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.