, but most readers would probably think I'm exaggerating. However, it's what we've chosen to do, so I shouldn't complain. In any case, that is not the point of this post.

The point of this post is reward. There is, in employment, reward in the form of money. Social engineering experts would call this non-discretionary exchange. It's in the contract of employment, you turn up for work, you do what is required, you go home and an amount of money is put in your bank account, normally without question.

Then there is discretionary reward. These are the less easy to define rewards that you get from both paid and unpaid work. Significantly, for unpaid work, these are the only rewards. A simple reward might be that you enjoy doing it, what ever it is. Perhaps you believe in what you are doing or perhaps you want to gain recognition at being good at what you are doing, a reason for running a beer festival or authoring a blog, perhaps. Whatever the reward might be it can be difficult to identify them all and for sure they will change depending on how much effort is put in and how successful the outcome.

At the risk of going into complaining mode again, I will state that pubs don't make much money and they are also a great deal of hard work. If we accept this as fact then we come round to thinking about why publicans do this. I have come to the conclusion that it is for the same reason people organise beer festivals, it's because they want people to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Publicans do it because they want to make people happy.

The trouble is, it is impossible to please everybody. This has resulted in my favourite motto, QVI VVLT PLACERE CVNCTIS NEMINI PLACET. Which basically says if you try to please everybody you will end up pleasing nobody. It is indeed difficult when you have a customer for whom it is impossible to please.

Some time ago we realised that irrespective of what we did or how hard we tried we wouldn't please everybody. We then decided to concentrate on pleasing the people we knew we could please and that we were happy to please. It has made such a difference to how we feel. We don't seem to have created an increase in the number of people who don't like what we do. We do seem to be pleasing some people a whole lot more. This reward is worth so much more than money.

It is striking that , coincidentally, at a beer festival shortly before we took over our pub, I was telling the publican of a favourite pub of mine about our planned adventure. His face changed to one of horror. He had in fact only been in his place for perhaps a year or so and tried very hard to put me off the whole idea. It was killing him and he feared it would kill me.

Sunday 25 January 2009

Bottled Up

Some days I wonder why I blog. Surely I could do something better with my time? Well loads actually. But more and more these days I bump into somebody who has read this blog. I like that.

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Mike, a local guy who had been to my pub before. I didn't remember him, but he seemed to know I had a keen interest in beer. He had amassed a large collection of beer bottles and he had decided that it had just grown far too big for his house. Not wanting to throw them away he turned to us as first choice as a place that might display his bottles. He brought them here today.
It turns out he reads this blog, which might explain why he chose me as custodian of his prize collection. We think there might be around 500 bottles here, each one different and from all over the world. Now all we have to do is find a place to display them.
Thanks Mike, the only problem is it shows up my poor attempt at trying different beers.

Saturday 24 January 2009

The futures bright, don't be square

I feel a little like I'm neglecting this blog at the moment. We have a pub to open up and it's taking a large amount of my time. But still, the gents are serviceable again, not finished, but better than they were when we closed last year. The cellar has a new ceiling, all insulated and just needs the joints filling and painting. The bar is just about ready to serve beer once the orders arrive next week. So I can digress onto some subjects that are floating around my thoughts.

I started this blog primarily to tackle some of the issues relating to pubs. Specifically, the preconceived ideas the more vocal complainers have about what a pub should be. The problem as I see it is that the market for that "perfect" stereotypical pub is shrinking. Making money out of the old fashioned pub model is getting harder and harder to do. Hence the increase of food lead pubs, pub restaurants and wine bar style operations.

We recently undertook a pub research trip similar to one we did previously. I find writing up these trips tedious and time consuming and, more importantly, I'm not happy with the resultant posts. On the most recent night out we visited a place in Keswick which intrigued me and I think there are lessons to be learnt, so I shall concentrate on that.

The Square Orange gained entry into the Good Beer Guide for one year in 2008. During the life of the guide the local branch received a complaint from a CAMRA member who did not think the café bar should have been entered. I believe the complaint was along the lines of it not being a proper pub. For me, the Good Beer Guide is about where I can get a good selection of well kept ales, end of.

I had remembered about the reporting of the complaint, and at the time it had bothered me. After all, I may not agree with all the entries in the guide but the people who make the choices care about what they are doing and it is a reasonably democratic process. I realised that having not been to the place before I had to try it out and judge for myself.

It does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a continental style café bar that also serves local real ale. The concept has always intrigued me and I like this place. Not only does it have real ale but you can get a good coffee or better still hot chocolate, a boon when Ann is driving. They also serve continental beers and an interesting selection of soft drinks. Why does a good beer place have to be a pub? Why is the concept of a pub so narrow in the UK?

In this instance, even though I like it, I don't believe the Square Orange should be in the Good Beer Guide. I don't think the cask selection, or when I was their, the beer quality, is good enough. This might undermine the argument I'm making and we should bear in mind that beer quality and selection is a fixable problem. The point is that there is a diverse market out there. This is a market that is more and more choosing restaurants, café bars and gastro pubs over the traditional boozer. If a traditional boozer has to sell Walkers crisps, have soup on the menu and always have the option of chips, regardless of their quality, have a Coca Cola machine, dart board, cooking lager, duke box, fruit machines, smoking shelter.....then it will continue to loose out to the competition.

This is of course where the staunch beer fan is suffering a dissonance. There are many new style, beer retail, on licence premises that are appearing. There are many pubs that are changing their style to enable them to change from a non-viable outlet to one that might just make enough money to enable it to get the roof repaired, one day. We can continue to dwell on the past and lament the failing British pub or we can embrace a future that includes a more diverse way of retailing beer.

It's raining again, my roof is old and very large. It is leaking in some places and although we've replaced the worst bit there is still more to do. Many customers tell us, "What you wana do is.....", which really means, "What I want you to do is...." and normally involves a scheme designed to save the customer money and risk me losing what little profit I have. 

Thursday 22 January 2009

National Winter Beer Festival

I went. The beer was nice. I think the effort put into cask cooling paid off as every beer I had was good and that is unusual for a festival. I really liked the fact that there was a very good selection of foreign beers. Unfortunately I had chosen to go to the trade session and as I had to catch a train I missed the opening of the competition bar. That is the only complaint, if I have one.

Oh, not quite, when rushing to catch the train with only moments to go and a burger in one hand and carrying my expensive  camera in the other I was asked for a ticket.

You should go, it's good.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

FREE of TIE tenancy

I've been in the cellar all day moving a consumer unit, fuse box to the lay man. I've been putting in circuits for the new gents lights, hand dryer and replacing old red and black cables with brown and blue. Oh, and tidying up cabling so that Alan can put back the ceiling he has previously demolished.

This did involve a brief venture into the VOID - but only Ted would fully appreciate that.

I have noticed with all my refurbishment of bar and cellar equipment, the amount of gear bearing the words "Property of S&N". Well, considering the amount of damage S&N engineers have done to the fabric of the building in the 20 or so years they had run of dispense equipment, I'm going to damn well keep the lot.

Most of this work is fairly mind numbingly boring. It's why I gave up being an engineer in the first place. But you do get lots of chance to think about things. For instance subjects for blog posts. I've got a few going on in my little brain right now. After getting the electric powered back up I came through to the office to set to on tonight's post. Ann however had left a couple of post cards, sent from S&N, on my desk.


It seems not. I do hope they manage to lease them. If you're looking for a lease on a pub, now is your chance. Negotiate your own terms. So I'm almost sorry for the thoughts I had about S&N earlier in the day - It's just a good job I can't blog straight from my cortex, that's all.

Meanwhile, it seems there are comments on other bloggers blogs that I need to catch up on - also, I should go to bed as I've convinced myself I need to go to some beer festival in Manchester tomorrow. Ho hum, the life of a beer geek!

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Pythons eat mice

I talked about my python a couple of posts ago. My brother used to have a couple of pet pythons. They ate mice, rather than mice eating them and I nearly tagged the fact on the end of my python woe story but thought it might give the reader something to put in the comments. Well too late, I'll make the observation now. I know, I'm pathetic.

Apparently some of you want to know how I've got on with the problem, well one of you anyway. The good news is I've got the new python installed and working. The foam insulation of the old one was rather soaked in some interesting smelling liquid. I can't work out if it's mouse wee or stale beer. I suspect it's a combination of the two.

When we first bought the pub we gained the help of a supplier of beer in respect of cellar maintenance. They put in the cask
python that has since been the subject of problems. Previous to that all the pythons had been enclosed in a 6" plastic pipe which was mouse proof. The new python was rather shoddily run alongside the old python, but to make room the protective plastic pipe was broken.

I was determined to install the new system the way I wanted. I took me 3 days, but I'm very pleased with the results. There are a few technical improvements that I've made over the standard methods of installation but I want to get a couple of weeks of operation under the belt before I brag too much. It does involve a reduction in pythons from three to one and a reduction in energy hungry cooling devices. I will have to keep a close eye on drink dispense temperature and let you know the results.

A key difference to standard installations is the inclusion of a thermally insulated connection box, mouse proof of course. This enables me full flexibility in the future for how I connect up the various products to dispense points on the bar.

Connecting up under the bar is always a problem. When the professionals do it they always seem to steal valuable shelf space needed for the glasses. They also like to cut holes everywhere in the bar woodwork. I worked hard to counter this problem. We now have four more hand pulls on the bar and two extra shelves. I didn't cut a single bit of bar timber. I'm rather proud of that.

And finally the finished result. 10 handpulls, just perfect for a beer festival.

The Obama effect

I have a web site for my pub, of course. Because of my location Internet publicity is extremely important to me. I check the web stats for the pub site daily, and sometimes several times a day. Today I was worried. Normally, there are fluctuations in the hit number due to work times and lunch times, night times and such things but it stays reasonably high all day. Today at tea time there was an unusual dip. I thought my web site had gone down, but checking it was still there.

I've only just realised; Obama was sworn in 5pm GMT today. I think it's been a long time since I've seen the day time hits drop that low.

On the subject of that great country across the pond, I've found a bottle of something in the cellar. It's rather nice but has no label. It's a 22oz bottle of something hoppy. It tastes significantly of oranges to me. It's also bottle conditioned, and I should have been slightly more careful pouring it as there are bits in the glass. It's very nice but I'd like to know what it is. 

The man who brought it here reads this blog. There are at least two other readers of this blog that might know what it is. The only distinguishing mark is the bottle top, shown here. Anybody any idea?

Monday 19 January 2009

Beer tie again

I recently set up statcounter on this blog, it's a rather good web stats tool for monitoring hits on web sites. The best bit is it's completely free and transparent to anybody visiting your site. I have Jeff, of Stonch's blog, to thank for publicising this facility on his blog. I also have Jeff to thank for prompting me to write this as a result of this post. Golly, he's a good chap.

I've commented about the beer tie before on several occasions. I am not going to pretend I like it and I'd prefer it didn't exist. You can get my previous posts on the subject here. I find it interesting that statcounter reports a significant proportion of readers of my blog, find it by putting something in Google like "beer tie", or "tied houses" or something similar. I've tried testing similar phrases in Google and haven't found this blog quickly, so anybody who gets here cares a lot about the subject and is going to the somethingteenth page to find me.

A question that is clearly being asked is "Can a profit be made from a tied pub?" or variation thereof. My knee jerk reaction would be to say "no"; This can't however be the case. There are clearly going to be many places where profits for the licensee, lessee, are likely to be quite sufficient. My suggestion would be that where the pub freehold value runs into 7 digits and the turnover is a very health fraction of that, a profit may well be possible for somebody who takes on the lease. This is likely to be true of a good town centre pub.

I accused Jeff of being a supporter of the tie. He put me in my place and I'm sorry I misunderstood. But he does state "I don't support people who break their tie arrangements - it's a contract they freely entered into". This I have a problem with. Not because Jeff is wrong in pointing out that it's the contract, but that I'm not sure that a good proportion of people who enter into the contract fully understand all the implications. For instance, they will not get a choice when their beer is delivered. If they miss the beer delivery their business will be without a product to sell and they can't go anywhere else to get it.

Jeff makes a further, very good point. If it were to be outlawed by Government, it would no doubt be done in a clumsy unhelpful way. Indeed I'm not sure I know how to do it without throwing the whole of the industry into chaos. So this leaves me to think that the only real way of sorting the situation out is by market forces.

So here I do my bit. If you've got here because you are seriously thinking of taking on a tied pub, then don't, not unless you really, really think you can make it work. Running a pub is hard work; No, I mean really, really is hard work, harder work than you can ever imagine. What you just don't need is some Pub Co making it harder for you by narrowing down the options on your supply chain. 

Saturday 17 January 2009

Cats away, the mice will play

I'm replacing the python in my bar. A python is a multiway, cooled pipe for carrying beer from the cellar to the bar and connects to the handpulls and gas fonts. Gas fonts are the things the very cold fizzy stuff is dispensed from. The python seemed to start leaking beer last season so a new one was in order.

It turns out the reason it was leaking was that where it runs under the floor, the mice have nibbled nice little holes in it to get at the beer. The little rodent bar stewards have been having a party at my expense. Now at £7.50 per metre I can't afford to replace the python too often, so I'm a little dis-chuffed with those mickeys.

It turns out though that the blighters have taste. They didn't choose the very fizzy lines to chew through, oh no, they know the score; They went straight for the cask lines, no messing, and left the lager well alone.

Having tried a few other beers around the world this winter it strikes me that there are perhaps some very nice fizzy beers around. I wonder if any readers have ideas as to what I could consider for next season. Clearly the stuff I have on is of inferior quality as even the mice don't like it.

Last year we had Lindeboom, Pure Czeck and Timmermans Kriek on draft. We can get anything from James Clay and would be interested in hearing from anybody who has an opinion on this matter.

Before anybody thinks we are overrun with mice, we do have a contract with Rentakill, who do a very good job of getting rid of all types of pests. I did ask about their ability to rid a pub of drunken late night boozers when I've had enough and want to go to bed, but apparently I just have to carry on being rude to people and that should work.

No, we don't have a standard cooking lager, we really don't want to attract that type of customer, or mouse.

Friday 16 January 2009

That, Mr. Anderson, is the sound of inevitability

Don't you just love the fact that there are some good things about?

I just got to watch episode 2 Oz and James last night on the good old IPlayer from the Beeb.

There are some good, well known media people that are taking real notice of beer. Oz and James and Morrissey Fox of course are really helping the beer industry. Fiona Beckett, who is really into wine, is saying stuff supporting beer as well. Recently, an apparently notorious idiot in the wine world tried to slag off beer in the Guardian; his name is Malcolm Gluck. There is a lack of wine fans jumping to his support in the comments, and a large number of beer supporters rounding on his ignorant declaration. The best bit is that fellow wine buff Fiona Beckett pulls no punches with the first comment before more than 150 follow suit.

I recently stopped at a fuel station that had a Spar attached. Of course there were shelves filled with cheap lager and plenty of plonk, but 10 years ago you would not have found 20 plus specialist bottled ales on the shelves, but there they were.

So, yes, inevitably there are pubs closing and some old breweries, and the downturn is affecting trade a little, but there is hope for that growing part of the industry that Oz and James and Morrissey Fox are helping along, that of good British Beer; The proper stuff, not some bland fizzy over chilled amber stuff that might, as an aside, be made from British barley.

Now I like wine as well. Recently I found my all time favourite wine: Nuits St Georges Premier Crus, can't remember the year, but it was fantastic. The problem is that it's also bloody expensive. There are so many excellent beers out there at a fraction of the price and this is the problem for quality wine and cheap beer. Good beer is so much cheaper than good wine, and good beer is little more, if any more expensive than poor beer, you just need to look for it.

I think this contest has an inevitable conclusion.

Thanks to Jeff Pickthall for posting the original link for Mr Gluck.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Pub research

Owning a pub often results in evenings out being dominated by research. Basically casing out the opposition, stealing ideas and judging just how we compare to other pubs. We know many of the good pubs local to us but knew that there are a few that are in our CAMRA branch that we know little about. These pubs are mainly on the industrial coast north of Whitehaven. The only sensible thing was to have a trip out.

We had been given a list of suggested Real Ale venues to look at during a recent discussion on good pubs, so we set out to find them. 12 in all was going to be difficult to manage in one evening considering the distance between the pubs and the fact that we had to get food somewhere. In the end we managed 6 pubs. The map below shows the route we took.

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The first stop was The Bounty Inn at Maryport. I'm not quite sure how this one ended up on my list. It's not a bad pub, but it's not a real ale pub by any stretch of the imagination. One handpull with Jennings Bitter. I'm not keen on this beer at the best of times but here I think it was just a little bit old or perhaps needed pulling through. Clean tidy locals pub.

Next stop was promising to be better from the CRAG guide entry. Lowther Arms at Mawbray, I'd heard a lot about this. Only two handpulls but promised they are always changing and might include Cumbrian Micro Beers. Indeed, Yates Bitter, which I like and Bass Draft, which I should have tried and didn't. This pub won Pub of the Season spring 2008. Talking to the owner I can see why. The place was nearly derelict 2 years ago. They have transformed it into a nice homely place with character and the ideas haven't stopped flowing - keep it up Dawn.

Next was the Bush at Tallentire. I'd heard a lot about this one as well. When I walked in through the door I realised that I'd met the Publican before at The Whitehaven Beer Festival. Grand chap who really is keen on his ales. Jennings Bitter fills one handpull all the time. Oh well, got to keep the locals happy I guess. On his other two handpulls there is an ever changing array of beers. On this occasion there was Blackwater Scallywag 4.0% which seems to actually be brewed by Salopian Brewery. A straw coloured beer that lacked any real character, but was nice enough. But better was Titanic Iceburg 4.1% which had a good hoppy aroma.

Unfortunately, we picked a bad night for food. So far no decent offering for culinary satisfaction. Both the Bush and Lowther Arms had very promising menus but their kitchens were closed on this occasion. By the time we got to Cockermouth it was also be too late for food in any decent pub and mindful that we only had one and a half hours left before closing time a quick bite was needed. We would have gone into the Indian Restaurant but didn't want to waste time. We sat in a car and ate a Donna Kebab. I know, but as we were on a pub crawl, surely this is allowed?

Next pub was another Bush. Two bushes in one night, what a lucky man I am. On Cockermouth main street this time, a Marstons tied house so is bound to be rubbish. OK, on this occasion perhaps my prejudice is a little misplaced. 6 handpulls, predictably 5 Jennings beers, one of which is a seasonal, Cross Buttocks 4.5% and a further Marstons special, Ugly Sisters 4.5%. This last one, in my view, is just a bland beer that is varied from another bland beer recipe just to provide a seasonal guest, and is a poor beer.

But still, Cocker Hoop 4.6% went down well after the chilli source laden kebab. I recommend this beer with spicy food. Best of all they had Sneck Lifter which at 5.1% is a fantastic beer and the best the Marstons empire produce. All in all this is the best Marstons pub I've ever been in, I'd have liked to have seen one less Jennings beer and one more guest but still, the Jennings brewery is across the street.

1761, on Market Street in Cockermouth. I like this one a lot. The warm homely feel is certainly achieved here. Clean and modern with hints of history retained. Music level pleasantly just right. A menu with provided games such as Rubiks Cube, Mah Jongg or Scrabble.

It's got a bit of a modern wine bar feel but is obviously serious about cask beer. 4 handpulls with a good selection, although some risk of falling for the golden bitter trap. I tried the HSB 4.8%, which I quite liked. I didn't realise until now, when I looked for the link, that it's brewed by Fullers, but at least it's got a more malty thing going on than the alternative Golden Bitters that I was looking to change from.

Time for one more pub. Got to it only to find it was closed. Ho hum, well if we are very quick we might get back to Hensingham to the Sun Inn. We got there just before 11pm. Ann dropped me off at the door while she parked the car. The place looks a little shabby on the outside so I was a little worried about it being a rough town pub, with sticky carpets and broken glass. Not at all, looking lost on approaching the bar one local was very keen to help with my beer choice. I commented on the handpulls, both containing Jennings Bitter. "Oh everybody here drinks the Bitter Smooth" offered the kind soul. I chose the Jennings Bitter, much to the surprise of the gentleman.

This pub is not a great real ale pub. But this pub IS a great local. The best bit about it is the quality of the Marras that frequent the pub, a little bit wobbly due to the quantity of Smooth consumed, but proper gents non the less.

Just to be naughty, a ranking of the night's venues:
1. 1761, Cockermouth - many might not like it's trendy style, but it's beer selection is good
2. Bush, Tallentire - very close second
3. Lowther Arms, Mawbray - again, closing on the competition and will improve
4. Bush, Cockermouth - good Marstons' pub, but not a beer geeks paradise
5. Sun Inn, Hensingham - excellent example of a true local, lets just gloss over the beer issue
20. Bounty, Maryport - Does what it does, but does nothing for me

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Open sometimes or never?

My pub is closed at the moment. We're doing stuff to it, we've had a holiday and it's always too quiet to be worth opening this time of year. We are, after all, a tourist pub in the middle of nowhere, a very beautiful nowhere, but it's remote non the less.

Stonch also had a close down period over the Christmas break. I'm guessing most of his trade is from city workers who disappear during holiday time. He was closed for 11 days. 11 days holiday? I bet that's the most he's had away from the pub since he started earlier in the year.

When I was staying with Ted he closed for Christmas eve and Christmas day. Ted could have opened for Christmas eve and quite probably would have done alright out of it. I feel guilty that I did mock slightly. But Ted was adamant that on this occasion his wife and girls came first. He was at least going to do at Christmas what they have always done.

My friends at The Prince of Wales close every week Monday, Tuesday and part of Wednesday, except for bank holidays. They always have done, it's what they advertise and the majority of their customer base are very happy with the arrangement.

The first year we closed for part of the winter was the first year things started to improve for us here. We saved money on power and staff costs. Costs we could never recoup from the tiny revenue at this time of year, yes, even including Christmas and New Year. We started to get a breather, and get some important work done on the property.

The situation is explained here and also here on The Woolpack Inn blog. Notice the second anonymous comment. To me it says "how dare you have a life, how dare you have a Christmas of your own".

It seems to me that many pubs stay open at times when it is not financially viable because if they don't the publican comes in for grief. For us, closing for part of the winter is probably saving us from ruin, both financially and psychologically. We still continue to get criticised for this even though it is now the third year we have closed for most of the winter.

So would you rather your local, if it had to, closed part time, or closed altogether?


A visit to a pub last night resulted in me drinking 3 very nice beers: Timothy Taylor Landlord, Hawkshead Bitter and Yates Bitter. There was also Jennings Cumberland available, another golden brown bitter. I preferred the Yates, personally, because it seemed a little less sweet compared to the other two I tried - it had a hop dryness that I like, although normally, I also find Yates too sweet as well.

This leads me to a couple of observations that I would like to make. Firstly, why did the pub in question have four, albeit very nice and well kept, golden brown beers? There was nothing dark and malty, nothing stronger, no winter warmers. I would have liked to have seen something quite different. The second observation is that after drinking the Hawkshead and the Timmy Taylors I enjoyed the Yates a little more than usual. Was this because the beer has changed or is it to do with the order in which I drank them?

Jeff Pickthall questions his judgment on tasting beers, and here also. This both pleases and disturbs me at the same time. I cannot answer his legitimate question, and often find myself asking the same of myself. I consider Jeff to be more knowledgeable on the subject of beer flavour than myself, so if he feels he can't always trust his own judgment then I have no chance. But Jeff's uncertainty makes me more comfortable with my own doubts.

Ted is also struggling with this question. I know, as we've touched on it several times in conversation. In the link here Ted does talk more about a beer I brewed, so please forgive my gratuitous reference. I know that he questions the apparent widespread scathing about beer quality and taste. Mood and company, which of course are linked, previous consumption either of beverage or food and of course the particular batch of a beer will affect the taster's experience. The pub can also have an effect, such as the length of time the cask has been open or the line cleaning regime in play. Other factors can include the design of the pump clip, correct use of a sparkler or not depending on the consumer's choice and even perhaps the quality of service and ambiance.

It is perhaps unfair then for the large volume of apparent negativity in WEB2.0*. I have seen many comments on the Internet made about pubs and beers where I wondered what planet the appraiser was on. It strikes me that punters make the effort to comment when they have something they are aggrieved about. The bad experiences are the ones that motivates them to hit out some words on the keyboard and click that publish button. We rarely feel motivated to be nice. And here I am being grumpy about it, just the thing Ted is trying to avoid, bringing in negativity, which is exactly what I'm being grumpy about.

But, wait. This is all good. This is freedom of speech at its best. This is a channel of communication that is open to all. If the information isn't to your liking then you can click elsewhere. If you really disagree then you can engage with it and put your point across; although sometimes it can take forethought to avoid appearing to be a pillock or a numpty and quite often both.

So here I can grumble about the fact that there was no winter warmer available last night. I can also explore my own journey thought the mighty world of beer tasting and share my thoughts with the reader. Best of all, this virtual world, one that is free from the publishing constraints of corporation funded advertising, is discussing many great things about the diverse and growing world of interesting beer.

*WEB2.0 is user generated content. You are reading an example of it. , are also examples.

I hope this doesn't undermine Ted's own unpublished posts. Go on Ted, be grumpy about people being grumpy, I'm eager to hear your views.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Oz and James Drink to Britain

Stonch has a post about this program. I'm not surprised that there are many beer geeks complaining about the program not being what they, the beer geeks, want. Yes sure, I'd really like to see a program on prime time telly that is much more serious about beer. But if it was that serious it would not be on prime time telly 'cause most normal people wouldn't watch it.

Yes the program is a little contrived, but hey, it's entertaining in a Top Gear sort of way.

I am really pleased that there is now so much interest in craft beer that it features in the same slot and with familiar faces. Morrisy Fox are in the same league. It will get an increased number of normal people interested in something other than Fosters. Lets stop complaining shall we?

I only got to watch the program because of IPlayer on you an find it here.

Saturday 10 January 2009


The work on the gents loos continues. I'm determined to rid ourselves of the title of worst pub toilets in Eskdale. I've just put several buckets of bonding plaster on the walls prior to tiling. My arms ache. Apparently a good plasterer is strong in the arm and weak in the head. I used to be better at plastering when I was younger. My arms are not as strong as they used to be.

So I deserved a beer or two. But what? Ann found a couple of out of date bottles. One was Sheepshaggers Gold 4.5% and was 9 months past it's best before date. I tried it and found it to be quite drinkable despite it being, apparently, past it's best.  Now a beer that is 9 months out of date is likely to be OK. After all, it ought to be put in the bottle in a hygienic way so you have only got potential chemical deterioration and the added advantage of carbonation as a preservative.

The second was a bottle of Cumberland Ale 4.2% which had a best before date of 2004. I did expect this to have problems. I opened it, poured it into the glass and tasted it with trepidation. Actually it was not bad. Very, very different to Cumberland Ale as I've tasted it before. It seemed to be fruity and complex. Cumberland that is fresh is a golden bitter beer with a dry earthy hoppy thing going on. It's a dry hopped beer that has a little pellet of pressed hops put into the cask, at least that's what they told me when I visited the brewery. I enjoyed this aged version and it seemed to have a flavour similar to some Belgian ales I tasted recently.

How do they dry hop the bottle version? Conditioning tanks I guess.

Beer that is past it's best is supposed to start tasting of cardboard. I tried to detect any faint hint of fibrous sheet box fabrication material but failed completely. Funnily enough, towards the end of the glass of Cumberland Ale I thought I could detect a chocolate flavour - is this possible?

I've been given samples of "composted" beers before. Beers that have been laid down for 2 years or more. I thought it only worked in casks with live yeast present, and then only for beers with higher ABV. As far as I could tell neither of these beers are bottle conditioned. Has anybody ever tried out of date beers before?

Stuart at The Prince of Wales regularly puts beers down to "compost". I've tried them and they are really tasty.

Friday 9 January 2009

I'm just being silly

Well why not? It's my blog and I'll be silly if I want. In my defence though, the following silliness is completely attributable to influences I received while I was in Oregon. I do hope that Brewers Union Local 180 will correct any small errors in the following:

Beer Poetry

Dough for beer, to buy my beer
Rae, the guy who buys me beer
Me, the guy he buys beer for
Far, a long way to the pub
So, I think I'll have a beer
La, la la la la la la
Tea, no thanks I'll have a beer
And that brings us back to Dough


Beer beer the drink for me, so easy to see
The more you drink the more you pee
The more you pee the less you weigh
So lets drink beer every day

Thursday 8 January 2009

Guide me

My pub is, at least for now, in the Good Beer Guide. It might come out after this little tirade, but for now we are very proud to be in it. We also understand how difficult it is for every branch to make the selections each year. Although it is very difficult to be sure how important it is to my business overall, it certainly brings in some custom. When we get customers who choose the pubs they visit from the Guide, they sometimes ask how the selection is made. It is often commented that pub x just does not deserve to be in and pub y is much better and should be in. "Why is this so?" they ask.

In a pub last night along with some other CAMRA colleagues, there was a discussion of the relative merits of various pubs. I ventured that pubs that are selling exclusively beer from one large brewery are not as good as a pub that sells a variety of beers from many different breweries. "After all Jennings is a national brand" I, perhaps foolishly, threw in.

Well I was firmly rebuffed. Apparently it is not a national brand but a local beer to Cumbria. You can barely get it outside Cumbria, I was told. We have some very staunch local support for Jennings and this is good. I like most of their beers and last night I particularly enjoyed the Cocker Hoop with it's good hoppy aromas. The Cross Buttocks I thought was not so nice, although I don't know why.

I don't know about the readers experience, but since Marstons bought Jennings their beer seems to have been turning up all over the place. I believe that the Cockermouth plant has been expanded because of the increase of sales of the beers and of course I'm not complaining about that.

Then there is Robinsons, who frankly make some of the most uninspiring beers I have ever come across. They seem to be working their way into the Lake District and competing with Jennings. There are even some Robinsons pubs in the Good Beer Guide, although I can't understand why.

The reason in my mind for the Good Beer Guide is to inform visitors to an area about the very best real ale pubs. Locals don't need to be told because they already know. For me, being in the guide is important and it is important that there is a standard. There seems to be a pattern of pubs going into the guide because they are close to someone's house and it's their favourite local, not because they are superb pubs and have a well kept selection of exciting beers. Putting pubs in the guide so as to spread out the geography seems barmy. If there is a concentration of good pubs in an area then put them all in the guide and the barren areas will show up as such.

I cannot understand why a competitor of mine is not in the guide when they have a selection of well kept ales that are not determined by some bean counting suit somewhere. Why can good pubs like this get overlooked when others get put on a pedestal for providing the same thing that is provided the country over leaving the real ale tourist feeling cheated?

Of course the main thing is, if you do disagree with the choices locally to you, then join CAMRA and attend the meetings.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Brewing Experience

A while ago I mooted the idea of a brewery experience event.

I did it, I have decided to run a brewing experience. There seemed to be enough people interested. I don't know how popular it will be, but I'm going to do it provided at least one person books. If it's very popular I'll do more.

Look, doesn't Ted look pleased with his mash. Click on the picture to see his expression of pleasure. You too could be that full of joy.

Monday 5 January 2009

Bland Brand Beer

I'm working hard to get the gents loos back together. The new purlin is cemented in and the ceiling joists are now 60% installed. This is only happening by me spending more hours than I should doing hard physical work. But, as my brothers are now accusing me of having a beer belly, and my weight being the greatest it's ever been, I guess exercise allows me to drink beer with less guilt.

Last night, after soaking off the various building debris in the bath I looked for a beer. Ann had already settled down to watch some strange psychic thriller on the TV, so I had to put up with that, plus the only beer I could find was Sun Lik that was given to me as a sampler at a trade show.

Now the best bit about this beer is that it is at least brewed by Shepherd Neame. But why? Why brew a beer that tastes just the same as every other oriental fermented rice water? Thinking about it, the only good thing about this beer was that it was brewed by Shepherds Neame.

Then came along the commercial break in the film. Who was the film sponsor? It was Carling. Oh joy! More bland beer that tastes the same as the next bland beer.

Oh, but look, they care where they get their barley from. Pity the regular Carling drinker probably doesn't give a xxxx.

But still, it shows that these big brands are getting concerned about provenance. The pictures show rustic, country scenes that would be more suited to the imagery associated with a small craft brewer.

We already know that the big boys are running scared of the increase in success of the smaller breweries. Consumption of major brands is falling and the sales of beer brewed in small breweries is growing. This I guess is the fight back. Subliminal messages of hand craft given is by the horse drawn farm cart to give the consumer an impression of quality.

The Carling can looks so out of place though, don't you think?

I did find a couple of bottles from Heather Ale Ltd. The Gooseberry and wheat ale 5% was good.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Up the Kriek

I just cannot get Ann to drink beer. I've forced her to taste many beers and the best I can get is "it's OK" which really means "I'll drink it if I have to, but it's shit, and I'd rather not."

But when it comes to Kriek, well that's a different matter. We HAVE to have Kriek on tap all the time here otherwise there is real TROUBLE.

During our recent trip to Brussels we brought back several different fruit beers. One turned out to have been made by InBev, and apparently, despite being Kriek, is also "shit". Tastes far too sweet and is reminiscent of artificial cherryade. She opened one by mistake tonight and then realised that all her Mort Subite Kriek has gone. This little mass produced debacle is called Belle-Vue.

Luckily she's just found a bottle of Timmermans Fruits de la Forêt. Phew, I thought there was going to be trouble for a minute there. Apparently the Timmermans tastes of real fruit and is significantly dryer, but then the Timmermans is also a lambic which will add some interest. I'd rather just have the lambic and leave out the fruit.

We normally have Timmermans Kriek on the bar, but we're closed just now and all the lines are cleaned ready for the new season, so it's bottled beers only.

Friday 2 January 2009

Marked Strands

The Strands in Nether Wasdale has always been a favourite of mine. Perhaps it helps that there is the complimentary Screes across the road, providing a choice in this delightful hamlet.

Perhaps I'm getting older, the generally more raucous, rough style of the Screes puts me off these days. I used to like it a lot, and it's not changed much, except they have got rid of the grotty carpet. It's just me that's changed, I'm older, more snobby and less fun, but I still like to pop in for a pint occasionally.

Mark and Leslie have worked to improved the Strands, providing a relaxing, comfortable and friendly place. The food is amongst the best in the area. The other day Ann and I visited and had Smoked Duck and Poached Salmon. I can't remember the various sauces, but this is a beer blog, not a food blog, so I only made notes on the beer. What I do remember was that the fish was cooked to absolute perfection - still just a little translucent in the middle and very succulent and tasty. A real homecoming after a couple of weeks of the real American sandwich.

The Strands improved still further for me in February 2007 when Mark set up his brewery. He is as passionate about brewing beer as about everything else he does. My only fear for him is that he will run out of enthusiasm one day, but it's not looking like it will happen any time soon. His first beer was Errmmm… 3.8% I always worry about spelling this correctly, apparently the number of 'r's and 'm's is important. A light session ale that proves very popular. Seems to have a tinny edge to the finish for me and is a little thin, but then I'm comparing to things like T’ Errmmm-inator 5.0% ("Ale be black", groan) which is a nice full bodied rich porter/stout type thing. 

Then comes the real specials. Red Screes 4.5% is a nice winter warmer. A good sweet malty nose with caramel toffee flavours and a very well balanced feel in the mouth. Finally my favourite is the Christmas pudding treat Snow Ho Ho 6.0%. I've had Christmas ales before and often been disappointed. Mark states he uses real Christmas pudding in the recipe, I'd have thought this would make the mash too sticky. Anyway, whatever he really does put in it the nose is that of, well, to be exact, Christmas pudding. Spices, currents, raisins, sultanas, treacle etc. The taste is a nice warming combination of cloves and cinnamon and a flavour reminiscent of Belgian ales. It turns out Mark got hold of some Belgian yeast, does it really make that much difference?

New Years Eve I made the mistake of having Snow Ho Ho with my main course, Red Screees with desert and then following up with Errmmm... Completely the wrong order. Numptie points for me, again. That might just be the reason for the tinny comment above.

I can't leave the Strands without a mention of Leslie. Every crazy guy needs the stabilising influence of a good woman. Leslie seems to be that stabilising influence. Anyway, I have to say nice things about her so as to be permitted back next time.

I'm not sure about the constantly changing mad hair do, but once we get properly into January, hopefully things will settle down.