Thursday, 28 August 2014

Pubs Matter

Pubs Matter is the new CAMRA campaign which is hoped, if successful, will slow down the rate of pub closures.  The thinking behind the campaign is that currently those pubs which usually have an A4 planning class use can be converted into categories A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional services), A3 (restaurants and cafes) or B1 (Business) without the need for planning permission.  They can also be demolished and then of course the land can be used for anything for which planning permission is granted.  It is this loophole (if loophole is the right word) that CAMRA wish to change by making it a law that planning permission is always required before a pub is demolished or converted into another use.  The thinking behind this is of course that pubs should be treated as a special case because of their importance to the community and what we don't want of course is to make it more difficult for shops to be converted into pubs in the way we are currently seeing all over the country with the boom in micropubs.  

The closure of pubs in recent years is highlighted in my current village (and surrounding villages).  I moved from Yapton in 2006 and the village had four pubs.  Two were places I would never have dared set foot in, one was a popular family pub with a decent beer selection and good food and the fourth one was my local and a former winner of the local regional CAMRA group pub of the year.  Last month I moved back to Yapton and the latter is the only pub that remains so would this law change have made any difference?  Below we have the former Shoulder of Mutton and Cucumbers.  This was converted into a couple of residential dwellings called 'Shoulders' and 'Cucumber Cottage'.  This would have required planning permission and the outcome would have been the same.                          

The second pub to disappear was Enterprise-owned The Lamb.  This was a thriving village local until a change of landlord occurred.  Basically the more popular it became the higher the rent went until the tenant could no longer run a profitable business so he went elsewhere.  Since then no incumbent has managed to make it pay and planning permission was granted for it to be demolished and houses will be built on the somewhat large plot.    

The final pub to close was the Olive Branch.  This pub is a total eyesore now as can be seen below although when it was open it didn't look much better as the letters in the pub name had begun to disappear long before the closure!  This was up for sale at a reasonable price of £325,000 for the freehold.  The estate agents did however make it clear in their brochure that the site was also ideal for 'redevelopment'.  It was up for sale for quite some time and it has since been purchased by a development company.  Three pubs gone and thankfully my former local is the sole survivor.  I don't think this new CAMRA campaign would have made any difference to the fate of the others.  However, now I move on to my surrounding villages.

Last week the local newspaper, the Bognor Regis Observer, ran a two page article with the headline 'Residents alarmed by number of community pubs closing down'.  The article highlighted three recent closures and in all cases supermarkets have moved in.  This has been going on for quite some time though in this area and we have seen many pubs converted into mini supermarkets in the past few years.  It is this kind of activity though which is primarily behind this CAMRA campaign.  The problem CAMRA will have though is whether the members of CAMRA themselves actually care much for the type of pubs that are closing.  I don't think I have personally set foot in any of the pubs that have closed down in recent years and have subsequently been converted into convenience stores and I am someone who does like to get out and visit different pubs as often as possible.  The active members of our branch will probably fight against the closure of a favourite pub but quite frankly there are many pubs they will do their best to avoid.  There are many pubs in our area that some members will not go in for various reasons.  The main reason is always the beer choice and/or the beer quality.  The surliness of the owner is also mentioned from time to time and anything owned by Hall & Woodhouse or Greene King is a big no-no.  For this reason our Whatpub completion rate** when I was appointed pubs officer for our area was pitifully low.  You can't blame the members though for wanting to spend their money on good beer and in places that are a pleasure to frequent.                      

The pubs that are targeted in this area by the major supermarkets are large sites with car parking and the bottom line is that these pubs are generally not popular.  If you were just selling the business then the price would have to be low because they are probably losing money.  The only asset the business has is the land it sits on and this is what makes it valuable.  Perhaps we should be talking to these companies to encourage them to retain part of the building as a pub or even as a micropub so the community still has a focus but one which could be run profitably.  At the end of the day all pubs are just one change of owner away from potential closure because there are far too many poor publicans out there.  Even successful pubs can fall into the wrong hands when a successful publican sells up and moves on or retires.

So, if the Pubs Matter campaign is successful and we see a change in the law will this see a decline in the number of pub closures?  I would like to think it will but I think you are more likely to see areas blighted with boarded up buildings that will eventually be redeveloped anyway.  Saving a pub from being changed into a convenience store does not mean a buyer will come along who will be able to run it successfully as a pub.  I think the pub landscape will always be shrinking due to changing demographics.  The number of pubs is falling because less people are visiting them and with land and property prices constantly rising it means the larger establishments are simply worth far more as housing or as convenience stores.  To the large pub-owning property companies it means their debts can be reduced by increasing rents to the point where pubs can no longer be profitable as pubs and so the site can then be redeveloped.  It should not stop CAMRA fighting for pubs though but I'm not sure this particular campaign will make much difference.  I think we need to address what makes these businesses unprofitable in the first place.  High rents, high business rates, high overheads, poor publicans, poor food, poor beer choice can all play a part.  Use them or lose them is often quoted but while there are large numbers of pubs that are simply too poor for regular pubgoers to use you will continue to see a loss because there simply aren't enough people out there willing to take on these failing pubs.  

I've probably raised a number of points here without giving answers to any of them but I would like to know what other people think.  However, there will be further posts from me about some of the points raised here over time because I care very much about pubs and it would be good to know what others see as the problems affecting pubs in all parts of the country.  In the meantime I will continue to visit pubs as often as I can and I recommend you all do the same because there is no better place in which to relax and enjoy a pint.               
** The CAMRA pub guide has listings for all pubs.  The national aim is to get a comprehensive survey of each pub and in our area this figure was at 37% at the beginning of this year.  This is way below the national average but I have managed to get the figure up to nearly 50% now.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Beer Pricing

I must confess I very rarely notice how much I am paying for my pint when I go to a pub.  Even after a night out with my CAMRA friends, if someone asked me how much I paid for a pint of such-and-such I'd shrug my shoulders and say £3 something.  If I am asked to pay £4 something I'd probably make a mental note that the pub is a little expensive for the area and if I am asked to pay anything less than £3 then I must be in a Wetherspoons (or up north).

This brings me on to my visit to the Kings Arms near Fernhurst last week with my CAMRA colleagues.  The Kings Arms is a lovely country pub that was owned by Gales many years ago and has struggled over the past few years with a couple of closures and with one notable failure being a Marco Pierre White venture.  It reopened last year as a gastropub with rooms and there is an adjacent Indian restaurant in the barn.  As a CAMRA group we failed to visit the pub soon after the reopening which was disappointing but last week we finally got round to paying it a visit.

The pub is located near the Surrey border just outside the village of Fernhurst on the main A286 out from Midhurst.  It is therefore quite a hike from where all of our active members live and of course a couple of poor souls had to drive.  The driver asked for a half so I asked for a pint of Harveys Sussex and a half of Harveys R.  The former is a standard 4.0% ABV beer and the latter is the Harveys attempt at a low ABV beer coming in at just 2.8% ABV.  The barmaid requested the princely sum of £6 which I raised my eyebrows at a little.  That made me look at the price list (something I very rarely do).  Both pints were £3.80 which is on the high side for Harveys in this area.  This did not concern me a great deal but I was very surprised to see the R being priced the same as the Sussex.  That brings me to my second grumble and the mathematicians among you have probably already worked out that the price of a half was £2.20.  This price converts to £4.40 a pint which gives a 60p premium on the price of the full pint.

I now hand this over to you.  Am I moaning unnecessarily?  Should I expect a 2.8% ABV to be priced the same as a 4.0% ABV best bitter as beer duty for this beer is obviously less?  Is a premium of 60p a pint high for buying two halves over a single pint?  From a few tweets and blog posts I have read recently I think it is becoming a common cause for complaint but how widespread is it?  Is it justifiable?  From a personal point of view if I was running a country pub and trying to attract drinkers then I would be offering a reduced abv beer so top marks to the Kings Arms with this one, as I also understand from the guys that tried it that it is a very good beer.  However, I would not be trying to rip off the poor drivers by charging them a premium if they choose a low abv product and/or a half over a pint.  Last week the pub attracted a group of drinkers who are less inclined to pay it a second visit.  That's the bottom line really which is a shame because it is a pleasant pub and the beer was in good condition.    


Yorkshire Ales Part 6 - Mallinsons

For my sixth Yorkshire brewery I am checking out the beers from the two brewsters at Mallinsons in Huddersfield.  They began brewing with a 6-barrel plant back in 2008 and successfully relocated to a larger 15-barrel plant in 2012.  I am familiar with one or two of their beers having enjoyed them previously after purchasing them from the excellent beer retailer Cotteridge Wines in Birmingham.  I therefore purposely saved them until last because I had a feeling that they could be challenging whoever was leading at this stage of the competition.  The pressure is definitely on then.

Simcoe (4.0% ABV)

Every beer I have tried from Mallinsons has been a single hopped beer and the beer name is simply the hop variety used.  The three I selected from my Yorkshire ales purchase follow this same theme and the first is the American hop variety Simcoe. This beer was lively and had a lovely golden glow to it.  There wasn't a strong aroma but there were enticing citrussy hints.  This hop gives a lovely rich fruity taste with hints of passion fruit but citrus notes come through in the finish to leave a light dry bitterness.  A very pleasant beer and worthy of a score of 7/10.       

Amarillo (4.3% ABV)

For the second beer I stay in the US with the Amarillo hop.  This was another lively beer and in terms of appearance it looked remarkably like the first one.  As with the first, the aroma was not strong.  This beer was much more bitter than the Simcoe though with strong hints of mandarin oranges coming through which I particularly love about this hop.  I've noticed on their website they now produce an Amarillo Extreme with intense orange aroma and flavours.  Sounds wonderful.  This is an excellent beer and I give it a 9/10.  

Galaxy (4.0% ABV)

For the final beer in this selection from the great county of Yorkshire I revisit the Australian hop variety, Galaxy, which I came across with the beer of the same name from the North Riding Brewpub in my last review.  I found that beer to be quite sweet with quite strong tropical fruit flavours.  This one is much more citrussy and refreshing with a very dry crisp quality to it.  Interestingly I have read the hop offers a combination of citrus and passion fruit flavours and between the two beers that's about right.  This one picks up a score of 8/10.

To be honest I scored all of these beers 8/10 when I initially tried them.  However, to obtain the same score and to differentiate between them I slightly adjusted the scores here.  They are all very good beers but the Amarillo would be the one I'd choose ahead of the others with the Simcoe not quite matching the others.  

My final mark is for the branding.  The beer names are simple and tell you what it is.  This can be a little boring perhaps but the hop variety is the distinct difference between the majority of their beers and therefore it seems sensible to label in this way.  I would like to see some stronger beers in their output though but that's just a personal preference.  The labels have a simple and distinctive logo which I like.  The website is a little limited in terms of information but it does have a comprehensive beer list with tasting notes.  Everything is a little minimalist but there is nothing to dislike so a score of 7/10 is awarded.  This gave them a total of 31 points which was enough to put them into second place behind the worthy winners, The Hop Studio.                 
This completes my initial tour around the breweries of Yorkshire courtesy of my first order placed with the excellent Yorkshire Ales.  Yorkshire is full of great breweries producing some lovely beers and I shall be continuing my reviews from this county over the coming months I'm sure and Yorkshire ales will be the place I purchase them from without doubt.  For now though the league table is as follows and as previously mentioned, where there is a tie, the brewery scoring highest on the beer scores places highest.

1.  The Hop Studio - 32 points 
2.  Mallinsons - 31 points
3.  Geeves - 31 points
4.  Axholme - 28 points
5.  Revolutions - 28 points
6.  North Riding Brewpub - 27 points


Friday, 8 August 2014

Yorkshire Ales Part 5 - North Riding Brewpub

For the latest in my journey around my purchases from Yorkshire Ales I head to the east coast and the North Riding Brewpub of Scarborough.  Having won Scarborough town pub of the year on no less than six occasions as the North Riding Hotel they began brewing from the cellar in early 2011 and now have awards for their beer alongside their pub accolades.  So without further ado let's get tasting although before I begin I must apologise for the glass used for the first two.

Motueka (4.3% ABV)     

This single hopped beer uses pale and munich malts along wheat in the mash.  The Motueka hop is a new variety of New Zealand hop with a Saaz parentage and it is one I am not too familiar with.  The aroma is sweet and the colour is pale straw.  The initial taste has quite a citrussy tang to it.  There are also some floral and fruity notes hiding in there but the tang of lemon and lime continues throughout to give it a citrussy refreshing finish.  This beer had a best before end of July and I was drinking it on the first of August so I'm not sure if I had it at its best and it also had to survive a house move.  However, a delightful beer nonetheless and I would give it a solid 7/10.           

Galaxy (4.3% ABV)

Judging by the label the beer appears to be identical to the first except for the hop variety.  The same malts and the same ABV would suggest I am therefore able to judge how the flavours from the Australian Galaxy hop used here differs to the New Zealand Motueka.  It even has the same use by date but it does taste fresher than the first.  There is little difference in the look of the beer but the aroma is more tropical and the flavour is definitely more to my liking and my wife preferred this one too.  There is a much more pronounced tropical fruit flavour with this one with passion fruit flavours dominant.  It is equally refreshing but it has a sweeter finish to the first beer and this one is awarded an extra point giving it an 8/10.     

60 Minute IPA (5.5% ABV)

The first two beers were appropriately consumed on Yorkshire Day and this final beer was saved for International IPA Day.  This final beer had a best before end of October so was hopefully on top form too.  This beer was brewed for the third anniversary of the brewery and the name refers to the 60 minutes of continuous hopping that goes into this beer rather than hopping in stages.  The malt character is similar to the first two beers except for some additional caramedium and the hop variety is Simcoe.  The aroma is not strong but has some earthy and fruity characteristics.  The flavours are quite complex with citrussy lime, a sharp orangey tang, some pine freshness and some rich earthy notes.  This all leads to a deep bitter finish and overall it is a delightfully interesting IPA.  I will award it a score of 7/10 although in fairness it is very close to an 8.  I do like it very much.           

The final mark is for the branding.  The labels are a bit basic although everything is clearly displayed and easy to read along with the ingredients.  The website has the brewery information lumped in with the pub and only a couple of their beers have tasting notes.  Overall I can only award it a score of 5/10 for this category giving a grand total of 27/40 which leaves them in 5th place.  However, for a brewpub that also serves as a hotel they are wearing lots of hats and their beer certainly stands up well against the other Yorkshire brewers I have enjoyed so far.  

Next time I will be judging Mallinsons.  This will be my final brewery before I take a break as it completes the purchases I made from my first order with Yorkshire Ales.  Later in the year I will come back with a further six breweries from this wonderfully beery county.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Great British Beer Festival

Next week sees the start of the Great British Beer Festival at Kensington Olympia in London.  If my calculations are correct then this will be the 37th GBBF since the first one was held in 1977 at London's Ally Pally.  After travelling out to Leeds and Birmingham the festival went south to the Metropole in Brighton in 1985.  This was the first I attended and the pictures below were taken at this event.      

I'm the one wearing the incredibly trendy Gales sweatshirt.

A lively crowd 
My only real memories of these festivals in Brighton were how incredibly crowded they were and finding a seat was impossible.  Brighton was a great place for cheap accommodation so there were usually a few of us who went down from London where I was living at the time to spend a few days there.  The beer choice would probably not seem too impressive nowadays but at the time it was far better than you could find in pubs.  Genuine free houses were hard to find and so CAMRA beer festivals were always popular.  I don't remember any non CAMRA beer festivals at this time either and CAMRA ones were also far fewer in number than they are today.  CAMRA may come in for a lot of stick today but without them and events like the GBBF I wonder what the beer scene would actually look like today.         

After three years at Brighton the GBBF returned to Leeds before coming back to Brighton for a year.  Then, in 1991, there was one awful year at the London Docklands Arena before it settled at Kensington Olympia from 1992 until 2005.  In 2006 it switched to the nearby Earl's Court but when the death knell for this venue was sounded it returned to Olympia in 2012 and here it remains.  I think I have only missed three GBBFs since the switch to London in 1991 and it has always generally managed to get bigger and better.  Olympia remains my favourite venue and it is spacious enough for plenty of seating nowadays.  

There is plenty of things to do apart from the drinking.  The music is usually worth listening to but I wish they would get Mad Jocks & Englishmen back again.  They were virtually ever present in the early days of the GBBF.  The festival games continue to provide me with brewery memorabilia (or old tat as my wife succinctly puts it when I unveil my winnings the following day).  My expertise at table skittles and 'ring the hand pump' has won me numerous brewery mirrors, T-Shirts, books, etc over the years.  If you don't have my levels of skill you can always try your luck on the Brewery Name Game of course which is a sort of tombola but with a theme of closed and current breweries and you win if you pick out a current one.

If you go on the Saturday there is the pub quiz which has become a competition to see which group of people can google the answers the quickest.  If you don't have a smart phone you have no chance!  It is about ten years since me and my two mates won this gaining for ourselves a trip round the Hall & Woodhouse brewery which I was boycotting at the time because they had just closed down my beloved King & Barnes.  There have been some near misses too since then which has resulted in me winning some more lovely brewery memorabilia (or old tat).

This year I will be there on the Friday so the quiz can be won by somebody else.  I hope I am getting over the point that this is an event worth going to for every beer lover.  This will be the first year I will not be with my very best mate Wurzel (the bearded one in the picture above).  In the past few months he has suffered a stroke and although he is recovering well he will not be attending this year.  On the plus side my nephew is now old enough to attend so he will be coming along with my brother for his first GBBF.  You start to feel old when your mates fall by the wayside and the little ones grow up and start coming along too.  That is the sort of event the GBBF is though.  Once you start trotting along and spread the word it becomes an annual meeting point for you and your friends.  There are some friends who I only see once a year and that will be at the GBBF so long may it continue.


Monday, 4 August 2014

Downlands Brewery

On Saturday it was my very great pleasure to visit Downlands Brewery.  They are tucked away on an industrial estate in the village of Small Dole just outside the area of the South Downs National Park.  I was part of the Western Sussex CAMRA branch that had invited themselves to make a presentation to the brewery and the three man team at Downlands were there to welcome us.  Pictured below from left to right we have Widdi, Ian and David and they are living proof that brewers are the nicest people you could wish to meet.     

Upon entering the brewery you make the walk of pumpclips.  The narrow passage that leads to the room below where all the action takes place is lined with the clips of all their beers that they have produced since their inception a couple of years ago.  The 10 bbl brewery is compact with a single mash tun and three fermenting tanks.  After a brief chat about the brewery and what every vessel was used for it was time to sample some of their products.    

I began with their new product, a 4.5% black pale ale with the name 'a darker shade of Pale'.  This is generously hopped with an assortment of the best American hops and the aroma from these was very powerful.  They were very well balanced though by a lovely smooth biscuity malt character.  I still find black hoppy beers hard to adjust to as the aroma comes from the hops but the malt character comes through with the taste and so my brain gets confused as these two senses are telling it different things.  This is a fine example of this style of beer though.      

My second beer offered up more confusion to my poor brain.  This time it was the 4.7% ABV APA (Anglo Pale Ale) described as an American style pale ale with British ingredients.  This beer was well hopped too but with traditional British hops so there was none of the tropical fruit sweetness you get with a typical APA but rather a more earthy fruity bitterness with a long dry finish to it.  It is another fine beer           

The general purpose of this visit was to present the guys at Downlands with their certificate for winning the beer of the festival at the Yapton Beerex which my local CAMRA branch holds each May.  Their 5.0% Devils Dyke Honey Porter took first place against some very stiff competition from breweries all over the country including Tiny Rebel and Magic Rock.  It was therefore time to try this beer as the presentation was about to be made.

Head Brewer Widdi was on hand to receive the award from our branch chairman Phil Wildsmith.  Widdi was honest enough to admit it isn't his favourite beer but as our chairman pointed out, it goes against the perceived notion that strong dark beers will only sell in the winter months when such a beer will not only sell but is also widely enjoyed at a beer festival held over a particularly hot weekend in May.  The beer itself is a version of their lovely Devils Dyke Porter but with a dash of honey added to it.  This adds a sweetness to balance the chocolatey roasted malt character of the former and I confess to being quite a fan of it as the balance is pretty much spot on with not too much sweetness coming through to overpower it.        

The beer is obviously proving popular as this is the second award it has won recently but I'm sure Widdi and the guys would love an award for one of their favourites next but for now it seems they are going to have to continue brewing it.  

After the award had been given and gratefully received there was time to sample a couple of beers that are similar except for the hops used.  Pele (4.1% ABV) is a version of their Pale that was brewed for the World Cup last month and the hops in this one were the big 'C' hops from the US - Comet, Chinook, Cascade and Colombus.  This is a fantastic beer and it was my favourite of the day.  Once I saw the list of hops I knew I would be a happy man.  Lots of tropical fruit character in both the aroma and the flavour that I have come to love over recent years.           

I finished off with the current version of the Pale (4.1% ABV).  I say current because the hops in this beer are often changed from brew to brew and this particular one had a couple of New Zealand hops I believe if my memory is correct after all this beer.  It is a beautifully balanced straw coloured ale that I have previously enjoyed in local pubs.  It has a lovely crisp bitterness with a dry bitter finish.     

It was time to say goodbye to our hosts and catch the bus back into Shoreham where I had time for a pint at the excellent Duke of Wellington.  The pub was hosting a Brodie's tap takeover later that evening and some of my CAMRA colleagues were remaining for that event.  I had time for a pint of Beach Head Original Ale (4.5% ABV) which was a pleasant best bitter but after the hopfest I had been enjoying earlier it was a bit average.     

Downlands brewery are living proof that the beer world is full of friendly brewers enjoying their craft.  Their reward comes when their labours are honoured by the general public appreciating their endeavours and that is what Saturday was all about.  The beer of the festival at Yapton Beerex is not decided by the local CAMRA branch but is voted for by all those that attend.  It is therefore always a pleasure to attend these award presentations and to sample the beer in the brewery where it is made.  My sincere thanks go to Widdi, David and Ian and I will continue to look for their beers when I am out drinking.


Friday, 1 August 2014

Yorkshire Ales Part 4 - Hop Studio

It's been a while since I began my Yorkshire Ales competition.  My illness brought it to a halt and it has taken me a while to get back into it but now it's time to go once more.  For those of you in need of a reminder the three breweries I have sampled so far (and their respective scores) are as follows.  To see the reviews of each just click on the brewery name.

1.  Geeves Brewery 31 points
2.  Axholme Brewing Company 28 points

For round four I am heading to North Yorkshire and the village of Elvington.  Hop Studio began brewing a couple of years ago and this is one brewery I have come across before thanks to my local pub in Pagham selling the excellent Vindhya (6.0% ABV) as a guest one time.  On the back of this I was looking forward to this selection of bottles.     

Porter (4.3% ABV)

This porter looks fabulous and after pouring the aroma gave off distinct notes of vanilla.  It is brewed with American hop varieties Galena and Willamette.  With the first sip it is clearly a very smooth beer.  There are sweet vanilla notes immediately evident but these are joined by a subtle coffee bitterness along with fruity notes of blackcurrant and blackberry.  The finish is bitter and overall there is a lovely blend of flavours here with aniseed popping up too.  This is a winner with my wife too.  A fabulous start and a score of 9/10.       

Blonde (3.5% ABV)

For the next beer we head way down the ABV scale with this lovely looking very pale ale.  Brewed with Chinook, Cascade and Nelson Sauvin hops there are lots of grapefruit, grassy, lemon and pine notes here and it is a beer that is bursting with flavour.  There is a sharp, crisp and refreshing bitterness throughout and I absolutely loved it.  If session beers were always like this I would forget the high ABV stuff (well perhaps not).  My wife is not such a fan of this kind of beer but she still thought it was ok which is high praise indeed believe me.  This  beer scores a 9/10.   

XS (5.5% ABV)

I rounded things off with this 'extra special' beer.  My wife thought it was a bit tasteless surprisingly but once I gave it a try there was no way she was getting it back for a second opinion.  There is an interesting mix of hops in this one with UK varieties Challenger, Northdown and Target alongside the New Zealand variety Wakatu.  It is a complex beer with a rich, syrupy texture.  There are sweet cherry and toffee notes and some bitter orange notes here too.  The bitterness is both earthy and citrussy which lingers into the finish.  It is a highly enjoyable beer and I award it an 8/10.   

My final score is for their branding.  Everything seems to be based on the 'keep it simple' principle.  The beer names state the beer type and the bottle labels are distinctive and have a certain elegance about them and there is a lovely simplicity to the logo design that I like.  The one thing they are lacking is a website as it appears to be 'under construction'.  This marks them down a little and so overall I will give them a score of 6/10.  This gives them an overall score of 32 points which projects them into top place.  I have two more breweries left to go now and next week I will enjoy the delights from North Riding Brewpub.