Monday, 30 November 2009

Beer pilgrims welcome in Assisi

Having raved about the Rome beer scene, it is only fitting I make time for the unexpected brewy pleasures I encountered in Umbria in September. Many make a pilgrimage to Assisi to find solace or other spiritual enhancement via the tomb of San Francesco, the Dr Doolittle of his day, or that of his girlfriend spiritual soulmate Santa Chiara. In search of hillside views, black truffle-infused cuisine and architectural marvels, it was with some heart-stopping joy my wife Claire and I came across the timeless legend 'Birra Artigianale Umbra'.

Not that it was, I concede, entirely serendipitous. Justen at Love Umbria had alerted us that the former monastery of San Biagio was producing 'organic, unfiltered, unpasteurised, bottle refermented beers'. But a spritz or two had convinced us not to go looking for these nectars. Perhaps the (excellent) wines and aperitifs would see us through.

But the sign bade us take notice. And in we stepped to the 'Farmer Shop', offering 'traditionally brewed ale, the best wild boar salamis and high quality gastronomical products' - quite the boast!

It seems the San Biagio outfit has set up shop in town, on the main street leading the faithful straight to the basilica. Though it is possible to munch on the most exquisite slow-roasted suckling pig sandwiches and arrange wine tastings and the like, this ambient farm shop, with low vaulted ceilings and chic minimalist shelving, is all about the beer.

Carlo (pictured below) took the time to talk us through the San Biagio fayre and was clearly dedicated to the craft products under his stewardship. Two of the beers stood out; first, the flagshi
p Monasta ale (7%). Ruby, full of gorgeous condition and rounded with a Belgian abbey-style floral yeastiness, it was a splendidly crafted beer with a malt-hop balance of such maturity it reminded both both Claire and I of that platonic pint of London Pride found only in Chiswick. With the extra body and aromatic booze, it made for a compelling drop.

Second was the dark, chocolatey Ambar (5%), which the brewery describes as a dunkel. Claire and I thought it more porter/stouty. It was richly malty with a bitter cocoa tang and struck us as perfect for wintry
night and as an accompaniment to vanilla ice creams.

Thanks, then, to both Justen and Carlo. The Assisi trip was much enhanced by this beery diversion and it was a real eye-opener. I'd heard good and bad things about the Italian craft brewing scene and had not had the opportunity to try for myself. The Lambrate and San Biagio brews stand as testament to the excellence being achieved throughout the country.

One thing's for sure - those snobbishly dismissing these efforts are missing out.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Lights, CAMRA, action!

A conversation with Impy Malting led inevitably to the subject of pubs & beer and, for want of something new to say about them, their presence on the silver screen.

Can any cinematic beer moment top this from classic 1958 war flick Ice Cold in Alex?

No, basically. John Mills' able quaffing has me all aflutter - though not, perhaps, as much as the charming Sylvia Syms does.

There is, however, a fierce contender. This depiction of the Wenlock Arms from 1981's An American Werewolf in London stands the test of time. As does the pub itself - it hasn't changed a bit.

So, what other good'uns are out there?

Monday, 9 November 2009

Ale tied up...

The Publican reports CAMRA is mulling whether to mount a legal challenge against the OFT's decision not to refer the casketeers' super complaint fingering the tie up to the Competition Commission. Furthermore, in a logical step, it looks likely the St Albans-based pressure group [full disclosure - I am a member] will lobby the European Commission's steely competition hawk Neelie Kroes.

For those readers unaware, when a brewery or pubco attracts licensees to run its pubs, the latter sign deals through which they agree to pay rent and secure booze through their landlord. CAMRA, among many others, believes this practice makes it difficult for licensees to make a living and considers it to be anti-competitive, restricting the access of smaller breweries into the marketplace (as pubcos buy in bulk for their estates). This said, it fits ill with CAMRA's brief to attack breweries, so it takes the view they ought to be allowed an estate of pubs to get their wares to market while pubcos not in the business of brewing are considered fair game.

There are problems with the tie as it stands. The widespread complaint of unfairly high rents needs greater exploration and a solution could benefit all concerned - scroll down to the bottom of this Morning Advertiser article for a concise rundown from KPMG's Mike Coughtrey; here's a sample:

[...] in some cases the combined rent made up of the standard dry rent, the landlord's margin on the tied beer and machine profits, is not always being set at sustainable levels, making it increasingly difficult for the tenant to trade profitably and sustainably.

However, Coughtrey also points out that the tie offers 'a low cost entry point' into the pub trade with considerably fewer risks than buying freehold. This is unarguably true, but presumes all go into the agreement with their eyes open. I am not sure that this is the case - and by that I mean more research is required, not that I have a fixed view. There is much anecdotal evidence of questionable practices employed to entice wannabe landlords and Jeff Pickthall's recent experience with an Enterprise Inns operative certainly makes for interesting reading.

For all this, I would advise CAMRA to limit itself to lobbying for reform to the tie without the threatening, and thus far unproductive, willy-waving.

As pubco-tied landlord and blogger Jeff Bell has argued, the unshackled free house dream would leave individual pubs with no intermediary between them and mega breweries, who would offer all-in, cheap deals. The tie would in effect remain, but for the consumer variety would diminish. Given the number of competent licensees is not likely to increase, it is probable our pubs would become more ale-unfriendly, akin to the Irish pub scene, where bonhomie is as plentiful as here but beer choice is generally woeful.

'But pubco beer choice is woeful,' you cry. A couple of years ago, I'd have agreed. But those pubcos, previously slobbering over the option of converting their businesses into real estate investment trusts as property prices skyrocketed have taken a sudden interest in their core revenue streams. Readers who like beers from micros such as Mordue, Moorhouse's, Woodforde's and Meantime will have noticed them appearing in greater numbers in solidly-run pubco pubs.

Recent economic turmoil pushed ajar a door that the nudge-nudge of proper market research-led lobbying and representations by savvy licensees is throwing wide open. The consumer has far better choice than two years ago, despite the number of outlets having fallen dramatically. As Pete Brown argues from the cold statistics in his recent Cask Report, ale-friendly taverns are closing at a far slower rate than mega-swill dens - and pubcos are taking note.

This is not an 'in praise of pubcos' eulogy; I believe there is merit in a proper investigation of both how pubcos recruit lessees and whether a more transparent rent setting regime can be implemented. I am convinced licensees ought to be given greater freedom to supply beer to a pump from local micros (say, those within 30 miles, with a small percentage of takings going to the pubco). The latter move might well offset rent concerns.

But CAMRA is wasting its time if it thinks its posturing will secure advances for the beer consumer; legal challenges are desperately unlikely to succeed and will further alienate the organisation from big players in the industry who are actually moving in their direction.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Bye Bunter: an ode to the pub

And so it was an era came to an end. Terry Kavanagh rang the bell last Saturday to call time on a fabulous 17 years as landlord of the St Radegund, King Street, Cambridge. The Rad may not have the fireplace, secret garden or pewter pots of Orwellian design, yet there is perfection in this Cantabrigian institution. Its locals are loyal but not jingoistic, often seen in other pubs. Despite a knowing cynicism, a faint whiff of the bear pit (one of Terry's many taglines extolling the virtues of the pub being 'St Radegund...a better class of insult'), its patrons will, and do, stand by each other.

Readers will understand the communal bonds between disparate men and women forged in the best of pubs. The St Radegund is the best of pubs. Several met wives or husbands there for the first time. When I wanted my wife, then girlfriend, to understand what I was about, taking her to the Rad seemed the finest possible shorthand. She is now a regular, too.

As a student, it was the place to intrigue in shady corners. It is still and ever shall be
a place to hail triumphs, see off the day, battle the demons, right public wrongs, castigate bounder politicos, cheer sporting triumph, wallow in defeat and drown immeasurable sorrows.

Of course the beer is good. It stands to reason. And we talk about the beer, chew over it. It's difficult not to when local brewer Richard Naisby of Milton Brewery is in there, supping his own wares and holding forth. And he does hold forth. But we can forgive a man who's brought us the delights of Mammon, the winterly splendidness of Nero and has conjured magic with Hackney's Pembury Tavern. Even if he did go to Oxford.

But the pub itself is also the talking point - so much so there's even a book about its overseas exploits. Steve Haslemere's The Ascent of Mount Hum chronicles a Rad cricket tour to the Croatian island of Vis. Other sports undertaken by Rad regulars include running with the Hash House Harriers ('a drinking club with a running problem'), rowing and conkers.

Those preferring extreme sports should consider the biennial King Street Run, a brutal eight-pint drinking race down a street that used to boast a far greater number of pubs. Don't worry, the good'uns are still there, so competitors double up now. The course record, fact fans, is 14 minutes and was carried out in a monk's costume by a man so skinny you'd assume him abstemious. How wrong you'd be.

Put off by the activity? More a culture vulture? Would the true sackcloth 'drawers of St Radegund' tempt pilgrims? Those of a religious bent ought not to sneer - committed theologians from nearby Westcott House will often drop by to admire the undergarment, parading down King Street holding the bloomers aloft, with Terry ejaculating hastily improvised Latin chants by way of accompaniment.

Perhaps Friday's Vera Lynn Appreciation Society would be more up your alley - listen to the forces sweetheart and indulge yourself with a double G&T aperitif as god intended. On the subject of our 1940s heritage, the Rad has its own homage to the Eagle's famous RAF bar, with names of regulars past and present burned on to the ceiling for posterity. Ex officio of his Blue Flame Club membership (don't ask), jesusjohn is very proud to be up there himself (though, arguably, far less proud to refer to himself in the third person).

The pub is a maelstrom of variety, in no small part courtesy of its patrons. But getting the pub to this point, holding it together, providing the glue, setting the tone, arguing the toss and belligerently ruling the roost has been Terry. He's seen B52s fly over Cambodia. He's done Bali and the Falklands. He's ushered countless students through evenings of unbridled alcoholic vice. And he's pissed in each barrel to make sure it was up to scratch.

He coined the moniker jesusjohn in my very first term as a sign of true belonging. Thanks to him, the St Radegund will always be the pub I go back to.

Cheers Bunter.

The Pubcast video, below, we made a year ago features a long segment on the Radegund and an interview with Terry Kavanagh - watch the whole thing if you've time. If not, scroll to 07:25.

I'd like to take this opportunity also to wish new landlord James Hoskins the very best of luck in taking over the Rad - I'm sure he'll do a cracking job.

The top picture shows jesusjohn in typical Cambridge attire - at the Rad, naturally.

Pubcast #1: Cambridge from The Pubcast on Vimeo.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Home brew

Missed in the beer blogging world, as far as I can see, were BSkyB's stellar 3Q earnings. Pretax profits rose 39.5% y/y while revenues shot to £1.38bn, boosted by the addition of 94,000 subscribers. The twitterati may be spluttering into their lattes about Rupert Murdoch's quaint belief he'll be able to make cash from online content by sticking it behind a paywall, but his son James knows his onions (even if he is, like his dad, a rightwing bastard).

Pubs, normally seen as a stable sector in a downturn, have endured terrible trading conditions in this recession. This reflects a number of changes in society, both its leisure options and attitudes to alcohol. As I've written before, with the likes of facebook making the spontaneous pint a thing of the past, that just-pop-in-for-a-brew trade is dying
(see if Steve and Mary fancy a drink, organise where to meet - the tarted up cocktail bar, the Aussie wine place or is it on with the pullovers to that pub with the ales?). We work long hours, so we flop home - these days an attractive place to be, especially with the internet, on demand TV (who needs DVD boxsets?) and an exciting wave of bottled beers available from a range of sources. To the non-beer connoisseur, the price difference is far too much to warrant going to the pub frequently.

The pub is in this recession facing unparalleled leisure competition.

Add to this the puritanical tone of the baying press, constantly howling against 'Binge Britain' and I suspect there are plenty who avoid conspicuous consumption out and about and prefer to indulge at home with the husband, wife, significant other, kids or whoever they see so little of.

In this context, £30 per month for Sky+ is a no-brainer, especially given that's almost the cost of one night out down the pub if you're eating there, too.

Which means one thing - there are too many pubs and many more need to close for the sector to be competitive and for those running them to be able to make a living. This does not mean the fight to retain rural pubs is lost. There can and should be review of planning laws that assumes a community must have a pub
as standard and CAMRA ought to more robustly market its knowledge on how locals can jointly campaign to save pubs and even club together to run one.

But the broader picture is this - for pubs to survive there need to be fewer of them and we need margins to rise, especially for real ale - a premium product sold at a ludicrous discount to megabrew swill. Prices will need to jump. Anyone who's boozed in Ireland will know where we're heading.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Roman holiday

While the two-week honeymoon my wife and I enjoyed from Rome through Umbria in September was, perhaps, a little too geographically limited to qualify on the eighteenth century Grand Tour scale of mind expansion (we didn't, after all, visit many brothels), some of the beers we enjoyed certainly did. Italy is incubating a beer culture that looks almost ready to pop out of its parochial shell.

On his blog, Jeff has waxed lyrical about the Trastevere district of Rome and its stellar pub Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fà - none of which will stop me doing the same. First of all, the tiny, long corridor of an interior, with wood smothered in footie memorabilia (chiming with the establishment's nickname as 'The Football Pub') is in itself tremendously imbued with the charm of its locals, exuding warmth
and humour. On mentioning I knew Jeff a little, Manuele (pictured above, left with jesusjohn) was generous to a fault and invited his locals to regale us with anecdotes of their trip to see Jeff and experience CAMRA's GBBF a couple of years ago. To hear Romans excitedly claim, seemingly with genuine affection, 'I love Earl's Court - it's a special place' was one of the more surreal experiences of the trip, but lovely for all that.

Manuele's beer selection is first class and his sourcing of these nectars, on questioning, seemed to rely on byzantine links of friends with vans and hauliers able to grab some bottles, a keg or a cask (yes, cask) or two on their way back from other business. All a bit Smokey and the Bandit, I thought.

The mind-boggling collection of international beers was striking (BrewDog Chaos Theory on keg, Tokyo* in its bottle - not many places you'd find that here in Blighty - among many others), but the Italian offering was com

Would that I could wax lyrical about a selection, but Manuele directed me to Urtiga (4.8%) from Milan's very own Birrificio Lambrate and I dropped on that for most of the session. With a slight haze, orange-gold hue and generous head, the impact was gorgeously earthy, with herbal hops and a well-matched body of malt. A superb lesson in the art of balance and proof, if any were needed, that mid-ABV beers can deliver a distinctively pleasing experience (something I think we beer enthusiasts lose sight of all too often in the quest for novelty).

The clientele spilled into the street; young and cosmopolitan, the crowd was split between those there for the beer, those there for the football - crammed round a tiny TV right in front of the bar itself and those who just wanted a good time.

All are well-served by this terrific institution, which could teach bars the world over a thing or two.

Do watch that Smokey & the Bandit video, incidentally (link above).

Here, gratuitously, is a trailer for Andre de la Varre Jr's epic Grand Tour '70, which is described in what I can only assume is de la Varre Jr's characteristically modest tone as 'probably the most important travel adventure you've ever seen'.

I'll let you be the judge of that.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Smoking out brews at Octoberfest (sic)

While we're still clinging on to the month, it seems fitting to report back on Cambridge CAMRA's excellent Octoberfest (sic), the third in what I hope will be a long succession of such events.

Some thirty-odd real ales were on, including Milton Brewery's annual rauchbier effort. Lovely stuff.

But the real star was Olaf Schellenberg (pictured above, peering in from the right - I'm no photographer, eh?), a friend of the area who has imported German beers for more than 25 years. In addition to fest favourites from Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr and Spaten, focus turned inevitably to Bamberg's very own Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen. Olaf is keen to evangelise about this thick, gluggable, rich dark brown and powerfully smoky tincture. Served on draught, the body of the beer is certainly more viscous than from the bottle and this seems to enhance the sweetness of the malt, pleasantly balancing the smoke attack. But don't let this p
ut you off buying it in bottle - to obsess over the difference is splitting hairs**.

Dark lager Nothelfer Trunk Dunkel on draught was my prize find. Richly, decadently malty with a hint of warming spice, it's a mince pie of a beer sporting Belgian dubbel characteristics. It seems pretty rare to find over here, so when I learned local beer paradise the Cambridge Blue would be having its own Oktoberfest, I pleaded with Olaf to send them some. He graciously agreed, though in the bottle (as it was at the pub), it was quite thin and seemed to have lost some complexity vs the draught. Still very good, though.

It's to CAMRA's credit that they have foreign beers at festivals but I am particularly pleased the Cambridge branch takes this opportunity to put them centre stage. Turnout was poor this year; last year's weekend was a washout while this year (and this is something a branch official conceded)
it was both poorly advertised and scheduled. It was held 2-3 October; two weeks later and the students would all have been back and chomping at the bit.

I sincerely hope this doesn't mean the event will not run again in 2010. The first fest in 2007, correctly scheduled and well advertised, was a big success. My personal view is that CAMRA should keep its focus on cask but do much more to celebrate good beer from all countries and - yes - all dispense types. My key example is this - that CAMRA could not bring itself to showcase Taddington Brewery's superb Moravka lager, even on a special stall, just bemuses me.

So big congrats to the branch for getting the balance right. With some logistical tweaking, it'll run and run. After all, their May festival - the third largest in the country - is an absolute stormer, with a very diverse following.

** I should add the Schlenkerla Helles is terrific - no smoked malt is used at all, but as it's brewed in the same vats and kettles as the Märzen and other of their beers it has a light peaty aftertaste. Absolutely superb.

Olaf is an experienced importer and an absolute gent. Here are his contact details:
Olaf Schellenberg (U.K.) Ltd., P.O.Box 71, Perth, PH1 5YG. Tel: +44 (0)77 537 1750

Boak & Bailey - the UK's beer blogging dynamic duo - have written about Trunk here and on Bamberg and Schlenkerla here.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Dogged journalism

A clarifying post on the BrewDog website and a brief email exchange with MD James Watt throw up some interesting points re. Equity for Punks.

While I still rate the valuation too high in and of itself (it puts BrewDog at £25.56m) and the entry level rich at £230 per share, help is at hand for us paupers.

Up to four people can sign up for one share and all four would be 'eligible for the [20% off beer on the website for life] discount!' -
as I say, this is from the horse's mouth.

This makes investment a far more compelling proposition indeed and, assuming I can find willing partners - I have feelers out, an investment will come BrewDog's way.

Good job, lads.

Apologies to those bored to horrible tears by all word, deed, act, suggestion, marketing, press-baiting - indeed anything - BrewDog. Normal service will henceforth be resumed.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Dogging with bloggers...

Apologies to those who've reached this expecting hot geek-on-geek in car park action. My headline refers, of course, to Tuesday's BrewDog shindig launching Equity for Punks. Through the scheme, you can buy a share in the brewery for £230, with the capital raised to be chanelled into a Bond villain-esque new brewplant project with environmental sustainability a key feature. The plans impress.

BrewDog is arguably Britain's most exciting brewer, so I toyed seriously with signing up. And I certainly don't wish to dissuade others from doing so. The key perk is considerable, namely a 20% discount on the BrewDog website for life - effectively a guaranteed dividend in addition to the discretionary dividends they hope to pay from 2012.

But the valuation is a little crazy (£230 gets you 1 share of 10,000 being sold, with the 10,000 shares accounting for 9% - that values BrewDog at £25.56m), all the more so given the fact the shares will not be publicly listed. Those who've signed up say they're supporting the brand, while the brewery itself mentions the intangible assets (brand, essentially, but also the vision of founders James Watt and Martin Dickie) and the support of gazillionaire US booze investors Keith Greggor and Tony Foglio.

With my financial journalist's hat on (for that is the day job), I'd say if they're wedded to the valuation, they could at least have made the share offer more liquid. If the shares had been, say, £50 a pop with a 5% web discount, or £100 with a 10% discount, I suspect uptake would be higher and thus the capital raising more successful.**

Known for their brash marketing, James and Martin are admirably approachable and charming face-to-face and it was a pleasure to be introduced to them - a point also picked up by fellow blogger Woolpack Dave.

One slightly sour note - they have struck the wrong tone by employing the use of eye-candy at the party and in promo material, a point raised by Impy Malting who hits the nail on the head with her realisation the scantily-clad goth/emo girls at the launch were 'BrewDog's answer to the Bud Girl'. Ouch.

But having drunk their beer (Punk Monk, a stunning IPA made with Belgian yeast stood out), I can only salute what they're doing. The brand is terrific and I am sure they will achieve the astonishing growth they forecast.

Detractors say BrewDog's all spin and flash media savvy but the beer lives up to the hype. Given the choice of style or substance, I take both. So does BrewDog.

STOP PRESS: Impy Malting points out in the thread on her blog that BrewDog would've seen investors' cash go up in smoke courtesy of a range of fees if they'd set the entry price lower. I well believe this - banks make a huge amount of dosh for simple transactions. But it's a shame nevertheless that a way could not be found to spread the Punk ethos slightly further down the food chain.

**STOP PRESS II: James from BrewDog has commented below, linking to their rationale behind the £230 per share price tag.

I should add it was a real pleasure to meet Impy, Woolpack Dave, Pete Brown and others at the launch, all of whom were delightful.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Studied hiatus

Well folks, I'm signing off until the end of September to get hitched and try to catch some Italian sunshine.

Rome, then Umbria, namely Spoleto, Assisi and Perugia. Beer tips, of course, welcome. This place in Rome comes highly recommended and, would you believe it, is just a stone's throw from our hotel. What a stroke of luck!

Meanwhile, enjoy what's left of the summer, golden ales and hop monsters. Beer-wise, I'm ripe for thick, black malty stouts again...

Ciao for now.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Don't lose your bottle in facing the flu!

Many thanks to those who suggested Manchester watering holes; alas, the Marble Arch and suchlike will be for another trip. No sooner did I arrive for my beery weekend than I contracted the dreaded swine flu. Not to be recommended. Match abandoned.

Thankfully, the good friend with whom I was kipping looked after me (indeed, long after I was meant to have left), securing Tamiflu, discussing the world athletics hoo-hah and in countless other ways making a bad situation tolerable. Hats off to the lad.

By way of thanks, having returned to the land of the living and made it back to sunny Cambridge, I logged on to Beers of Europe to send up a thank you pack. My friend received, by country:

St Bernadus Abt 12 (10.5%) - a gorgeous, rich, thick, dark glugging, boozy Christmas pud of an ale; Gouden Carolus Classic (8.5%) - in the same ball park as the Bernadus; Girardin Kriek (5%) - a lambic and the best kriek bar none.

Germany: Augustiner Lagerbier Hell (5.2%) - a fantastically clean lager, fresh, pale and with hay, grassy hop tones.

USA: Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA (7.1%) - a textbook US-style IPA with ballsy American hops; Stone Brewing Co. Arrogant Bastard Ale (7.2%) - a real treat for the boy, as I've never tried it (nor any Stone beer for that matter - I'm keen for him to test it out).

Generous to a fault, I'm sure you'll agree. But what would you have sent? Do you, like me generally, go foreign with bottled beers (with the obvious exceptions of BrewDog and Thornbridge), or do bottle conditioned UK ales tickle your fancy?

And which ones work - any guaranteed UK bottle conditioned gems (I'll start the list with Worthie's White Shield)? And perhaps someone can answer this age old question - why does UK bottle conditioned sediment ruin a beer when Belgian/Dutch sediment, while offering a different experience, can be a positive addition?

Friday, 14 August 2009

As he opened a crate of ale...

A quickie this - will be in (central) Manchester this weekend catching up with an old friend and am looking for tips from my merry, if few, readers. Naturally, I have CAMRA's reliable Good Beer Guide, but your thoughts on, say, a top three unmissable pubs would be welcome, as would beer guidance.

Cheers - and have a great weekend.

Looking for pubs that blend beer choice/quality with decent pub atmosphere, I need hardly add.

I feel the need to stress that, while the GBG is not perfect (too much focus on whether beer is good than the atmosphere convivial is a criticism I've often heard and have some sympathy with), I do feel it cannot be beaten as a pub guide and it is a credit to CAMRA. For the traveller entering completely unknown territory, it is essential. Buy it here (er...or don't, wait a couple of months and buy the 2010 edition, but you catch my drift).

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Old Hooky, Amsterdam stylee

A recent Benelux trip yielded bizarre experiences and happy (moreover, it has to be said, boozy) memories. Not many weekends involve dinner with a notorious call girl and madam, but Van der Valk's stomping ground is a city of many delights.

'Happy Hooker' Xaviera Hollander, a publishing sensation in the early 1970s with her vivid account of days and nights spent turning tricks in the 60s, used to sell her body but now sells her image, running a B&B (self-styled 'bed and brothel', though it is thankfully nothing of the sort with regard to the latter) from her leafy south-Amsterdam pad. Her dinner parties are studied affairs in the art of hosting; Hollander regales guests with blue anecdotes in the manner of an XXX-rated Peter Ustinov. I owe my dear friends who organised this most postmodern of stag dos (ahead of my imminent nuptials) a great many thanks. It was an astonishingly executed and brilliantly conceived night out.

What's this to do with beer? Very little in and of itself, but the incident does strike me as a rich source of banter for pub-going sessions and should remind us all (as we wax lyrical over 18% hop monsters and the pant-wettingly arcane selection of beers at GBBF's BSF) that beer is a social drink over which to share tall tales and create new ones. Amen to that, reverend.

A round-up of the trip from a beer perspective would bore terribly. Suffice it to say anyone visiting Leiden should make their way to WW, an excellent and friendly locals/beer pub, and the terrific offie Bierwinkel.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Raking over the coals

As those following my Twitterpub wall will know, I did a non-GBBF pub crawl around Borough, London, last night. All in all, it was a splendid affair, made all the better by being chaperoned by an old friend.

There is, of course, nothing wrong at all with this - call a mate, arrange a rendezvous, and get some beers in. But I think there is a question raised by such a plan. After all, when many of us bemoan the dearth of 'real' pubs, I suspect we mean 'pubs where, if we went often enough on our own, spoke to regulars and didn't make a tit of ourselves, we'd become regulars, too'.

This kind of pub is becoming rarer and rarer.

The reason, simply, is that folk (especially young folk) these days don't have to rely on the pub for social interaction. School creates friendship networks, university or work enhances those. Facebook, Twitter and even the positively jurassic mobile telephone by itself facilitate easy communication - and pint-ahol sorties follow. The idea of nipping into a nearby pub with the paper and a pencil looking for a quiet pint and, perhaps, a chat with Bert on the off-chance, is not anathema to a young person - indeed, when I introduce friends to my local and exchange greetings with men and women of all types and ages, they often bemoan the lack of such an institution in their own lives. But the following is certainly true: while not anathema, it is totally alien.

There are, of course, exceptions. Without wishing to seem like a brown-nosing fanboy, Jeff Bell at the Gunmakers, Clerkenwell, heads up a pub facing forwards, with a genuinely mixed clientele that aims to foster a sense of identity for the pub and its drinkers. Similarly, my local, the St Radegund, Cambridge, while steadfast in its traditions, is the most welcoming place I've ever stepped foot into and many fast friendships have been made there and good times had. Students and old-time residents alike feel most at home.

But other great pubs such as the Pickerel, Cambridge, or the Market Porter, Borough, while superb and serving a wide-ranging crowd, never feel like places you could enter alone and finish the evening sharing laughs with strangers in.

Some will see this as not necessarily bad in itself. I disagree. The Rake, Borough, has a beer list worthy of the gods, but the hip young trendies working there, who can't even price a beer at the same level twice and look through you if you're not Bat for Lashes-cool, don't figure warm service among their job requirements. They don't care for convivial bar-stewarding when they're out and about; they don't want a chat with the barkeep, they want a round and back off to their chums. As long as they're with friends, all is well.

Maybe I'm a sad old fart long before my time. But I think the magic of the pub, for a punter, is its ability to surprise and create social bonds. Yes take your friends down the boozer - it's brilliant. Perhaps, though, a pint and the paper and a few words with Sally about her son's ballet class wouldn't go a miss, too, from time to time.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

25 and in need of booze? Barcode your face!

I'm 26 years old, making me a cool eight years older than I need be to score a hit of booze should I so desire. So, I ask myself, what's with Think 25, a Tesco policy to challenge whippersnappers in their youth to provide ID if they even conceivably look younger than a quarter of a century?

Apparently, this has been up and running since late March, so I'm obviously late to the party (though not as late as I would be if between me and the party were an officious bastard behind the counter at the store that loves to remind us 'every little helps'). According to the Daily Mail, Asda, Morrisons, M&S, the Co-op and Sainsbury's are all on board, either having implemented this demented fuck-wittery or planning to do so by September. Only Aldi and Lidl shoppers will be safe, in addition to those more refined youngsters frequenting Waitrose.

Now this is obviously preposterous. Were I intellectually challenged, I'd probably dub it 'political correctness gone mad'. Of course, given political correctness is simply a mechanism through which we collectively attempt to find ways of saying things without meaning to cause offence to segments of society, it isn't. But were I thick as pig shit, I'd undoubtedly say it and believe it.

The real culprit is - as ever in situations involving 'crazy' health & safety advice and paedo hysteria meaning school trips can't take place unless all the accompanying parents are either castrated or otherwise neutered - is the gut-wrenchingly risk-averse and litigious nature of British society, in part imported from across the pond.

Indeed, Tesco's jumping on the bandwagon stems from a lost court case in Blackpool (admittedly, a prosecution and not a civil case) after a 16-year old was able to buy brain-pop on three occasions. Of course, in the no-win-no-fee, knickers-in-a-twist country we inhabit, this particular government has routinely surrendered to supposed moral panic regarding the decline of the nation by legislating to ride the crest of the frothed up rage.

Tesco doubtless has a grey man in a grey suit, hired primarily due to his uncanny resemblance to Spitting Image's John Major puppet, tasked with establishing risk reduction solutions and due diligence compliance procedures by way of response. Think 25 is his idea. He has three children, called Julian, Sophie and Giles, and lives in Sevenoaks, Kent. He has not had intercourse for five years.

We have the whole young people and alcohol debate so sullied by poor representation in the media. It also has to be said that social atomisation in the UK, with fewer families than ever sitting down together for meals or enjoying inter-generational nights out, has reduced the number of opportunities to mentor teens into the ways of the drop.

But nothing smacks so much of wrong-headed pointlessness and rank human cynicism as this. I've always thought that, rather than 'is this person over 18?', a better and more useful question would be 'is this person really 17?'. Asking a person who's 25 to provide ID would seem crazy if this latter question were also in the mind of the shop assistant.

Anyway, there is one thing far more dangerous about this than the accessibility of alcohol in our shops. It's that this issue has put me in agreement with Stuart Maconie. Not a nice place to be.

This came up because my fianceé was asked for ID in a supermarket claiming it wants you to 'try something new today'. Those of you pondering whether I've bagged myself a child bride calm down - she's my age (well, give or take, your honour...)

I should add that things being dubbed 'political correctness gone mad' makes my blood boil. The left always gets it in the neck for this kind of dung, but nine times out of ten, western risk-aversion and litigiousness is at the bottom of it - as I've said, most prevalently in the states, which could hardly be considered communist. Stewart Lee (see video below) makes this point better than I ever could. And funnily, which is a plus.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Beer drought

Weddings do not organise themselves. Nor does work happen by itself. All of which serves as some small way of explaining the slight hiatus in activity here - apologies.

Upcoming posts will touch on the delightful availability of German lager in posh London enclaves; pub ham, eggs & chips as art form; and the difficulties of getting younguns on the cask ale bandwagon. Plus more updates on my Cambridge-based drinkathons.

You have been warned.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Tax not axed

Darling ups booze duty 2% in the Budget, from midnight tonight. Looks like the tax was not axed...

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A mean time with Meantime Pale Ale

Meantime London Pale Ale was on cask at The Gunmakers, Clerkenwell, last night. It was a pleasurable beer totally suited to spring, with a golden body, thick malty texture and floral hoppy finish. Textbook.

Given Meantime's (in my view mistaken) reluctance to embrace cask as a way of broadening its customer base - in addition to its keg offering - this was a bit of a coup for Gunmakers landlord and beer writer Jeffrey Bell (pictured right).

He is a fine host and looked most dapper last night, though if I were him I'd lay off making offensive gestures to the punters. Especially just two days ahead of the Budget.

The jesusjohn legal team would like to point out that whatever Jeff is doing here, it was not an 'offensive gesture'. He blogs here.

PS - these headlines will continue to be pun-led. You have been warned.

PPS - thanks to fellow blogger Tandleman, who points out this beer will be on cask at JDW pubs as part of their International Real Ale Festival.Whether you'd want to go to a JDW pub just for this beer is another matter (I wouldn't myself) but those without a decent 'proper' pub nearby might like to take a punt.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Hypnotic beer advertising - a helluva force

Darth Vader and the evil galactic emperor pushing beer in an ad. It's not big and it's not clever, but it made me laugh. Sadly, the brew itself does not exist. Pity.

George Lucas cashed in pretty much every other way he could.

I have to say, Emperor Palpatine exhorting the masses to 'grab a cold six pack today' was the clincher for me posting this. I daresay this is one of those viral videos everyone else has already seen but me - if so, I crave your indulgence.

An unhackneyed lager in Hackney

Alex's birthday took us to Hackney's beer ground zero - The Pembury Tavern, part of the Milton Brewery empire. Milton Brewery is based in Cambridge, so I'm familiar with its excellent brews - my favourites are Pegasus (4.1%), a maltier, fuller-bodied London Pride, and Nero (5.0%), a pitch black stout with a solid punch and vanilla finish.

On the right, regrettably, is the only photographic evidence of a terrific night on the tiles. Some 'amusing' Kanye West sunglasses brought along for the ride and a necklace cadged from Alex's girlfriend succeed in casting jesusjohn as the ubiquitous Shoreditch/Hackney media twat in the Nathan Barley mould.

The only redeeming factor of this sorry business is that I'm seen clearly drinking Taddington Brewery's unpasteurised lager Moravka, which Jeffrey Bell wrote about beautifully here. It is the UK's best lager for certain - malty and satisfying while retaining the necessary thirst quenching drinkability. I think it's a hot contender amongst the very best of its style brewed anywhere.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Not just mussels in Brussels

'I don't know why people deride a country of five million people that produces 1,000 different beers.' - Jonathan Meades

Raised eyebrows often greet those who say they're off to Belgium for a holiday. Belgium? Why?

Quite apart from the beer, there's food, architecture and everywhere a sense of the gothic. The journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Meades hit the nail on the head with his contention that
'Magritte was actually a realist, not a surrealist - that he was a recorder of his country's condition, a reporter.' There is something exotic about a country that seems to share so many characteristics with the UK - dark wit, a confused collective identity, a labyrinthine and internationalist capital city - and yet is so evidently foreign.

The beer, of course, is a case in point. Both countries enjoy a weight and wealth of styles, traditions and innovations - yet the keg in Belgium is not synonymous with smoothflow tripe and bottle conditioned beers are everyday commodities. In Belgium it is commonplace to drink a bottle's sediment. Back home the same practice seems to ruin a decent brew. Odd. The sense of glee with which a beer hound heads for Brussels or Bruges is, then, that intriguing blend of the familiar and the thrillingly different. It will be a feeling many reading this will have experienced (yeah, both of you).

The St Gilles district of Brussels is central, but has a suburban ease to it. Following a crazed period of work amid the ivory towers of Canary Wharf, idling along its sloped streets was a relaxed pleasure. Falling upon La Porteuse d'Eau brasserie was a delight. It is a palace standing as proud celebration of art nouveau and offered lunchtime perfection in the shape of onglet with shallots, chicken and mushroom stew vol au vent and chicory gratin.

Its beer selection is clearly well thought out and on my visit there was a subtle push towards a new beer, Hopus from Bra
sserie Lefebvre. It would seem Belgian beer is undergoing the hop revolution that has spread from west coast USA (I've already written about the superb La Chouffe Houblon). Five different hop varieties make it into Hopus, which packs a helluva punch at 8.5%. The bitterness is more like a hefty thwack than a spicy, floral build and I liked it.

Particularly pleasing was the dedication to its service - the bottle has a swing-stopper, which I always regard as an artful plus. With attention to her task, the waitress poured the beer into its rather camp branded glass, conjuring a generous perfumed neck of foam. A branded shot glass was revealed - into which was poured the murky, yeasty sediment. Theatrical, delicious and served alongside a good chewy cut of beef.

This brasserie puts in hard work to look the part and succeeds in providing something a lot of British pubs don't quite manage - a touch of flair, or a gold nugget of a reason to go out rather than neck a Duvel at home. And all this without the slightest hint of pretence, again rare in Blighty, where modish bars always seem to try too hard.

Decent grub and a super beer, to boot - both available in the UK and Belgium of course. But La Porteuse d'Eau does the job with class and a hint of exoticism. Perfect.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Autotilt this!

You can't fault the dedication to engineering excellence demonstrated in this video. But what's the funky tune? If you know, please share it with me. I'll never look at a racked cask in the same way again.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg

So, back to Blighty. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My second ever post here gave an idiot's guide to Luxembourg's beery underbelly but I'll have to serve up some more details on my return. The range of beer is limited, I'll grant you, but Bofferding, Simon Regal and Battin (especially Battin) are some of the best lagers around and taste especially good in glorious sunshine - with which we have been blessed these last few days.

All this as a precursor to better, more beery posts after the holiday lull.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Not a very likely contingency in Belgium...

The somewhat sporadic and wilfully threadbare nature of recent posts owes much to the fact I am journeying through the Benelux region (well, Belux anyway).

Sunday was spent in Brussels - Delirium Cafe may be full of wide-eyed 19 year old tykes from Wyoming and Minnesota, but the international crowd is young, there certainly are plenty of locals and the barstaff are friendly. In short, the ambience is more studenty than touristy. I like it.

It was here we tried La Chouffe Houblon - a mad, mad mash-up of classic IPA, bonkers-spicy US hopped IPA and Belgian tripel. A terrific find and, at 9%, just a short passageway to oblivion. Textbook.

My fiancee and I scanned the room again - there can't have been anyone in there over 30. Now don't get me wrong, I love the classic ideal of the British pub, with inter-generational drinking and frank exchanges over a disinterested hound. But it did strike me that Belgium must be doing something right to make its artisan beer worthy of seeking-out by hip young things. In the UK, CAMRA struggles to win the interest of youngsters (and where it does, such as myself - I am a member, they seldom become activists). Even the sterotypical Belgian beardy (male) beer geek has a hippy, rocked-out low-countries charm lacking in his Dungeons & Dragons anglo-saxon brethren.

And on that bombshell...have a good Easter break! I'll put up sexy pictures on my return.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Could life ever be sane again?

I had been sceptical of those wishing to sell papers off the back of 'the chilling rise in knife crime statistics'.

No more.

As this footage clearly shows, knife crime is all too ubiquitous - this incident took place outside The Bun Shop, Cambridge. My source (who we'll call IBU 400) says he found the knives outside the aforementioned establishment late last Saturday night. He freely confesses his contemporary sorry state of inebriation - though it was perhaps this detachment from his surroundings that meant we can feast our eyes on this devastating VT.

The Bun Shop has a wine bar, selling excellent Australian bottles from the D'Arenburg estate, and a 'traditional ale house' serving beers from Bury St Edmonds brewery Old Cannon, where the punchy Gunners Daughter can be supped. There is, of course, the possibility that the military connection to the beers in some way precipitated the knife incident - best be on to the Portman Group.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

No need for the Cambridge Blues

Not for nothing have I been dubbed Jesus 'Twinkle-toes' John. Verily, I am the Vince Cable of the beer blogging world.

Ok, in truth I have two left feet. But dancing is a necessity if one is marrying in Luxembourg - that first waltz is make or break as far as many of the locals are concerned (one wrong step and auntie Irma will be muttering about my inadequacy - thank god they have decent brews).

My fiancee took pity, enrolling us on a dance course. Taking our places along with those beguiled by Brucie's patter of a Saturday night has been humbling - I'm not god's gift. I therefore extend all possible gratitude, then, to Dom and Mel - kind hearts who have ferried us to and from the lessons in their trusty Rover. By return of favour, we were happy to offer them a pint at one of our favourite pubs, the Cambridge Blue.

This especially ale-friendly tavern (featured in our inaugural Pubcast) has been buoyed of late by a fleet of superb Dark Star beers. Michael, a friend and straight-talking beer hound of the premier league, has a Beer Rule No. 1 - never pass on a Dark Star beer. Three pints later, I can vouch for that; this brewery consistently blends hoppy abandon with malt of superior quality, whether we're talking the sublime Hophead or the innovative and suppably enriching Espresso Stout. Helluva brewery.

Afraid this post doesn't get more intellectual than that - the moral of the story is simply never walk by a Dark Star brew. Basic, really.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Size does matter

Dave runs a pub, by all accounts a very good one, made all the better - so I'm told - by virtue of the face he brews his own beer. He speaks good sense and is open minded - so take a look at his blog from time to time.

His latest post runs through some interesting market research carried out by Coors' Bittersweet Partnership - a ghastly corporate racket determined to win over more women to the delights of the hop by shoving a Tab Clear-style colourless beer in their general direction. Good luck with that.

Anyway, despite disastrously patronising and maladroit ramifications, the report nevertheless raises some interesting points, which Dave sums up so I don't have to.

In the conversation on his blog, the issue of glassware was raised. Stay with me.

The pint is, often, too big. Walk into a pub with 5+ beers on tap and to try a range means halves. However, the half is manifestly too small - it just is. Pubs can legally serve 1/3 pint measures, but not 2/3s. Imagine trying three beers but only having had two pints - the 2/3 pint measure becomes an attractive proposition (to men and women - note a significant percentage of the latter see the pint measure as, itself, part of the problem when ordering beer).

Now I don't want to invite Daily Mail-style rants about 'abolishing the pint' - it is an iconic measure and a pint of mild or best bitter can hit the spot. But strong beers such as Fuller's ESB or Thornbridge's modern classic Jaipur IPA could well find more trade if people could order a measure of it that would be neither too disappointingly small, nor so big as to render the drinker legless. Size does matter.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Don't stop the press!

A mid-week session is a fine balancing act. On the one hand, five days of uninterrupted slog can kill off any residual traces of humanity. On the other, oblivion on a Wednesday would make Thursday unbearable.

Claire, Michael and I have hit on a decent balance during our Wednesday or Thursday beer hunt. It started off being always on a Wednesday, or as we called it 'Blendsday'. We'd fire ourselves off into different pubs experimentally trying out different half-and-half combos (the best thus far is probably the 'Bishop's Stortford' - half Fuller's London Pride, half Milton Sackcloth - christened by St Radegund barkeep Ollie).

But novelty has given way to Michael's no-pratting-around demeanour, making Claire and myself big fans of a very decent Greene King boozer. Some will scoff. The brewery's ubiquity in our part of the world certainly breeds contempt. Additionally, there is a school of thought that there is no such thing as a decent Greene King pub - because there is no such thing as a decent
GK beer.

The Free Press
, Cambridge (pictured left), proves both propositions false. It's a warm place with a varied crowd all huddled over pints and halves. The lease clearly gives them the opportunity to raid the GK 'real guest' list - the earthy Tom Wood's Bomber County bitter and Bath Ales' easy-drinking Gem are good examples.

But the real triumph is Greene King XX Mild. It has a gently sour base delivered through a thick, gluggable body. At just 3% ABV, it is sessionable in the extreme - and session drinking is social drinking, end of.

It's a good match for meat dishes, which are in plentiful supply at the Press. The pub offers probably the most reliably enjoyable food in Cambridge. The landlord is keen to secure meat from local suppliers, making perhaps rather vanilla-sounding dishes such as liver & bacon and sausages & mash works of true joy. The sausages we chose earlier this week were pork & black pudding and were robustly juicy. As you can see, Claire and Michael (pictured) very happily scoffed the lot.

I'll go along with those who bad-mouth GK IPA - it's never an ideal drop, delivering the characteristic GK sourness without any balance. With the turnaround GK often expects, the beer is seldom well conditioned. But the Free Press makes a point of storing its beers long enough for them to develop - the Abbot, for example, is a reliable (if unexciting) pint. Even so, the real star is that mild. In this pub it's a beast of a beer.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Couldn't have put it bitter myself

Credit goes to Realaleblog for linking to this diverting little video. David Mitchell talks a lot of sense about beer and, if you can ignore the meerkats, keeps it funny, too.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Porter-way to have a good time

So we were in the pub last night, Matt and myself that is. The Gunmakers, Clerkenwell, was celebrating St Patrick's Day in the only way it knows how - by lining up a jovial Dubliner to serve an anti-papist porter.

Harveys of Lewes is a terrific brewery and produces, arguably, the finest best bitter there is - all floral hops carried on a solid malt body. Their porter doesn't skimp on those characteristic floral notes, but is loaded with chocolate malt, as you might expect from a richly dark porter/stout.

So we had a few of those. The Gunmakers, winningly, also has wi-fi; if Matt (pictured) looks hard at work, that's because he is - signing up a techno-sceptic jesusjohn to Twitter. This blog now has a Twitterpub wall on the left sidebar - if I'm in a pub I like, wish to evangelise about a beer or want to get the word out about a terrific off-licence, I'll use this to spread the news double-pronto.

Hopefully, this will excise a lot of beery guff from the main posts (myriad blogs are better at the forensic dissection of beer flavour - and comments such as 'at 7.5%, this beer must be treated with respect', or 'of course, this is just a rebadged Welder's Daughter' I'll leave to others).

Monday, 16 March 2009

Home and spring in a glass

I am from Kent. Born west of the Medway (a geographical feature of some importance to those from Kent - me neither), this makes me a 'Kentish Man', as opposed to a 'Man of Kent'.

None of which has stopped me, in the past, describing Kent as 'the Alabama of England' or bemoaning the number of former
Tory leading lights mooching about spending more time with their families.

But memories of my home county are shaped by cruel proximity to London - west Kent dorm towns had the life beaten out of them long ago. The inhabitants may be cash rich, but they spend what they have indulging in the cultural promise of the bright lights.

My fondest childhood memories are of lazy afternoons driven around the countryside by a kindly uncle figure who had a battered taxi in which he lounged around the county searching for barley wine. His dedication to the pursuit of his favourite nectar necessarily limited the number of fares he could pi
ck up. He was not rich, but he perfected completion of the Times crossword.

Work done for the day, the sun shining and fearing a train home to Cambridge would limit my enjoyment
of it, I took the executive decision to trundle my way to West India Quay and its Lloyds No. 1 bar The Ledger Building.

Now Wetherspoons would scarcely be my first choice - but this effort has a sizeable outdoors area and was just the ticket. In shirtsleeves and pretty chirpy, I ordered a pint of Westerham Grasshopper.

Westerham is three miles from where I was born, in west Kent's prettiest countryside. If you've visions of oast houses and stately homes bounded with rhododendron bushes, you're most of the way there.

Canary Wharf was but a memory. UV rays and a pint of this tasty beer (imagine a perfect pint of Shep Neame Masterbrew - but with an added warming blanket of chocolate malt and bitingly spicy hops) and I was scuttling down the hedgerowed lanes of my youth, with uncle and his barley wine on the way.

Sentimental, perhaps. But a beer that can put a smile on your face is ok in my book.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

On selling beer

Those of us living or working in London knew the recession was coming when tube station billboards started carrying the same ads for months and then, eventually, became bare. Ad spend is - crazily - seen by bean counters as discretionary in a downturn.

Last summer, a few weeks before Lehman's collapse revealed just how buggered we all were (and sewed up the US election for Barack Obama, thank god), Fuller's ran this ad campaign for their organic brew Honeydew (pictured).

A boring ad, I think all will agree. Far from being evident, it does nothing to demonstrate why people love Honeydew. A row of pints and a tagline about being the country's favourite organic beer is hardly going to stop traffic.

Compare, then, with this billboard directly next to it for Amstel.

Now I thought this was terrific, neatly encapsulating the social role of beer while at the same time using arresting imagery. No allusion to flavour or provenence; no 'since 1345'; no sweeping fields of barley. Lovely stuff.

I'm sure Heineken (which owns the Amstel brand) has far deeper pockets in terms of marketing than Fuller's. But I do think the comparison provides a good example of the lack of imagination demonstrated by some UK - and particularly cask - brewers.

Apologies to Fuller's - this campaign is hardly the most egregious example and, to be fair, I do think their London Pride cinema ad recently was terrific - voiceover by Michael Gambon, no less! For the record, I think Amstel is horrible with a weird metallic ting that ought not to be present in beer at all. A big fan of Fuller's, I've got to say I really dislike Honeydew - but then I've got a bit of a downer on honey in beer per se.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Luxembourg's secret is out...

Luxembourg is not famous for its beer, perhaps, but those in the know will have come across the eminently quaffable Bofferding, marketed as 'the secret of Luxembourg'. Its ad campaign (see below) is tremendous - and could teach UK brewers a thing or two; though it shows how deep even Bofferding's pockets are that they could get Saatchi & Saatchi to do it.

Bofferding is ubiquitous there - a pale session lager that is extremely clean finishing. Nothing special about it, but it is fine at what it does. The urbane and sophisticated young Luxembourger heads for the city, scoots for the relaxed Grund district and hops from bar to bar until the wallet is emptied or capacity reached (this being Luxembourg, of course, the former is unlikely to occur before the latter).

My favourite bar in the Grund is Aula Cafe (pictured) - where glasses of Bofferding can be seen off with a potent honey eau de vie secured from a local farm. It's small, shadowy and filled with relaxed young things; some so young they're ordering wine and coke - a peculiar concoction also loved in Spain, for some reason. The walls may once have been white - who knows? - but neither paint nor paper is necessary when smoke adheres to every surface and provides a dull, satisfying beige hue. When someone is drunk enough to believe they could be the next Duke Ellington, a key from the barman will unlock the piano and music spues out.

There are better Luxembourgish beers - Battin has a wonderful caramel look and is full of superb lagery malt and hop. Simon Pils and Simon Regal are fine efforts indeed (though Simon Presitge - with added Luxembourgish sparkling wine - is to be avoided at all costs).

But to shun Bofferding would be ridiculous. From teens who should know better to bankers who should definitely know better, a glass of this unifying brew is usually what's drunk. And that's not a bad thing.

The opening salvo

Pubcast #1: Cambridge from The Pubcast on Vimeo.

Am I a throwback? I'm 25 and most of my friends are totally divorced from the notion of the pub as I enjoy it - as the great leveller, a social hub. When I take a chum into my favourite pub, the St Radegund (King Street, Cambridge) and one of the many cheery barkeeps yelps 'Jesus John!', typically the friend's face becomes a vision of shock. They'll often even say 'it's so wonderful you have this.' But back in their own world, they'll make no effort to become a regular in their local. It's bizarre.

To find out if we were indeed throwbacks and to celebrate the pub as we know and love it, my like-minded good pal Matthew Nida and I made a film about our favourite Cambridge pubs, optimistically titled The Pubcast #1. You can watch it here - I'm the short one with the glasses. It's not in the same league as Jonathan Meades, but it shows an affection for the pubs we visited, I hope, and for the type of joint we like to relax in.

We do intend to make more - the next film is in pre-production, as the industry wags would have it. We're thinking of doing a sweep through Holborn and Clerkenwell, with a stop-off at Stonch's gaff.

The pubs we visited in Cambridge were The Live & Let Live, Cambridge Blue and St Radegund. Click through for details.