Monday, 25 January 2016

Herne Hill

Last weekend I decided to get on the train and visit Herne Hill. Previously, I’d agonised over how to walk there from Brixton Tube station knowing I’d probably get lost. I then realised that from where I live - St Albans, I simply have to stay on the train past where I’d usually disembark in London. On a weekend the cost is only £10.10 with First Capital Connect. I know a lot of north London and work for a central London Council. Going deep into south London is a voyage into the unknown for me. I’ve driven from Vauxhall Bridge Road in Westminster across the river to Elephant & Castle before. In my mind, everything simply plunges off a waterfall after that.

When the train crossed the Thames and the built environment just carried on, it caused genuine excitement. Herne Hill belongs to the Manor of Milkwell. That title - seemingly out of a Thomas Hardy novel - is so warm and nurturing. Surely the folk in Milkwell know how to brew well too. That’s what I was counting on when I planned this trip.

From the station, Canopy Beer Co and Bullfinch are the easiest two breweries to find in London. You exit Herne Hill station (there’s only one exit - an added bonus!), turn left so you see Brockwell Park, cross the road to follow the railway buildings on Norwood Road and walk for about a minute until you see the sandwich board. You’re at the first of the two tap rooms!

The Canopy Beer Company in the best possible way has a jumble sale feel to it. It also reminds me a bit of a creche with the primary colours and fabrics. Curtains, canvas, astroturf, fairy lights, empty key kegs hanging like balloons and mismatched furniture make me feel like a child discovering a den in a primary school. I love it. Their brewing capacity is 4 barrels on average 5 times per week.

I started the session with their take on a Kolsch which they’ve candidly named as such too (it has Protected Geographical Indication and is guarded by Kolsch Convention stormtroopers in Cologne). Champion Kolsch’s badge is ice blue with what I believe to be a suited penguin. The beer reminds me of fruit peelings and is cool when it hits the tongue and well carbonated. There’s a grassy hoppy aroma. Hopefully it’ll be back in summer when it’s needed the most. It was a good opener.

The brewery is currently looking for an additional IPA for its permanent range and have struck upon a fantastic idea: let the consumer have a flight of four potential candidates for immediate feedback. I consider myself a verreophile (a glass freak) and was smitten by what can only be referred to as a row of ale buds or beer baubles - the cutest glassware I’ve ever seen. Each holds a quarter pint. Squeal!

The potential IPA additions were labelled A,B,C and D and the following notes are deliberately in the wrong order. To have the experience, you’ll just have to get yourself down to the Canopy tap room and drink the flight yourself.

In a mixed-up order, the first was dark amber with a musty aroma like you might expect from a more traditionally British IPA. No high citrus notes. It was strong and controlling and could easily masquerade either as a strong bitter like Fuller’s ESB or even a German Alt. The richness clung to the top of the palate and throbbed there. I thought the ABV might be quite high on this (I found out later it wasn’t - it just came across as heavy-handed).

The next beer had a light breezy pineapple and peach aroma. It was pale amber in colour. I got a very smooth silky mouthfeel. Fruit salad juices were awash on the tongue. It did bitter up after a few minutes but on the whole, one of the fruitiest beers I’ve tasted. Spiritually, it was more of a fruit cordial and too easy going for me to think of it as an IPA, tasty though it was.

“Number three” was a liquid with no discernible aroma. On the tongue it was fruity & easy. It even reminded me of the Champion Kolsch. The mouthfeel was a little milky and it was the lightest of the four beers. It didn’t really have an IPA’s weight. Conclusion: it got away with the P and A but not the I in IPA.

Finally, a blazing oak-hued ale - beautiful to the eye. It didn’t impart a loud aroma but I got dark/red berries like you might discern from Bramling Cross hops. This one was thick-souled, resinous and tangy with a touch of Earl Grey tea to boot. Bodily, it was quite cakey and the aroma became Brandy-like. In short, it was my favourite.

I’ve always found that taste and preference is completely subjective but I was surprised to hear that a group of women debating their own flights on the next table were rounding on the same conclusion as mine. When I gave my verdict at the bar, it was confirmed as the most common preference and so looks to become the new India Pale Ale soon. 

I was about to leave but I noticed that a beer had been recommended for Tryanuary on the board so I let it bend my arm. Milkwood Amber Ale is a 7.2 ABV light orange & slightly hazy beer. It had spirity esters, tropical fruit juice and produced a blush of alcohol to the cheeks. Clementines & apricots blossomed on the palate. It was a warm nourishing linctus for the cold weather.

On tap there was also a porter, a pale ale and a wheat beer but I needed to spread the booze out to last both breweries. A quick visit to the smallest gents I’ve ever been in and I was on my way. Fortunately, the second tap room was as easy to find as the first.

Bullfinch Brewery is actually inside the section of railway bridge that abuts against the railway arch the cars drive under. I missed the entrance at first - a narrow door in the corrugated iron frontage with plastic fly strips. You push through and find yourself blinking in Santa’s grotto. The room is dark, illuminated by candles on the tables and fairy lights suspended from the high ceiling. The punters already installed can’t help but stare at you like you’ve just stumbled into their opium den. There is a built-in bar rather than the open plan one Canopy has and it reminds me of a back-lit NAAFI serving hatch. The brewing capacity at the new venue is 5 barrels twice per week.

I settle in for my first Bullfinch beer in a long time. I did know their beers from when they shared premises with Anspach & Hobday on Druid Street in Bermondsey. It seems to me a lot of cloudiness has been sorted since then. The light-coloured beers were much clearer. 

Black Wolf Black IPA was my first re-introduction and is everything you could want from the style: black fruit pastilles bleed their juices, roast coffee granules smoulder on the inhale with a squeeze of citrus juice for sharpness. It has levity - the carbonation balances what’s otherwise quite an oppressive ale. The dark side is coffee creme, the light side zinging Victorian lemonade.

This is the day for tasting flights so I go for one of theirs (Canopy win as far as glassware is concerned here - Bullfinch employs the standard straight glasses). I opt for their Rypa - the beer I most associate with Bullfinch. Next to it Milou - a Saison and then their Rosendale Bitter - the only of the trio on cask.

Again, the Rypa (5.8 ABV) has much more clarity than I remember from their original haunt. It digs deep - dark amber, profound and resinous from the rye malt. A touch of pepper on the initial taste followed by a candy sweetness. It’s sticky, tangy and dry like a fruit punch.

The Saison (6 ABV) is more elegant. It’s a pale yellow. I get a hint of elderflower or vanilla on the nose. It’s well carbonated and the most refreshing of the three beers. Overall, it has a vague almond profile too.

The Rosendale Bitter (4 ABV and named after Rosendale Road where the brewery is situated) doesn’t smack quite as hard as the others but this is often the case when you mix the coolness & front-of-house carbonation of key keg with the comparative gentility of cask. It’s light amber with a hint of apple & white grape. It doesn’t come across as chewily bitter (but the after the Black Wolf, it couldn’t possibly).

I could feel my limit being reached, and as I hate waking up on the train in Bedford, I was ready for my last beer. Wolf is an American pale ale (5.8 ABV on key keg). It’s a hazy amber and has a milky consistency with a butterscotch dimension. I get mouthfuls of satsumas and apricots. After a while, the malt does come through to temper the piercing fruit edges. The coolness makes me think of orange ice lollies and glace cherries too. It’s a bouncy castle of new world hops.

In both tap rooms things shook, rattled and tinkled as trains rumbled over the their roofs - a phenomenon I’m increasingly associating with tap rooms in London. Currently, there are around 20 breweries under railway arches in the capital. Another ten or so are within shaking distance of locomotives.

I skirted around Brockwell Park on the way back to the station. I’d like to investigate it when there’s more daylight. I’d also like to visit The Half Moon Pub to see its amazing interior. It’ll hopefully reopen in summer now it’s been saved by Fullers from becoming residential flats. Herne Hill’s a fantastic place to visit.

I urge everyone on the First Capital Connect line to take a day trip to the Manor and do the short brewery shuttle. Canopy and Bullfinch are so close to the station and to each other - it’s so utterly stress-free and good ale abounds. To all inhabitants of Herne Hill, I would also urge you to make a day trip to St Albans where I could show you around the best of its 50-odd pubs. In either direction, £10.10 is a good value day out (beer not included).

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


“Oodjoo support?” There was a pause. I became absorbed by my newspaper - my nose almost touching the print. Perhaps the question hadn’t been directed at me.
“Oodjoo support?” I couldn’t blank the guy anymore. I could feel the smouldering whites of his eyes. I’ve never followed football and the question “who do you support?” in my experience, has never been about the Civil War. I looked up like I’d just noticed him and my mouth spoke before my brain had been briefed.
“I’m a Gooner.” This wasn’t true. A manager at work was a supporter of Arsenal FC which is where I’d come to hear the term. As circumstances would reveal, it might have been the best answer -  imagine if I’d said Spurs.
“Good man!” He grinned. He had a shaved head and a few days’ worth of stubble. He was probably in his late thirties. At the time I was in my early thirties. There was a rosiness and glow about him like post-coital bliss. In this case it was simply the effect of alcohol early in the day - just the right amount to force a conversation on a complete stranger. He proceeded to roll his sleeves up to show off Arsenal tattoos on his arms. He then pulled at his collar to show Gunners etchings around his throat. Next he pulled up his tracksuit legs - Arsenal Football Club wound around his calves like sibling snakes. He started to expose his stomach at the same time I started going a pallid green; further tribal loyalty emblazoned on his gut - some of the detail tucked into belly folds and canopied by hair. I started breathing again when I was certain that was far as it went. My mouth offered positive feedback but I didn’t hear the words. I was fortunate he hadn’t buried into my lie. 
He went off to sit at a table by the railing that overlooked the escalators and lower floor of the O2 Centre on Finchley Road. He lit up - in those recent but very distant days you could smoke indoors. It marked the end of his interest in me but not the end of my interest in him because a few moments later I heard a young child’s voice: “Happy Birthday grandad.” I looked up through my fringe, still in article submersion mode. A little girl had joined him and leapt up onto his lap. Grandad?! He was only a few years older than me.

This encounter was in about 2006. It has nothing directly to do with Wetherspoons but it happened in one and I like replaying and embellishing my memory of it. When I think of Wetherspoons, I think of that guy (who is possibly a great grandparent by now).That particular branch in the O2 Centre closed a few years ago and the space is now occupied by chain eateries. Although it wasn’t the first time I’d been into a Wetherspoons, it was the first time I was conscious of it being one. I had started getting into cask ale and a pint often cost around £1.60 in there. It had a huge television screen either playing sport or MTV. The venue was a rough crescent around a circular bar and half of it consisted of vast window panes looking down onto Finchley Road. Watching the crawl & trickle of traffic and people from the anonymity of the gods was the part I enjoyed the most. It was therapeutic. It was a lofty venue as Wetherspoons often are and it linked itself into local history: Sigmund Freud was depicted on the walls of the O2 Centre pub. Close by is Maresfield Gardens where the pioneer psychotherapist lived.

The Crosse Keys EC3

Around London there aren’t many bar chains that could take on huge venues - it’s a carve-up between All Bar One, The Slug & Lettuce, Nicholsons, Fullers, Wetherspoons and possibly O’Neills. Nationally, Marstons might be the only other candidate able to take on voids of these magnitude. A side-effect of the size might be the loss of any kind of intimacy as a place. Corners of the pub can be cosy but the whole cannot. By no stretch could you associate one with being in a landlord’s/landlady’s home environment. There is no-one to hold court, nobody living upstairs. Tragically, there is no pub dog and they’re not permitted. The running model is more like a restaurant chain.

I never expect to get served in order in a Wetherspoons. I’m on the short side and it’s a lifelong gripe of us hobbits when ogres that arrived at the bar after us get served first. It doesn’t matter though because I’m anticipating it. The tendency for ‘Spoons to have such long bars where multiple queues accumulate and the staff relay up and down them might contribute to that. This service is also where it most sharply deviates from a (good) pub - the workers here are on shifts and rotating from kitchen duties to bar work as shift leaders dictate. Employees, newly started, are often still getting accustomed to the bar. They’re never rude - just trying to keep up. Working in a pub requires skills that are honed. A busy bar requires focus. I’ve only had the experience working as a volunteer and my mind cannot do the money arithmetic without me using my fingers to count. I struggle to keep tabs on order of arrival so I know it’s no easy task. It’s often the case that the person pulling that hand pump back in a ‘Spoons is doing it for the first time. This isn’t a problem with me. A first pint pulled should be an occasion to celebrate. The service I’ve always found polite but flustered.

The beer quality on cask has never been an issue for me and it’s plentiful. An amazing range of local and national breweries are represented. It has good keg and bottled/canned beer at low prices. For the past few years, cans of The Crisp, Sweet Action and Bengal Tiger by Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, USA have cost just £1.99 each. Now there is also 13 Guns by Crafty Dan (Thwaites Brewery’s own experimental micro). It has good lager too and when you’re with a macro brand lager drinker, it’s roughly half the price a regular pub would charge you for say, Staropramen.

Wetherspoons also hosts a unique annual event: an international beer festival whereby brewers from across the globe come to Britain’s breweries to craft beers on native mash tuns. This is an unprecedented phenomenon and to me, is the pro that exonerates all of Wetherspoons’ cons. Not only does it initiate this international collaboration, but the beer ends up being sold to the customer at excellent value. There are also foreign brewers that showcase in Wetherspoons. We’ve already mentioned Sixpoint but increasingly I see Stone Brewing - a Californian brewer with huge renown and their beers are actually casked!

In 2011 we moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire. At the time, it boasted two ‘Spoons. The Watered Barn is still there but the Cross Keys on Chequer Street closed, briefly became a cocktail joint called Bar Baroque before closing again and becoming a branch of the restaurant chain Bills. Back in that winter, we went in during the morning as we didn’t have the internet set up at home so used their Wi-Fi instead. We saw individuals sitting at the windows spotlighted by the low morning rays as they nursed their pints. It’s something that cannot be separated from Wetherspoons - there is a despair in the atmosphere, particularly early in the day. When I’m out, I’m a voyeur whether I’m sat in front of a coffee or a beer. I like to people watch and as I look about, so do they. In Wetherspoons it can be depressing. Everyday alcoholism goes back in Europe further than any written document and it’s a good time to pause and take stock of yourself.

(…..) His nails are yellow, over-familiar with Players Navy Cut. He draws them across his face and drags them through his grey thatch. The movement is friction and abnegation, choreography to a deflating sigh. A chance look at his reflection in the window - glistening eyes staring through the blue tobacco fog of early afternoon. Broken white spines have built up in the ashtray and buried themselves. The place is yawning and empty apart from him and several bowed heads to which none gives acknowledgement to the other. The silence only amplifies the solitude; it improves the odour. The ale’s not yet imparting the fuzzy edges of any warmth. He’s not yet at the stage where the alcohol will become the spirit of the public house like the holy ghost from the father, but each step on the journey there is the bottom of the pint pot anew. In time, he’ll radiate the same rich colours as the beams, settles, bar top and leather sofas and feel as if he belongs - a gay blushing face in a Brueghel canvas revelling with the rest of the burghers. That time will take some hours to come. It will also take some hours to come tomorrow and the day after. In the meantime, he stares at the glass until it goes out of focus.

Thomas Shepherd - Life and Death in Soho 1953

I’m being depressing here, but those were the warts accompanying the proverbial all.

I can tell a Wetherspoons pub from roughly 100 metres away. It isn’t what the building looks like as they come in many guises. It isn’t the outside decor or any obvious logo either. It’s a panel showcasing drink offers either in the window or, more commonly, on a sandwich board outside. The background is black and the typeface is like a digital calculator - a drinks promotion from a 1980s version of the future. On closer inspection, each of the letters is a seven-dash “8” where each segment can be blacked out to make a chosen letter or a number. That kind of applied thrift could only be piloted at ‘Spoons.

I’m impressed by the range of buildings a Wetherspoons can commandeer. It can simply be an old pub where little change is necessary but it could also be an abandoned cinema, an ex-bank, a ballroom, a theatre, a gin palace, a Bingo Hall. Large public buildings - the original purposes for which are often bygone (like the ballroom or Gin Palace) would either have to be demolished, restructured as flats or offices or taken over by another big chain because they’re too big for anything independent.

The Knights Templar EC3

Not only does Wetherspoons claim sites of former glory, but actively builds new pubs. In Hatfield, new build pub Harpsfield Hall has recently opened using parts of aeroplane fuselage to construct the bar. Some of the seating rounds are propellor casings from a Boeing 747. The aeronautical theme reflects the fact that Hatfield used to be the home of British Aerospace. One new ‘Spoons is also currently being built from scratch in Welwyn Garden City. 

Common architectural and decorative idioms include wooden beams, glass walls, marble pillars, cupolas, illustrated ceilings, chandeliers, “upcycled” materials to reflect local heritage (e.g the aircraft fuselage), vaulted ceilings, arched windows, back-lit bars, winding staircases and heavy iron-framed front doors.

The lavatories are often an event in themselves. Superficially, they are often ornate - majestic even. When you zoom in on the small detail like the screws, joinery or panelling, though, the polish comes off. I’ve also heard sounds from the plumbing system that sound like something’s trying to tread water to stay alive. If everyone flushed at the same time the building might implode. The decadence is skin deep but come on - they’re toilets not the Romanovs’ winter palace! First impressions are still impressive.

I recently found myself staring at what seemed to be an Andy Warhol artwork: the same image multiplied into a tableau; it was an army of metal condiment cradles in The Crosse Keys in London’s financial district. Each ketchup bottle was in the exact same corner of each cradle as was the mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. It became a primary coloured condiment kaleidoscope. I’ve seen this mesmeric display spread out on surfaces in every Wetherspoons.

There is free wi-fi, affordable food (served until 11pm) and loads of comfy seating in your average ‘Spoons. Some of the sofas are so unctuous and glistening you can’t help but worry about the amount of human lipids they might harbour. In terms of DNA, they might actually be more human than sofa.

The Waterend Barn St Albans

People watching again, I spied a small party get together. Five people - all in their sixties or seventies. They were genuinely happy to be together as they shared family gossip. One was in a wheelchair. By the look of them, they didn’t have much money coming in. They each had a drink on the table and in time, five platters arrived at the table. The laughter continued as red-faced, they got stuck in. It got me thinking: where could a small group meet up in the warm at a proper table, have a few pints and a meal together in St Albans if you’re just drawing your pension or on minimum wage? Basically, only in a Wetherspoons pub. In this neck of the woods, like in most of London, a pint is £3.60 - £3.80. I don’t eat out often, but a meal in any other pub is as dear as food in a restaurant. Credit is due to ‘Spoons for being the only place not just in St Albans, but in many towns in Britain that can water and feed a group on a budget and I often see older groups doing exactly that.

(…...) and so to the comfort of the local Inn. Our four sat at table: Sarah and James now twenty-five years wed sit with their back at the wall. Thomas being a jack of legs, perches in the thoroughfare causing a nuisance to the flow of titubant grog-hounds that frequent The Kings Arms. Peter, the oldest of the party by a score of years claims this privilege by his proximity to the fire. To its ale and Brandy the quatrain applies itself and shares fervently in each others’ news till the eggs in the melon-bed hatch. Peter chased his thoughts up and down at booming pitch. The leaderly glint in his eye was ever present but he was free to own affairs of late had conspired to lessen the weight of his purse. The brewing of ale in London could be a treacherous gift to inherit and he had feared that the whole business might end in the waters of the canal. Sarah and James fair fell back in astonishment at this news but the weight was light - still far from the debtor’s prison was dear Peter.
The lot then fell to Thomas who, determined not to be eclipsed by Peter’s racontage, spoke of his family’s fortune in the East India Company and the present company listened to, dewy and still. Were they four strangers then these surmises might seem as competition but each member was bound by the blood of Aldwych. (………) For an instant they were put to silence by the arrival of four tranches of roast beef and fig pudding. The hawser of the conversation, so to speak, slackened amidst the sounds of mastication, indeed any inveigling soul might’ve sworn the served cattle themselves there chewed the cud! Soon talk returned through airborne gobbets of said beef and running tears of laughter mined from the sincerest of cores. The four Aldwych children in the warmth of the inn’s thermical hearth were once again reunited in their parochial gang!

Hilary Chadwick - The Travails of the Hop Garden 1872

If there’s any conclusion I can come to about Wetherspoons it’s that it’s a British institution that caters for the widest possible audience. I know very little about the trade but as a business it has a curious model - often occupying a site in a town and shutting in order acquire the lease of bigger venues in the same street when they become available. This is more of a local business model - even a brewery model. People that have little money to spend actually have a well maintained venue to be served in. 

Some pubs are closing whilst others are going craft. The latter obviously interest me but with the craft beer comes the craft price bracket. As such, I don’t think a lot of the original punters go back. Well-kept cask ale and good (and indifferent) keg ale is in abundance in a Wetherspoons. A lot of the employees will be jobbing whilst studying so it’s probably a place most of the team won’t work for long. It keeps buildings used and functional even if they weren’t pubs to start with and overwhelmingly it’s the local community that patronises them. They don’t seem to play music so you can have a conversation in them but you’re unlikely to banter with the staff themselves. My final thought on the matter takes me back to my local ‘Spoons in St Albans.

Skyline, Barbara Weeks 2005

The Watered Barn is a unique structure: originally it was two separate barns, the larger a 17th century building from Wheathampstead, the smaller a 16th century outhouse from Hormead. They were moved and reassembled in the 1930s and 1960s respectively. The artwork (pictured above) is called Skyline by local artist Barbara Weeks. It represents the land around St Albans and as a keen hiker, I can vouch for the fact she has captured the local landscape perfectly. It’s a huge fabric installation hanging on the wall. Each septet wedge represents a glimpse of the architecture, shallow hills and repetitive monoculture seen around Hertfordshire and across East Anglia to the coast. Suggestions of the Norman cathedral especially can be picked out. Pubs often have framed prints of their towns from the past but this artwork is special. It can’t have been cheap and I feel it shows a commitment to the city the pub’s in. 

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Real Deal

An advance apology: the following text uses the word “real” 32 times (including that one).

The above image shows three glasses of beer in various states of demolition. The rose-coloured brew to the left was a raspberry Saison by Partizan Brewing. The middle beer was Luxury Stout by Weird Beard Brew Co. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the identity of the amber ale but it was the only one of the trio that can be considered real. On this occasion, it was also the least memorable.

Let me take you back a few years to when I discovered a website called Quaffale. It lists brewery openings and closures in Britain. I remember finding Brewdog from Aberdeenshire and next to it in green luminescent print: “NOT REAL”. I knew the brewery couldn’t just be a rumour - I’d actually seen bottles of their beer. Did it mean it was another brewer posing under an alias? The explanation was on the website itself: Brewery From Which Most Of The Beer Produced Can Not Be Defined As Real Ale. Around the same time I noticed a little speech bubble on a bottle of Hook Norton’s Double Stout. It said “CAMRA says this is real ale”. It was the beginning of an education. In both cases, the beer was “real” or “not real” because of secondary fermentation - or lack thereof - in the vessel of dispense.

I have started becoming uncomfortable with the term real ale. This isn’t a rant and no unpleasant incident has happened to put me off. It’s a term I’ve been aware of most of my life. It conjures up images of flush-cheeked bearded men, an open hearth and foaming tankards. Little did I realise then I’d become a keen imbiber of the stuff in the future and I can’t deny that the term carries a little nostalgic warmth. Instead, this is about things changing.

The realisation I don’t want to use the term anymore came last year in a Craft Beer Company pub in London. I looked through the beer menu (are there another two words that complete each other so beautifully? Actually yes - pub crawl) to see which beers stood out from the cask & keg lines - not to mention which I could afford. It struck me that, were I to use the word “real” in this setting, what would it mean in terms of experience? It wouldn’t mean real as opposed to fake or good as opposed to poor. It would simply mean “on cask”. When there’s skill, time and dedication put into non-cask beers and they’re tasty, carbonated, refreshing and arguably more innovative, the word real becomes meaningless. I can no longer reconcile the term to mean a beer that stands out as a guarantee of quality - enhanced over other beers on the bar.

Real is a problem word. True would be just as problematic. One definition of real ale could be a spontaneously fermented drink consisting of barley malt and herbs - but not hops - according to word usage from the 15th Century. Our Yarrow, Mugwort and Ground Ivy Gruit would’ve been the “real” ale as in original or traditional. The addition of hops coming over from the Low Countries would’ve made it un-“real”. If we took a more Teutonic view of beer, a more Reinheitsgebotty stance, the real could denote that only malt barley could be used - never rye or oats. An oatmeal stout or a rye ale, therefore, couldn’t be real as they would break purity laws. So what does real mean for us now?

It seems to me that CAMRA itself is putting less stress on what is and isn’t “real”. I recall when each brochure from a beer festival bore a panel asking “what do we mean by real?” In that question is an admission that it probably deviates from the dictionary definition. The literature now stresses the political and campaigning side more: to keep pubs open, to reduce the amount of tax on a pint, to help the local economy etc. Also, as mentioned in a previous post, to be manageable, the staple served at CAMRA beer festivals only just qualifies as “real” by it’s own definition. Re-racked beer has had the yeast largely removed.

The term “real” itself was originally a fumble for words to fit into an already-established acronym: CAMRA - The Campaign for R….  Ale. The R had started out as Restoration and was later changed to Revitalisation. Midlands campaigner Peter Lynlie suggested “real” in 1973 so as to be more pronounceable when inebriated. Frank Baillie, author of The Beer Drinker’s Companion wrote about real draught ale around the same time as opposed to the newer keg dispense taking over; was the term a drink-fuelled conflation of ideas?

Ale is also produced across the globe. Cask ale is unique to Britain and should be cherished but our neighbours’ ale is real too insofar as it exists, is held in high esteem and care is taken in making it. In this context “real” just sounds arrogant and where brewing is concerned, the world is becoming an increasingly small neighbourhood.

I can no longer reconcile the word real with a guarantee of beer quality in bottles or cans either. Bottle conditioning is still crucial when it comes to letting beer age but I’m tired of letting a 330ml bottle stand for days only to see a rivulet of yeast trickling into the glass as soon as I start a careful pour. It’s still drinkable but it’s not as the brewer intended it to be drunk. The finer notes become lost like the detail in an over-exposed photograph. Crystal clarity turns to lemon curd and this happens with some of the U.K’s most rated breweries. I know this is a bottling issue but I’ve come to prefer the slogan “drink fresh”, especially when it’s a pale well-hopped beer. Consume it as close as possible to the bottling date while the flavours are still zinging. Like tap dispense, the “real” has been superseded by the consequences of its impact. In other words, the effort to improve bottled beer has led to better methods than the original cure. Also, the yeast does give me some stomach upset the next day - it’s alive and fermenting in my gut - perhaps making me “real” in the process.

Cask beer: something to be utterly proud of as this particularly hop-forward quintet demonstrates in The Boot, St Albans.

Imposing the word “real” back at CAMRA’s inception made sense at the time but the context has changed. In a way, my opposition to using the word actually reflects the strength of the campaign started by Michael Hardman, Jim Makin, Graham Lees and Bill Mellor almost 45 years ago. A good measure of a cause’s success is to make itself obsolete by defeating the factors that made it necessary to start with. Though CAMRA can never reach that celestial goal, it’s been as successful as possible for a consumer group to be. The Big Six have gone and the primacy of bland fizzy beer has been checked in Britain. Real used to be a superlative that rose proudly from the competition but what defines quality is now constantly being revised.

Would CAMRA have to change its name? I’ve read snippets of this debate in regional CAMRA news publications - usually about whether the initials should be altered to include the words craft beer. I don’t think any change would be necessary. The word automobile is archaic now - the “auto” specifying that the carriage powers itself by motor rather than being horse-drawn yet neither the RAC nor AA changed their names. There just ends up being a little bit of history in the title.

I believe we should be giving our pub ale the respect it deserves by calling it cask ale or cask beer. Aurally, it also sounds less whiny than saying real ale and requires too much slovenly tongue lolling for my liking. Cask ale - almost onomatopoeic - the handpump sliding back after the first pull. 

When non-geeks ask me what the difference between a keg and a cask is, I inflate proudly as I explain what the belly of the cask is for and how the beer’s alive. Cask ale can often be bland but where the holy combination of brewer’s passion and cellaring skills align, cask speaks for itself. You tilt a glass from a beer engine to your lips and a sensation like a glowing Turner sunset lights up across your palate, it comes into focus, you breathe in the elements interacting and the life thriving inside the vessel it was drawn from. You can call anything real, but this experience could only be cask.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Caught Between the Revolt and the Revolution

Towards the end of 2015 I turned 38 and it gave me pause to think about my vintage. 1977 was a busy year: the first Star Wars film hit us, the queen celebrated her silver jubilee and Spain’s first democratic elections took place. It also saw the passing of Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Anais Nin and Mark Bolan. 

In that year the revolt against pasteurised fizzy keg beer was being waged by a young CAMRA and Terry Jones opened the GBBF in Alexandra Palace by dumping 6 pints of beer over his head.

Chatting to older gentlemen with Gandalfian hair I often hear a familiar trigger: a breath is drawn and, like a veteran recalling the Great War, a lustful “I remember when….” I look down at my shoes and suppress myself. I’ve been here many times before - I’m about to be told about Watney’s Red Barrel which I’m too young to remember. I’m about to be educated again. I’m often halfway down a russet coloured pint of real ale, breathing in an aroma of glucose and sweat and wondering whether Watney’s Red Barrel was as bad as this pint. I’ll be absolutely blunt - I want a glass of Watney’s Red Barrel just to see if it lives up to its infamy.

I knew cask beer from an early age. I remember going into pubs in the South Oxfordshire countryside after turning 18 with a folded A3-sized birth certificate in my inside pocket. I looked about twelve. I would order a pint of Morrells, Morlands or Brakspears with the occasional sighting of Wadworths or Arkells. A lot of the beer was bad but some of it was amazing. There was no specification - each one was a pint of bitter.

There was the occasional departure: one of my fondest memories is for a long deceased summer ale by Brakspears. Their summer ale had a tiny ABV and was like drinking the soft yellows & greens in a fruit salad - knocking back summer itself in the beer garden. Ales like that had a way of melding you into the surrounding countryside as if you became the chalk pits, bryony and rapeseed - the downs themselves. This was about two decades before the popularity in Britain of New World hops and I can find no trace of that drink now. It was long before the internet so people weren’t snapping the pump clips with their smart phones.

As a young man I worked in Oxford. I was never fond of Morrells but because it was Oxford, it’s what you had. If a pub had multiple beer engines, they were all Morrells bitter. Looking back, many pubs might’ve been indifferent to cellarmanship - a skill that’s definitely grown. My memory is of a flat woody one-dimensional beer that I’d session indiscriminately.

I witnessed the last throes of Morrells at the Lion brewery in Oxford. In its last years it brought out chilled keg beers previously on cask - College, Graduate and Varsity. I recall one of the cringier slogans: “Morrells - as smooth as the brewery gate”. It had taken its own leathery flat bitter and chilled it down for chrome tapped nitrogen dispense as Worthingtons, Boddingtons and John Smiths were doing. Keg bitter of the mid nineties was the worst of both worlds and as tasteful as Mr Blobby from the same era. The death rattle came in 1998. The beer portfolio changed hands a few times and now belongs to Marstons but is rarely seen. The earliest parts of the brewery dated from 1743 with the machinery originally driven by a water wheel.  The buildings are now luxury flats.

I’m impressed by CAMRA for its ability to throw big festivals, erect racking in record time and for its quality control. I’ve been a volunteer at festivals when the beer is tested from each cask. It might sound like an excuse to get free drink but it’s serious; if it’s not ready or something’s gone wrong, it won’t be served. By contrast at a Craft Beer festival I’ve taken a beer style like an imperial stout so ice cold that vapour is deflecting off my face. None of the richness can be detected until your hands gradually nurse it back to warmth. CAMRA’s bar is higher here.

Re-racked beer is the staple of CAMRA beer festivals and only scrapes through its own definition of real ale by virtue of the fact there might be some residual yeast in the cask. This is how come when the taps start running dry at the festivals, they can be tilted onto their spiles without the last drops of beer containing the finings or yeast sediment. Both these things are churndering in the belly of regular casks. If you drank a mouthful, you’d know about it.

I’m fortunate to be within London’s commuter belt. A rare indulgence is to have a half of the same ale on cask and from (key)keg and see how they compare. The carbonation is different: on cask it rises at the back like a sponge cake but on keg it hits the tongue fizzing. There is a depth to cask but a levity to keg. More surround sound on cask but more cool refreshment on keg.

I think that, were one to encounter a bar on two fronts - cask to the fore and craft to the rear (I know cask beer is craft beer too but you get my meaning) - the populations would begin to segregate by age. I would be one of the inbetweeners continually crossing the threshold - not demographically beholden to either and trusted by no-one as the tribes caucus.

I have met members of the 1970s revolt who hold that any beer not dispensed from cask is inferior. I understand why they think this and how this might have been true for many years. The explosion in brewery numbers has come suddenly. The British craft brewing rocket is young and ambitious. For many of my older friends though, it’s vehemently resisted.

I’m descending into stereotype here. I know plenty from the older generation who follow newer brewers closely and conversely, younger brewers who hold cask in high esteem. There is no question that new breweries are more key keg oriented but the cask still endures when it’s the best candidate for dispense: last year Jack Hobday from Bermondsey brewery Ansbach & Hobday celebrated his birthday with a limited bitter on cask rather than key keg. Just down the road, Brew By Numbers brought out a stonking coffee stout (Kenya Gikirima Factory) on cask for the same reason: they figured it was the best way of serving it.

What a thing to have been there in the 1970s. Young swaggering drinkers of cask beer who refused to let Britain’s unique beer tradition die out. They won. But what a thing to be young and a brewer now. A gourmet of hops and ingredients from across the planet and a railway arch to rock your profession under, meet your fans and raise the profile of beer. You don’t just need to be more innovative than the brewery in the next arch along, but with the breweries on the other side of the world. Your fans and their fans talk to each other and compare notes! You duplicate and tweak. Add a twist and include ever more challenging ingredients. The world is just a click away on the internet. You have the ability to talk to brewers across the world face to face in real time and plan a collaboration!

The Craft Beer scene is standing on the shoulders of the 1970s revolution. To push the analogy much too far - is this how come it can see further? With Craft Beer, social media has taken the place of advertising save on bar runners, glassware, hoodies and bottle openers but these are in places where the beer would’ve been within clutching distance anyway. These breweries need no advertising space - just shouts and pictures on social media.

I’m glad I was born when I was. I got the taste for cask from early on when a handful of local breweries were still intact. I witnessed the resurgence of cask beer and later the younger brewers taking their lead from America. These things happened in parallel and people of my vintage walk along straddling the divide. I remember how good cask can be and remain open to how amazing keg can be. I’m much too old to be in CAMRA’s young members group. Much too young to remember leather footballs (for some reason, I’m repeatedly bloody told about them), yet old enough to realise I’m often the oldest person in the bar. I’ve reached an age where, when someone tells me the year they were born in, I’m amazed as I’m sure that year just happened.

Being born in this trough period between revolutions enables me to enjoy both campaigns. They’re causally linked but quite distinct. I’m a sprat to the former and an uncle to the latter and drawn towards the bars that specialise in both. Because of my age, I belong to neither. I believe I and my fellow inbetweeners got the best seats in the house.