Tandleman's Random and Particular Thoughts on Beer. A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer.
Yesterday there was a Twitter post that caught my attention. It referred to an opinion piece in Imbibe Magazine by Jessica Taylor in which she claims that "We’re on the precipice of a cask revival". The article goes on to explain her thinking which can be summed up - more or less - that cask can revived - wait for it - by modern brewers adopting Golden Ales.Well I exaggerate, but I hardly agree either with the way the article says "cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad" as if we've all been drinking flavourless crud for all these years and can only be saved by innovative craft brewers rescuing us from our own stupidity. Try telling that to Phoenix of Heywood for example who have been brewing a West Coast IPA before many of the innovators were out of nappies, or the nearly 40 beers beginning with word "Gold" or "Golden" in the 1998 Good Beer Guide - and that's not counting the dozens more that have "gold" somewhere in the name. In that same edition there are herbal beers, spiced beers, lemon beers, cherry beers, ginger beers. Beers made with liquorice and chillies. I could go on. It isn't new folks. It has all been done before.
So we need modern craft brewers to show us the way and revive cask? These are the same people that give you cask beer that looks like chicken soup and undermine the work done by brewers for many years to ensure clean, clear, bright beer with distinct flavours.We'd more or less lost the "Its meant to be like that" nonsense until craft got its hands on cask. Now it is back with a vengeance, as overturning the orthodoxy has given bar staff the right to say it once more, even if the beer looks like a mixture of lumpy fruit juices and smells like Henderson's Relish.
Another thing in the article disturbs me more than somewhat. This is written as if cask ale is in decline everywhere and needs bolstering by a few hip breweries making their version of it to show the rest of the plebs how it is done. Well not here in Greater Manchester it isn't. Ask Marble, Blackjack, Brewsmith or Brightside and many more? Or Lees, Holts, Hydes and Robinsons who all sell tens of thousands of barrels of it a year. Or Marstons, the biggest brewer of cask beer in world. Or go to West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands and so many more areas of the country. Sales might well be declining, but in these places it is still drunk in volume. And here's another thing. Most cask beer is designed to be drunk in volume. Do we really think the odd craft brewery producing the odd batch of "stylistically broad"cask is really going to save cask for the future? Of course it might help their demograhic to appreciate it more - and that's good - but save it? I think not.
Oddly enough our dear friends BrewDog revived cask by bringing out a trad version of the cutting edge"Dead Pony Club". Not much by way of "cask is becoming ever more exciting, flavoursome and stylistically broad." there then, though Cloudwater hit the nail on the head with its (clear) non golden beers while its pale (cloudy) offerings didn't hit the mark at all. Pick the bones out of that if you can.
I do agree as always about poorly presented cask beer - who doesn't -and the need to attract younger drinkers - but this article postulates a world in which a small number of trendy breweries will be the saviour of cask. This strikes me clearly as pie in the sky and undoubtedly somewhat London-centric despite references to non London brewers in the article.
No, this is all looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We already have the poncification of keg beer to the extent that all too often it is sillier and sillier. I don't like to cast my rose tinted spectacles too much on the North of England, but fortunately most of our breweries, even the trendier ones, produce decent cask beer, albeit too often pointlessly cloudy. The point here is the picture around cask beer is endlessly varied. As it always has been. Does it need the craft treatment? Really?
So is cask beer in danger? Yes and no. As always with cask, you have to keep supporting it and drinking it. I'll be chairing a debate on the subject of "The Future of Cask" at Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. We have a cracking panel. Come along and see what they have to say.
Ironically the vast majority of small brewers produce cask beer. It isn't just the big boys and regional and family brewers.
The Great Manchester Beer Debate will take place on Saturday 26th January at 15.00. We have Sophie Atherton, John Keeling, JulieO'Grady, John Clarke and Ian Fozard. Fab or what?
Picture the scene. You park your car up and set off up an unmade farm track which looks as though it has recently undergone an artillery bombardment. You have already noted the dodgy looking lane, but having done so, you are walking, which most do unless you are a farmer, or the milk waggon going to one of the farms; or have a complete disregard for the future of your car's suspension. You take in the air; your many welly clad children happily splash in the potholes. You may visit the monument set high on a hill with views over to Rochdale, Oldham and Bury and the Pendle Hills beyond. You say "Ooh look. I can see the television transmitter at Winter Hill. My goodness is that Jodrell Bank over there in the Cheshire Plain? (it is)." You eyes drift downwards to the cluster of farms below. "I think there might be a pub down there" you chirrup. "Let's find out."
Then it all starts to unravel. For some. As you manoeuvre downwards, sinking up to welly top height in muddy fields, or plod through cow muck, you observe a little old pub with farms all around it, but with no made road on either side. You enter and as your eyes become accustomed to the somewhat gloomy interior you realise that this isn't the shiny little gastropub you'd hoped for. Instead it is a fairly rough and ready local pub, with a single room - though you might be lucky and find the small snug open. The bar is pretty well blocked by locals. A number of oldish men are sitting at a table by the door laughing loudly. They look up and say "Hello" as you enter. There are dogs everywhere. You realise that you have found: a) a hidden gem b) a nightmare pub with no redeeming features.
What happens next depends on you. You can fight your way in and squeeze yourself and your offsprings into whatever space you can find. There isn't much for anyone. You ask about food but are told it is only toasties and then only if there is time to do them. (You observe that there is only one person behind the bar and you deduce that as the pub is rammed, making toasties might be a tad inconvenient and accept that fact gracefully). You order crisps and drinks for everyone and join in the merry throng noting that in fact there are several families there, the many dogs are friendly and that while the pub is fairly rough and ready, there is a splendid buzz of conversation. Nobody minds about your muddy boots, your children, or indeed you. You note that with the roaring fire, it is, though quite old fashioned, not at all unfriendly. There is a lot of laughter. And, when you settle down inside, it really is all rather cheery. You remember the benches out front and side and figure that should you visit in summer, you can sit outside with your pint and your other half and watch the world go by as your children caper about. You think "Actually this is not so bad really."
Or, you could write a horrible review of this dreadful dump on a well known rating site when you get home.
I suppose the general point is don't be too quick to judge pubs on a first visit or impression
Anyway. Sounds just like the sort of place I'd like to spend some time in. Wonder if the beer is any good?
It was the coldest night of the winter so far when E and I made the half hour walk from our flat in E1, across Tower Bridge, at this time of the year mercifully, virtually tourist free, heading to Enid St in SE1 to give the newest Cloudwater Taproom the once over. We bickered our way merrily along through dodgy looking streets, though having been that way before, it is less dodgy than it appears. As often is the case of our minor disagreements, we were violently agreeing with each other; the difference in our preferred navigation being about "along one then over a bit", or "straight along and over a bit less". Such are the vagaries of thirty odd years together.
The Taproom is in a railway arch, brightly lit and narrow, with a cold store at the rear to keep the beers cool (certainly not needed that night) and for off sales. There is a bar, bottom right with taps at the rear in the usual craft style. A number of beers - ten or so - were offered in various sizes, all at £4 a pop. Waiting for our companion for the evening, beer writer, Matt Curtis, we started with a very decent Helles Tettnanger which was bang in the middle of the helles style and on a warm day would have been even more pleasurable. On Matt's arrival, we tried a few of the others with varying degrees of success. I liked the lightly smoked IPA - or maybe it was just pale ale, quite a lot, thought the Cranberry and Papaya Sour both smelled and tasted likely mildy gone off Vimto. Okay if you like that sort of thing, but worth £8 a pint? You tell me. Nothing really grabbed me, well, not quite true. The cold did. Like a vice. My hands were freezing as some acquaintances from The British Guild of Beer Writers remarked as they shook hands. It was bitterly cold and I worried for the barstaff. How cold? Well, frankly it would have caused Ranulph Fiennes to check his fingertips and cuddle his husky and bit more tightly. Maybe I'm just a bit nesh though.
Which brings me on to another point. What's the attraction of a bitterly cold railway arch with the sort of beers on sale that you can get elsewhere for around the same price, but in relative comfort? Beats me really, but there were quite a few people there on that cold Wednesday night. I have been in this neck of the woods in summer and sitting outside people watching - if you can get a bench or whatever - is pleasant enough, but so is sitting outside a proper pub. For me these kind of visits are an occasional "something different" thing, but I know for others it's a way of life and how they like to drink. Sure beats me, but as I say so often, in craft related stuff, I'm not the target audience. But in this visit at least, the company was good and of course beer - as it usually does - and this is what really it is all about - engendered the social lubrication that enhances and tranforms an evening out and makes your surroundings much less important than the people you are with.
We left eventually and having spotted a pub, new to us, along with Matt, we popped into the Marquis of Wellington to be immediately enveloped in warmth in a virtually empty, but very pleasant pub. The beer was pretty good too, so we'll be back.
This isn't a pop at Cloudwater. As railways arches go, this was a very nicely appointed one, with attentive and helpful barstaff. I'm sure we'll visit now and then when a trip over the river to Bermondsey beckons. (Or Bermo as nobody but Cloudwater calls it.)
Thanks too to the lovely folks from Duvel-Mortgaat for their surprise company, the excellent chat and the beers.
Readers will be aware that like a sinner repented, Cloudwater Brewery has returned to the cask fold after a period in the keg wilderness. It is good to see them back and to note they will shortly be joined by that other recidivist - sorry - returner to the shining path - BrewDog. Is this the shot in the arm that the ailing cask cause needs? I'm not sure, but it can't do any harm can it? Actually in the case of Cloudwater whose decent intentions are rarely called into question - certainly not be this writer - no it can't. In the case of BrewDog, let's wait and see.
Cloudwater has been seeking out pubs where their cask credentials are such that they will look after the beer properly, going as far as having a little interactive online map where you can seek out those who know how to coax the best out of beer from the wickets. Additionally, a vetting process, which while hardly the Spanish Inquisition, at least gets enough information about prospective sellers of the amber nectar to judge whether they'll turn it into flat vinegar or not. Good idea. Quality at point of sale is paramount and Cloudwater are to be praised for making such efforts as they have in the name of a quality pint.
One such pub whose cask credentials are proven beyond doubt is the Flying Horse in Rochdale, CAMRA's Greater Manchester's Pub of the Year. On Wednesday night they had all four of the new beers on so as it is one of my usual Wednesday haunts, I nipped in to see what was what. This was rather a low key affair, with the pub being little busier than it normally is, though I noticed one or two local members of CAMRA throwing their heads round the door, specifically to try the beers.
On offer were Pale, DDH Pale, Brown Ale and India Porter. I started with a pint of Pale, a 3.8% golden brew which was decidedly murky. My companion had the same and we sipped cautiously. First impressions were good with a burst of fruit and hops, but as the head subsided, the beer was a tad grainy and watery and sadly became less enjoyable. It lacked the cleanliness and distinct flavours that I'd hoped for. Frankly I blame the needless opacity of the beer - but see below. This beer cried out to be cleaned up. Cautious by now, my next beer, DDH was ordered in a half portion. This looked and smelt similar to the Pale, but with a slightly soapier nose. The taste was more of the same with the hops not seeming to get along with the malt. The increase in alcohol to 5.5% was evident, but didn't help the cause that much. Again the beer seemed muddy, a little thin and imprecise. I didn't care for that one much at all.
I was getting worried by now. Brown Ale (4.6%), hardly my favourite style was next. Having had a taster and observing its pin bright clarity though, a pint was duly ordered. Now this was more like it. Full bodied, resinously hoppy throughout and with clean and distinct flavours, this was a beer of tremendous complexity and vibrancy. It was multi layered and classy and quite possibly the best example of a brown ale I've had in years. A lovely beer.
Buoyed up by the Brown Ale experience, India Porter was next. Would it reach the heights of my previous one? It did and in fact soared above it. No mean feat. Again clear, very dark, full of condition and a head a dormouse could have walked over without sinking in, it looked a treat. Frankly this is a stunningly good beer. A booming joy from start to finish. Resinous hops throughout, delicious dark malts and such a clean tasting beer. A modern take on porter which knocks all the sweet, dull efforts you normally see into a cocked hat. It had great drinkability too and at 5.3% I felt its strength was pitched just right. I loved it.
So what does this tell us? A few things. Cloudwater can brew bloody good beer and haven't forgotten how to do cask. The two beers I didn't like prove little. I and my ilk aren't the target audience for them. They are to keep their core audience onside while introducing them back to cask with something familiar. While I didn't like them, plenty will and I have little doubt they turned out as intended. Cloudwater are too good for that not to be the case. Getting not one, but (if you include BrewDog) two two high profile breweries back in cask production with an enhanced committment to quality at the point of dispense can only be good. I look forward to more; just tone down the cloudiness guys. To me it makes the beer taste cleaner and that is a good thing, though I reluctantly accept its all pervasive influence these days.
Conclusion? Mine's a pint of India Porter if you are buying. Even if you aren't, it still is.
So we have Cloudwater back on board cask wise and BrewDog too. I'll try that next week in London and hope for the best.
I'm glad I tried these beers at the Flyer. termendous condition is assured there. All beers were a very reasonable £3.50 a pint. In fact for the quality of the Brown Ale and the Porter, worth a fair bit more. Apparently they had sold very well during the day, which is good news.
It is an opinion that some won't agree with - controversial maybe - but I've usually found craft beer bars a bit samey. All shiny and sharp surfaces like Gordon Ramsey's kitchen; industrial chique instead of comfy decor; a stainless steel wall of taps and the barstaff's backs for a view. The Americans, as always, have a lot to answer for, as have their unimaginative worldwide copycats. Why can't we have some more craft bars with individual character? Nonetheless being a reluctant democrat in such things, I sometimes find myself in them, usually with gritted teeth and quite often wearing, if not a sulky expression, a boat that shows faintly concealed resentment.
Thus it was in Malaga a few short weeks ago. I and my companions, (E excluded), had dutifully jotted down the must visit places of the crafterati and round them we traipsed. I think we went to around five. Six if you count the visually appealing Cruzcampo Brewpub, La Fábrica - a magnificent and brilliantly designed space with decent snacky food and a very shiny brewery producing slightly boring but incredibly competent and faultless beers. In each bar, the same odd tasting take offs of beer styles from abroad. A muddy pale ale, a wheat beer, an overhopped, unbalanced IPA, a badly made porter and some murky one off, masquerading as a saison or a NEIPA (interchangeable in their awfulness and who knows how they should taste anyway - the brewers clearly don't? It made you shake your head with wonder that any brewer worthy of the name would let the bloody stuff out to trade. And always, well very nearly, an amber beer that everyone tries and then pulls a face at, before wondering why brew this insipid style at all? The only saving grace really was, here and there, an Imperial Stout, so alcoholic, dark and dense that brewing faults were disguised to the point of non detectability.
Was I just unlucky? Is it just Malaga? I don't think so. While undoubtedly more competently made beers were to be found in Barcelona with the same friends last year and without them in Berlin, earlier this one, the general samey picture didn't change. And why anyway for goodness sake, would you want to replicate abroad the experience you can find in any craft beer pub in Manchester, Liverpool, London, New York and everywhere else? It's the modern equivalent of demanding sausage egg and chips or pie and beans, no matter where you are in the world. You pay top dollar for the experience too. That at least is consistent the world over and is the one thing that can be relied on.
Having said all that, Malaga is a great city to go to. Just get to the real Spanish bars around the giant market or anywhere away from the very touristy centre and you can have a great time in traditional surroundings. El Cid by the market was small and not at all self concious. Our entry caused no wonder or resentment at all and as we perched in a corner, four little tapas were presented with a smile. Victoria beer and the house wines were damn good too. In fact cheery little bars on every corner, even on main roads in the city centre, were a feature of the town and away from other visitors you certainly got a feel for the vibrancy of them and the way they are used by locals. Welcomes were always warm too, unlike the general indifference of the craft bars.
So what's the lesson? If you are a fussy old duffer like me, when abroad just visit local pubs, drink local beer and wine and mix with local people. If you want to drink craft - carry on, but don't expect it to be much different from home as an experience.
Interesting too to compare basic Spanish beers. Least liked were San Miguel, Mahou and Cruzcampo, though none were bad. Very much liked were Victoria and the lovely and gluten free Estrella Galicia.
Funnily enough in the tourist centre some excellent house wines and great grub can be found at very reasonable prices. Gambas al pil pil? Yum yum.
Following on from the recent cutting articles by Martyn Cornell and Pub Curmudgeon about poor quality cask, I had the opportunity to run my own test in an area I rarely drink in and that I don't really know. Step up Todmorden, which is in Yorkshire - though not by much - and has the benefit of being served by the 590 bus from Rochdale, a First Manchester service, therefore allowing me to use my First Day ticket. In fact it goes all the way to Hebden Bridge and indeed Halifax, both pretty good drinking towns. Going that far does involve quite a long bus journey though and was vetoed by a dubious E, worried by either losing valuable drinking time (doubtful) or needing a pee on the way back (more likely).
Now Todmorden is somewhat of a poor man's Hebden Bridge. It is, shall we say, a bit more rough and ready and isn't really immediately that attractive, apart from the very impressive Victorian Town Hall which hints at past glories. After a quick walk round which revealed little of interest, we skirted the Town Hall and round the back, near the rather sad market is The Pub, a neat little one roomed micropub which Retired Martin advises is in the Good Beer Guide 2019. Inside it is bright, cheerful, spotlessly clean and shiny. Very attractive. One denizen was sitting at one window and we settled underneath the other. Another and only other drinker, lounged against the wall. Amiable greetings were exchanged and the welcome from the young woman behind the bar was equally appealing. Six handpumps were present. I only knew one brewery - Brewsmith - but this was 6% - a bit much for a first drink. E chose a golden coloured half, while I at the barmaid's suggestion, ordered three different thirds. The stout was sour and exchanged and the beer withdrawn from sale. The beers were cool but not exactly on top form. The banter though was great as the discussion of imperial versus metric wandered off down maze like alleys before returning inconclusively to its starting point, not helped by everyone having a different idea of what we were discussing. This and further chats as we supped kind of proved the inclusivity of the micropub genre. All in all enjoyable, but the jury is out on the beer. I may well have had the first drinks pulled and the pumpclips on display indicated that we may just have been unlucky with the range. I'd go back.
Next up was the Golden Lion. Black walls and a kind of grungy feel didn't warm us to the place which was almost empty at 2.30 or so in the afternoon. The welcome though was excellent with a very friendly woman serving. Both Saltaire beers (Gold and Citra) were a tad tired and flabby, as was the local Tod brewed beer, Pale Eagle from Eagle's Crag Brewery. This is clearly a night time venue though It serves as a music forward venue and has Thai food. Quite a lot to like, but not on a quiet Saturday afternoon clearly.
Tor Beers, round the corner, is attached to the Golden Lion, but seemingly rented from it in some way. It boasts one keg beer on tap (something from Wiper and True) which was fine and a chatty young man who runs the offy, which seems to be the main business. A large selection of very decently priced craft in cans and bottles is available, and while nobody came in while we were there, a couple of hardy souls sat outside in the autumnal sunshine.
Wetherspoons' White Hart was next. This is quite small and rather pubby, with a relaxed feel. It was fairly busy. Service was swift and cheerful from the female barperson, while the bearded barman, who looked as though he had tumbled expectantly from a much finer craft establishment in a parallel universe and somehow ended up here, didn't seem to be viewing life from the sunny side. Win some, lose some. Here the cask stout from a guest American brewer (forgotten the details) was the pint of the day. Cool, conditioned and tasty.
Last up, by the bus station was The Alehouse, another micro pub with an extensive pavement with tables in front of it and one room inside. I opted for Salopian Lemon Dream which wasn't that cool or well conditioned and had slipped over an invisible dividing line, from beer into lemon furniture polish. (I recall Hornbeam Lemon Blossom had the same tendency). Disappointing.
So four cask pubs and only one pint I'd call very good. Not a great result, but clearly reflecting that you aren't going to get top cask beer from empty pubs.
I rather think this little unscientific venture proves a few of Mudgie's points. There are other pubs though, but we'd had enough of the place by the time we left.
Next time pee or not we'll go to Hebden Bridge. I think we'll find better there and of course, squeeze more value out of our First Day bus ticket.