Monday, 5 October 2015

The price is right

This post is by Arthur.

This weekend a guest post on murky beer from long-time reader Quinno contained the following passage:

"Until recently, as a Reading resident, I’ve passed this off as a London-centric thing (anyone who happily pays northwards of four quid a pint is clearly a fool anyway)."

I took this to be a slightly jokey, cage-rattler of a comment, which is obiviously not something we usually indulge in here at STONCH. However it caused a bit of a stir over on Twitterland.

Here's a selection of outrage:

£3.60 this cost me and lovely it was too.
In the spirit of reading too much into a throwaway comment, I'd suggest that anyone who thinks you paid £4 for a pint in the 1980's either spent the decade drinking in Soho clip joints, or doesn't really know what they're talking about.

Judging by their Twitter profiles all these people are based in London, which was kind of the point Quinno was making. Certainly since I left London at the beginning of this year I don't think I've paid more than £4 for a pint; when Tiny Rebel's Cwtch  appeared in a local bar shortly after winning the CBoB I paid £3.60 for it. But even when I lived in London I rarely paid more than £4. Pubs like the Harp opposite Charing Cross station would knock out decent, enjoyable beer from interesting breweries for less than that. But of course these guys, I assume, don't mean "beer" in the way I and most other people imagine it.

Strangely the idea that we should be paying more for our beer is spreading. Robyn Black over at Inapub even uses the recent Cask Report to suggest publicans "bump up the price of your cask ale to gain greater profits". This is utterly bizarre as the data gathered for the report suggests 67% of those surveyed said that price is an important factor in deciding where to drink.

I can remember the moment I fell in love with Marble brewery. It was a meet the brewer event at Cask, Pimlico a good few years ago. One of the team was talking about how they came to brew their beer Pint. He said they wanted to brew a beer that the "suits" could knock back but that would still excite the beer geeks. I was instantly struck by the image of workers and beer geeks both enjoying the same beer in happy harmony. Good beer designed to have mass appeal. Fantastic stuff. It's what anyone who cares about beer should be aiming for.

Pricing matters to most people. You can't sneer and dismiss it out of hand. The clocked-off workers who dash into a pub to pour a couple of £3.90 pints into their face before jumping onto the 18:15 to Croydon become less tempted to do so when the beer is £5.90. And as a consequence, beer slowly becomes more exclusive. Which is, rather stupidly, exactly what some people want.

On a similar subject check out these posts from Michael Kiser at Good Beer Hunting and Jeff Alworth at Beervana

Arthur Scargill is a beer drinker and currently based in the north west of England. You can find him on Twitter here and if you have a tip for Saturday's Drinker's Digest pass it on here.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Beer of the week #6

A regular Sunday feature: each week one of the team writes about the best new beer they've had on tap that week. This Sunday it's Tunameister John West himself getting his round in late doors. If you yourself have had anything new that's impressed you, let us know what and where in the comments.

Southwark Bermondsey Best
Two pints at the Chesham Arms, E9, Hackney
4.4% abv. £3.60/pint.

A lot has been written about the campaign to save the Chesham Arms. Locals were up in arms when the pub was boarded up and the usual suspects - I say this with all due respect - of CAMRA stalwarts and residents damned if they were going to lose a watering hole rallied round.

The Chesham Arms
They might never have had a leg to stand on if the owner/developer had sought change of use to residential property in the correct manner. Thankfully for the functioning alcohol users who loved the place, he'd blundered in and done work without the relevant sign-off. Hackney Council was less than pleased and, following a nervy old legal fight, the pub has been restored to - let's be honest - a bloody sight nicer state than it was before.

In for my first snifter at the revitalised gaff, they've nailed it. Mixed crowd, decent prices, cool but unsnooty staff, a clean Victorian-style pubby interior. And they kept Guinness on for those that like it. Hats off.

Pint of Best
Always pleased to see a new brewery try their hand at a Best, I plumped for Southwark's Bermondsey Best on cask. It's a deep copper pint, malt-led - a hint of chocolate malt? - decently bittered with Kent hops and fruity. Won't knock the peerless likes of Harvey's or Timmy Taylor off their perch just yet - but let's give the poor buggers time, eh?

It's an honest pint at, as you can see above, an honest price in a great pub. Lovely stuff.

Saturday, 3 October 2015


No Drinker's Digest today as Arthur is travelling. Instead we have a guest contribution from long-time STONCH commenter Quinno, who suggests a social media hashtag to shame murky beer:

London Murky in Bermondsey
I’ve read (and seen up close) a fair bit about ‘London murky’. The fact is we're increasingly being offered a ‘naturally hazy’ product when it’s nothing of the sort – it’s a crap brew or poorly-cellared. THE TAND (bless him) is the leading online proponent of this view.

Until recently, as a Reading resident, I’ve passed this off as a London-centric thing (anyone who happily pays northwards of four quid a pint is clearly a fool anyway). It now seems to creeping outwards.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been in pubs in Berkshire that are well-renowned ale outlets which run tight cellars only to be presented with something that looks like it has been dredged out of the local River Kennet. Only once has it been clearly labelled on the pump clip as ‘unfined’. The others have been presented at the point of sale as a professionally made brew.

Now don’t get me wrong, well-brewed and clearly labelled veggie-friendly unfined beers are a good thing in my book – as they offer our non-carnivore friends the ability to enjoy good ale along with the rest of us. And when clearly labelled as being so I have no issue with them, and may even enjoy one myself.

However what I do object to as a customer is being misled. This evening I got served half a murk from Clouded Minds* at a well-known Reading pub and took it back – as you would – for being iffy. Nowhere on the clip did it say unfined, and sadly I had to have an argument with the barman that if the beer was coming out cloudy with no forewarning on the clip it was their problem not mine and that I expected a new beer.

After all, why should I pay good money for something that – as far as I’m concerned – is substandard? If it’s meant to be hazy, why did the pump clip not happily declare this and allow me to make up my own mind? If the pub has screwed it up, then it’s their fault. Or perhaps it’s simply ullage (pub again). Either way, I shouldn’t be served it – that’s what matters. I am a customer paying a premium price.

So here is my proposition to the social media types amongst you.

I’ve heard of the offensive #slutshaming hashtag on Twitter and perhaps it’s time we started appropriating that for our own ends. Perhaps #murkshaming to be used when you get a glass of murk when you expect - with no guidance at point of sale - to get a clear and fresh beer professionally brewed and cellared to the highest standards.

Many years were spent trying to reclaim good quality real ale because it’s a fantastic drink. However the grime that is starting to appear will undo so much of that work and as an unashamed CAMRA member I feel pissed off; I think that some people are taking the drinking classes for mugs.

Stand up and be counted – the next generation will thank you.


 * I emailed the brewer about this and was told that the beer was meant to be clear (of course who is to blame for my half is another matter). So if it isn't supposed to be cloudy - such as in this case - then the narrative and coming pervasiveness of London Murky needs to fucking repelled NOW. Because it is taking hold…

Friday, 2 October 2015

Carlsberg culled by Tesco

Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, has announced Carlsberg will be withdrawn from almost all of its stores. It's part of a drive to reduce the number of product lines across all categories to streamline the business and keep prices down. Ad industry journal The Drum has the story.

Clearly, this is a big blow for Carlsberg. As a multinational brewer they have other beers on the UK market, and perhaps some of those will remain in Tesco. But the best margin and volume is with their core product (brewed in the UK at Northampton).

Is Tesco's move a pointer as to where beer is heading in this country? Off trade beer sales (shops, off licences) overtook on-trade (pubs, bars, restaurants) for the first time last year, so what's sold on supermarket shelves is more important than ever.

I'd suggest the craft beer market - while still a minority sport - has had a knock-on effect for the big brands, even for those of us who still enjoy mass produced beer. It's made authenticity ever more prominent in consumers' minds. That's a bad thing for the multinational brands brewed under licence in this country for decades.

Let's face it: there's no longer any allure to faux-Danish beer, faux-Belgian beer, faux-Aussie beer. People know they can get the real thing on the craft beer section. Now that doesn't mean they'll always go for the upgrade - cheap and cheerful will always rule in the beer market - but it does mean they're no longer seduced by big, discredited brands, and are just as happy to plump for a supermarket's own brand. I think that's what Tesco are relying on here.

In July 2008 I wrote this piece on mass-produced beers generally, pointing out that's there real differences behind them. I didn't touch on the issue of authenticity and brewing under licence then, but I did pick out two beers for praise - Pilsner Urquell and Staropramen - and it's no coincidence that they're both genuine imports, brewed in Pilsen and Prague respectively.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

United Craft Brewers: What's going on?

This post is written by Arthur

If you believe the Craftafarian dystopian vision, the end times are here. The macros have awoken. Buying up, what I think I read was, a craft brewery every five days during September alone. The implications for the market for fashionable hops, especially with the reportedly poor 2015 harvest, is yet to be discovered. Cloudwater, a highly respected new brewery has been raising serious questions about how current business practices are impacting on small breweries cash flow. Big, complicated issues.

Promises, promises.
By now, of course, we should have seen the beginnings of the new United Craft Brewers organisation, who would have been, we assume, working with the micro breweries who largely make up the UK craft scene to help devise strategies to deal with such stuff.

Announced with much fanfare earlier this year, articles in the Guardian, Total Ales and even, *gasp* a STONCH write up, we've heard diddly-squit since. The proposed "early September" date for the initial meeting has come and gone. The Twitter feed @UnitedCraftBrew has, as of today, tweeted sod all. 
So big words, little action. But what could be the reasons for the delay in getting this organisation off the ground?

Here are some of our best guesses:
  • Apart from the founding members, hardly any other breweries have expressed interest.
  • They're still trying to find a railway arch to host the meetings.
  • Nick Dwyer has painted a really scary skeleton in the boardroom. Martin Dickie refuses to enter.
  • Meetings aren't punk so no one has shown up. Still trying to arrange a meeting to find out how to make them punk.
  • Indications craft beer bubble has burst. Everyone now desperately trying to find out more about high end donuts, street morris dancing, knitting.
  • Someone finally drank some Camden Hells, wondered whether the fucking hassle is worth it.
  • James Watt refused to take his moose mask off. Security won't let him in building.
  • Still haven't come up with a definition of craft that doesn't exclude founding members or their current 3 year business plans.
  • As it's currently a peak sales time the organisation is being set up in Germany.
  • Normally the head brewers do all the work but they're locked in a basement, not allowed to communicate with the outside world.
  • It's still being barrel aged.
  • Now AB-InBev have their big cheque book out perhaps best not to antagonise them.
  • Realised they didn't have the capacity to set up the organisation themselves so asking Thwaites to do it for them.
  • Logan Plant will only join if the organisation is in a 330ml can with a intergalactic space skeleton on it.
  • Didn't have a high enough theoretical IBU, whole thing written off as not "flavoursome" . 
  • Setting up and running an organisation isn't as easy as it looks. Starting to wish they hadn't openly slagged off SIBA.

But what do we know? These are just guesses, if you can do better please leave a comment below.

Arthur Scargill is a beer drinker and currently based in the north west of England. You can find him on Twitter here and if you have a tip for Saturday's Drinker's Digest pass it on here.

The First In Last Out, Hastings Old Town

I've always been tickled by unusual pub names. For this reason alone the First In Last Out in the Old Town of Hastings would be on my hit list. But it's also a brewpub; it was well-known in the pre-craft years, when such things were terribly rare. The beers are made in a separate building now, but just up the street.

Sunday was my second visit to the FILO. I was in a hell of a hurry, with a train to catch. I'd completed a 20 mile hike from Robertsbridge station via Battle, the last leg of which was a long trek through the streets of St Leonard's and Hastings itself.

I'd already had a beer in the Crown (re-opened a year ago, with a food and craft beer focus*) and wanted to get back to London.

Just a pint of bitter.
It's an overused term when describing pubs with outdated decor, but the FILO really is a timewarp. Neither historic nor modern, it belongs in the 1970s. In the middle of the room there's an unusual central fire place that looks for all the world like a wishing well. The evening's entertainment - two fellas with guitars - were tapping microphones and demonstrating an ability to count up to two.

Four of their own plus one guest ale were available. The bar was lined with happy regulars on stools, but the barmaid caught my eye over the tops of their heads and quickly dispensed a pint of the house bitter. It was poured well, with a proper head. There was little complexity - this was no Harvey's Sussex Best - but it was good beer and I was perfectly content as I knocked it back.

Like the pub itself, the FILO's brewery has been doing its thing for some years now. They've clearly got the hang of it so you're in safe hands.

* You'd think I'd have written about that place, really. The Crown had a good (and very reasonably priced) craft beer selection in a beautiful setting. I'm sure the food's lovely. Unfortunately the staff seemed harassed and overall it just didn't seem very friendly. I'll give it another try next time I'm in Hastings.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Homebrewing: the simple(ton) way

The green stuff means I used too much hops maybe?
Who cares. It'll all come out in the wash.
Those who engaged with my twitter feed last night will know I did a spot of homebrewing. I scalded myself twice and made a proper mess of the kitchen, but as you can see from this photo taken a moment ago, it is actually fermenting. Does it look alright? I don't know. I'm sure it'll be fine.

Yesterday afternoon, before my impromptu brewing session, I made the most of the fine weather, strolling from Clerkenwell to Portobello Brewery in West London via the Regent's Canal towpath. There I met with Farooq, head brewer, and picked up some malt and hops. In total he gave me five types of the former (caragold, pale, wheat, dark and amber) and two of the latter (cascade and celeia).

Farooq politely enquired as to the exact quantities I required and what I was planning to brew. I mumbled a bit, and I think he figured out that all I was planning to do was bung it all in and hope for the best, like I was making a giant spag bol or something. Because that's craft brewing, right?

Here's the technical data for you homebrew enthusiasts:

  • Preparation and sanitation: I washed my hands and gave the wooden spoon I'd just used to cook supper a proper good scrub before using it stir things around.
  • Recipe: none - just put in loads of everything I had.
  • Batch volume: about 8 litres if I'm lucky.
  • Yeast variety: it was called Safale and was in a sachet I've had knocking about for years.

I want my beer to be one of those trendy London Murky types, so I've just left the it in the big stockpot I used as a kettle, without transferring to a separate fermenting vessel. Don't worry, I did slosh it all around a bit to aerate the wort (you see, I know all the technical terms and techniques). Because all the solid matter that seeped through the bags of malt and hops is going to stay in there, it'll be like soup when I siphon it into a little pressure barrel in about a week's time.

I'll keep you updated because I know you people love all this shit.