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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Friday, 31 December 2010

2010: What the blazes was all THAT about? (Part three)

A day late thanks to laptop crashes. Here are my final reflections...

Source of cautious optimism of the year: The rebirth of the (good) pub

Is the worst over?  The number of pubs per week that are closing their doors for good fell from 49 in mid-2009 to 29 in 2010.  That’s still too many – but it’s an improvement.

That’s actually a net figure – more pubs are closing than that, but some of them reopen as pubs.  In fact Christie & Co, a big pub estate agent, claim 60% of the closed pubs that pass through their books reopen as pubs.

And everywhere I’ve gone in 2010, I’ve seen great new pubs opening, and flourishing.  In every one, the story is the same: here was a pub that, before the end, had chased the lowest common denominator in search of shoring up its income, with brighter lights, louder TV screens and music, karaoke and promotions on lurid drinks.  In every one, the new landlord said to me something along the lines of “Before this placed closed, there was more money changing hands in the toilet cubicles than was being passed over the bar.”  Pubs signal the kind of place they are as soon as you walk in, and attract custom – or not – accordingly.

And whether we’re talking craft beer pubs like the Jolly Butcher’s on my doorstep, the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico or the newly opened Thornbridge pub the Greystones in Sheffield, or revived community pubs like the Chesterfield Arms in Chesterfield or the Morgan in Malvern, these boarded up shells have been taken over by people who get that a good pub should be about good beer and good conversation.  They’re reclaiming their roles as community hubs.  People who haven’t sat together and spoken for years come together once more. 

It’s not foolproof, but decent beer pubs offering good beer in the right location are thriving.

Buried hatchet of the year: The Great British Beer Festival

Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity.  I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done. 

The first slagging I gave our consumer campaigning body was in my first book, Man Walks into a Pub, and the main focus of my ire was the Great British Beer Festival.  I used to be drawn to it every year, and I used to hate it every year.  I hated its unfriendly staff, its singular lack of atmosphere, and the fact that every single aspect of it seemed to actively alienate anyone who was not already a fully paid-up CAMRA member.

In 2009, I grudgingly admitted that much had changed, and despite reservations, it was getting pretty good.  In 2010, I enjoyed it unreservedly. 

We could still point to the appalling acoustics, the ludicrous situation whereby Meantime, a brewer of incredibly authentic traditional London beer styles, is not allowed to exhibit those beers in a London beer festival thanks to an irrelevant technicality, or the apparently growing hostility to the large regional brewers who kept real ale alive until the micro boom came along.  It’ll never be perfect. 

But there’s been a lot of thought given to layout and navigation, the foreign beers now get the space and respect they deserve, and the staff of volunteers have undergone a massive charm offensive, and are, on balance, as unfailingly polite and helpful as they were rude and hostile a few years ago.  More than that, festivals are made by the people who attend them.  The craft beer revolution and CAMRA’s more open body language have attracted a much broader spectrum of people, and GBBF now actually feels like a festival.  It feels like a celebration of great beer on a grand scale – which is what it ought to be.

Congratulations, CAMRA.

Big night out of the year: Kelly Ryan’s Euston Tap Farewell

Most sadly missed, Britain’s loss is New Zealand’s gain etc. 

At the end of the year Kelly Ryan, Thornbridge brewer, brilliant public face for the brewery and perfect foil for the gifted but shy genius that is head brewer Stefano Cossi, decided to return home down under. He announced that he’d be having a few drinks in the newly opened Euston Tap on 1st December, if anyone wanted to come along and say goodbye.

Earlier that evening I’d already been to a Beer Genie Christmas beer tasting with my oldest friend, Chris.  This was also a leaving drink of sorts, with Chris leaving London after 16 years to return oop north.  Kelly’s party was in full swing when we arrived, with many familiar faces.  Thornbridge Alliance, one of only two casks in existence of a beer brewed three years ago in collaboration with Garret Oliver, was on the bar, alongside several other Thornbridge solo and collaborative brews.  I was asked for my autograph when I walked in, which was weird – I’ve signed lots of books and stuff, but never actually been asked for my autograph before, and certainly not on the basis of my appearances on a long-lost food TV programme four years ago.  

There was already a certain giddiness in the air.  With heady beers of 10% or 11% on the cards, I planned my night’s drinking carefully – three or four different halves, building in flavour and intensity, until finishing on the Alliance at about 10pm then heading home. 

This would have worked if I was buying my own drinks, but on nights like this in the Tap that’s not always easy.  Various indeterminate pints and halves began appearing in front of us.  And then in burst Jamie, proprietor of both Sheffield and Euston Taps, bearing a heavy plaque that had been awarded him by a bunch of railway enthusiasts for the restoration of the Sheffield Tap, presented by none other than celebrity trainspotter Pete Waterman.  More drinks all round.

And then it started snowing, heavily, and then pizzas arrived, and then it was snowing inside, because a bunch of polystyrene appeared from somewhere and Chris was tearing it into smaller pieces and throwing it in the air.  Jamie was challenging people to arm wrestling contests at the bar, goading them with slaps around the face if they proved hesitant.  I don’t think the stoic bar manager, Yan, ever actually called time or declared a lock-in.  It just reached a point deep in the night where anyone who came to the door took one look inside and hurried away again.  Kelly and his girlfriend Kat looked delighted, accepting endless drinks and occasionally even trying to buy one.   The snow continued to fall and barley wine followed Imperial Stout followed Double IPA, and we stayed there, drinking irresponsibly, until about 2am.

One of those nights you’ll remember for years to come – the sheer joy of drinking great beer with great people.  In the snow.

Local triumph of the year: London finally catches up with Microbrew revolution

In 2006, Ben McFarland and I spent a day touring Boulder, Colorado, while visiting the Great American beer festival.  At that time Boulder (population, 85,000) had 15 breweries.  London (population 7 million) had two that people knew about, and maybe two more that were known to real aficionados.  It seemed bizarre that, in the midst of the UK microbrewing revolution, the nation’s capital, home to legendary historical breweries like Whitbread, Courage, Watney’s, Truman’s and Barclay Perkins, had fewer breweries than places like Sheffield and Derby.

In 2009-2010, that all changed.  When the explosion came, it was all the more forceful for having been kept waiting so long.  Sambrooks opened at the end of 2008, Brodies in 2009, and in 2010 we gained Redemption, The Kernel, Saints and Sinners/Brew Wharf, Camden Town and, a little further out, Windsor and Eton.  With Fuller’s breaking new ground, Meantime moving to a new level, Battersea Brewing somewhere below the radar, Zero Degrees in Blackheath and the Twickenham brewery, London finally has a vibrant brewing scene once more.  Not only that, across the board there’s a level of variety, experimentation and cooperation that gladdens the heart as it excites the palate.



So, lots of moans about 2010, but lots to be very happy about too.  I think the trend towards interesting beer has proved not to be a fad.  Now, when I tell people what I do for a living, about half of them say, “Oh yeah, beer’s pretty cool at the moment isn’t it?  I was trying something new and interesting the other day.”  I don’t know if we’ll ever get the sudden explosion of interest that cider got with Magner’s.  But compared to when I started writing about beer, the variety and enthusiasm surrounding it now is phenomenal.

Here’s to more of the same in 2011.

20 comments:

Steve Hannigan said...

There may because for cautious optimism in London and a few other areas where the hands of enlightened brewers like Thornbridge and Marble reach out. But most parts of the country don't have any 'craft' beer to compare with the real ale that is still swimming against the tide of Pubco and supermaret dross. Here in Wirral the urban Mersey side of the peninsular must be the worst area in England for availibility of good beer. Even Liverpool, whose residents have always been fiercly individual and inquiring has only a couple of pubs (Fly In The Loaf and Ship & Mitre)and both of those are still in the 'could try harder' bracket.
I do think that you are too hard on CAMRA. I've been a member for 35years and have spent the whole of that time trying to convert the unbelievers to good beer. Is it any wonder that some members are upset when their efforts are bad-mouthed by what is perceived to be upstarts? I defend the definition of real ale as sacrosant and could never agree that a keg version is better than the cask version of the same beer. However that didn't stop me drinking numerous wonderful keg draught beers in Belgium last week or fantastic keg Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and Flying Dog Double Dog in the White Horse, Parsons Green a few days ago.
Happy New Beer!

Phil said...

thanks to an irrelevant technicality,

As a wise man once said to me, "Shut up. Just shut up."

John Clarke said...

So, that's clear then:

First we have:

"I include myself in that. I get pulled into some of these debates – I even fuel them sometimes – but I always regret doing so, and I apologise for every moment in 2010 where I’ve made people focus on these aspects of beer more than they otherwise would have"

Then we have:

"Regular readers may have noticed that I slag off CAMRA with some regularity. I don’t enjoy it, but it has to be done"

Which I think leads us inevitably to:

"Shut up. Just shut up."

Pete Brown said...

John, I just can't win with you lot, can I? I do a blog post crediting CAMRA for turning GBBF into a brilliant event and you still find something to be unhappy about. I give up.

beerevolution said...

That was definitely an amazing night! Even better was rocking up and seeing four of my friends from the Coach and Horses in Dronfield had turned up to surprise us!

Will always remember that snow... and the Thornstar... and the Fyne Bridge... and the Alliance... and the Coalition...

Kelly

PS- You're almost due a New Zealand holiday aren't you?

Tyson said...

Pete

It does come across a little as if you’ve thrown JC a bone and expect him to be grateful for it. But you give with one hand and taketh with the other.

GBBF dramatically improved?

The staff are the same (hello, Tandleman), so did the other minor alterations really improve it that much? Or is it simply you’ve changed, moved your goalposts and come to like it, rather than any major shift on CAMRA’s part?

And then there’s the side swipe with the reference to an “irrelevant technicality”. If you insist on revisiting one of your Gerald Ratner moments, you can’t be surprised if some CAMRA members are wary of playing kiss and make up.

Pete Brown said...

Look, I'm just blogging my personal views, not playing some kind of political negotiation. I've no idea what's changed and what hasn't at GBBF, but in my experience it has dramatically improved. And I'm amazed that in a post that says this, people STILL look to try and argue about it.

The 'irrelevant technicality' point was a deliberate bit of mischief, and the response from Phil in that regard raised a wry smile.

But FFS, apart from that, I say 'look how good this thing is', and the only comments back on the post are negative.

I do criticise and rant a lot. I think it's my job. But I want to balance that with good news and positivity as well. I want to be even-handed.

I'm still searching for the post about beer - any beer - that I can write which commenters won't have a negative reaction to. This wasn't it - thanks to aforesaid mischief - but I'm still amazed at the blogopshere's capacity in general to find the negatives in absolutely any post. It's getting really boring.

John Clarke said...

My comment, perhaps clumsily made, was to highlight the contrast between the bout of handwringing in Part Two wherein Pete bemoans all of the side issues that distract attention from discussing and promoting great beer (largely agree with him on that one) and then in Part Three we have him relishing his role in criticising CAMRA.

If he feels that criticising CAMRA is part of what he has to do then fine but at least he could spare us the crocodile tears abiout distractions from the main issue (or, in an earlier post, how much he dislikes all of these arguments).

He does have a habit of dropping a rock in the pond and then rowing back when it all gets a bit hairy. But he's such a butterfingers because before long - whoops! There goes another one.

Pete Brown said...

My point, John, is that part three CONGRATULATED CAMRA!!!

You seem to be saying that there is no place for criticism of CAMRA at all. It's not me that's getting tied up in knots here. In part two I bemoaned the endless prattling about technical issues, fully acknowledged that I'm as guilty of it as anyone, and suggested we all try to move on from it.

I part three I said nothing different to that at all - i reinforced the point, because I thought it would be useful to acknowledge it in the context of me saying something positive.

You see, positive plus negative = balance. That's all I'm trying to do - offer a balanced, substantiated view of beer and issues within it.

That's not the same as backtracking - an accusation I resent. It's called trying to be rational and reasonable - something that seems completely some people.

John Clarke said...

Pete, I know Part three congratulated CAMRA (albeit with a slight sting in the tale - which you acknowledge). Duly noted, thank you.

That is not the point I am making and which you seem determined to miss. Nor do I say that there should be no criticism of CAMRA (where exactly do I say or imply that?).

What I am saying is that on the one hand you bemoan the distractions from the main debate about promoting good beer and breweries etc and then in the next post flag up your continuing role in putting forward those distractions.

OK, I agree that the example I am hanging all of this on is criticising CAMRA but considering your last pop at the organisation was all to do with cask breathers, that took us firmly into the "technical issues" sphere don't you think?

Steve B said...

Pete, i couldn't agree more about your comments on CAMRA. You're arguing with people who have been members for decades and are naturally defensive, i've been involved for around 7 years, having been to their national conference for the past 6 years. I do think they focus on campaigns and causes that are a waste of time and resources and miss some of the bigger issues.

I think the next decade is a big one for CAMRA, they need to mordenise and move with the times. The trouble is in my experience is they are very protective of their internal structures and policies. The national conference in Sheffield will be an interesting one, i suggest you attend.

John McNally said...

That's good news about pub closures slowing down. I suppose the weakest pubs went first, now we are being left with well-run businesses.

CAMRA seems to have a political philosophy that big is bad, small is good. It always amuses me that my CAMRA friend alawys refuses a lovely real ale from a large brewer, and has something he has never tasted before, which is often horrible.

John
Leamington Spa

BLTP said...

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/llog/duty_calls.png

BeerSwedenDarren said...

Blimey Pete I feel for you. You should relocate to Sweden immediately where our version of CAMRA (the less easy-to-pronounce Svenska Ölfrämjandet) has a much more liberal approach to beer. As the country has no legacy of cask beer SÖ celebrates beer in all its forms, including the kegged variety.
Imagine that - a consumer body that promotes and champions beer for what it is, in whatever form it takes.
Granted we have lots of woolly jumper wearing members too but we don't have to deal with all the beery burdens of the past or adopt the sense of ingrained cynicism towards anything new I recall when I was a CAMRA member in the years before moving to Sweden.
SÖ is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary and today has just announced a special brew by one of the country's leading craft breweries, Oppigårds. And guess what.....it's in a keg.

stephanos_lemon said...

I think that the general aversion to large brewers within CAMRA has much more to do with their avariciousness in buying up competitors to cherrypick the best beers, shift production to their home turf and close down the brewery. Fewer brewers=less choice. Its appreciated that regional and superegional brewers have been going for a long time and have kept the flag flying as it were, but brewers should be working together for better consumer choice against the tasteless nitrokeg international brands, rather than seeking to create competition that need not exist. Restrictive covenants are another example of this, its not just pub companies but bigger brewers that have tried to use such restrictions on sales of pubs.

One other thing to bear in mind with CAMRA festivals is that everyone is a volunteer, there for their love of beer. If they have an annoying customer, they are personally within in their right to be grumpy toward them. Just be thankful that enough volunteers could be found to run such a wide-ranging event in the first place.

This post isn't specifically against you Peter, I have just discovered your blog today and enjoyed all I have read so far. I just get annoyed by people complaining about CAMRA as an organisation without putting forward any suggestions for improvement, or worse still, being a paid up member but not putting any effort in to getting involved with their local branches.

Pete Brown said...

Stephanos - glad you've discovered the blog, and much kudos to you for expressing heartfelt opinions in such a reasonable, measured way - an example to us all!

Take on board what you've said, and that it's not just directed at me (I'm annoyed with anyone who simply takes a retrenched view on things, no matter which view it is) but as you say, you're new here, and I just wanted to reiterate that although I slag off CAMRA an awful lot, I do always try to say why, and try to suggest how and why I feel it should change, and I also try to give credit where it's due.

As for joining up and changing things from the inside... well, as long as they say that the method of dispense is the most important criterion in beer quality, I can't sign up to that.

But thanks for finding the blog - hope you enjoy it.

Fishter said...

This is going to stir up the hornet's nest again. Here's a snippet of the policy document.

3.1 CAMRA defines real ale as beer that has been brewed and stored in the traditional way, and
has undergone secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed. Secondary
fermentation is an essential and indispensable characteristic of real ale. (see also policy 4.2)

4.2 Apart from the traditional Scottish air pressure system, CAMRA does not recommend any beer
dispense system which involves applying CO2, nitrogen, or any other gas or mixture to cask
conditioned beer.

Can you rank them in importance? I think does not recommend is much less compelling than essential and indispensable.

Don's flame proof suit

John Clarke said...

"This is going to stir up the hornet's nest again"

Or, then again, perhaps not.

Fishter said...

Must admit I was surprised at the lack of comment...

Obviously not the burning issue I thought it was.

stephanos_lemon said...

There are a large number of members in CAMRA who think the no cask breather pubs in the GBG is a silly policy and motions have been put forward to that effect. Unfortunately the majority of people that turn up at AGMs are conservative (small c) and the motion to allow cask breather using premises into the guide gets defeated. There is a lot frustrating with CAMRA but I'm still glad to be a member.