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.