Last Updated : 06/04/11
(these icons are here for a reason way too tedious to explain)
his new section is for bits that won't fit anywhere else: stuff like gossip, anecdotes and of course totally irrelevant gibberish picked up whilst pissed at a festival... The older stuff which has vanished from here is now in an archive where it will sit, unread and unwanted, until I delete it in a few years time to free up some space for photos... probably.
I'm now writing what vaguely passes as a blog (but it's still shite) for Phil Parkin's "Beer Ticker's Film" site although I'll be putting them on here too if you can't be arsed to click the link. Go on, it's good...
06/04/11 - Midsomer Scoopers
Watching vacuous-oversimplified-for-simpletons rolling news the other day I was amused by an article which described how the (bafflingly) popular TV series Midsomer Murders was notably lacking in non-white members of the cast and was therefore deemed to be a throwback to the “olden days” when, apparently, everyone was white, worked on the land or in a factory, smoked woodbines and wore ludicrous headgear and/or facial hair and there were no Johnny foreigners to be seen anywhere.
This got me thinking about scooping – and the beer world in general – whereupon I came to the startling conclusion that we beer scoopers have our own little Midsomer thing going on! Just think… when was the last time you saw anyone not white ABC1 (or even white ZZZ9) engaged in the practice of ticking beers? I don’t mean drinking beer as a social pastime as I’ve seen just about every colour, creed and nationality drinking beer in pubs during my time frequenting them, but actively engaged in the hobby of scooping? Never is the answer I expect you’ll be muttering to yourself and I know I am.
I know “strict” Muslims won’t drink – although being Muslims didn’t stop the crowd I knew at Poly who I regularly witness tanked up, invariably on cheap lager, before launching into the bacon butties – so I can excuse them for not wanting to scoop, but where are the Chinese, Afro-Carribeans, Sikhs, Hindus and anyone else non-white? I don’t know why it seems that only a certain narrow band of the populace has what I term to be the “scooping gene” but think about it… of the hundreds of scoopers there isn’t one I can name who is anything vaguely resembling non-British in origin!
Taking this further, and leaving race aside for a minute, why does it seem to be that only middle class people are afflicted with this desire to collect things? How many chavs have you seen ticking beers with their Burberry notebook? Zero… saying that, chavs don’t care much about anything remotely different from the crap peddled by the McTatsco kak-peddlars they worship and anything with flavour is definitely off their list of acceptable foodstuffs… in fact, I think to be deemed consumable by chavkind food and drink must contain at least 50% artificial ingredients, be lurid in colour, be heavily advertised by vapid adverts on TV and endorsed by equally vapid celebrities…
So, are OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and Asperger’s syndrome confined entirely to middle-class white people and, to qualify further, mainly (but not entirely) men? Going on the – admittedly narrow – band of evidence I have access to with regards to beer scoopers I would have to say yes, but obviously we are a very small sample of maybe a thousand people at most and so it probably isn’t wise to base a decision on us alone; I’d love to hear from any “ground hoppers” as to if my theory holds out in their sphere of ticking and, likewise, anyone else involved in any collecting hobby such as Munro bagging!
During my travels around Europe and the world I’ve met many who have the scooping “gene” to some extent, some a much greater extent than me, and I’ve even met some Japanese who exhibit at least some beer scooping mentality, but these people are in a very small minority and in the Venn diagram of life would be a very small subset indeed whilst every scooper I know is resolutely middle class (well, some more than others…) and about as British as white bread, racism and losing at football on penalties.
So, am I merely channelling the bigoted thoughts of Nick Griffin here or have I been coerced by brainwashing rolling news into noticing something which is (possibly) a fact but not really that relevant to everyday life? Answers on a hop, please…
04/08/10 - Personal taste: the thin line between love and hate.
Personal taste is a thorny issue, one which gets even the most level-headed, easy going people het up and ranting! It's one thing which can never be accounted for and, although everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions and I’d never dispute that, there’s a massive difference between people liking something and recognising quality in something which they may not like. This is a huge challenge for someone who tastes a lot of beer and I’m as guilty as the next man as, personally, I dislike Weißbier with a passion and struggle to taste it objectively even when I know what I’m drinking – or trying to force down my complaining gullet – is a good example of the style.
One of the main problems is that most people simply don’t know what they’re talking about. I know this sounds really patronising and arrogant but that’s just the way it is! Okay, so people may “like” certain products, but does that make those products good? No, it simply means that they like them owing to personal preference which may be inherently flawed, for example Cadbury’s dairy milk “chocolate”; this stuff contains less than 25% cocoa solids (so isn’t considered to be chocolate at all by the more militant countries in Europe!) plus other dubious stuff such as non-cocoa fats: the fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter in quality chocolate rather than cheaper vegetable substitutes. The reason most people like Cadburys is down to “social conditioning” and the power of advertising, not because they’ve tasted “proper” chocolate and not liked it.
Thanks to this “McScum” effect the majority of the UK populace doesn’t appreciate anything outside of their bland comfort zone and certainly not if it isn’t advertised on telly ad nauseum; millions of people liking something doesn’t automatically make it a good product, instead it makes it a popular product and the higher the number of people who like whatever it is then the probability of that product being a middle-of-the-road, bland, dumbed-down rabble-pacifier gets exponentially higher. There’s a wide, shimmering sea of difference between a popular product – which, by it’s nature, appeals to the masses – and one which aims at a smaller niche who may appreciate a more extreme facet in it’s composition; bigger doesn’t always mean better, just as, correspondingly, more popular rarely means better.
But "It's just down to taste, which is subjective" you could say and, in a way, you’d be correct, although I don't think that is entirely the answer. Some brewers can brew and some can't, that's a fact of life, and I'm not on about personal preference here, I'm on about being able to create excellent recipes, brew consistently and suchlike; some people just can't do this! Take, for example, Cantillon gueuze. This is widely acknowledged by most experienced beer experts as one of the finest beers on the planet but I’d bet a fair wedge of folding stuff that most beer drinkers would dislike it and struggle to get over their personal preferences to be able to judge the beer on it’s quality, and as for your regular Carling drinker… what would he make of it, I wonder? Would he realise that that glass of what he thinks is vinegar mixed with acid is one of the finest beers money can buy? Somehow I doubt it… he might not like it, but it’s still a world-class beer and he just doesn’t appreciate it… which is the whole crux of my argument.
Agreed, personal taste matters to the individual, but actual quality over-rides personal taste in that a good brewer is a good brewer regardless whether you like their beers or not, illustrated perfectly by the Cantillon example above. Some people can make superlative beer and some can’t manage it, but what we must realise is that our own tastebuds and preferences in taste don’t necessarily mean we know what’s good and what’s bad, they simply tell us what we like or dislike. As already stated, I dislike Weißbier, but I’d never call it shit as much as I loathe that sweet, sticky, clovey, bananary mess which is 99% of them; I’m content to know that it’s just not to my taste and other drinkers love it as much as I adore Lambic, Altbier or super-hopped IPA’s.
We all know what we like but we don’t all know what’s good; some people can put aside personal taste and some can’t. It’s very difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing in beer tasting, but to be able to fully appreciate all the beery world can offer us we must realise where we cross the thin line between what we like and what we don’t like and realise that what’s in our glass is still, undeniably, great beer – even if we hate it!
07/07/10 - Goodbye Fudgey.
Tamworth station resembled a hitman convention with all the black ties and suits. Took preserved Leyland National to the crematorium, Pogo and Willis sat on the back seat and the bus overheated. The biggest crowd I've ever seen at a funeral, friends from all Fudge's facets of interest; cranks mixing with scoopers mixing with work colleagues and so on, many of us fitted into several factions. Flowers in the shape of a pint glass and 47. Everyone squeezed into the crematorium for a beautifully touching remembrance of Fudge by family and friends and, despite the laughter and happy memories, many people dabbing eyes throughout. Lift back with the Beowulf brewer (thanks!) to the hall where six beers were set up; 5 firkins and a pin lasted an hour. The hall absolutely packed with friends and family, seemingly even more so than when the festival is on, but it felt as if Fudge should be there too; he always has been in the past. Off to the Robert Peel for more meetings with old friends from all parts of the UK and more Church End Fudge's Finale. And, just to ram the truth home, every glass from the regular's line being used except for one... marked "Fudgey". He should have been there. RIP mate, we'll miss you, but you won't be forgotten.
03/07/10 - What is "Craft Beer" worth?
How much do you think craft beer (i.e. the “good stuff”) is worth? £2 a pint? £5 a pint? £10 a pint? In my opinion it can be none, any or all of these prices depending on a variety of factors such as where you are in the world, what style of beer it is, what has gone into it and in what type of bar you’re drinking it. Good beer doesn’t have a set price, it’s very variable and must take into account all the above criteria and more, but it’s something which even seasoned beer lovers scarcely give a second thought to and I think this should change.
If I cared about how much I spent on beer I’d be drinking Tudor Rose, Buckie or “Ruddles” in my local McSpoons or outside Tatscos with the other lowlifes whilst moaning about how expensive it was. I don’t, I drink my beer in pubs, and that’s why I go on about how much I love great beer from wherever it may come and, importantly, at whatever price – with a few caveats.
Now don’t assume from this last comment that I’m some mug who, upon seeing £5 pints in the UK, thinks “That’s reasonable, I’d best have one”. No, there’s a wide sea of difference between rip-off beer which could be obtained cheaper down the road and beer whose price simply reflects it’s quality; wine lovers don’t flinch when asked to pay £100 and upwards for decent Bordeaux as they know the time, effort and money (this includes advertising and maintaining the castellated mansion) which goes into making such good wine. If they don’t want to pay the price they know how to trade down to something similar at a fraction of the price, but the overriding principle here is that they know the wine’s intrinsic value and whether it’s worth paying or not.
So, given wine aficionados know the relative value of different wines and are prepared to pay for quality, why does the same attitude not exist in the beer market? Why do beer drinkers assume anything expensive is simply there to extract money from their pocket and don’t consider, with Lambic for example, that the beer is expensive for the simple reason it has spent years in oak casks under the watchful eye of a master brewer before being blended with skill passed down through generations of gueuze blenders? Why is beer simply “beer” with no thought given to the processes involved in it’s production, the skill of the brewers or the ingredients which have made it?
Hops cost money, malt costs money and time costs money, as does everything else which is part of the brewing process. It therefore follows that a beer made with cheap grains, brewing sugar and insufficient hops fermented quickly and sold before it’s really ready will cost far less to make than a full-malt ale with bucketloads of Nelson Sauvins, fermented for a full week then cask-matured another two, so why do so many drinkers whine that “Beer x is more expensive than beer y” when, in most cases, the reason for the price differential is obvious if they’d simply taste it?
This scenario is hardly an incentive for the brewer to use better quality ingredients if drinkers will just moan about the price and rather pay less for something of much inferior quality; after all, most people with a hint of common sense know sausages from a butcher are better than those from the corner shop and bread is better from a baker than supermarket, so why is beer from a craft brewer versus a factory brewery not thought of in the same way?
British beer drinkers seem to have shed many of the vestiges of the 1900’s and are now much more knowledgeable about beer, beer styles and Foreign brews, but the lingering attitude that beer should all be the same price does the industry – and in particular the smaller, less efficient and more innovative brewers – no favours, whilst stifling creativity and hop usage. Yes, none of us like being ripped off, but please let’s have a little more appreciation as to why some beers are more expensive than others and be prepared to put our hands in our pockets accordingly as, if we don’t, all we’ll be served up will be bland, hop-less and cheap-tasting bog standard industrially-produced bitters, and none of us want to go back to the 1980’s do we?
20/05/10 - Coast to coast across the US - a quick round-up.
Get up at silly o'clock, drove to mushroom farm, met Dean, bus to airport, drink bottle of 51st State, fly on hellfire little turboprop to Paris, notice that Airbus A380's are fucking massive, delayed due to bastard volcano and burst tyre, fume in huge queue at JFK, meet up with Alex, scoop lots of beers, do it all again for 3 days, unable to fart in Trump Tower, drink lots more beer, train to Washington DC, underwhelmed by White House (nice lawn though), clear 3 brewpubs in 75 minutes, overnight train to Chicago, pissing down, get wet, decided it's the NB city, stock up at beer shop for train, Revolution brewing = hellfire, another bottleshop, 2 more brewpubs, just make train, stash 25 bottles in personal compartment, watch miles of endless beige plains and shacks go by for a day whilst scooping beer, eat lots of good food, go to cheese & wine tasting, drink more beer, enjoy spectacular scenery, drink more beer, get off train, begin scooping, feel a bit rough and miss an evening, full-on next day with 50 scoops, Alameda pub and beer of the day, even more scoops next day including Hopworks beasts, flag Tugboat brewing as barman annoyed us, scoop trams, do even more beer, eat a scotch egg, think Pliny the Elder isn't hoppy enough, find Hair of the Dog's new place but it's not finished yet, struggle through 12 awful Deschutes beers, blag free tasters at Henrys, get to airport, flight back cancelled, fucking volcano, diverted via San Francisco, fly over Oakland (Rancid!), fester for hours, fly back on packed plane, miss connection at Amsterdam, find Wildeman and Arendsnest from memory and Sue's help, fly back, realise we've scooped 315 beers and want to do it all over again. But not just yet...
30/04/10 - Studying the Form.
Bear with me on this one as I’m going to explain why I think it’s fair to apply the concept of “form” to brewers, extrapolated from horseracing, and thus – as long as you know what you’re talking about – it’s possible to have a fairly good idea of what a beer from a particular brewer will be like by applying this concept to the brewer’s previous beers you’ve tasted.
Those who follow horseracing or greyhounds will know that how a particular animal has performed over a given period of time under particular circumstances is what “form” is all about, but for those who don't indulge in such things here's a very generalised overview; Imagine, if you will, a horse called “Butcombe Stout” who has finished well up the field during his last dozen races and, in particular, came first on his last two outings. He generally does better when the ground is firm and less well the softer it is, demonstrated by his last two wins occurring on firm ground, plus results at his local track are better still with every outing being a top-3 finish. He came first at his least-favourite track a month back on soft ground.
From this information we can surmise two things; one, the horse seems to be improving in his performance, he does better on a particular type of ground and, over all of this, he seems to prefer his home track where he does consistently well although there is always the chance he'll confound the form and do well (or badly) when unexpected and, secondly, Butcombe Stout is funnier that we ever imagined it would be and must be the longest-running joke in scooping history.
So, transposing this theory to beer, I'm sure you'll see there could be a parallel to be drawn between our amusingly-named horse and the potential quality of a beer from a given brewery. Let's imagine brewery X makes a large range of beer with it being widely acknowledged that their pale ales are much better than their dark beers. The beers can all be purchased in bottle or cask, although cask almost always tastes better than the bottles, and finally the beer is best when consumed close to the brewery suggesting it has a short shelf-life and doesn't stand up well to being carted around the country by wholesalers.
There is our analogy and from this information I could say, with reasonable probability, that a pale ale, cask conditioned, drunk near to the brewery would give the best chance of consuming beer from X at it's peak of condition and quality and, conversely, a mild drunk 500 miles away from bottle would stand the best chance of being the worst thing you could expect to sample from the same producer. Obviously nothing is 100% certain, just as with our horse Butcombe Stout who defied his form to come first on an unfamiliar track under conditions he doesn't usually like, therefore a bottled stout from this brewery could turn out to be superb – but it probably won't be.
There's always the chance of a spanner in the works in the guise of probability turning expected results on their head, but we should be able to make reasoned judgements of form on a brewery's past record in normal circumstances. This is why I boycott quite a few brewers after giving them plenty of chances (some too many chances...) as their past form just doesn't give me any hope that a prospective scoop would be worth drinking. Admittedly, some brewers who routinely turn out atrocious swill occasionally get it right, but it's decidedly against usual form in most cases.
So there, in a nutshell and poor analogy, is why I boycott certain brewers and love others; it's all very well drinking beers just for the tick, but I'm not desperate any more and so consider I have the luxury of deciding – on past form – which beers I want to drink and which I don't. This policy may not always be 100% accurate and I may miss some good beers through adhering to it, but I'll drink a hell of a lot less crap and that, after all, is what I care most about these days!
28/03/10 - Scooping pubs – choice or no choice?
It annoys me when “normals” complain about “real ale” pubs as if they were a different concept entirely in drinking culture; after all, most of them sell industrial piss for the numptys as well as the good stuff for me, so what's the problem? They're happy, we're happy, everyone's happy, right?
Well, apparently not. Try taking a “normal” into, say, the Cask & Welly in Sheffield and you'll soon start hearing complaints that it's full of old people, it's boring, there's no music, where's the jukebox, where's the TV, everyone's fat and/or a trainspotter and so on... you get the idea. When you look at it with impartial eyes, a big ask for those immersed in any hobby, you suddenly realise that almost all “scooping pubs” – meaning those which offer a large range of micro-brewed beer – are vastly different from your everyday local.
Take, for example, your standard pub. It has huge TVs showing sports, a jukebox or piped music, a bartop crowded with retina-scorching lager founts and an “armchair general” clientele enthusiastically swilling industrial piss whilst shouting about football, horse racing, immigration and the like, whereas the average scooping pub has... well, lots of beer, and that's about it! No sports, no industrial lager, no football talk, no improbably-sized TV's... as you can see there's a massive difference between the two.
Is this really a bad thing? Do we really want our scooping pubs to change so they attract boorish, football-obsessive idiots with a bad line in sports attire? I certainly don't and think there's room for all types of pubs from neon-lit vodka joints to traditional locals and that includes scooping pubs, too; after all, I don't expect nightclubs to sell a range of micro-brewed beers so why should brand-obsessed normals expect to see the same shite in every single pub in the country? Why should every pub be compelled to show Billingham Synthonia versus Flight Refuelling Wimborne on a ginormous plasma screen when no-one actually comes from either place or cares who wins?
Homogenisation, in whatever guise it takes, is always a bad thing. Think of it as “dumbing down” to the level of the lowest common denominator of whatever it is and you can imagine the results in most cases. Although this notion wouldn't bother the drones who frequent lager pubs and consume what the TV tells them to it certainly does me and, if you consider yourself to be a craft beer lover, it should you too. Homogenisation of beer is one thing we must categorically resist, but how about the same thing happening to pubs? Do we really want every pub to be the same bland, corporate identikit barn serving the same bland, identikit industrial beer and microwaved pre-portioned food? I bloody hope not for, if that's the case, I'm emigrating!
Even if we dislike certain styles of pubs and like others the fact is there's room for all in the marketplace as the success of bars such as the Cask & Welly demonstrate; I'd much rather have a choice than no choice and long may this remain so. Real-ale scooping pubs must stand their ground and offer what their customers want which, in most cases, is what they are already giving them; after all, that’s why the customers are there…
08/03/10 - Build it and they will come...
Proper craft beer bars, those which showcase local brewing talent and eschew industrial beer, are still – despite the well-known ones being justly famous – a very small proportion of pubs and it's easy to get carried away with beery euphoria when visiting exclusively them whilst out scooping and conveniently forget about the other 99.999% of cask ale pubs which offer nowt but mediocre cask ales from dinosaur-like regionals or, if you’re lucky, the odd LocAle from a micro.
One such “proper” bar I've recently visited, Pibar in Lausanne, Switzerland, is one of this rare breed which gives the finger to big brewers and goes it's own way in solidarity with the very few other bars selling quality beer. This list reads like a roll-call of excellence in the beer world: Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa' in Rome, BQ in Milan, Český Ráj in Wroclaw, Kulminator in Antwerp, Harlequin in Sheffield, Star in Huddersfield plus many more I'm sure you could name, and the fundamental point is that all these bars are regularly packed with people enjoying the beer which shows the multinational's bleatings that “There's no demand for quality beer” for the lies it is.
So, if there's a demand for quality beer and only a few bars supply this demand, is it really surprising that they are constantly rammed with happy customers? No, but what amazes me more is that other pubs and their owners either can't or won't acknowledge the reason for the success and continue with the latest themed concept – be it Australian, Irish, Martian, whatever – in a futile attempt to make their bars successful.
Yes, these re-brandings may work in the short-term, but the targeted 18-30's with disposable income are a fickle bunch and will soon tire of “McReilly's” and move on to the next shiny-shiny new thing leaving it in need of yet another expensive refurb into the latest theme to try and tempt back those fickle customers who patronised it for a few weeks before they got bored and moved on to the “Kalashnikov lounge” down the road.
Surely these regular guttings and re-openings can't make economic sense? Surely what went before, the local pub which catered for all – not a small segment of society who don't mind paying over the odds for “imported” beer concocted in Northampton – didn't need thousands spent on them every couple of years? Why do the new breed of pub owners deny centuries of pub history and butcher their charges as if they were some plaything not an important part of the community?
With the focus on short-term gain endemic in the pub trade I can't see anything changing which is why we must support those pubs and bars which cater for us contrary bastards who crave quality beer. In our example of Lausanne there are a mere half-dozen bars which supply local, craft-brewed beer and Pibar has the largest range plus possesses a palpable beery appreciation in both the staff and customers. Happily, it was packed every night I visited and those people weren't there to be seen, they were there because the bar supplied what they wanted: a good choice of quality beer which was lacking in almost every other bar in town and they’d made the effort to go there and drink the stuff.
True craft beer bars aren't numerous enough by a long way so we must support those we find as, without them, we'd be drinking what Argentineans call “Cerveza Industriales”... and I trust I don't need to translate that for you?
08/02/10 - What is “craft beer” and should we care?
There are many names for what we in the UK call cask ale and, when looked at from an outsider's point of view, it must seem bizarre that some of us care what the stuff is called as, after all, “it's just beer!” so why do I believe what we call – for want of a better phrase – “proper beer” is important?
It matters because the “real ale” brand is tainted by images of chunky sweaters, folk singers with a finger in their ear (why do they do this?), beer guts, Morris dancers, stupid beer names, warm flat vinegar with bits floating around in it and a million other lazy stereotypes that I’m sure you could list yourself. What's needed is a “New Labour”-style makeover – without the slimy pseudo-Tory connotations – to make “proper beer” attractive to a larger segment of the populace than it currently is.
In these sheep-mentality, TV-dictated, celebrity-obsessed and generally moronic times real ale's image has such negative connotations that the unthinking masses won't go near the stuff for fear of being labelled a chunky jumper-wearing, Morris dancing, beer-bellied trainspotter. You may think, as do I, “So what? Why should I care what people think about me?”, but that would be the innate contrariness inside that makes you drink “proper beer” regardless of the social consequences. Most “normals”, however, won't risk a pint for fear of sprouting a beer gut and being drawn, as if by some anorak-esque black hole, towards the end of platform 11 at Crewe station.
So, “proper beer” needs a new moniker to make it acceptable to the unthinking masses; after all, Mild is doing better since it’s name was dropped from pumpclips, so why shouldn't “proper beer” in general? “Real ale” is too saddled with the stereotypes already mentioned to make it a goer, likewise “cask ale” is useless as the word cask itself is jargon and therefore alienates those who don't know what one is. “Live beer” sounds like it's been part of some insane genetic experiment and “draught” doesn't narrow it down enough now everything calls itself draught, even industrial piss in bottles which patently isn't.
I propose we take a lesson from America where the revolution goes by the name of “craft beer”; this has many positive connotations such as differentiating it from mass-produced industrial concoctions, suggesting the brewer took pride in his work and that it's a natural product which shouts “Look at me, I'm local, natural and made by a person not a machine!”. Obviously not all of these things are true for every beer, but in these times of increased acceptance that local/natural food is good and remote/factory food is bad, the implication that “craft beer” is (usually) local, natural, GM-free, healthy and supports the “little guy” can only increase it's acceptance into more mainstream drinking circles and, therefore, secure it's future for us all.
There will always be those who stick resolutely to multinational lager, but we can write them off as a lost cause; they don't have the brain cells and/or palate to appreciate craft beer and if they want to consume industrial brands just because their TV tells them to no “brand refresh” in the world is going to make them drink craft beer.
Ah well, all the more for us…
08/02/10 - “Craft Beer - still the exception not the rule"
I've recently been on a work freebee to Basel, Switzerland, where I took it upon myself to search out as much craft beer as possible within the city limits, which was as far as the free ticket I’d received when checking into the hotel would take me.
Here in the UK it's a rule of thumb that, if you chose any random pub on a random street in a random town or city, you'd probably have a 50% chance of finding cask ale. However, as we all know, not all cask ales are created equally and the kind of beer you'd find in this hypothetical pub most likely wouldn’t be the kind I'd want to drink although it seems to satisfy most of the people most of the time; I blame advertising. And celebrities. And Thatcher.
My point is that craft beer, real ale or whatever you call it isn't as easy to find in the everyday world as our trawling of scooping pubs would have you believe. It's all very well when traipsing around Sheffield's circuit to think cask ale is thriving but this is, in reality, an atypical microcosm of pubs and doesn't emulate the experience in most High streets or village locals where, rather than a dozen scoops, you'd be lucky to find Greede Kerching IPA.
It's much the same in Switzerland where the majority of bars dispense industrial pisswater churned out by multinational beer factories and local craft-brewed beer is hard to find. Encouragingly there seems to be a growing trend – as in the UK – towards local produce and Basel’s small brewers are capitalising on this interest with their wares increasingly available in “normal” pubs, although the majority of bars stick resolutely to gassed-up crap; in Basel, as in the UK, walking into a random bar isn't the best tactic if you want something local and craft-brewed.
My discovery of the week was Verein Unserbier, a homebrewer's association that opens for public sale once a week on a Tuesday evening for a mere three hours! Nearby Unserbier is a much larger commercial brewpub with shared ancestry, but the founding homebrewers wanted their own place to play around in with the result being this unusual bar! If you happen to be in Basel on a Tuesday evening between 17:30 and 20:00, do yourself a favour and go!
Whether you're supposed to drink there without being a member is something I'm not 100% sure about but we were treated hospitably and, with four beers brewed on-site and a full complement of raucous locals, an hour passed very enjoyably with the best beers in Basel, namely a sweet stout, spiced winter beer, chocolate stout and amber lager; a respectable beer range and very adventurous for Switzerland!
Slithering over the icy bridge back to the tram stop, trying not to fall on my arse, I reflected on how good the beer had been and how much ordinary people are missing out by settling for industrial crap, then how good it would be if craft beer such as that I'd just enjoyed was the rule rather than the exception?
One day, come the revolution...
Verein Unserbier, Hochstraße 64, Basel. Take tram 15 or 16 to Tellplatz, walk North up Bruderholzstraße and the bar is on the second corner or, alternately, take tram 10 or 11 one stop from the SBB station to Peter Merian, cross the railway via the metal bridge, and the bar is right in front of you. It’s open Tuesdays only from 17:30 until around 20:00.
31/01/10 - “Scoopers on film, eh? This could get messy…”
Those were my first thoughts upon hearing about Phil’s venture a couple of years back and, as I studied the characters sitting around me in the Harlequin scribbling furiously in their notebooks, I wondered if he’d done his research before embarking on this project.
Putting it as politely as possible scoopers aren’t the most photogenic sector of society and can, to those not acquainted with our peculiarities, appear somewhat… well, strange, for want of a better word. Looking around at my fellow scoopers I had the nagging suspicion that a professor of Asperger’s syndrome would be far better suited to producing a documentary on my comrades than a wet-behind-the-ears cask drinker with too much idealism than was good for him.
So, now that I’ve seen the finished film, do I feel the same way? I’m delighted to reply an emphatic no; Phil has given himself – plus, in the process, beer scoopers and cask ale in general – a huge compliment in the way he has managed, with the assistance of some more camera-friendly commentators, to portray our hobby (or obsession, depending on the individual) as a very British activity, chock-full of eccentrics and characters, for who ordinary non-scooping people (or “normals” to us scoopers!) will feel real empathy. Even more commendably he’s done it in a way that totally avoids lazy Daily Heil-style journalism which would, no doubt, have us daubed with the wide brush of alcohol abuse and social inadequacy, although to be fair most of my ranting did end up on the legendary cutting room floor which shows just what good editors Phil and Jay are as, had these lengthy foam-flecked diatribes been included, it would in all probability have skewed the balance in favour of us being seen as societal misfits with personality defects and strange tastes in t-shirts.
It’s still a bizarre feeling to see my ugly mug leering out at me from a DVD cover or poster but I feel proud to have contributed what I could to this worthwhile public service broadcast – for surely that’s what it is – and immensely pleased with the positive vibes that it has generated towards cask ale, pubs and my hobby. Beer gets a rough ride in the press at the moment for all the wrong reasons and it’s heart-warming to see a project such as this trying to change a few minds and explain that not all beer drinkers are loutish brain-dead yobs without sovereign thought apart from where the next Stella is coming from.
So, here’s hoping that Phil’s film spreads the good word and we see more people flock to craft beer inquisitive to find out more and – very importantly – to drink plenty of it; I’ll definitely raise my glass to that… as long as it’s a scoop, mind! I’ve got a media reputation to think of now, you know…
01/01/10 - A new experience...
It’s a strange thing, seeing your own beer being sold over the bar.
After having been around beer and pubs for more than 20 years and having drunk with many brewers during that time I thought I knew what it would be like to see my beer on the bar; after all, how many times had I been around Kentish pubs with John Davidson or Simon Hurst drinking their beers and they didn’t seem fazed by it in any way whatsoever!
Looking back now I see that I was either blind, stupid or just not particularly observant back in my Kentish days – many would say all three – although I do remember John being keenly interested in feedback on what was to become his greatest legacy, Indian Summer, when it was launched so maybe, just maybe, I did notice something of what was going on and learnt, if only subconsciously, that a brewer cares deeply about what others think of his beer even if he doesn’t always take their opinions to heart!
What brought all this home was when I stood at the bar in the Dragon, Worcester, staring at a beer pump adorned with a Steel City Brewing clip, trying to come to terms with the fact that this was my – well, our – beer on sale and people I didn’t know were buying it! This was the first time I’d experienced this sentiment whilst looking at a bank of handpulls and, to be honest, it was mildly perturbing; this beer, a brew we’d slaved over all day in Sheffield, was now just another clip on a bar and had to stand it’s own ground amongst much better known brewers than us and attract the attention of potential customers and their fickleness; okay, so I’d been there before with my Ledbury Cascade and Swale Flat as a Board, but now the difference was this beer was under a name of which I was connected and it made a big difference…
As I stood there sipping my pint of Hop Manifesto – for quality control purposes, obviously – a particularly normal-looking bloke approached the bar and scanned the pumps with a critical eye; I felt my confidence squirm as he did so, wondering if our clip looked too amateurish to reel him into a pint of our first beer. After scanning the clips for a minute he’d made his decision and ordered… a pint of Hop Manifesto! The room swirled around me with trepidation – I’d only drunk one pint, before you come to any conclusions – as he brought the pint to his lips and, even then, I was still looking at the slight haze on the beer hoping he wouldn’t notice its imperfections!
Knowing that our beer was at least twice as bitter as most other beers around I was interested to see his reaction and, sure enough, it soon came as his eyebrows raised in alarm but, obviously, he liked what he tasted as he took another – much larger – gulp and, nodding in a gratifying manner, returned to his table with the pint, although it wasn’t long before he was back at the bar with an empty glass!
“Another pint of Manifesto, please” he requested to the barman, continuing “It’s not a bad beer at all, that one!”
I’d love to have seen my face at that point, contorted with what must have been a peculiar mixture of pride, relief and amusement, as all I can assume is that it looked rather comical as Andy motioned towards me and replied “Well, he brewed it, you can tell him yourself!”
It’s a rather humbling experience watching complete strangers drink your beer; okay, some might not like it and some might have opinions that differ from your own, but after all that’s what beer drinking is about, opinions! The best bit for me was to see people drink the beer and enjoy it; there aren’t many jobs where what you do brings pleasure to people and this afternoon spent propping up the bar in the Dragon reinforced my belief that I really need to get out of IT and into brewing as a matter of urgency… although you may disagree!
01/11/09 - The scooping gene abroad.
Most scoopers take it for granted that we, here in the UK, have a monopoly on the world’s eccentricity supply and we’re the only country where the activity of collecting things – be it engine numbers, bird species, football grounds, mountain peaks or number of beers drunk – finds acceptance from at least a modicum of the populace. I used to think this way as, after all, who’s ever heard of a German diesel basher or French beer scooper? The idea was simply absurd…
Now, having travelled a fair bit, I can categorically say that eccentricity and the concept of scooping extends far beyond the coastline of our little island. Okay, so I’m not sure most other countries have the sheer number of scoopers (of all persuasions) that we have, but I’ve met and read about people all over the world who engage in the very same activities that I once considered as British as tea in a china cup and, happily, it seems to be on the increase, although I put this down to my increased awareness of things rather than a general awakening of the scooping gene throughout the world!
I’ll discount America as they are relatively similar to us in attitude and suchlike, but if I mention that we have met German beer scoopers doing the rounds of Vienna’s brewpubs armed with a Barbie-pink scoops book would you believe me? Well, we did, and they were pretty desperate too! I’ve read about Frenchmen who scoop wines by the glass and, I suspect, there are people in every country who engage in the hobbies of “twitching” and rail photography in much the same way as we do in the UK, but one recent experience in Wrocław, Poland, brings my experience of the “scooping gene” into previously uncharted territory.
We were ensconced in the superb Český Ráj bar in Wrocław where eight Czech craft beers were available on tap. We’d happily worked our way through five of them when something happened that convinced me this bar wasn’t just into their micro beers, they understood the concept of scooping them and trying as many as possible; this rarely happens abroad (BQ in Milan and Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa' in Rome spring to mind) but here, in a tiny bar in a Polish city off the main tourist trail, I found what I consider to be evidence that the scooping gene is alive and well in Poland!
Finishing what was to be our final beers I glanced behind me at the taps, as you do, only for the barmaid to see me looking whereupon she frantically waved to attract my attention. She then pointed at the Kocour tap with a big smile on her face, obviously waiting to see my reaction to something; for a second I was puzzled until I noticed that the tap no longer displayed it’s Kocour clip but had been changed for something new, namely another winner in the form of Dobruška Staročeský Rampušák 12° Kvasnicový! Now if the barmaid wasn’t trying to tell me there was a new beer on, one that she knew I’d not sampled that evening, what was she trying to say? How many things can you mean by gesticulating at a beer which has just come on with a big smile of what I assume was pride?
Obviously I can’t be 100% sure that she knew exactly what the fat Englishman who spoke terrible Polish was writing in his lurid green notebook, but I’m sure she knew that I was trying as many beers as I could and, with that in mind, was bringing to my attention that a new beer had just come on that I might want to try. Coincidence, good customer service or whatever it was, I’m pretty sure that the scooping ethos/gene/call it what you will is alive and well in the Český Ráj bar and I think I’ve found another of those places which makes life that little bit better, one of those places the world of good beer would be a lot poorer without.
Why not go there and see if you can see the gene in action, too?
09/09/09 - Protz strikes again.
Well excuse me, but is it 1985 again? Roger Protz, writing in the September What’s Brewing, seems to think so! In my opinion this is yet another piece of evidence that suggests Roger looks back at the days when real ale = regional breweries (with no pesky micros to confuse matters) with rosy glasses and no small amount of affection.
He’s wittered on previously about how much he likes beers from the likes of Charlie Wells (I know we all have personal tastes, but come on!), Fullers and other regional dinosaurs, but with his latest piece he’s finally convinced me that the last 20 years has passed him by. If you’ve not read it then he basically says that “traditional” British bitter is being supplanted by “golden ales” and bemoans the fact that brewers aren’t putting enough crystal malt in their mashtuns these days.
Oh, where to begin?
Who’s to say what’s traditional in bitter? Beer styles and colours have evolved over time; for example, when coke (the smokeless coal not multinational tooth-rot peddler) allowed pale malt to be made easily, beer changed virtually overnight. Similarly, when American hops arrived here – looking at old brewing logs, this happened a lot longer ago than I’d have thought – the flavour of bitter must have changed in general. I grew up with Greenall’s bitter, a mid-amber beer, and Boddies which was as pale as lager, and Boddies had been brewing that way for a long time so am I to infer that Boddies’ bitter, one of the UK’s most famous in it’s independent days, wasn’t traditional? Different than the norm, maybe, but it was still a bitter! Bitters (and some milds) tended to be lighter in the North so maybe he’s just generalising about his flat southern pondwater!
And what’s all this “golden ale” gibberish, anyhow? The term has appeared over the last five years or so to describe beers such as Summer Lightning and Oakham JHB even though these beers are much older than the phrase and were simply called “pale ales” or – heaven forbid – “strong bitters” back in more innocent times. The term annoys me and I think that a straightforward “pale ale” moniker would suffice, maybe with “modern British” tacked on the front if we really want to be specific. Let’s not invent beer styles or mess around with existing ones as there is very little consensus as to what constitutes many of them already without CAMRA pissing about changing things so morons can understand them… oh, sorry, that’s their “Beer” magazine, isn’t it?
These so-called “golden beers” are so popular because people WANT TO DRINK THEM! That’s the reason brewers make them; I can’t see anyone making a batch of “golden” beer, selling a few 9’s and then chucking the rest down the sink as it can’t be sold! The “traditional” brown bitters (I call them “old fashioned”) are increasingly going out of favour with drinkers as they shift to pale ales for a variety of reasons, although I suspect that many new cask ale drinkers choose the palest ale possible as the colour is what they expect from beer – lager being that colour – with darker beers seen as the drink of an older generation which, at least with bitters, is what they are; it’s natural selection in the beer world in action!
The days of drinkers supping a gallon of bland, brown under-hopped beer a day are over in all but a tiny fraction of pubs. What is happening is that cask ale is adapting to survive and is changing to ingratiate itself with the new breed of drinker who has no loyalty to any local brewery but drinks whatever he finds in whichever pub he happens to be in. This is a by-product of pub crawls where, in most pubs, there is little choice of what to drink and so pubs which offer cask ale are beginning to select paler beers to attract the younger “pub crawl” market as pale beer is what younger drinkers want.
Following on from point 4, faced with ever more pubs serving ever larger ranges of beer, many drinkers are switching from pints of the same to halves of different in order to try as many of the beers on sale as possible. This isn’t necessarily scooping but merely finding a favourite beer amongst what’s on offer before settling on the one that best suits their taste; I see this a lot, even in “normal” pubs, and it’s getting more common as pubs ditch their permanent cask ales and go instead for changing guest beers although it’s not always halves, some try everything in pints!
What’s so bloody great about Crystal malt anyhow? Basically it’s a malted barley grain that’s been heated until the sugars inside melt whereupon the grain is then cooled and the melted sugars form a kind of crunchy toffee-ish blob which, apart from fermentable sugar, has some unfermentables in it which add colour and flavour. Don’t just take my word for it though; “The conversion of starch to sugar during processing produces a “glassy” crystallised endosperm and it is this that dominates its flavour profile” say French and Jupps and they should know, they make tonnes of the stuff! The problem with crystal is that is drowns out hops in a sweet, treacly tide of stickiness and, even when used sparingly, kills subtle nuances associated with foreign hops. Basically, it’s okay for “old fashioned” beer which used bland English hops, but when used with American ones it’s a recipe for disaster in my opinion.
Okay, so maybe our “traditional” brown bitters are dying out, but is this really a bad thing in the grand scheme? After all, we don’t go for slavery or bear baiting nowadays, and these activities were probably as popular as drinking bland beer in their day so maybe we should look at the swing to pale ales as a gradual shift in what customers want from beer in much the same way as lager overtook bitter and mild in the 1960’s; yes, maybe the customers don’t know enough about their beer and need it explaining to them in the same way as drinkers did back then, but I personally think I’ve drunk enough beer – of all styles – to make a reasoned judgement and apart from a few of the best examples I’d be happy to see the “brown bitter” style die a quiet death.
So, there you go! Whose side you’re on will probably depend partly on your age as, in my experience (but not exclusively), the older generations tend to prefer darker, maltier beer and younger people paler, hoppier brews. If you’re into hops then, in my experience, the question is a no-brainer and the paler the beer the more you’ll be able to taste (and smell) from the hops in your beer; when Roosters brewery began back in the 90’s Sean Franklin said that he used the palest malt and most inert yeast so as not to detract from the stars of his beers, his beloved hops, and I implore any brewer with any interest in hops whatsoever to leave the crystal malt out of beer... yes, by all means, use Caristan, Carapils or Caragold as they don’t have the same cloying, treacly sweetness of crystal, but just keep the crystal for stouts where it can provide body without ruining the flavour… or better still, don’t use it at all.
Perhaps it’s time for a new campaign; hopheads against crystal malt? HACM forever!
05/08/09 - Don't look back in anger.
I realised that I’ve been tardy with this site in the last year or so when, last week, I posted part two of my New York trip 15 months after the event took place! Well, all that’s about to change as I’ve recently decided to stop wasting time arguing with fuckwits on blogs (and let’s face it, nothing brings out the fuckwits like a blog) and on Ratebeer who think that if they go outside the M25 the sky will fall down in an “awesome” manner and that sharing sips of beer at GBBF is the ultimate beer experience… no, it’s time to concentrate my valuable time on what’s important to me and use it for the good of beer scooping by writing more – yes, it’s possible – gibberish about beer, pubs, real lager and suchlike and, more importantly, share some beery love with you all! (and that's not half as sinister as it sounds, honestly).
So, I hereby promise to try and post beer gen from places I’ve visited within a few months, to do maps whenever possible and to generally attempt to keep as much information on here as up-to-date as I can. I’ve been doing some thinking recently and the outcome of it all is that wasting time on futile things is now out (and to think I almost started my own blog...) and in comes the far more worthwhile pursuits of gathering and sharing beer gen, drinking good beer then writing about it and even a spot of reminiscing about the old times! Plus, I have some more things up my sleeve that will, hopefully, be coming to fruition in the next few months…
So, welcome to Scoopergen v2… guaranteed blog-free! And that includes this because, as it says up top, it's only "like" a blog, although it's still shite.
08/07/09 - CAMPLAG - the campaign for proper lager!
This month sees my continuing campaign for the glorification of proper lager moving into another phase with my beer of the month for June being the gloriously hoppy and tasty Pickla Pils from Swedish micro Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri. Those who know me will appreciate how much I’m always gibbering on about how - when brewed and served properly - real lager is a thing of beauty, although this dewy-eyed praise is typically followed by a foam-flecked rant about how no-one appreciates lager, how no-one knows fuck-all about any lager styles, how CAMRA only like one and that’s mediocre at best (Budejovický Budvar), how 99.9% of British beer lovers, including people who really should know better, still think all lager is fizzy bland piss and so on until I end with a diatribe on how underappreciated, misunderstood and downright unloved real lager is and how sad that makes me feel.
Well it’s not unloved by me, and supping Pickla Pils at the excellent Glenfiddich Warehouse in Stockholm the other weekend in the company of Per Forsgren, one of the top beer raters in the world, was a great experience and one I hope to have again very soon; when a beer is as good and true-to-style as this one is then it’s a pleasure to drink; we had some excellent beers in Stockholm including what is probably the closest commercial brew to Gotlandsdricke, a 10%+ Juniper and smoke-flavoured beer from the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea, but the sheer perfection of Pickla shone through and it even reminded me of Pivovarský Dům Štěpán: and that’s praise indeed in my eyes!
Great beer isn’t all about high IBU’s and massive hop rates (although those are good!), it can also be about brewing a superb drinking beer and infusing it with enough character for it to shine above even 12% smoked beers – and that’s a rare and wonderful thing which more people should experience. Admittedly, not everyone will love it as much as I do, but I feel that if great lager was to be more readily available then it would get a far better press than it does at present and may even convince some “flat earth society” adherents that great beer doesn’t end at Dover and it’s not all a “fizzy wasteland” past Ramsgate…
But, as the saying goes, there'll be more for me...
02/06/09 - No names, no pack drill.
It saddens me to say this, it really does, but a worryingly high proportion of recent micro brewers are making crap - or, at best, very bland - beer. I know I always bang on about regionals making tasteless swill for drinkers who are allergic to hops, but some of the offerings I've sampled from micros in recent weeks have been just as rubbish as 95% of the crud the regionals and new nationals churn out only these problems are generally as a result of lack of brewing skill rather than a lack of expensive ingredients.
I won’t name names, however, not through some sudden attack of conscience but simply to give these brewers another chance; almost all of them (but not all...) are new concerns and I know just how difficult it is to brew good ale, having done it full-mash at home for years and also at “proper” breweries as a hobby, although I will say that some of the beers I’ve had the misfortune to consume recently should never have left the brewery! Do these brewers really want prospective cask ale drinkers trying their products for the first time, perhaps because they’re locally-produced, to think that all craft beer tastes of TCP, vinegar and diacetyl (think butterscotch popcorn)? Surely not!
At the atmospheric Tucker’s Maltings festival the other month I chanced upon a few rancid beers from micros which would really have been better seeing the inside of a drain rather than a cask; “Phenolic amber ale, not nice”, “Unusual toffee-laden beer full of methanol, very harsh and unpleasant” and “Golden with a nasty TCP twang” are some of my tasting notes from Tuckers and you can see why I had second thoughts about trying as many new beers as possible that evening if they were all going to be like that although, on the positive side, I discovered that Coastal Hop Monster functions excellently as a hoppy palate-cleanser between draughts of manufacturing outfall.
Similarly, at the Anchor in Brum, I’ve had some very ropey new brewery beers; “Sticky boiled sweet character, not particularly attractive”, “Phenols, deep malty taste, TCP malt finish – crap”, “Golden with hints of sweetness, cider and toffee, no character or balance” and “Too much diacetyl, not enough hop” are just some of my descriptions of beers I’ve sampled recently, at least one of which was from a brewer who should know a damn site better than to release such dross.
It’s sad that in recent times the quality of beer from new micros has been poor, but these things go in cycles; it’s not that long ago since Thornbridge, Brewdog, Saltaire, Little Ale Cart, Mallinsons and Prospect, to name but a few, burst onto the scene with tasty, well-crafted beers... see, those brewers who make the kind of crap I’ve been moaning about, it can be done! And if you can’t do it, do all of us who love craft beer a favour and give up now before you put off any more prospective drinkers with “beer” that tastes like industrial effluence: Give up and let someone who can brew use your kit and stop wasting hops on such abominations or, at the very least, go on a brewing course before attempting to make any more!
Sometimes, scooping “beer” from new UK micros is enough to put me off UK scooping for good, until the next time I drink an Oakham or Pictish beer whereupon I’ll recharge my love for British ale with well-brewed clean, fresh and hoppy beer and all will be well until the next batch of atrocious dross which flicks the rant switch yet again...
Yes, those 4 pints of Pictish Columbus last Sunday seem to have cured me for now…
31/03/09 - History just as close as a hand on the shoulder.
We were in Berlin last weekend on the last day of our visit doing what we normally do on such a trip, namely scooping beers in the evening then exploring the city during the daytime, and the going had been good with 34 beers in the book and a prospective handful more at our final call of the trip at the new Bräuhaus Bohnsdorf before our flight home.
Before that, however, we decided on a wander around the Mitte district and, in particular, the area behind Hackescher Markt in order to have a look at one of the best-preserved and restored parts of the city centre and one with a rich Jewish heritage. We began at the impressively Moorish Centrum Judaicum which, despite it’s impressive appearance, is merely a façade complete with cupola as the rest of the synagogue was destroyed by a combination of WW2 and the Soviet occupation, leaving just the frontage standing, and it now functions as a cultural centre.
As we headed into the winding lanes of Mitte I happened to glance behind us and saw that Oranienburger Straße had vanished into a cloud of white which, before I realised what I was seeing, manifested itself as a ferocious hailstorm which blasted into us with a totally unexpected brutality forcing us to seek shelter in a doorway as the street dissolved in a swirling, churning sea of hail whilst unnervingly close by overhead thunder crashed out with a ground-shaking roar. This was ever so slightly unexpected, I mused, as hailstones smashed into the pavement outside our refuge, thinking back to the blazing sunshine not five minutes ago which seemed like a distant memory in the midst of this angry storm.
Was this the elements reminding us that, here in Berlin, history isn’t restricted to dusty old artefacts yellowed with age in a museum but is something far more recent, tangible and, in many cases, very sinister? Was this violent storm a re-embodiment of the unimaginably horrific events which had unfolded in these very streets back in 1938 during the Nazi’s Kristallnacht pogrom with the hailstones flying through the air and littering the roads metaphorically replacing shards of glass? This may seem a very high-brow and pompous thing to think but, believe me, standing in that doorway with the most violent hailstorm I’ve seen in many years raging outside and the knowledge of what had happened not that many years ago where we sheltered, the allusion seemed frighteningly real indeed.
The storm abated as soon as it had come and we crunched along the dripping streets, wading through pools of rainwater in which hefty hailstones still bobbed, until in a doorway we were brought to a sudden halt by a cluster of glistening Stolpersteine, small cobble-sized brass plaques set in the pavement, which told - in a brutal, hand-stamped, simplistic way - the fate of those who once lived at that address.
As we stood there, staring at the names and the words “deported 1943, murdered at Auschwitz”, these simple brass memorials brought home to me just how disturbingly recent the ghosts of Berlin’s past still are and, as the hailstones melted into the cobbles around the Stolpersteinen, thoughts of scooping beer suddenly seemed very inconsequential indeed.
Berlin gets to you like that. But I love it.
See here for the archive and read more self-opinionated gibberish!