Friday, 26 August 2011

Campaigning for a better drinking experience.

After the last two blog posts describing events at which I met many like-minded beer folk, I wanted to address an issue which has been bubbling close to the surface for a while now. I doubt I can add anything to the debate, however, I think my own position may need a bit of clarification. So here goes...

I'm regarded by certain circles to be staunchly anti-CAMRA, which isn't nessecarily the case. I have been a CAMRA member for the past two years and I'm paid up until October, but I won't be renewing my membership. The main reason for this is a motion that was brought before CAMRA's AGM this year, suggesting that the campaign should lobby against kegged beer on the grounds that the extraneous CO2 is a danger to the public health. In fairness, it was thrown out with very little credibility given to it, but the fact that it could even get to the AGM is laughable. I can't remember which branch proposed the motion, but I wouldn't want to drink in their neck of the woods.

Cask versus keg is always going to be a touchy subject, but as long as the brewer believes that it is the best form of dispense for his beer, then that should be the end of it. There are certain beers I would love to see kegged, but if the brewer thinks that it is best in cask, I will continue to drink it if it is good.

A prime example of this would be Coniston Brewing Company's Thurstein Pilsner. I've had this beer on cask and it was very good, in the bottle it was great, but on keg (as sampled at The Queens at Biggar on Wednesday night) it was at its absolute best. If CAMRA would have their way, this beer would never have made it to keg and that, in my opinion, would have been a loss.

(Nb. Ian Bradley should get more recognition than he does for embracing keg, it's been a few years now since Bluebird won the Champion Beer of Britain award, but there's always something exciting going on at Coniston. For further reference see Infinity IPA.)

So it would seem that despite the good work CAMRA have done getting us to the stage we are at now, it would be difficult to progress that work without some change of remit. The main problem with the current objective of the campaign is that it is too inclusive. Real Ale doesn't nessecarily mean good beer. I would argue that most people who are looking to try something other than their standard pint of Carling would be swayed to try one beer over another if it had a CAMRA logo present. They therefore equate a CAMRA stamp with a guarantee of quality, which isn't true. All it means is that the beer has been conditioned inside the cask it is currently in.

The idea that a campaign should be started to identify and seek out good beer is one that has sparked the imagination of many drinkers. My own involvement in this has been via CBAG, the Cumbria Beer Appreciation Group. Together with Hardknott Dave, Jeff Pickthall and Neil Bowness, we devised a way to both promote the great range of beers from within our own county, plus introduce some excellent examples from the rest of the UK (and indeed the rest of the world) which weren't as widely available.

This culminated in us running a couple of beer-matched dinners, one at the Masons Arms back in March and a second at the Kirkstile Inn in May. Sadly, we haven't had chance over the summer to run any more events as yet, but we do have our sights set on an event in November, in conjunction with a top Lake District hotel. Sit tight for that one.

Another campaign has sprung up recently via twitter using the hashtag #CAMRGB. The Campaign for Really Good Beer was set up by Simon (@CrayolaSarandon) in response to Brewdog's withdrawal/banishment (delete as you prefer, I don't want any arguments!) from the Great British Beer Festival this year. A blog has been set up with numerous contributors posting reviews of beers and mini-interviews with brewers amongst other articles. From what he told me, it sounds as though Simon had come to the same conclusions as me regarding CAMRA, as evidenced further by his own campaign's rules:
  1. Good beer is something to be enjoyed.
  2. CAMRGB must maintain a lightheartedness and not become overly serious about itself.
  3. Everyone is welcome provided that a) they enjoy a good pint and b) are willing to have a bit of fun.
  4. Brewers are like modern day magicians who are to be celebrated and supported.
  5. Mmmm... beer.
I'm not sure about brewers being regarded as magicians, but hey, I'll take it!

The main point I want to get across is this: CAMRA have done great things for beer in the last 40 years, but as the game has changed so much in the past few years, they haven't kept up.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

IPA Day at Mr Foleys

Two weeks after the event, I finally find time to write this post. There have been lots of posts on the various events for International IPA Day, but I'd like to add my own slant on the incredible offering at Mr Foleys in Leeds.

Being a Yorkshireman by birth, its always a pleasure for me to head back to my old home county. But the pleasure was doubled by discovering this gem of a pub in Leeds city centre, opposite the town hall. I had been following their twitter account for over a year so I kinda knew it would be good, but I was still pleasantly surprised.

Dean, the manager, had put a lot of effort into this day. A dedicated beer lover, his passion for serving only the best is something many managers and landlords could learn from. His IPA day offering was nothing short of astounding. Cask offerings included Thornbridge, Buxton, Red Willow, Kirkstall and Roosters, atop some amazing keg beers, Summer Wine's 7C's of Rye (my own personal beer of the night), Magic Rock Human Cannonball (which sold out before I could try it) and Brewdog's classic Punk IPA. Our own Code Black was also on cask and it represented the first time that Dave and I could try our first beer together from the cask.

Opinions differed...

When we had tried it from tank, we didn't think that the hops had come through the dark malts the way we wanted them to. It was good, in fact if we'd been aiming for a freshly hopped porter, we'd have been bang on. But to us at that moment, it wasn't a black IPA.

On cask at Mr Foleys, the hop characteristics were a lot more evident. This worried Dave a bit. We'd just brewed the second gyle of Code Black that very morning with an extra 30% more hops. My own personal opinion was (and still is) that more hops couldn't possibly make it worse, just different. That second gyle is in tank now, due to be racked on Monday, there will be a dozen or so casks, but the rest is going into bottle, probably available some time in late September.

But I digress, which I do a lot. Once I'd gone through the draught offerings, I decided to try a few of the tempting bottle selection Dean had put together, most of which (if not all) were American. I tried four all together, Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Odell IPA, Victory Hopdevil and a can of Maui Big Swell IPA. The Maui was the stand out of these for me, a 6.8% can of hoppy delight. The Torpedo was pretty good too, but the Odell and Victory beers were a little disappointing. I was talking to Neil (whose blog Eating isn't Cheating is a great read) at the time I tried the Odell and a discussion ensued about how there is most likely 6-8 weeks between the beer being bottled and it getting to outlets here in the UK, during which time the hop character just drops away. As Neil has since pointed out on his blog, these beers need to be drunk fresh.

The most innovative part of the night for me was Dean's great efforts to assemble brewers or representatives of 8 or so of the beers available, each given a little slot to describe their beer or talk a little bit about IPA. Well, until HardknottDave popped up...

Every other speaker was gently spoken, passionate but struggling to make themselves heard over the hubbub and humdrum of a pub full of people enjoying themselves, even with a microphone and amplifier. When Dave came up to speak, he put the microphone down and bellowed "GOOD EVENING LEEDS!" I can't remember exact words, I so wish I'd been videoing. There follows a selection of rough quotes from Dave's 'speech'...




At this point there was a slight interjection from the crowd...


It electrified the atmosphere somewhat, but it got the crowd involved and despite looking a little mad at the time, he definitely got people talking. Which is what we want, right?

Afterwards, I had opportunity to speak to many fellow beery folk, including Dean, Rich from Magic Rock, Josie Ludford from Brewdog, fellow Shayman Mark Fletcher and Zak Avery (who was probably sick of the sight of me by this time of the week, having pestered him at GBBF too - Sorry Zak!).

I'm fairly certain that I spoke to more people than that, if I've missed you out I apologise. The sands of time and the mists of alcohol etc...

Thanks Dean, see you for #StoutDay?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

GBBF week...

As I pointed out in my last post, my first official week for Hardknott could not have been timed better - GBBF week. The following is an attempt to thank all the people I met and spoke to...

Dave and Ann had managed to wangle a ticket to the trade session for me, this being the best opportunity to meet all the people whom I had previously been talking to on twitter as well as following their blogs.

So it was an early start for me on the Tuesday, catching the train down to London. It seems that half of the brewing community in South Cumbria was gathered on the same train down the west coast mainline. I met up with Ben from Hawkshead Brewery at Lancaster station, and once on the train he was joining up with Matt and the rest of the Hawkshead boys. Roger Humphreys and his Cumbria Legendary Ales team were also on the train already, as we all discovered when we got on the platform at Euston 3 hours later. I travelled across London with the Hawkshead crew, which was a great opportunity to catch up with them.

Once at Earls Court, it was difficult not to be impressed by the scale of the event. I am by no means a CAMRA supporter - I admire what they have done in the last 40 years, however they seem to be out of touch with the progress made in brewing and the latest techniques and flavours - that all said, the organisation that must've gone into the event would be immense.

Setting my priorities right, I got a pint first (A Cape Cod IPA from the American bar, very tasty), then set off in search of Dave and Ann. Their advice was to head straight for the Bieres Sans Frontieres bar, a task not made easy by the virtue of there being 3 in total. I wandered round for a full ten minutes, from the American Bar, to the Dutch/Belgian bar, on to the Czech/German bar. It was only when I returned to the American bar, to almost the exact point where I had bought my first pint, that Dave suddenly appeared, chatting with Dean from Mr Foley's in Leeds and Jonathan Queally.

"Ah," he says, "We're over there, on the table by the pillar."

Hadn't thought about looking around tables...

I went and sat down next to Ann and was introduced (by Twitter name) to @Kristym809 (Kristy McCready), @Robsterowski (Rob), @Aletalk (Steve), @BeerreviewsAndy (Andy Mogg) and @Jamesbwxm (James).

As far as what I was drinking, my notes just aren't as comprehensive as they ought to be. I can tell you what I had and I can tell you whether I liked it or not, but for the most part I can't say why (if that makes sense). I tried a variety of the beers on the American bar, the best of which was probably a Lagunitas IPA which I had towards the end (my notes just say "WOW", in quite scrawly handwriting.

In the meantime, on my travels to and from various bars, I met up with Zak Avery, Glyn Roberts, Stuart Howe and Nigel Stevenson. Not to mention Jeff Pickthall, who was staying studiously close to the Czech bar, particularly the Broumov Coriander beer. It was also great to see the Cumbria Legendary crowd, especially given their fantastic win in the Champion Golden Ale category for Loweswater Gold. Great beer and great people too, thoroughly deserved.

I feel like I've waffled enough here, so I'll turn this into a two-parter and tell you all about IPA Day at Mr Foley's next time I think.

Until then...

Monday, 1 August 2011

Last Weekend Behind Bars...

As I may have mentioned one or two thousand times, this past weekend was my last as Assistant Manager of the Masons Arms. I'll still be there at weekends for the time being, but it was a strange feeling to be driving away, knowing that my foot was half out the door, so to speak. I've enjoyed a brilliant four years there, made so many great friends and - above all - learned so much about beer.

I was tested to my limits on Friday night, however. We had Hawkshead's fantastic NZPA on the bar, which at 6% would normally be a little strong for us, but the amazing flavours from four New Zealand hops carried it out perfectly. Well, apart from one customer...

"Is this beer alright? All I can taste is hops..."

I thought about this for a split second (I had time because I wasn't serving him, merely a bystander in this exchange).

"What has Alex done to it?!"

Now I'm getting a bit worried...

"I brew beer for a living and I know Alex Brodie fairly well."

Phew! I decided to ask what brewery he worked for, just so I knew what to avoid in the future. Obviously, I'm not going to publish what he said here, however it is a well established micro-brewery from elsewhere in the country.

"I'll be sending an email across to Hawkshead about this."

Now, I'm all in favour of open criticism, if you don't like a beer then fair enough. But to question if it has been conditioned/looked after properly because it doesn't taste like the boring, bland beer you brew on a day-to-day basis is an affront to me as an innkeeper.

Later on, I also heard him scoffing about Brewdog, claiming they "couldn't brew real beer" and that Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck and The End of History are all malt whiskies, rather than beers. Plainly not true.

I don't want to get into the middle of a fanboys vs critics debate, but I like Brewdog beers, I think they are innovative and tasty. There is also no denying that they are bringing the culture of beer in to the modern age with their marketing and branding, no matter how questionable some of it may be.

I decided not to get involved with the gentleman's opinions again. It struck me that if I'm going to aid Dave and Ann in their quest to change people's perceptions of beer, then the task may start with certain brewers, rather than the drinking public.