Thursday, 27 November 2014

Trust Me, It's Off

This time of year is always interesting as we use the CAMRA socials to visit pubs that we have put on the long list for the next Good Beer Guide.  Some pubs rise to the occasion but that certainly wasn't the case this week.  

We visited a certain pub in Chichester (which shall remain nameless) and one of our group who had arrived first warned us off from ordering the Anchor Springs Neptune.  He offered us a sip of his half and although Anchor Springs is beer we would all avoid normally this was definitely off.  The faint taste of vinegar was unmistakeable.  That left us with a choice of Milestone Rich Ruby and Dark Star Hophead.  I had a pint of each.  The first was far from being good and the second was the worst pint of Hophead I've had this year.  This is a pub that reopened at the start of this year and which I reviewed here.  Oops I said it would remain nameless.  Never mind.
I can forgive pubs for selling beer that is not always on top form.  It happens.  The two pints I had were OKish.  The first was just not to my personal taste I think.  I do love Hophead though and when it is in top condition it is a session beer that is hard to beat.  It is a regular beer at this pub too so they must get through it at a decent rate, especially when the two guest beer choices are dire. What I cannot forgive is the attitude of the pub when a beer is off.  Everyone in our group agreed it should be returned but they refused to take it back and swap it for something else.  The barman spoke to the manager and was told it was fresh on so it couldn't be off.  An absolutely awful attitude.  
I am quick to praise pubs when they get things right.  I also try to be positive and give the benefit of the doubt at times.  Some pubs though get it so wrong.  I find it hard to believe that a pub has nobody there that can taste a beer and know it is off and remove it from sale.  This beer will probably still be on sale today and people will think the Anchor Springs beer is even worse than it usually is.  Pub owners and managers everywhere.  If you are in the business of selling beer then I suggest you find out about beer even if you do not usually drink it and know what an off beer tastes like.  You may then get more repeat customers.  Chichester now has a decent choice of pubs selling good real ale with a number of them listed as possible new GBG entries for next year.  We can however cross this one off our list now.


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Fair Deal For Pubs?

Following a government review into improving protection for tenants of 'tied' pubs, the government had rejected the 'market rent only' option.  Yesterday, parliament rejected this in favour of the 'market rent' option amendment put forward by Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland, chairman of the all-party parliamentary Save The Pub group.  It is crazy that a government would go against a group that was set up to save the British pub and quite rightly this resulted in the government losing this vote.

As I understand it, the 'market rent' option will allow the publican to opt for exchanging their tenancy for an independently-assessed market rent free of tie.  In layman terms that means the tenant will no longer have to buy the beers, spirits, soft drinks, legal and accountancy services, etc, through the pub company that owns their building as they often have to do currently.  The prices they pay for such goods and services is often way over the market rate and therefore makes it much harder for them to run a viable business.  This is also bad for the consumer of course as these increased costs are often passed on to the customer through higher prices.

The pubcos have obviously come out and said this will be bad for pubs but what it really means is that it will be bad for their business.  It is no surprise that their share prices are falling substantially today.  Simon Townsend, the CEO of Enterprise Inns, predicts pub closures and job losses.  Well guess what.  We have plenty of those already.  The British Beer and Pub Association says the outcome will be 'hugely damaging'.  The argument they put forward is that it effectively breaks the pub tie that has served the pub industry well for 400 years.  Has it really?  Now you would think that the BBPA would be a body that supports beer and pubs but what it does seem to represent are the large brewers and the pub companies.  

It will be interesting to see how the pub companies now react to this game changer.  Will we see a massive increase in the number of 'free of tie' pubs selling beer from the ever increasing number of UK micro brewers and less of those national brands from the big brewers?  Will we see the pub companies putting pubs up for sale to reduce their massive debts now that they know they cannot get the returns that they once did from these pubs?  It is all very well giving power to tenants but at the end of the day the pub companies own the bricks and mortar and they have huge debts.  What CAMRA now needs to do is continue the fight to make it harder for pubs to be sold off and converted into other uses because I think it is inevitable that pub companies will continue to try and reduce their debt pile.

As with any legislation I'm sure this vote will not fix all the problems within the pub industry and the true test will be a year or two years or more down the line when we see whether it has reduced the current number of pub closures and whether we see an increase in the living standards of our much loved publicans.  What I do know is that the current system was unsustainable and I do not like to see people who work so hard to make a decent living get ripped off by the very people who are supposed to be helping and encouraging them.  Nothing is black and white and I'm sure there are both good and bad pubcos but I do not see why the good ones should fear this legislation.   

Finally, whatever the outcome down the line, and I think more good than harm will come from this legislation for both tenants and consumers, let's all raise a glass and offer congratulations to all those publicans who worked their butts off to campaign for this along with all those MPs who voted against the government and particularly to Greg Mulholland.  A job well done!


Monday, 17 November 2014

The Dark Side

Yes it is that time of year again.  Autumn begins to wave goodbye as winter approaches with the promise of cold dark nights.  For me it usually means swapping my love of hoppy pales for beers from the dark side.  Porters, stouts and old ales will be on the menu for the next few months and I have already been enjoying them in the past couple of weeks.

The first sign that winter is approaching is the arrival of Harveys Old Ale.  The Swan in Midhurst is a perfect pub in which to enjoy this lovely beer.  Now with new tenants who are looking like they will make a great success of the pub we enjoyed an evening of Old Ale there a couple of weeks ago.  It is never the same from year to year and I found it to be a bit fruitier this time around with notes of dark fruit and raisin prominent.  A lovely pint and at only 4.3% ABV you can have a good session with it (and I did!!).

The Wetherspoon pubs in my local area have improved tremendously in the past twelve months and are now always selling some excellent locales.  A trip to Southampton last week to see the magnificent Saints meant a few pre-match beers at the Giddy Bridge and this improvement is apparent here too as this GBG-listed 'Spoons was also displaying a great range of Hampshire ales.  There were a couple of porters available and I eagerly tried both.  Flack Manor Black Jack Porter (4.6% ABV) was quite fruity with a bit of a nutty finish whereas the Andwell Porter No.2 (4.9% ABV) was full of roasted malt character and delightfully smooth and with coffee and chocolate notes dominating.  These two porters were both excellent but the Andwells is the one I preferred.
My local in Yapton, the GBG listed Maypole Inn, has had some lovely dark beers available over the past few weeks and last week a lunchtime stroll led me to their door and a pint of Cheddar Ales Totty Pot (4.5% ABV) in front of a roaring fire.  This black porter didn't have such a smooth texture but it did have plenty of coffee bitterness and a satisfying bittersweet finish.  A lovely pint and well worth the short walk.       

Many new London brewers are cropping up and I picked out a couple of darks to try over the weekend from two that are now firmly established in that they began brewing way back in 2011!  The first of these was from London Fields of Hackney and their Black Path London Porter (4.2% ABV).  This beer had a nice frothy head with plenty of roasted malt character on the nose.  Once I had prised it away from my wife who was gulping down far too much of it I discovered a beautifully smooth beer with bitter coffee and chocolate notes before the sweetness of dark fruits came crashing through into the finish.    

From here I moved across to East London with the Quadrant Oatmeal Stout (5.8% ABV).  This is my first beer from the East London Brewing Company and I'm sure it won't be my last.  Once again my wife was enjoying it far too much but it is understandable.    This beer is actually a collaboration with the National Homebrew Competition champions Graeme Coates and Tom Dobson.  Much stronger than the London Fields porter but you wouldn't particularly notice as it is easily drinkable and not as rich as I was expecting.  The aroma is chocolate raisins and the taste is quite sweet with hints of raisins, plum and molasses with very little bitterness.  I think I preferred the London Fields porter but my wife preferred this one so I guess it's a draw.              

Finally, here are some of my favourite dark ales you should look out for this winter.  All of these are highly recommended.

Durham Brewery, Temptation (10.0% ABV) - only available in bottles I believe but this strong Russian stout is my favourite beer of this style.
Sadlers Ales, Mud City Stout (6.6% ABV) - when I was working in Warwickshire this was a regular at my local 'Spoons and I couldn't get enough of it.  Silky smooth and a perfect balance between bitter and sweet with hints of vanilla.
Arundel Sussex Dark (5.5% ABV) - formerly known as Old Knucker, this winter classic is brewed just down the road from where I live.  Rich, smooth and dark with sweet dark fruits and a malty coffee bitterness.    
Adnams, Old Ale (4.1% ABV) - as with the Harveys Old, this is a classic winter session beer.
Woodfordes Norfolk Nog (4.6% ABV) - not had this for a few years but it was always my favourite winter beer when I lived in Norwich and I would love to find it available locally this winter.
Fullers London Porter (5.4% ABV) - only had this lovely beer in bottled form so I really must find the cask version this winter in one of their pubs. 
Harviestoun Old Engine Oil (6.0% ABV) - this bottled beer is a classic full of roasted malt character with strong coffee and chocolate notes.
Thornbridge St Petersburg (7.4% ABV) - a perfect imperial stout full of chocolate and coffee bitterness.  Now out of stock on their website so may be hard to find.      

For me this list could actually be endless as there are many many others well worth finding and, as I have already discovered, there are also many new brewers coming up with very drinkable winter warmers for the first time.  Put your thick winter coat on and head for a local pub with a warm fire and dark beer.  A perfect combination.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Naked Beer Company Uncovered

When the Naked Beer Company put out a request for beer bloggers to review their product I naturally offered my services.  If somebody is going to sample beer then it may as well be me.  Despite their close proximity to me I had only come across their beer a couple of times and had only tried one of their regular beers, the Streaker IPA (4.0% ABV), at the new micropub Old Star Ale and Cider House in Shoreham.  New breweries are cropping up in Sussex most months it seems and Naked are one of the newer ones having begun brewing commercially at the start of this year.

Naked are based in Lancing, West Sussex, close to Worthing and can be found on an industrial estate less than a mile from the sea.  When someone is giving you beer to drink the least you can do is go and collect it and this gave me an opportunity to see the operation for my myself.  Breweries are wonderful places to visit because you are always greeted by enthusiastic workers.  Dan introduced himself as well as introducing me to head brewer and co-founder Rob Thomas.  Rob began his brewing career at one of my favourite brewers, Bristol Beer Factory, before spending a short time at Ascot Ales.  Now he has the freedom to be creative with his own 5 bbl plant and creativity is at the core of Naked Beer Company.  Dan was busy filling casks with Ian (pictured) but he found time to speak very enthusiastically about the brand and their vision.               

Bristol Beer Factory is a great marker for any brewer to strive for and Naked have lofty ambitions to produce similarly innovative and acclaimed beer.  They currently brew three regular beers and I was given a couple of bottles of each to try.  If you look on Untappd you will also notice they have brewed some interesting specials too in their short time such as a Hefeweizen called Depeach Mode (with quite strong peach notes I have been told by those who have tried it) along with recent additions Ginger Streaker and Inter Gorse (a strong English IPA).  However, without a decent core range any brewery will struggle so it is time to let you know how Naked's core is tasting.              

Streaker (4.0% ABV)

Before I mention the beer a quick opinion on the transparent labelling.  I love it.  A distinctive common look throughout the range with a simple but effective logo.  I was warned that they had put extra yeast in the bottles and this beer did gush out and it did have a cloudy yeasty appearance after pouring.  This was the beer I had a pint of a few weeks back.  At the time I felt it was a decent session IPA.  I do not remember it tasting as powerfully as this bottled version though.  The aroma was citrussy and pleasant.  Both myself and my wife thought it drank much stronger than the 4.0% ABV stated and initial flavours were pineapple with both tropical and citrus fruit notes.  The finish was bittersweet with a dry bitterness mixed with hints of caramel.  The hops used are magnum and cascade with caragold malt.  The excessive yeast content was difficult to cope with but the flavours were superb.  My wife surprised me with this one by giving it a thumbs up too so not a bad start at all for this session beer.              

Indecent Exposure (4.5% ABV)

This second beer was an instant hit with both of us.  Indecent Exposure (the name of the brewery lends itself to some original beer names) is a classic porter.  Summit hops were mixed with magnum hops for this one and the balance between bitter and sweet was spot on.  Once again it drank stronger than the stated ABV suggested with very rich flavours.  There was a slight smokiness to it initially leading to notes of cherry, coffee, raisin and chocolate.  The finish was bittersweet and beautifully smooth.  I actually scored this beer a 10/10 and my wife was equally enamoured by it.  I must find a few pints of this to enjoy over the winter.        

Freudian Slip (6.5% ABV)

The story behind this beer is hidden in the name.  An attempt to brew a session strength best bitter when awry and the result was one of those happy (hoppy?) mistakes that you just hope you can recreate.  The resulting brew was such an instant hit with those who tried it that it has become part of their core range.  What we have here is a complex beer that is something of a cross between a Belgian dubbel and an English barley wine.  Again the beer was a little too yeasty, particularly the second bottle, but the thick rich nature of this beer was obvious.  I'd have guessed the strength to be nearer the 10% mark to be honest.  It was very dark in colour with a rich alcoholic aroma.  It is very boozy, sweet and cloying.  All sorts of flavours came through with this one.  Molasses, cherry, bonfire toffee and even hints of vanilla.  There is sweetness throughout and one to be sipped very slowly in front of a roaring fire.  This was my wife's favourite beer of  the three while I preferred the porter although this one did come a close second.      

Naked have got a good core range with these three beers and I am sure we will see many more interesting beers from them in the future.  They have a good brand which I'm sure they will develop further.  They have already got their beers on Brighton's Indigo pub list and I hope they will also make their way to the pubs in my part of Sussex.  I will look forward to following their progress over the next 18 months.