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

What's new?

What's new?
We've just launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards - click here for more details!
I'm doing a Masterclass in beer writing with the Guardian in February. Click to find our more.
My latest Publican's Morning Advertiser piece - some pub etiquette tips for Christmas visitors.
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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

November V-Blog: The Astonishing Rise of London's Brewers, and the Jolly Butchers!

With just hours of November left, the team behind our video blogs have managed to pull together the edits of me in the Jolly Butchers, and Peter Amor's latest instalment of brewing fun.

In previous V-Blogs we've gone around various pubs trying a variety of beers.  This time we stayed closer to home - very close to my home in fact - just around the corner from my house, and focused the whole episode on the astonishing rise of London's small brewers.  Four years ago, London had Fuller's and Meantime.  Both among my favourites, but a shockingly small choice for the nation's capital.  A couple of years ago something exploded in the collective beery psyche.  The result, well, click below...


Pete Brown's British Beer Blog - November from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

By the way - I'm slurring a bit - that's not drunkenness - just tiredness.

If you enjoyed these, and haven't seen previous ones, check out my adventures in Nottingham and in South Wales.

Meanwhile, Peter Amor, after taking us through beer's ingredients and the process in the brewhouse, moves now to fermentation - in both the brewery fermentation room, and the pub cellar.


Peter Amor's British Brewing Blog: Episode 3 from Ian Hudson Films on Vimeo.

Just before Christmas, Peter and I join forces to taste some great seasonal beers.  See you back here in a few weeks.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Pub closures: is the worst over?

I was at a presentation the other day by CGA strategy, the company who does all the market stats for the UK on-trade market.  Over the past couple of years, when you've seen grim headlines about the number of pubs closing every week, it's been based on their figures.

Enough already.

Well, perhaps I've been too busy, or maybe it's because good news never tends to get as much coverage as bad news, I seem to have missed their latest figures, whenever they came out.  But while pubs are still closing at a depressing rate, it does seem as the the worst might be over - and the closure rate is falling faster than CGA had forecast.

They calculate the figure every six months, and the trend is as follows:

June 08 to December 08 - 39 net pub closures every week
December 08 to June 09 - 52 pub closures a week - the figure that really hit the headlines
June 09 to December 09 - 39 closures a week
December 09 to June 10 - 29 closures a week

As I said, 29 pubs every week is still a shocking rate of decline.  We're losing about five per cent of Britain's pubs in less than a decade.  But it has fallen by almost half in a year.

CGA reckon that the pubs that are closing are those that didn't adapt to suit changing needs in the recession.  That may be too much of a generalisation, but they're probably right when they say the pubs left behind may be smaller in number, but will be stronger.  They reckon proper recovery in the pub market will begin in 2013.

Another interesting stat is what happens to those closed down pubs?  Property company Christies says that 60% of the boarded-up pubs they sell on eventually reopen as pubs.  That will be included in CGA's net figure.  But it does show that there is still some dynamism in the pub market.  Both the Jolly Butchers and Cask and Kitchen were failed pubs before they were taken over and relaunched as craft beer pubs.

So - hardly joyous tidings to shout from the rooftops.  But as I've always maintained, reports of 'the death of the pub' are greatly exaggerated.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Simon Jenkins crowned Beer Writer of the Year

So last night I had to hand over the title.  It's not fair - my year as Beer Writer of the Year passed very quickly - partly because it was only 51 weeks, with this year's dinner being a week earlier than last year.

Part of winning meant I had to be chair of the judges this year.  We were deluged by a record entry: 45 individuals entered work.  On average, they each entered 2.3 of the available six categories, with between one and six pieces of work each time.  My fellow judges and I read about 400 different pieces of beer writing, from 400 word columns to 1000 page books, and everything in between.

Last night, after a cracking beer and food dinner prepared by Michelin star chef Sriram Aylur, we revealed the winners.  I'm too hungover to go into great detail about each one, and if you've read this far you probably just want to get a quick look at the names anyway.  There are some familiar names and some new ones.  If there's anyone here who you've never read before, I urge you to check them out.

I'll just say a bit about our overall winner, Beer Writer of the Year 2010, Simon Jenkins.  Because he writes in a regional newspaper not many of us get to see his work, and he's already being described as a 'new face' despite the fact that he's about my age and has been writing pub reviews for years.  It's so good then, that we have a regional category that allows great writing to reach a wider audience.  I've put a link at the bottom of this post to a random pub review he's written for the Yorkshire Post, and I'd urge you to follow the links from that page to the other reviews listed down the side.  I've also linked to all other winners' work where I can.

There was an awful lot of writing to read while judging.  But with some people we got to the end of their submission and were disappointed that there wasn't any more to read.  Simon exemplified this.  That's one reason he won.

Another reason is that pubs are going through hell at the moment, and anyone reading Simon's review will be overcome by a desperate urge to go to the pub - any pub - by the time they're halfway down the page.  I said when presenting the award last night that one of the biggest challenges facing all beer writers is the struggle to reach a wider audience, to not just preach to the converted.

I really don't want to sound ungrateful to any of the beer fans who read this blog, my books or any of the work produced by the writers below.  But the aim of the Guild is to spread the appreciation of beer.  We're getting better at doing that, we're more successful all the time, but we still struggle to bring in new people to the world of beer.  With his pub reviews, the judges felt this is exactly what Simon excels at.

Cheers.

Brewer of the Year 
Stefano Cossi, Thornbridge Brewery

Budweiser Budvar John White Travel Bursary
Winner: John Conen, Bamberg and Franconia - Germany's Brewing Heartland

Bishop's Finger Award for Beer and Food Writing
Winner: Will Beckett, Imbibe magazine

Brains SA Gold Award for Best Online Communication 
Winner: Mark Dredge 
Runner-up: Jerry Bartlett

Adnams Award for Best Writing in Regional Publications 
Winner: Simon Jenkins, Yorkshire Evening Post 
Runner-up: Duncan Brodie, East Anglian Daily Times 

Wells & Young's Awards for Best Writing for the Beer and Pub Trade 
Winner: Larry Nelson, Brewers’ Guardian 
Runner-up: Isla Whitcroft, Beer, the Natural Choice

Molson Coors’ Award for Best Writing in National Publications 
Winner: Zak Avery
Runner-up: Adrian Tierney-Jones 

The Michael Jackson Gold Tankard Award – Beer Writer of the Year 2010
Simon Jenkins
(This link takes you to one of Simon's pub reviews in the Yorkshire Evening Post.  There's a list down the right hand side of more pub reviews - all Simon's.)

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

So last night I came across Stella Black...

Oh no, not another post about Stella and its sinister clownish owners A-B Inbev.

Why do I do it?  Why do I care?  Why do I obsess about this particular mass market, tasteless lager more than any other?

A few reasons:
  • It's responsible for my entry into the world of beer - I started writing about beer when I was advertising Stella, so there's a past history, an historical fondness.
  • I don't just write about craft beer, I write about all beer - and Stella is one of the biggest beer brands in the UK.
  • It could have been so much better than it is if it didn't keep making such spectacular business errors - it could have been a gateway between mainstream and 'interesting' beers.
  • Even by the standards of mainstream, industrial lager, it's so bad I'm drawn back to it with morbid fascination - it's a slow motion car crash.  I find Foster's undrinkable, but aligning with comedy and resurrecting Alan Partridge was an inspired move to make the mainstream drinker a bit fonder of it.  Carling is bland and tasteless but its 'You know who your mates are' campaign has produced some of the best classic beer ads for nearly twenty years.  Heineken is mainstream and dull and always gets its advertising wrong, but whenever I taste it, I have to acknowledge that it's a well made beer.  But Stella... it's becoming a textbook case study in marketing failure, as well as a shocking example of how to devalue a once OK beer.  (I know some people like the French Riviera advertising and the Draught Masters thing got some praise, so maybe I'm being unfair. But read on.)
So I was in a Nicholson's pub last night, and spotted the Stella Black font.  

What was I expecting?  Was I anticipating an amazingly complex beer?  Something that aficionados like me would love?  No.  I wasn't expecting it to be great.  But having learned that it's brewed with Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, and having seen quite attractive press shots like this:


I was starting to suspect that it might at least be drinkable, that it might be one of those beers you could have in a pub where there are only mainstream, mass market brands available.

Is it aimed at me?  No.  But according to A-B Inbev, it is aimed at drinkers of "world beers" such as San Miguel, Budvar, Peroni. Not the most flavourful lagers (Budvar aside), but perfectly drinkable and decent quality, bought by people who want something that's just a little more interesting than tasteless mainstream lager.

Also, as the beer is being restricted to the on-trade and is being sold in "hundreds, not thousands" of pubs, with bespoke training for bar staff, all intended to create a premium drinking experience, I was expecting the presentation to be pretty good even if the beer wasn't - just look at that lovely photo above.

So I was surprised to see that in one of these handpicked pubs, this special, super premium beer looks like this on the bar:


No special font.  Just an ordinary tap along with all the other ordinary brands on the bar.  And look at the design.  A-B Inbev have some research that says people don't think it's a dark lager, even though everyone I've spoken to about it thinks it is a dark lager.  So confident are A-B Inbev that NO ONE will mistake Stella Black for a dark beer, they've made it look an awful lot like Guinness - the darkest mainstream beer there is.  

Now look closer, what are those words on the font?


"Matured for longer".  That's the main point on which they've chosen to sell this beer.  Nothing wrong with that - except they refuse to reveal how long the beer is actually matured for.  Several writers - including me - have asked what the maturation period is.  It's the first question any competent writer would ask after being sold 'matured for longer' as a claim.  But A-B Inbev responded that this information was confidential.  It's matured for longer - but we won't give you any indication of what that means.   

OK, well, it's a super premium lager.  At least it's going to be served in an attractive glass, right?  Wrong.  Here's my Stella Black:

 

So, handpicked bars, super-premium image, going up against the likes of Peroni which can charge over £4 a pint because it has a font two feet high and is served in a beautiful, unique glass.  And we've got a standard font, an anonymous glass, confusing brand imagery, and a product claim they refuse to tell you about.  Is any of this the pub's fault?  We know how unreliable bar staff are.  Well, no.  It's currently only in handpicked outlets that they really trust.  They said so.  And every other beer in the pub was being served appropriately in its branded glassware.  A-B Inbev have chosen to present the beer to you in this way.

So what's it taste like?  I told you my expectations weren't that high, but I was prepared to be open-minded.  Well.  No aroma whatsoever.  I don't know what they did with the Saaz hops, coriander and orange peel, but they didn't put them in this beer.  It's so long since Stella has seen whole Saaz hops perhaps no one at the brewery knew what they were and they made a weird, bitter salad with them instead.  

The taste has a very brief flash of malty sweetness, then a chalky dryness that disappears almost instantly, and that's it - until the unpleasant aftertaste starts to build after a few sips.  Then you need another beer to get rid of that.  Stella Black is one of those special, rare beers that manage to be both tasteless and unpleasant.  A beer that's merely tasteless we can all understand, but this?  It's like a 4.1% standard lager with a weird, Special Brew type finish.  The worst of all worlds.  Utterly undrinkable.

It fascinates me, the extent to which this once great brand can fall so far short of my expectations, no matter how low they are.  If the whole "we're calling it super-premium but serving it in a standard fashion, calling it black but making it blonde, making longer maturation our main claim but then refusing to talk about maturation period" brand concept was presented by a bunch of hopeful 21 year-old graduate recruits on a final interview day workshop, they wouldn't get a job in any agency I've ever worked with.  And if the beer was tasted blind in any competition I've judged, you'd either think it had a fault or was a nasty industrial, chemical concoction from the Balkans.        

One final joke - when coming up with the name for the beer, they obviously failed to get the internet ownership of it. www.stellablack.com takes you to this lady's website:


Now that's tasty.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

'The Brewery Tap' - the next generation?

Imagine you're a microbrewer.  You've established a few successful beers and have won the odd award here and there at SIBA competitions and CAMRA festivals.  Sales are showing healthy growth and you've got some local recognition.  In a few years time, you might have to expand.  But there's one thing now obsessing you.

Your own pub.  You want a brewery tap.

But you can't get one.

Buying a freehold pub is a financial step too far - you just haven't got that kind of money to hand.  You could of course get a lease or tenancy from one of the big PubCos but what would be the point of that?  The tie means you'd have to take beers from their limited range, and your not on it - you want a pub that showcases YOUR beers, as you want them to be seen.

This is a scenario facing many micros at the moment.  To some, it's a symbol of what they're fighting against - an outdated model in the British beer and pub industry.

But now, things are changing.  And it's my old mates at Thornbridge who are leading the way, with the first pub on an interesting new deal with Enterprise Inns.

Well, not quite leading the way.

Three years ago, Midlands brewer Everards started a scheme called Project William.  They took over defunct, failed pubs - the ones that we read about that are closing every week - and went into partnership with local brewers around the Midlands and the north of England.  Everards invested in refurbishing the pub - in partnership with the local brewer - and took a traditional tie on lager, soft drinks and spirits - meaning the publican had to buy all these from Everards at their rates.  This is usual enough for PubCos and regional brewers.  But they made cask ales free of tie, simply asking that one Everards beer be stocked on the range.

Now, if you were a bog standard pub that relied mainly on industrial lager (as most of these pubs were before they failed), it doesn't make much difference.  But if you're a micro looking for a pub where you can stick six handpulls on the bar to showcase your own beers plus a range of other interesting micros, it's giving you what you want from a pub with much lower risk and investment than you'd get elsewhere.

There are about twenty Project William pubs now, and they're all - apart from one uncertainty - booming.  Everards gets the return on its investment from the other drinks.  The micro gets its Brewery tap.  A community gets its pub back.  Everyone wins.

I wrote about Project William in the Cask Report and The Publican.  It's such a clever idea, the biggest question for me was why no one else had done it, why the big PubCos didn't take heed.

Well now, someone has.

Thornbridge have worked with Enterprise - one of the two giants of the PubCo world with between 7,000 and 8,000 pubs - before.  The Cricket Inn in Totley is an Enterprise pub, but the leasehold model is not ideal for a brewer with as many great ideas and beers as Thornbridge has.  So brewer and PubCo have been talking about doing things differently.  When Enterprise decided to take a leaf out of Everards book and create a different kind of leasehold, Thornbridge was the first to jump.

The result was the Greystones:

God bless Farrow and Ball.

This was a failed pub in Sheffield called the Highcliffe, a great building that had just become a haunt for local, erm, 'characters', the kind of people who spend more money in a toilet cubicle than at the bar.  The refurb was a joint investment - with Enterprise chipping in most of the cash.  Thornbridge are free of tie on ales so they can showcase their range.  Enterprise gets a big pub run by people who know what they are doing.  Sheffield gets yet another amazing craft beer pub, which also has an emphasis on 'arts and the local community', with gigs and other events happening regularly.

The Greystones opened on November 3rd.  It sold 3000 pints in its first 48 hours.

So if you're that ambitious micro, it's not simply a case of walking up to Enterprise or Everards and saying, "Gizza pub" - they need to be convinced that you have the business acumen to make it work, and that if they pay for a refurb it's going to pay back.  But if this model catches on - as it surely will - we're going to see more abandoned pubs revived, and a much greater variety of drinks on British bars.

Hats off to Enterprise - not always the hero in stories about British pubs - for having the vision to do this.    Props to Everards for coming up with the original idea in the first place.  And well done Thornbridge, yet again.

I'll be doing a Hops & Glory event with a tasting of Thornbridge beers at the Greystones on Thursday 16th December.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Why Beer Matters - the final chapter

I need to address an oversight.

Long term readers may remember that in January, I decided to give away a trip I'd won to the Budvar brewery, because I've been several times before.  I invited anyone who had never had their writing published in print media before to write an essay entitled 'Why Beer Matters'.  Then me, Budvar and the Publican would choose a winner who would get my trip.

I published the first and second runners up back in the spring, but the winner was Mark Dredge. I wanted to wait before publishing his winning entry until it was published in The Publican, and that wasn't happening till Mark did his trip, so he could write about that too. That happened way back in September, and sadly The Publican didn't publish Mark's full piece.

So now, much later than it should have been, here's Mark's take on Why Beer Matters.  We thought all the top three entries were evocative, passionate and wonderfully written.  Mark addressed very similar themes to lots of other entries; he just delivered them in the most compelling way.

Enjoy.

Our distant ancestors, the cave men and women, had the campfire. They would gather there, they lived around it and socialised around it, they learnt their life skills in its glowing, flickering flame. It was the centre of the community, the source of warmth, the source of heat to cook, the place where stories were told and learning happened. We don’t have campfires, we have the pub.

It’s the early drinking years which are the important ones. They come when we are trying to discover who we are, who we are going to be and they help to shape us into that person. In the pub, at this time, we become more socially aware of ourselves and others and catching the eye of a mate becomes the primary motive for almost every action. Strut to the door at 17, acting grown up, feeling 27, ballsy. They let you in (of course they shouldn’t but everyone knows this pub lets you in). It’s the first step. Inside, the area opens up. It’s a man’s world and you’ve taken your first adult steps. Ordering the first pint is a ritual ceremony and with that beer in your hand you are now a part of the adult world.

Those early years are fraught. There’s ID checks, your mates having too many, the knock-back from the girl, the running out of money when you want another drink, learning about life, talking to people, being a shoulder to cry on or a voice of reason, acting stupid, spilled drinks, loose lips and broken hearts. But there’s more than that. There’s the laughter, the fun, the growing up, the being with friends. I can picture the pub we drank in: dark and dingy, a loud rock club-pub, always smelly, always crowded, always smoky, always hot, always surrounded by friends. It was my campfire.

And in that pub, or in others, or at a friend’s house with some bottles, or in the park with some cans, that’s where I learnt so many things, so many life skills: effective communications (ease the raging drunk; say hi to the girl), societal order (that’s the manager so act sober; they are the cool group), self-control (I shouldn’t have had that last pint), budgeting (I’ve got £5.20 and a burger is £3 so what can I get to drink?), how to attract a mate (play it cool, smile, what’s the worst that can happen?), how to deal with rejection (‘Can I buy you a drink’, I slur, ‘Err... no’, she says), responsibility (looking after the one who had too much). And we learn these things on our own, away from the comfort and security of the parental nest. We are growing up, in the pub, pint glass in our hand: the beacon of beer is always there, a flaming torch to guide us.

And it’s always there. It’s the reason and the excuse to catch up with old friends; it’s the oil of our social life. Let’s go for a beer. Beer is currency: ‘thanks for your help, I’ll buy you a pint’. Beer is the offer of friendship: ‘Pint?’ Beer is business; beer is passion. Beer is food, beer is life. It’s there in the good times and the bad, like a familiar friend to laugh with us or ease our pain with us. It’s in the fridge when we get home from work or it’s at the forefront of our minds as the clock hands ache around the last hour of the last day of the week. As we move along the beer-drinking path it opens up a wider view over the whole, vast plains of possibility. It can be the simplest cold lager on a hot day or it can be the most complex, rich barley wine on a cold night. It can be challenging and thought provoking; enlightening and inspiring; light or dark or a thousand shades in between; smooth or rugged; mild or tongue-twisting. It comes in fat, round glasses or tall thin ones; it’s hand-pulled and frothing into a dimpled mug or carefully poured from a dusty old bottle into a crystal tumbler. And then there’s the nonic pint glass: the stunning vision and lasting beauty of great British design, right royally branded with the crown. Holding it provides the same comfort as your loved one’s hand: it just feels right; the perfect vessel, the perfect size and weight. We get halfway through and already we want it re-filled so that it looks handsome and proud and full of colour and life again. It’s the pint glass, that guiding light, which we’ve known since we were taking our first, uneasy grown-up steps back from the bar after saying for the first time, ‘Can I have a pint please?’

Our pub is the caveman’s campfire. We grow up there, we become ourselves there, we make important decisions there, we go there after a long day, we eat, we share experiences, we relax, we have a beer there. It’s changed from those primitive and fraught pub-going adventures and we’ve learnt the important things about life and love and where we are and where we’re going. Now we can just sit back and enjoy it, say cheers to our drinking partner and take a deep, long pull on that pint in our hand. Beer: it’s more than just a drink and it matters because it’s always been there and it always will be; the guiding torch around our campfire.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Real Ale - Preference or Dogma?

"Are the beers dispensed by gravity or gas?"

When I previewed the opening of the Euston Tap, this was the first question I received on both my blog and Twitfeed.  It's because the real ale taps come straight out of the wall rather than being from hand pumps on the bar.

And when I replied that they were served with gas, there was a supplemental question: "Does that mean air pressure or do they also use CO2?"

These questions are of no interest to the vast majority of craft beer drinkers.  But they are of fundamental importance to the Campaign for Real Ale.  And because CAMRA is the biggest and most influential consumer body in beer in the UK, that makes them important.

While I'm a champion of cask ale, I obviously love other beers as well - as I think do most drinkers.  But this is an issue that won't go away, and the Tap has thrown it, for me, into sharp relief.

CAMRA as a body fight for real ale.  When it suits them they fight for other stuff as well, but let's leave that to one side for now.  When it comes to British brewed craft beer, by their constitution they have to champion 'real' or cask conditioned ale.  Given that, it's quite understandable that they need to have a pretty specific technical definition of what real ale is.  That means there are bound to be some beers that are pretty close to that definition, but fall outside it.

I can accept that.  What's more bizarre is what happens to beers that do not qualify as real ale, and to the pubs that serve them.  If they are not real ale - even by a whisker - CAMRA cannot support them.  Pubs that start using cask breathers are promptly dropped from the Good Beer Guide.

I understand how they get here.  But I still think it's bizarre.

I don't know whether the beers in the Euston Tap are served with CO2 (i.e. cask breathers) or not.  But what if they were?

Let's take Thornbridge Bracia.  Normally a bottled beer, it's won numerous awards around the globe.  It's breathtaking in its complexity, subtlety, structure and power.  Now it's on cask at the Euston tap, and nowhere else.

Now, I know most CAMRA members join because they love great beer and by and large that's what CAMRA's about.  But let's focus on the hardliners, the people who propose motions at AGMs, who campaign most actively, who write stuff like this on Cambridge CAMRA's official website:

"The beer must remain untainted and utterly genuine. CAMRA have fought off all sorts of threats, some blatant, others more subtle and the image remains intact. The dishonest cask breather must not be allowed to corrupt CAMRA's standards."

If you agree with this, I would genuinely like to hear from you...

Let's say I get you into the Euston Tap and place a pint of Bracia in front of you.  Would you demand to know about gas and cask breathers before you deigned to drink it?  If I told you it was served without cask breathers, and you drank it and enjoyed it, would you then change your mind about it if I said, "Actually I lied, it is served with cask breathers"?

What would you do if I said "Why not taste it and decide if it has a cask breather or not?" Given that the main argument against cask breathers is that they supposedly affect the taste (something every brewer I've spoken to denies), surely you'll be able to tell whether it has a cask breather or not?  If you can't, then what exactly is the problem?

Because this is the nub of the debate: the Campaign for Real Ale was founded from a genuine belief that cask ale tastes better than other beers.  Whether you agree with that or not, it's an argument about the quality and delivery of the beer.  But it's about your senses.  It's about the beer.  If I give you a beer that doesn't fit with your definition of cask, but is generally regarded as a flavourful, quality beer, you could:

  • Drink it and say, "Amazing - it's not about cask or keg or cask breathers - it's just about the taste of the beer."
  • Drink it, and perhaps say something like, "Wow, I still prefer cask beers generally, but I'll admit there are some pretty damn good beers that are not cask conditioned."
  • Say, "If it's not cask beer I refuse to drink it.  It must be rubbish."

Most people I know would go with the first option.  I think the vast majority of CAMRA members would go for the second one.  But I have met people who do the third.

I once told the chairman of Edinburgh CAMRA I'd really enjoyed a pint of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted in my hotel while visiting the city.  Because it was delivered to me at a table by a waiter, I had no idea whether it was cask or keg.  This man, who surely considers himself an expert on beer, was adamant that if it had been cask I must have enjoyed it, but if it was keg I couldn't have.  He was telling me to ignore the evidence of my senses and instead focus on a technical aspect of beer dispense to decide whether my beer tasted nice or not.

Surely it's meant to be about the taste of the beer.  Why else are we all here?  If you need to ask technical questions about methods of dispense before deciding if you like a beer or not, you are making your decisions based on dogma.  You are making a political decision rather than taste driven decision.  And I believe that means you've lost sight of what the whole Campaign for Real Ale was supposed to be about.

Some CAMRA people argue that things like cask breathers, and FastCask from Marston's, are "the thin end of the wedge" - that if we accept this, we'll see a gradual erosion of real ale until it doesn't exist any more and, by stealth, CAMRA will have been defeated.

I think that's a pretty paranoid argument.  And if I were being contentious, I'd also say "But if the quality of the beer doesn't change, what's the problem?"

CAMRA was established because beer most beer was shit.  A lot of beer still is.  But dogma, definition and politics mean that the most hardline CAMRA members often save their hostility for really good beers that simply don't meet an over-specific technical definition.

If you're one of these people, I know ranting and telling you you're stupid isn't going to change anything. But I believe craft beer bars like the Euston Tap demonstrate that the definition of quality craft beer has changed an awful lot since 1971.  I don't think your hardline attitude does anything to help beer drinkers, CAMRA's image and credibility, or even cask ale itself.

I've tried to outline the argument in reasonable terms, understand your position and specify why I think it's wrong.  I'd be hugely grateful if you wanted to respond in kind.

The Book Tour That Wouldn't Die

It's deeply, deeply gratifying, but it seems that what began as a tour of readings and tastings to promote the release of Hops and Glory has become a semi-permanent, perpetual round of speaking and reading gigs.  That is so not a complaint - I love doing these events - I'm just surprised.

Anyway, this is just a short post to announce some events I'm doing between now and Christmas.  If I'm near you, please come along!

Tuesday 9th November (today!) - Fuller's Brewery, 6.30pm
bengal Lancer on draught is this month's seasonal from Fuller's.  John Keeling will be giving a tutored tasting of the draught versus the bottled beer, and I'll be telling the story of IPA, which is a lot more romantic but slightly less funny than the story behind the naming of the beer.

Friday 12th November - Westmorland CAMRA Beer Lovers' Dinner, Kendal
Sold out

Saturday 13th November - Ulverston Brewery, Cumbria, 7.30pm
Exciting new Cumbrian brewery, already winning awards, Ulverston Brewing Company, The Old Auction Mart, Lightburn Road, Ulverston, Cumbria. Tickets from the brewery shop, 11am - 3pm, Mon - Sat.

Sunday 28th November - Amber Ales Brewery Tap - The Talbot Tap, Ripley, Derbyshire
This exciting new brewery loves hops and they're having an IPA weekend, 25th-28th November, with a bunch of excellent different IPAs from around the UK and beyond.  I'm talking on Sunday at 3pm.  £6 ticket price includes a tasting flight of IPAs.

Sunday 5th December - Abergavenny Christmas Food and Drink Fayre
Not really book-related, I'll be tasting Christmas beers and doing a bit of food pairing.  Ticket details will be on the website soon.

Thursday 16th December - The Greystones Pub, Sheffield, 7.30pm
The latest acquisition by Thornbridge, a pub in an affluent part of Sheffield that may well be Richard Hawley's new local.  I'll be tasting Thorndbridge beers and talking about the book.

See you there!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Exclusive: the Euston Tap: A Sneak Preview

When the Sheffield Tap opened almost a year ago, I wrote that it was almost worth getting the train to Sheffield just to sit and have a drink in the station.  Since then, I have done just that.  But now there's no need: the team behind this wonderful craft beer bar - one of the best in the country - have now repeated their stunning success at Euston Station.

In an audacious and visionary move, Jamie Hawksworth and co - also responsible for the Pivo bar in York - have taken a lease on one of the iconic square Portland stone buildings flanking the front of the station, and made it the Euston Tap.  Yesterday, manager Yan Pilkington invited me for a look around.

London landmark becomes beery destination.
The builders - imported like the management from Sheffield - were still busy when I arrived.  A lobby into the bar area was being erected over the door, and Yan and Jamie were in the cellar struggling with the three pythons that will take the beer into the bar.  Said beer was standing on pallettes outside on the grass, and there was an awful lot of it.  I imagine the guys won't be getting too much sleep between now and 6pm tomorrow,  Friday 5th November, when the place opens.

Signage will be subtle, to say the least
I love the ambition here.  And while it's not finished, it already looks stunning.

It's a small place, but not as small as you'd think if you walk past.  There's standing room for around 65 downstairs, and then a spiral staircase leads to a second floor where a lounge area will seat up to around another 50.

When you walk in, the main bar itself - like the one in the Sheffield tap - takes your breath away.

Would you like a beer sir?



They've gone for the American craft beer bar style, with all the taps coming out of the back wall and nothing on the bar itself.  By opening time, this back bar will be flanked by two fridges, which you'll be able to walk up to and inspect.

But the main stars are the draught beers.  Expect to encounter beers here that you will never see anywhere else.  The taps will be constantly rotating, and treats lined up for the first couple of months include cask Thornbridge Alliance and Bracia - outstanding, rare beers never seen on tap before - and Coalition, a collaborative brew with Dark Star that has been maturing for two years at Thornbridge.  One cask is coming here, the other is going to the Sheffield Tap, and the rest is going to be bottled - that's how rare this beer is.  The cask beer selection will at all times include three beers from Thornbridge and three from Marble.
Eight cask ale taps, looking forward to the objections from dinosaurs
There are 19 quality keg beers.  I spotted Bernard's wonderful unpastuerised lager, Matuska, a rising star from the Czech Republic that blew us beer writers away when we visited recently, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA, and Stone Pale Ale, to name but a few. In those fridges there'll be 100 rotating bottles.  Currently these include 60 American craft beers, 30 German and ten from Danish cuckoo brewer Mikkeller.

You have never seen a craft beer selection like this anywhere else.  And Yan insists you won't be paying through the nose for it either - cask ales start at £2.70.

There's just one serious flaw.  This is a listed building, and the work that can be done to it is limited.  Which means there is one - ONE - toilet in the entire place, and it's at the top of the spiral stairs. So remember to go before you get here.
   
If you're a craft beer geek already, you will now be reading this already queuing outside the Tap for tomorrow's opening.  If you're not, I urge you to get to Euston as quickly as possible to sample some remarkable beers in what will be a wonderful atmosphere.  You'll never make your train from Euston again.

See you there.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Wikio Wine and Beer Blog Rankings for October 2010

There hasn't been much movement of late in the blog rankings.  I blogged a few months ago that it seemed to have gone a little stale.

Well, be careful what you wish for:

Wikio.co.uk  - November Wine and Beer Ranking
1Boggle About Beer (+39)
2Pencil & Spoon (=)
3Brew Dog Blog (=)
4Pete Brown's Blog (-3)
5Zythophile (+5)
6Tandleman's Beer Blog (+1)
7Beer Reviews (+1)
8The Pub Curmudgeon (-4)
9Called to the bar (=)
10Master Brewer at Adnams (+34)
11Are You Tasting the Pith? (-5)
12Woolpack Dave's beer and stuff blog (-7)
13The Beer Nut (=)
14Rabid About Beer (+15)
15Thornbridge Brewers' Blog (-1)
16Boak and Bailey's Beer Blog (-5)
17Bibendum Wine (+37)
18The Wine Conversation (+15)
19Spittoon (-4)
20Brew Wales (-8)
Wine and Beer
Ranking made by Wikio.co.uk

Congratulations, Boggle!  Up from number 40 to the top of the pile!  A very busy month from me does nothing to stop me sliding to my lowest ever position after nearly a year on top, and there's all sorts of moving and shaking going on throughout the chart.  Sadly, Cooking Lager's campaign to install Zak at the top of the chart also seems to have backfired, with Mr Avery slipping five places.

Call me arrogant if you like, but I did check with Wikio, they've been through the data very carefully and have confirmed that the rankings are correct.

Time to maybe check out some blogs you don't normally read!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The MAIN reason Professor Nutt is bad for our health

There are many, many reasons to be angry, frustrated, or simply full of despair at former Drug Czar Professor David Nutt's latest outburst claiming alcohol is more damaging than any other drug, including crack and heroin.

There's the fact that many reputable news outlets chose yet again to illustrate the story with a picture of cask ale, the least damaging, lowest alcohol drink on the market.

Or the fact that in many places Nutt was reported as 'confirming' or 'revealing' how damaging alcohol is, rather than 'claiming' alcohol to be more damaging - accepted as fact, rather than challenged in any way.

There's the fact that Nutt has a serious conflict of interest which has gone uncommented on - that he is working with a team at Imperial College to develop a synthetic drug that gives a temporary alcohol buzz without the effects of drunkenness - something that will surely have a commercial application if trials are successful - meaning he has a personal, potentially profitable interest in undermining alcohol's place in society - a fact that, at best, means his findings should be scrutinised rather than simply accepted.

There's the fact that in the methodology of his study, the scores given to each drug are a combination of harm to the self and harm to others.  And when you break it down, even according to Nutt's own research, ALCOHOL IS NOT THE MOST DAMAGING DRUG TO THE INDIVIDUAL.  The reason alcohol gets the highest overall score is because it is calculated to give by far the highest score for damage to others - which I'll come on to in a sec.  But Nutt's own research shows heroin, crack and methylamphetamine are more damaging to the user than alcohol.  This is determined by a combination of different factors, such as dependence, mortality etc.  Serious concerns have been raised regarding the relative weighting of these factors.   But never mind the fact that the methodology is flawed - even though the report DOES NOT CLAIM that alcohol is more harmful to the individual than any other drug, that's exactly what has been reported.

The 'harm to others' bit is made up of scores given to various factors such as crime, injury, damage to the environment, cost to communities etc.  For many of these, there is no way of calculating them accurately.  Earlier this year I detailed serious doubts about the methodology of calculating economic cost, crime, cost to the health service, etc.  And where there is no data available, Nutt and his team simply MADE THE SCORE UP.  As the excellent Phil Mellows reveals this morning - these expert, scientific scores were determined not by months of research but by a one day workshop where they sat around and chatted, assigning scores as they saw fit.  Scientific? About as scientific as a bunch of blokes in a pub working out a top ten list of shaggable birds.

And Nutt's previous writing on alcohol reveals a worrying lack of knowledge even about current alcohol policy.  In a recent '21 point action plan' to combat what he inaccurately refers to as an alcochol epidemic, this 'expert' on policy seemed unaware of the introduction of the mandatory code that limits promotions encouraging excessive drinking, and he repeated various 'facts' and figures that have been shown to be dubious. (My point-by-point response to his ill-informed action plan is comment number 44 beneath his post).  I don't believe that, on the basis of the knowledge he displays here, Nutt is qualified to determine the cost of alcohol to society.   And then there's the dodginess around weighting of different factors again.

Most obviously, Nutt doesn't take into account the simple fact that alcohol is drunk by millions - of course it's going to have a bigger impact.  But when over 80% of us drink within the government's recommended guidelines, the simple fact - that is completely ignored here - is that the vast majority of people drinking alcohol do so without causing harm to themselves or others, and the same cannot be said of many other drugs calculated here.

So - of course - the entire thing is a load of bollocks that has been widely accepted as fact.  So far so predictable.

But here's the main reason why I think this report is damaging:

I agree with what Nutt is trying to do.

When Nutt was sacked for saying alcohol was more harmful than LSD or cannabis, what he was actually trying to do was draw attention to the fact that government classification of drugs is completely out of whack with those drugs' actual harmful effects.  He's right.  The vast majority of 'harm' caused by illegal drugs is, in many cases, because of their illegality.  Heroin users contracting diseases through using shared needles.  Drug users turning to crime to fuel their habit.  Drug pushers forming organised international crime cartels.

Cannabis, used in moderation, isn't harmful - just like alcohol.  And yet it's illegal.  The number of deaths from ecstasy use is tiny compared to the proportion of people using it - and it could be argued they were at least partially due to lack of information, because the drug is illegal.  As Bill Hicks said memorably, no one ever took LSD and said "Let's go and beat some people up".  And despite popular myth, there has been no recorded case of someone jumping to their death because they were tripping and thought they could fly.  British aristocracy has a long history of heroin users living to a ripe old age because, although the drug is highly addictive, if you have access to a regular, clean supply, take it in the right doses, and you're free to lie around doing nothing all day being really boring, and you have people to look after you, it doesn't actually do you that much damage.

The only reason cannabis is illegal in America is because the hemp industry posed a serious threat to the dominance of the petrochemical industry in the 1920s, who were a very powerful lobbying force, which is why not just cannabis but any hemp product - even cloth - was made illegal. I'm paraphrasing, but read this excellent book for more details on the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of drugs policy.

Many people working with addicts suggest the best way to deal with drugs is to legalise them.  Schemes where drugs have been made readily available to users, in a controlled environment, have consistently shown huge success in getting people off those drugs.

Policy on drugs is driven by political ambition, expediency, and commercial lobbying interests far more than it has anything to do with damage to the individual or society.  On that I'm sure David Nutt and I would agree 100%.  But because he's an unashamed publicity seeker, every time he tries to make this point he does so by attacking alcohol in a way that is at best distorted, and at worst deliberately inaccurate.

That's what makes me most mad.  Because if Nutt truly wants a sensible debate about the relative harm that drugs do, all he succeeds in achieving is giving ammunition to the neo-prohibitionists who would rather any intoxicating drug be banned outright.  Nutt's approach is never going to make anyone say 'Why isn't cannabis or ecstasy legal?'  All he's doing is encouraging people to be as stupid and wrong about alcohol as they are about other drugs.

And that's why it is David Nutt who is causing huge damage to individuals and to society as a whole.