Monday, 19 November 2018

Bass and the Mad Hatter

In my early days of beer appreciation, Draught Bass was regarded as the Rolls Royce of beers which we would go out of our way to find. The bottled version, Bass Pale, was similarly well regarded; it was slightly stronger than the draught and was known all over the world, being shipped to many countries, especially India, and was the first foreign beer to be sold in Japan. Edouard Manet depicted bottles of Bass in his painting ‘Le Bar Aux Folies Bergere’ in 1882, and thirty years later 12,000 bottles went down with the Titanic. Bass Pale was a world-wide phenomenon whose history, it has been claimed, goes back to 1777.

The brand is now owned by global brewer AB InBev who will relaunch it next month. In 2013, they decided to rename this iconic beer as “Bass Trademark Number One” to acknowledge the fact that the famous Bass red triangle was the first registered trade mark in the UK. This move was described by beer blogger Zythophile as “a classic example of How To Royally Screw Up Your Brand” (see his full post here). AB InBev say they are bringing this beer back with its original name to “invigorate the premium ale category”.

The beer scene has changed a lot in recent decades, with a younger generation of beer drinkers who have a far wider choice of real ales, craft beers and bottled ales than ever before. Classic brand or not, it will be competing in a very crowded market place and the beer will have to be very good to make any serious inroads. Still, I look forward to giving it a try.

Closer to home, I was sorry to hear that Liverpool's Mad Hatter Brewery has ceased trading. Launched in 2013, it was one of the few breweries to be run by a woman, Sue Starling, and produced a number of interesting and sometimes quirky beers, some of them named after local places such as Penny Lane Pale and Toxteth IPA. Sue has said the pleasure of brewing has gone after the departure of her co-founder, Gareth Matthews, whose creativity she has sorely missed. That loss, coupled with a change of premises, means that she no longer wants to run the business herself, but she is open to offers to buy it “so it could live on”.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser.

Monday, 12 November 2018

The Baron's Bar, Southport

The Scarisbrick Hotel, home of the Baron's Bar
The Scarisbrick Hotel is a landmark building on Southport's Lord Street, and is home to the famous Baron's Bar. In the 1980s, this bar was particularly popular as it offered 4 or 5 beers from different breweries. Such a choice is unexceptional today, but back then it made the Baron's unique in the town.

I decided to see what's on offer nowadays and when I called in there were 8 real ales and one real cider, Old Rosie. There are three beers on all the time: Baron's Bitter, the house beer brewed specially by Moorhouses, Moorhouses Pride of Pendle and Tetley Original Cask. The changing guests were: Scaredy Cat and Pendlewitch, both from Moorhouses, Doghouse Citra, Brewhouse Mosaic, and Lancaster Red.

The 'coming soon' board looked interesting with Salopian Pipe Dream, a personal favourite of mine, and George Wright Cheeky Pheasant among those lined up. The three beers I tried were in good form; the real cider I'd sampled on a previous visit and had found it satisfactory. Among the usual range of other drinks, there is a good choice of Scotch whiskies.

The baronial interior
The Baron's Bar is usually described as being in a mock-baronial style, and there is a preponderance of dark wood. Around the bar are displayed dozens of pumpclips from previous guest beers. A beer festival was held in this room last September. The bar is in the heart of the building and has frosted glass on one side, which gives the effect of being cut off from the town centre. A complete contrast is the Scarisbrick Lounge: this is a bright, airy and more modern bar with large clear windows through which you can watch life go by on Lord Street while drinking the real ales from the Baron's. You pays your money and takes your choice. 

Children are admitted until early evening, and dog are allowed too. Happy Hour is from midday to 1.00 pm with a reduction on the Tetley's, the keg cider and a lager. There is free WiFi for customers. The opening hours are 11.00 am to 11.00 pm during the week; on Friday and Saturday the bar closes at midnight.

The Baron's could be called a 'no frills' bar: no food, live music, quizes or TV sport. It just concentrates on serving good, reasonably-priced real ales, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous reviews are here.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

The Beer Den, Southport

The Beer Den
The Beer Den, Southport's newest real ale micropub, opened for business a fortnight ago. It is operated by the Parker Brewery of Banks, north of Southport. My friend Mick and I went along as it opened: in fact, we were the first customers through the door. We were made welcome by Kie who was just about to unlock the door as we rolled up.

There are four handpumps offering two beers from Parker Brewery and two guest ales. On my first visit the Parker beers were Golden Samurai Ale and Dark Spartan Stout, while the guest beers were Melwood Paleface from Knowsley and Red Star Hunky Dory from Formby. On my second visit last weekend the guest ales were Melwood Knowsley Blonde and Bowness Bay Tern IPA from Kendal. I managed to try most of them, finding that all were well-kept and the prices very reasonable.

Kie (left) and Sarah
The bar is in a former computer shop which has been pleasantly refurbished in a light and airy manner. As well as real ale, there is a craft beer and a lager on fonts and the usual range of spirits, including speciality gins, a good wine list, Prosecco and coffee. In one corner there is a large cabinet with a wide range of bottled beers from various breweries, including some in gift packs and, for Parker beer fans, T-shirts in various colours displaying the brewery's name.

On the opening day, the Beer Den became quite busy and Kie was soon joined by Sarah behind the bar. On my second visit, it was even busier. Clearly this bar meets a need in the local area as there are no pubs or bars in this part of Southport. Although the bar is new, I found people were willing to have a friendly chat.

The Beer Den is at 65/67 Duke Street near the corner with Shakespeare Street; the 46 and 46A buses pass nearby. If you get peckish after a few drinks, there is a takeaway just next door.

Please note: restricted hours and closed Mondays.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous reviews are here.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Southport Beer & Cider Festival 2018

It's back after a two-year absence caused by some local whingers who moaned that they didn't like this venue and wanted another in the town centre - not that they had any suggestions themselves, of course. As this is the only suitable central venue, the festival has returned there. Tickets here - free admission for CAMRA members.

Friday, 17 August 2018

3rd Hillside Cider Festival

I've received this message from Andrew of Grasshopper fame about this forthcoming local festival in Southport:

"The 3rd Hillside Cider Festival is at The Grasshopper on Sandon Road, Hillside, Southport from 24th to 26th August and will feature 30 of the best Real Ciders and Perries from around the UK.

"We are pleased to have the CAMRA Champion Cider of Britain 2018 - Harry's Scrummage and also the CAMRA Champion Perry of Britain - Nempnett's Piglet Perry. We also have a range of fruit ciders including Rhubarb, Strawberry, Lemon, Ginger and Pineapple and many more. There will be a barbecue with a range of specialist sausages and entertainment in the evenings.

"The festival starts at 7pm on Friday 24th and runs until 10:30pm on Sunday 26th or until the cider runs out. The Grasshopper is a short walk from Hillside train station and is on the 47 bus route."

Sunday, 22 July 2018

A true story

Not the dream woman!
I had a strange dream last night. A woman was holding up a Higsons "Famous Old Higsonians" beer mat with a sign that said: "Will exchange for sex."

This puzzled me for a while.

Then the truth dawned on me: until I'd had that dream, I had no idea that I had such an unrequited, deep-seated and subliminal desire to own Old Higsonian beer mats.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Peaky Blinders, Churchtown

Peaky Blinders, Churchtown
I decided to hop on the 49 bus to Churchtown to have a look at - and a drink in – the new branch of Peaky Blinders which opened in March 2018 in an old bank. It has an L-shaped bar with modern furnishings, including some tall tables and stools, and large windows overlooking the road. It is light and airy, with walls decorated with a reproduction of old newspaper adverts and cuttings.

There is a outdoor drinking terrace on two levels to the front where smoking is permitted. A disability ramp can be reached on the right hand side of the building as you face it, where there is also a cash machine, a relic from its days as a bank. One thing I didn't realise until my visit is that they offer accommodation.

It has four handpumps which, when I called in, were serving Timothy Taylor's Landlord, Black Sheep Bitter, Cross Bay Blonde and Bowness Bay Amazon Amber. I found all to be in good condition. This range does change, although I was told the Taylor's is often on.

Non-real beers included Löwenbräu and Weihenstephaner Bavarian-style Weissbier. They have a choice of wines and their own range of spiced gin, rum and whisky; I noticed on the hot day I was there that various gin drinks piled up with ice were flying over the bar. They serve food until at least 7.00 pm: reasonably-priced light bites, paninis, and cheese or meat platters.

When I rolled up, the friendly bar staff were cheerfully singing along to Beatles songs on the bar's sound system, although other musical eras are available. There is a television and free WiFi for customers; families, including your canine pal, are welcome.

Peaky Blinders is at 145 Cambridge Road, PR9 7LR, close to the 49 bus route and the buses on Cambridge Road. Its opening hours are 10am to 11.30pm every day. Website.

This is one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Previous write-ups are here.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Supping nostalgia

An original R Cains poster
I see that the Cains name is to be revived with a new brewery set up within the old Higsons Brewery building where the most recent incarnation of Cains was brewed until 2013. Its disappearance wasn't much mourned, following as it did a drastic and sudden drop in quality; I wrote about it at the time here.

An entrepreneur called Andrew Mikhail, owner of bars and hotels in Merseyside including Punch Tarmey's, has acquired the name and states that the brewery will create 200 jobs and "partly model itself" on the Guinness Brewery visitor attraction in Dublin. If the 200 jobs do materialise, it would be a fairly sizeable operation.

The big old Higsons brewery building, Grade II listed, is being developed into a brewery village, which I wrote about in 2013 here. Mr Mikhail has given no indication yet whether he will revive the previous Cains beers or start from scratch with new recipes, as the latest manifestation of Higsons has done. I tried one of the new Higsons beers recently and didn't think it was anything special.

I'd be very surprised if this announcement will engender much excitement locally, but I'll save my judgement until I've tasted the product. This will be the second revival of the Cains name. The original Cains ceased to be brewed in Liverpool in the 1920s, but the name was called out of retirement in 1991. As for Higsons, we are now on the fourth version, if you include the original that was destroyed by Whitbread. I wonder how many times you can resuscitate a brand before its credibility evaporates completely?

Generally I don't see much point in using an old name and producing beers that have no resemblance to the originals; it's simply cashing in on brand nostalgia, but I suppose there's no harm in it because your beers will have to stand or fall on their quality: people won't sup solely for nostalgic reasons indefinitely.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Real ale in Southport - 1985 and now

While sorting out some books in preparation for a house move, I came across a 'Merseyside Guide To Real Ale', published in 1985, a booklet I'd completely forgotten about. It cost 50p (£1.53 now, so it was quite a bargain) and is a fairly slim volume which could easily slip into a coat pocket. As was usual in those days, the pub descriptions were rather sketchy, but I think it's safe to assume, in an age when beer choices rarely changed in pubs, that the beer situation was accurately described. This was published four years before the Beer Orders which turned the pub world in its head.

Looking at Southport, where I lived then as now, there were 25 pubs, bars, clubs and hotels listed as serving real ale. There were quite a few more non-real ale pubs, of course. In contrast, off the top of my head I have counted 41 outlets that currently serve real ale in the same area, and there may be one or two others that have slipped my mind.

Most of the beers sold in pubs were from the brewery that owned them and, as the chart shows, most pubs had only one or two real ales on. Nowhere had more than four real ales, and only one real cider was listed (Bulmers Traditional). In contrast, serving four or more real ales is quite commonplace in the town nowadays, with a few venues hitting the eight to eleven range. Real cider is still fairly uncommon in Southport, but at least we can do better than just one.

Unusual beers for the time in this area included:
  • McEwans 70/-
  • McEwans 80/-
  • Youngers No. 3
  • Boddingtons Bitter
  • Marstons Pedigree
  • Ruddles County
  • Wilsons Original Bitter
All the rest were standard house beers from Allied Breweries, Bass, Burtonwood, Whitbread, and Matthew Brown/Theakstons. I know there was a couple of Greenall Whitley houses but I presume none sold real ale. As variety goes, this all looks fairly tame today, even the comparatively 'unusual' choices, although it's worth noting that in 1985, Pedigree, County and Boddingtons were much more highly rated than they are now.

It strikes me that, in all the doom and gloom over pub closures - and some venues listed in this guide have since been lost - we may forget that overall the situation is a lot healthier in terms of choices of beers and places to drink them than ever before, largely due to the numbers of micro-breweries and the rise of micropubs and other bars serving real ale.

I am not blasé about losing traditional pubs, and I know that some people consider the market is over-saturated with breweries and micropubs that may not survive in the long term, but despite all that, I can simply say that I much prefer to drink in today's Southport than that of 1985.

Friday, 22 June 2018

It's a gas!

Disappointed gas cylinders await the call
In case you haven't noticed, there is Europe-wide carbon dioxide shortage. I've been reading that brewers are running low or have run out of products because of the shortage; some have temporarily had to stop brewing and packaging altogether.

Some pubs and bars have been complaining that they cannot receive deliveries of popular beers such as John Smiths Extra Smooth, Amstel Lager and Fosters. It's not just the big boys who are affected: one craft brewery was uncertain they could get through the following week, while another has stopped packaging some of its beers to allow the brewery to continue working.

Any pubs and bars affected must be spitting feathers: it's been sunny and the World Cup is on - perfect conditions for beer sales. It's not just keg bitters, stouts, lagers, ciders and craft beers that are affected; the same problem applies to soft drinks as they too are served using CO2.

As a real ale drinker, I'm not too bothered in the short term for obvious reasons, but if this goes on, drinkers like me will be affected. As the Good Book* says: "Pubs shall not live on real ale sales alone". As we all know, keg products usually constitute a large percentage of a pub's turnover.

I'm reminded of the power cuts in the 1970s when pubs were lit by candles and none of the electric beer dispensers worked. Only in the very small number of pubs that had retained their handpumps could you still get a pint of draught beer when the power went off; the same applied to the only two pubs that I knew were still serving beer by gravity dispense at the time.

* GBG.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Gig in the Guest House

Pleased to say that I've been booked - 
at fairly short notice, but better than never!

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Three Lions in the pub

I have just written an article for the local papers about watching the World Cup in pubs; it was largely derived from this article on the British Beer & Pub Association website. My article, like the original upon which it was based, was quite upbeat, but in reality I'll be avoiding any pub where football is being shown. I'm simply not a fan.

Someone suggested to me that I was being slightly two-faced in writing positively about something I didn't really care for, but I don't agree. The articles in the paper are not about me or my preferences, but are intended to push real ale and pub-going to the general reader. My sole criterion when writing about a pub or bar is whether the real ale is in good nick, or at least reasonably so. Thus far I have changed my mind and decided not to write about four pubs after I had tried their beer. If the pint I am served is acceptable, I will write about it, even if the pub or the beer is not to my personal taste - again, it's not about me. 

As for sport in pubs, if fans can be encouraged to go to the pub and share something of a collective experience instead of sitting at home going through a slab of lager alone, it might conceivably encourage them to go at other times, although I understand there is little evidence that such a cross-over actually happens. While football fans watching in a pub can be very noisy and take up a lot of space, some don't drink very much while the game is on; one licensee told me that a few can make a single pint last the whole match, and vanish as soon as it's over. That to me does not look like getting into the spirit of things.

However, if my little article encourages just a few more people to watch football and drink beer in the pub rather than at home, it will will have done its job.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

An alcohol-free GBBF?

I've received this in an e-mail from CAMRA about the GBBF:
Thanks to Dutch-based Braxzz Brewery we're offering an alcohol-free beer range for the very first time at the festival. A recent newcomer into the alcohol-free & low-alcohol category, they'll be bringing their alcohol-free IPA, Amber Ale and the world’s very first alcohol-free porter at 0.0% ABV. You will have a chance to sample this and the rest of their core range throughout the festival week, so don’t miss out.
I have nothing in principle against the idea of alcohol-free beer being available, but the cost of a day ticket to the GBBF is £11 (plus booking fee) or £14 on the door; I really do wonder how many people are going to pay that much to enter a festival just to drink alcohol-free beer?

Monday, 11 June 2018

What's a reasonable price for a pint?

This is from an article I wrote for the CAMRA column of the local papers. Text in italics was left out of the article as printed for space reasons.

The internet market research company YouGov asked more than 40,000 people what they thought would be a reasonable price for a pint in the pub and compared the responses to the actual prices. Unsurprisingly, the responses across the country vary as much as pub prices do. Nationally, the average price that we think is reasonable is £3.00, 60p less than the actual average price.

The biggest gap between actual price and what people thought reasonable was in Surrey, home of the dearest beer in Britain at £4.40: they thought £3.36 would be reasonable. At the other extreme, Herefordshire, where the actual average price is £3.31, people thought a reasonable price would be only 30p less. Here in Lancashire and Merseyside, the gap between actual price and what drinkers considered reasonable is 70p. 

The price of bitter in 1972 was around 13p to 14p, at least in this part of the country. This is equivalent to £1.75 to £1.88 today, using an inflation calculator. Obviously, beer costs considerably more than that today, even in places like Wetherspoons, so the price we pay now for a pint cannot be attributed to inflation alone. A major additional factor was the massive sell-off of pub tied estates after the Beer Orders of 1989.

When the big breweries sold off most of their huge pub estates, pub companies (pubcos) moved in to hoover them up. They paid for the pubs by mortgaging them to the hilt. The immense debts they acquired in this way were made much worse by the financial crash of 2008. The pubcos survived, being too big to fail – if they went under, so would the mortgage providers. 

To service their debts, pubcos told their pubs that they had to get most, if not all, their supplies through them, imposing huge mark-ups along the way. Several local licensees have told me in confidence that the mark-up on a cask of beer can be between 33% to 50% above the price on the open market. Licensees who look elsewhere for supplies risk losing their livelihood, so the cost has to be passed on to the customer.

A few pubcos such as Wetherspoons have a much more sensible business model, not saddled with gigantic debts, which is why their prices can be lower. Also, independent pubs and bars can also charge less for similar reasons, but regrettably most of our traditional pubs are now owned by pubcos.

This is adapted from one of a series of articles that I write for the CAMRA column in our local papers, the Southport Visiter and Ormskirk Advertiser. Some previous articles are here.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Beer Street 2018

The Beer Street festival returns to Southport town centre from Friday 15 to Sunday 17 June. Described as a "Cask Ale & Craft Beer Street Party", it will be once again hosted by the Tap & Bottles, Cambridge Arcade, Southport, close to Lord Street and the railway station.

They're hoping to build on last year's success by providing a huge selection of more than 80 cask ales, keg beers and ciders, including special collaborations and one-off brews. The festival will extend into the Arcade, which is covered so you won't need your brolly. More information here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

AB InBev's anti-union aggression in India

HBLM members demanding union rights in Sonepat, India
AB InBev is known for many international brands, including Beck's, Budweiser, Castle Lager, Cerveza Corona, Hoegaarden, Leffe and Stella Artois.

Although for some time now the company has been attacking trade union rights at the brewery in Sonepat, about 27 miles north of Delhi in India, it has recently been escalating its anti-union pressure. In response, the union has since February been defending its members with a permanent protest at the factory gate.

For the past two years, local managers have refused to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the Haryana Breweries Limited Mazdoor Union (HBLM) and opted for repression, suspending active union members and dismissing four elected union leaders, including the president and the general secretary.

When selective victimisation failed to break the union's struggle for rights and recognition, management orchestrated a physical attack on a peaceful union protest on 28 April outside a Sonepat government office in which a union committee member was seriously injured. They then made a false complaint to the police against union members alleging assault; this resulted in the arrest of the union leaders who have since been released on bail.

AB InBev Sonepat workers and their families are continuing their 24-hour protest at the factory gate in support of their right to union recognition and collective bargaining free from harassment and victimisation. Send a message to AB InBev, insisting they reinstate all HBLM union leaders and members, withdraw the false assault allegations, recognise the union and negotiate in good faith.

And once you've signed, why not boycott AB InBev products?

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The fest that never was

This beer glass is one of the more interesting ones in what I laughingly call my collection. I picked it up a long time ago at another festival, possibly Bury. There's nothing special about the glass itself: it's just a standard nonic with an attractive logo for the Stockport Beer Festival of 1988, exactly thirty years ago.

Except it's not: this festival never took place. Among the organisers, there was apparently a conversation along the lines of:
"Did you apply for the licence?"
"No, I thought you were doing that."
Oh dear!

By the time they realised they had no licence for the event, it was too late. Unfortunately it was also too late to cancel the order for the glasses, and I picked up one for the novelty of having a glass for the beer festival that never was.

I went to the Stockport beer festival a couple of times a good few years ago; it was held in Stockport Town Hall in those days. On the last occasion, we caught the train from Southport and rolled up for the Saturday afternoon session. Unfortunately, they had almost run out of beer so we strolled along to a pub underneath the viaduct which you can see in stylised form on the glass. The pub was the Crown where, as I recall, we had a really good afternoon before going home happy. Checking on What Pub, the Crown still looks like a great pub.

In case you're wondering, although you probably weren't, it's not made of white glass; 
I put paper inside to show the design more clearly.