Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Gallaghers’ Pub And Barbers

Visited on 24 May 2012

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This “long by narrow” pub, on Chester Street in Birkenhead, overlooking the Mersey and with a view of the Liverpool waterfront, was once called The Dispensary. And when Frank and Sue Gallagher first saw it, it was closed up and in danger of becoming yet another statistic in the litany of Great British pub closures. This evening, though, the business is receiving another well deserved award.

For the second year running, Gallaghers is being awarded the CAMRA Wirral Pub Of The Year gong. Think about that: there are still a lot of pubs in this area, and a lot of good ones. Very few get an award like this two years on the bounce. Want to see why? Let’s look inside, where all will be revealed.

It’s not an easy shape to manage, but the space is used inventively: to your right as you walk in is a seating area, then opposite the bar you can sit or stand. And beyond the bar is the barbers chair in its own partitioned off area (no, it doesn’t open in the evenings). But what sets this pub apart are the beer, and the service.

A range of cask beers is always on offer, usually showcasing local brewers Brimstage (of Trapper’s Hat fame) and Peerless, plus others. There is also Hawkshead Lakeland Lager, which is brewed to the kind of strength (5%) that you would expect from a decent Pilsner, rather than the usual fizz.

And then there is the friendly service from both staff and owners, which helps to make a visit here special. The appearance of one cask of free bitter helped matters on the evening of the award, too. And a buffet was laid on. Is it hard to find or difficult to get to from somewhere like Crewe? Well, no and no: there are frequent trains to Liverpool’s Lime Street terminus, then Merseyrail on to Birkenhead Hamilton Square. As can be seen from the map, it’s a short walk from there.

Anyone wanting to see what makes a pub stand out from the ordinary should pay Gallaghers a visit. That’s how high the bar is set by the best – but it’s not impossible for anyone equally determined to do just as well. A cracking evening out.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

13 Cheshire Cheese

Visited on 29 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

This evening I shall mainly be doing a lot of walking before I get to do any drinking of beer. And first is a long stretch south from Crewe out to the Cheshire Cheese, a roadhouse pub on the way to Shavington. It’s still a pub, but nowadays styles itself “Koconut Grove at the Cheshire Cheese” and claims to be “The North West’s first fusion pub”. It also has a large sign outside proclaiming “Real Ale”.

So, having dodged the incessant stream of cars along an all too narrow pavement – that’s too narrow in places even for one, given the overhanging foliage – I arrive at a very smartly presented open plan bar’n’seating area. And there is indeed cask beer, which is Wells Bombardier. This is served promptly and topped up perhaps even more promptly. They’re hot on service here.

And the beer? OK, some grumble about Bombardier, but I like it, especially when it’s cellar cool and on form, and this evening both criteria are satisfied. So a look round is next. There are groups of punters dining – this is a food pub rather than a pub that happens to do food – and they’re tucking into a variety of nosh. Some are having an English? Goodness gracious me!

Yes, you can have English, but the speciality is southern Indian dishes, hence the name. The focus is on India’s Kerala region, reminding anyone not quite up to speed that there is no such thing as one defined kind of “Indian Food” (Trip Advisor has an unintentionally hilarious unhappy review by someone who asserts that he knows what “Indian Food” is, as he “eats it twice a week”).

Of course, you can just do as I’m doing, and nip in for a swift beer, or even a pint of Bombardier (the jokes don’t improve, folks). They do an inexpensive buffet lunch most days too, and that’s real temptation. The walk out and back is an excellent excuse to make the detour. It’s only a pity that anyone on foot is taking their life in their hands on that all too narrow pavement.

And one final thought: if places that have the emphasis on food can bother to put on cask beer and keep and serve it right, so can everyone else. Did I say it was very smartly presented? So smart I had to say it twice.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

12 Waldron

Visited on 22 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

This is a pub visit that I was expecting to be a cursory look at the kind of pub that wasn’t really my style. Oh ye of little faith!

The Waldron is a Smith & Jones pub, one of a chain of around 160 dotted around the UK. It’s reused the building many still call the JobCentre, but which those of us of A Certain Age will recognise as a Labour Exchange. And Labour Exchanges had none of that poncy carpet. The staff were incapable of smiling. They were cold and draughty in Winter, and it always seemed to be Winter when you had to go there.

The floors were routinely worn down, and the pens, especially if they worked, were kept on a very short lead. The position of the chairs was uncomfortable? Tough luck, they had been, as Dad’s Army’s Private Fraser might have put it, scroo’ed doon. So there would have been plenty of work needed to make the place attractive. Just laying beer on wouldn’t cut it.

One very pleasant surprise on arrival is the Cask Marque sign by the front door. So there’s cask beer on, then. Indeed: the part of the bar opposite that door has on prominent display a mini-blackboard saying “Ask for cask”. So among all the partying folks downing shots is some decent ale. And this evening it’s Jennings Cocker Hoop and Morland Bitter, oops, sorry, Morland Original.

So that’s a pint of Cocker Hoop, then. Which is bloody good. On top of that rather pleasant surprise, the manager is more than willing to chat about how the pub moves plenty of the Morland (at a niggardly £1.79 a pint I should hope so), and that it’s more than worth the effort to put a cask option on. Hello, all those licensees who think it’s too much trouble? Listen up.

What else do you need to know? They do food, you can hire a table for your party (heck, you can even hire the whole pub, but you’d need a pretty damn big gathering to justify it), there is tea and coffee available at lunchtime, and of course there are party offers, like jugs of, er, not so mildly alcoholic stuff. There is also plenty of comfortable seating, and pub games too.

All of that adds up to another example of how new entrants to the Crewe pub market demonstrate that IT’S NOT BLOODY ROCKET SCIENCE. And that if other town centre watering holes nearby don’t keep their own offer sharpened up, punters have an alternative.

This is an OK pub if you’re looking for somewhere that has something for everyone. So don’t be put off by the thoughts of partying hordes, especially midweek. It’s OK.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

11 Flying Lady

Visited on 22 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

Hmmm, large housing estate with roads a little narrower than they might do them nowadays, probably late 60s/early 70s vintage, I wonder who built it? BZZZZT! I know, I know, chalet semis ... it’s a Wimpey estate!

OK you win. Yep, there was one in Hartford that backed onto the West Coast Main Line, which this one must do at its western edge. That one didn’t merit a pub, though. OK, the Coachman was close by, and it’s a decent boozer. And as Clive James might have said, once again I digress. We’ve reached The Flying Lady.

Celebrating that part of Crewe’s recent heritage that included thousands of aero engines and also the cars (until Rolls-Royce became a subsidiary of BMW), this is a single room pub that has a Tetley’s sign outside, but the only product on view is Smoothflow Bitter which is off (for which the licensee gets an extra bonus point).

Hand pulled ales” are advertised, so what’s on offer? Well, it’s just the one, and it’s Young’s. Er, what? Young’s, as in Young’s of Wandsworth? The stuff they have on at the Buckingham Arms, near St James’s Park Underground? The same (minor confession – I usually have Special at the Buckingham Arms (Young’s do two bitters, the one at the Flying Lady is referred to dahn sarf as “Young’s Ordinary”)).

Why so? Well, Young’s is no longer brewed in London, as the Ram Brewery at Wandsworth closed and production has moved to the Charles Wells site at Bedford. So if brews like Bombardier are available in your town – and we will encounter this one in Crewe, so stick around – anything from Young’s may also appear. As with the Greene King IPA at the Rising Sun, it takes to being served in the Northern style OK.

So, having secured my pint, it’s time to look around. The bar top and other surfaces are an interesting colour. Those cut lines look familiar. Er, it’s kitchen worktop. Ho yus it is. And, d’you know, I’m not fussed about that. If that’s the best value solution for renewing the tops, then good for them. A for effort, in fact.

Everything is contained in one room – it’s a large one – and that’s games area, pool table, stage (music at weekends), and plenty of seating. The ceiling seems a bit low, and I wonder if that gave the extraction system fun before the smoking ban arrived. The low ceiling impression could be because it’s a big open area, or could be the brown wood effect material. I can’t make my mind up on that one.

Overall, the beer is fine and the one word that sums up this pub is Interesting. I’ve visited loads of recent build pubs and they’re usually dead boring. Despite being from the period that style often forgot, the Flying Lady is, well, different. And it’s worth taking a detour to stop by and have a jar just for that. So there.

Monday, 23 July 2012

10 Sydney Arms

Visited on 22 May 2012

Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

Out of the town centre, on the road that goes from the link road roundabout to Leighton Hospital, is the Sydney Arms, at the heart of the suburb of the same name. Another Robinson’s tied house, it has outdoor seating, and is set back from the road behind a low fence, the gate in which gives the staff an early warning of prospective punters who, in Glaswegian parlance, may already have “had enough”.

Why so? That’s because it can be rather fiddly to operate, but the trouble is well worth it: two cask beers are on offer this fine evening, Best Bitter – oops, sorry, Unicorn Best Bitter – and Dizzy Blonde, another of those summery ales which gets its pale colour partly from using Amarillo hops, which are not, repeat not, anything to do with a very cheesy 70s song that we are not going to talk about.

Moving right along from the pump clip, which more or less guarantees that an appearance anywhere in the Palace of Westminster would have Louise Mensch on the warpath in short order, the pint is happily topped up and is most enjoyable. So what kind of pub is the Sydney Arms inside? Compact is the word that comes to mind, with separate rooms for pool, games, and TV.

There’s music of a weekend – as with many Crewe pubs – and I’m slightly concerned that there might be a tendency to loudness from the jukie, though that’s just a thought, not a fact. More evening trade seems to come early doors, which could be down to local businesses and that main-ish road outside. But the Dizzy Blonde is most refreshing. That’s the beer, folks.

The Sydney Arms continues the trend set by the Crown earlier: sound but not spectacular for Robinson’s pubs. Worth popping in if you’re in the area. The blonde beers might appeal to a few of those poor souls who had previously drunk nothing but appallingly tasteless fizzy lager, and it’s good to see an established brewer getting in on this new style.

And with that, it’s back over the road and into a large housing estate. Probably of the same vintage as Tony Christie. All will be revealed later, but I can reveal that Sweet Marie will not be waiting for me there. This is the way to ... oh sod it. Seventies pop – dontcha hate it?!?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

9 Duke Of Gloucester

Visited on 22 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

A warm evening for the next expedition to seek out new pubs and new beer forms, and a long trek to the first one. Sadly, all we have is impulse power to negotiate the big roundabout by the fire station and the road past the Crewe campus of MMU, all the way up to the end of the link road. Here is the Duke of Gloucester, named after the bloke and the locomotive. Which was also named after the bloke.

What I know about this place, having walked past may times, is that it’s a new build Lees tied house, but looks sort of olde-worlde. In this it is not unlike the Kingfisher on the Kingsmead estate near Northwich, which is also a Lees new build. But will Lees bitter still taste as it did all those years ago when I walked down that cobbled street in Rochdale to visit a little pub called the Wellfield (sadly no more)?

OH YE OF LITTLE FAITH! Three handpumps on the bar with three different cask offerings: apart from the bitter, there is the Coronation Street ale and also The Governor, brewed for Marco Pierre White. But I’m sticking to Plan A and so it has to be the bitter. And it tastes just as it did that Friday evening in Rochdale. Lees still has that memorable taste. All is right with the world.

What else do you need to know? There’s lots of space, food is served all day, there’s seating outside (very popular at time of visit), the staff smile and the service is good. And there are cool snacks, like Garlic and Chilli Olive tapa for a couple of quid. So you can have an Iberian interlude too. What does this result in? Plenty of happy punters. Let’s put this bluntly: IT’S NOT BLOODY ROCKET SCIENCE.

I could have called off the rest of the trek, especially as it’s a warm evening, but the mission has to continue. So I have to undock myself from the bar and set course for the next destination. Nice pub, something for everyone – and worth that long walk. I’ll have to stop by again.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Don’t Pour It Out – Why US MegaBrews Are Crap*

Those in the UK that think that the current crop of mega-brands mean bland and characterless beer should spare a thought for many poor souls in the USA. Granted, there is a thriving craft and microbrewery scene, but towering over all else are the national monoliths of uniform mediocrity, propped up by sheer market presence and the steamroller of incessant promotion.

And perhaps the best known of these brands is the Anheuser-Busch version of Budweiser. Bottle labels and cans bear an upmarket looking design, the ad-men keep pushing the idea that fresher beer is better beer (as if anything dead on departure from the brewery can be other than utterly uniform), and every bottle has its own “born on” date, which it wasn’t. That was when it died.

In addition, the idea is pushed that this product should be drunk straight from the bottle. Er, why? We’re a long way from the days of the Frontier, thanks. What’s the problem with doing what we would expect to do with any other bottled beer, and pour it out into a glass, so it can be savoured and enjoyed? That is, of course, assuming there is anything to enjoy in the first place.

Those of us that have studied what goes into well-known beers know one thing about Anheuser-Busch Budweiser and brews like it: these are the pinnacle of producing beer to meet the diktats of cost accountants. You thought that the amount of substitute ingredient and reduction in hopping was a UK lager thing? Welcome to the world of the mega beer.

If you want to create a brew like the US Budweiser, you’ll need lots of flaked rice – around a quarter of the mash, the rest made up of Pilsen malt. And far less hops – maybe half the amount of a genuine Pilsner, and Hallertau instead of Saaz. There you have it – cheaper to mash, cheaper to hop. Forget the flannel from the ad-men, because flannel is all it is.

No wonder the idea is so remorselessly sold of consuming brews like that cold and straight from the bottle. And no wonder the microbrewing movement is taking off across the USA: once one person discovers beer that tastes of something, the habit catches on.

No lager or US megabrand beer was consumed during the compilation of the Crewe Beer Blog. Thought you’d like to know.

*This is merely a personal opinion, as is my right under the protection of the First Amendment. So there.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

8 King’s Arms

Visited on 16 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

You’ve walked past this pub and never been in, right? Come on, anyone who walks from the Grand Junction Retail Park – where you can park for free – to Crewe town centre – where you can’t – has walked past the King’s Arms. You know, the one on the corner before the hump back over the railway, where you sometimes see a bloke on his mobility scooter getting his pint brought out to him.

Well, the King’s Arms is that kind of pub. It’s welcoming and the folks are helpful. And it’s worth going in just to see the maze of rooms, one of which has the lights down and a separate screen for serious football addicts as the play-off semi final reaches its conclusion. It’s another pub of the kind you thought didn’t exist any more, but it does, and it offers cask beer as well.

Yes, among the array of nitro-yuk and SortOfPilsnerIshFizz is a handpump with a clip saying Pedigree. And you can’t say fairer than Pedigree, not at two and a half notes a go. It’s not bad either. Pedigree has a taste that I can’t easily describe, but somewhere in there is what tells you it’s brewed using the Burton Union system. Draught Bass used to have something similar until they changed the process.

Anyway, never mind that, Southend are pressing, countering the Alex’ pass-and-move game with the elegant and stylish, er, barrage of long balls into the box, all urged on by wee Paul Sturrock. This works so well that his team lose possession, the Alex go up the other end, and stick another in the net. So, eh, stick that in yer wee scabby haggis.

Yes, Southend equalise again, but the Alex’ players’ keep-ball for the last couple of minutes, and their lead from the first leg, means they are victorious. Well, what do you expect when your ground is built on an old rubbish tip? Wembley here they come. An excellent conclusion to this short pub crawl and a decent pint in a really original pub to boot.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

7 Rising Sun

Visited on 16 May 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So, on an evening with the Alex bidding to dump Southend out of the play-offs, and the best and worst of local pubs already visited, what of the next one? The Rising Sun, across from the entrance to the retail park and within range of the memorably unpleasant smell of the KFC outlet there, recently spent a while closed up. Fortunately it’s now open again, and pleasingly busy.

This might have been assisted by the nearest competition, the Belle Vue, which was just across the road, being closed, abandoned and demolished in rather short order recently. The east end of Earle Street used to have many more pubs than are open nowadays, one of which, the Vine, is now The Vine Apartments. There may have been others in the past.

So what’s on offer? There is a separate tap room, and large enough for a full size pool table. The lounge appears to have been knocked through into the adjacent house at some time in the past, so no shortage of space there. And, among the array of fizzy and merely nitrogenated promo-beers, is Greene King IPA.

Er, Greene King IPA? From Bury St Edmunds? That used to be unheard of outside the south east? The very same. We will encounter it again. So why is a southern brew fetching up in the north west? Ah well. It’s not just mega-brands that have a larger reach nowadays. Ever since Courage inflicted fizzy John Smiths on Bristol, regional bitters have been travelling further from home.

Goodness knows how bad the keg version of Courage Bristol bitter must have been for John Smiths to be popular, but as Clive James might have said, I digress. How does a southern beer take to being served in the northern style? Actually, it manages pretty well. It’s recognisably Greene King, and it’s in rather good nick. The only problem is that there’s only one bloke behind the bar, and he’s a bit busy.

The verdict? It’s an OK locals’ pub and makes the effort to put on a cask choice. Hopefully it will stay open permanently this time. The only other downside is that, while I’m enjoying my pint, Southend equalise. Bugger.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Guinness – A Product Of Fond Memory

While craft and microbrewing is about variety and innovation, at the other end of the brewing scale, it’s all about brands. Big brands. The bigger the better. Brands that, with the help of relentless promotion and image management, transcend changes in fashion and taste and just keep on rolling. And in today’s world of beer brands, there’s none bigger than Guinness.

It was not always so. The beer more correctly called Guinness Extra Stout – stout being at first merely a description of soundness, and only later meaning a dark beer brewed with roasted malt – was certainly well known. But the ad-mans’ juggernaut of today was a long way off. And most Guinness was historically sold in bottles, which is where the fond memory enters.

That is because the beer left the brewery in its natural state – yes, this was real ale – before going to be bottled. Not all bottlers of Guinness left it that way, and that is why I keep banging on about Hey and Humphries. Getting your Guinness, especially the pint bottles, with the “HH” red cap, meant that your beer was still maturing in the bottle. There would be yeast at the bottom of that bottle.

And this was a premium strength beer, around 4.5% ABV, so in the days of Very Few Other Such Beers (especially in Yorkshire), it was to be treated with respect. Other bottlers also left their Guinness to condition in the bottle, but John Smiths at Tadcaster most certainly did not: what came off their bottling line was dead, and it wasn’t a pleasant drinking experience.

All of which will be news to those whose sole experience of Guinness is of the nitro-keg variant. In this, it was a leader: for many years, Guinness was the only mass produced nitrogenated keg beer. This was then joined first by cans, then cans with widgets, then disposable bottles of pasteurised beer. And so it was that the real Guinness quietly left the stage, never to return.

Meanwhile, the mega-brand Guinness juggernaut rolls on, bolstered by one witless advertising campaign after another, but happily, more and more breweries – and not just in the micro and craft area – have figured out that stout is a style of beer that is well suited to being offered in cask form. Some pubs and bars are actively suggesting that their customers try those beers instead of keg Guinness.

It’s entirely possible that there could be a Guinness cask reverse ferret in the future. But for now, naturally conditioned Guinness Extra Stout is no more than a figment of fond memory for those of us who have achieved A Certain Age.

Friday, 13 July 2012

6 Cumberland Arms

Visited on 16 May 2012
Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

Just north of Crewe town centre, at the far side of the railway bridge at the bottom of Middlewich Street is the Cumberland Arms. It’s got two rooms either side of a central bar, one with a large side room off it. And this evening, despite showing the second leg of the Alex’ play-off semi-final at Southend on the big screen, I increase the number of punters by over 10% by walking through the door.

Make that well over 10%. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s the first pub about which I have to make this statement.


So what’ll it be? Er, it’ll have to be Guinness, then. This turns out to be the usual predictable nitro-keg pale shadow of what is recognisably stout but was dead on departure from wherever it was brewed. It’s bland and I couldn’t give a flying foxtrot how creamy and well advertised it is. But then I can remember pint bottles of Hey and Humphries bottled Guinness with the red tops (That’s enough nostalgia – Ed).

Then I notice that, had I volunteered for the dubious experience of sampling Marston’s UltraCreamy SuperKeg NitroLuxury NearlyBitter, it would not have been possible to satisfy my request. It’s off. And so, lager lovers, is the Carling, not that I want to go anywhere near the stuff. But one of the hardy souls in attendance would like some. “I’ve got cans for a pound” says the bloke behind the bar.

Er, what? I can get cans of Carling round at Asda, or even less than a hundred metres up Middlewich Street at the local Co-Op. Someone is taking the piss (I know, I know, as well as selling it).

There’s little point in a pub that only offers what you can get at the supermarket, and for goodness’ sake, running out of not one but two of Not Very Many Beer Choices – and on a quiet Wednesday evening – is downright unforgiveable.

The Irish feed for the live football was slightly eyebrow raising as well, but fair play to the licensee if it means less dosh for Rupe and his Troops at Sky. But all in all, this place is dire. Make that Capital D Dire. If you can’t do better than this, you might as well not open the place up.

As to why the Cumberland Arms is in the state it is, well, there will be more later. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

5 Nag’s Head

Visited on 19 May 2012
Here's the photo ...

... and here's the map

So, after dipping the toe in the water with the first four pubs, and promising to do all the rest, it’s starting to get serious. Off to the top end of Market Street it is, then.

Most of Market Street is the part that goes from Chester Bridge to the Market Centre mall (which cut it in half when it was built). So many folks forget there is the part to the north side of the shopping centre and its car parks. And here is the Nag’s Head, on the corner of Meredith Street, one of those local pubs that you might have thought had vanished.

It has a separate tap room, there’s a pleasant lounge and a snug off it, and the latest management have committed to offering cask beer. “We’ve only got Wainwright” was the reply, almost apologetically. They usually have two cask choices. Hot food is on at lunchtimes.

No problem there, there’s nothing wrong with Thwaites Wainwright, and it’s on top form. And plenty of punters midweek. Music is on, but not that will stop the conversation: “Acoustic Sounds” is the strapline. That restrained approach has also been a real plus for the excellent Cellar Bar in Chester.

Yep, it’s the kind of pub that I thought had vanished, and it’s pretty damn good news to see that it’s still going, still doing OK – enthusiastic management might be something to do with it – and that it has no problem serving up a good pint of beer. I might be persuaded to revisit the place. Oh all right, I might not need any persuasion at all.

It’s worth venturing across that main road outside Argos, folks. Trust me, I’m a discerning beer drinker and paid-up Yorkshireman.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Pied Bull Beer Festival

[Update at end of post]

Here's a map to guide you from station to pub and back:

Just to prove that the Crewe Beer Blog does get out and about from time to time, here’s the first in a series of En Tour posts, where we visit pubs and beer events around the country. This festival began on April 19, as the Pied Bull Inn, a classic Chester pub and the Number One pick of the Chester Beer Project (by a short head from the equally excellent Cellar Bar) offered a huge selection of beers.

There was also food provided (the spicy sausages were particularly memorable) and a good time was had by all. The Pied Bull also brews its own beers, and had produced two of its own for the evening, one for the Chester Beer Appreciation Society (CBAS), and another for the Chester Beer Project (CBP). To round it all off, there was a Meet The Brewer event as well.

What to tell? The CBAS brew, Sauvin Black, was not universally appreciated, although I liked it. It was reminiscent of a number of continental dark beers, although perhaps there was a bit too much going on in there for one to want to quaff more than one or two at a time. The CBP Number 1 Acerbic Ale was much more straightforward, a real session ale and deservedly popular.

Amidst the crush – these events really are popular – I remember also sampling Marble Bitter from the brewery of the same name in Manchester, which was also very pleasant drinking. And, having brought news that I had made a start on reviewing all the pubs in Crewe, there was general agreement that this process should continue. I concurred with very little reluctance.

Here was clear evidence – as if anyone needs to have it provided – that cask beer can draw in the punters. There were some of the more nerdy persuasion present, as with anything that brings out the enthusiast in people, but many just wanted to have a different evening out and discover new beers. Fortunately, with so many craft and microbreweries opening up, that process looks well nigh inexhaustible.

Travel? This is straightforward from Crewe, as there is a good train service, and the journey takes no more than 25 minutes. I had to remember to start my walk back to the station in order to catch the last train of the evening, which leaves at a shade after 2300 hours. A word of warning here: these trains tend to depart on time, and that means they don’t wait for anyone who turns up late.

The Pied Bull is one of several pubs in Chester recommended by the CBP: you can see the top ten covered in two blog posts HERE and HERE. The Crewe Beer Blog reviews of locals actually in Crewe will resume after a short intermission. Honest.

[UPDATE 9 July 1850 hours: Andy at CBAS has been in touch to say that there is a successor ale to the Sauvin Black which may still be available at the Pied Bull. He describes it as "Reddish colour, better balanced with stack loads more hops with a lovely bitter finish". If only he'd let us know what it's called. If in the area, check at the bar. They're moderately agreeable people]

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Lager – The Accountants’ Triumph

Nothing, but nothing, epitomises the cheap and nasty side of the modern British mega-brewers more than lager. What started off as an imitation of the best and purest beers of continental Europe was transformed by watering down, inferior substitute ingredients and ad-mens’ sleight of hand into a product that the discerning beer drinker would rather had never appeared in the first place.

What they pretended to imitate ...

Ever on the lookout for new and profitable products, the marketing men realised that, with more folks visiting mainland Europe and sampling what were usually Pilsner style beers, they should explore the idea of something similar in the UK. The ingredients – Pilsen malt and Saaz hops – were straightforward. The strength of the finished brew – around 4.5% ABV – was also not a secret.

But neither could be countenanced: for starters, in a drinking culture where consuming well north of a gallon of the stuff was routine of an evening, a beer of that strength would being the point of falling over and ceremonial fighting that much closer. What was to be offered had to be watered down. And, as for those ingredients, the accountants decreed that they were a non-starter.

All that Pilsen malt meant more cost, and Saaz hops were out of the question. So substitutes were found: the cheaper Hallertau hop variety was used, and the quantity of Pilsen malt reduced by introducing a combination of flaked rice, flaked maize and sugar (usually invert). There was no way any of these brews would have satisfied the decree of Rheinheitsgebot.

Flaked rice and flaked maize will, after fermentation, yield alcohol but next to no taste, which means there is less hop needed to balance the brew. This is archetypal ad-mans’ beer. All that was needed now was a brand. Some of the big six secured licences from established names: Whitbread with Heineken and Grand Met with Carlsberg were two. Bass Charrington had acquired Carling Black Label by chance.

... and what they ended up making

Carling was a Canadian brand which came with one of the combine’s many acquisitions. Allied had their own brand, which was not merely Skol, but Skol International (more ad-mans’ faux cachet). And Courage and Scottish & Newcastle bought into Guinness’ creation, Harp. All that was needed now was the customarily heavy promotion.

Lager then came of age during the long hot summer of 1976. But what also came of age was the ability of CAMRA to debunk the myth: their research showed that, of the Big Six brewers’ lager offerings, only Carling was stronger than the standard range of bitter alongside which it was sold. Harp was alleged to have a strength no better than most milds. Skol and Heineken fared little better.

Some of those brands faded away. But lager, the ad-mans’ substitute, marched on.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

National Keg Bitters – Whence They Came, Where They Went

Nothing so encapsulates the move by the Big Six brewers to impose keg beer on the masses than those nationally available keg bitters. Always sold at a premium price, and always heavily advertised, most are now thankfully history. This roll of shame begins at the top, in Burton on Trent.

... where they serve fish and chips and melted ice cream and bleeding Watneys Red Barrel ...

And that means Bass, whose contender was WorthingtonE”. This was a singularly dishonest naming, as what we now know as Draught Bass was also called by that name in some outlets. But they were not the same beer. The keg “E” was imposed on more or less every Bass tied house. It was, er, fizzy, and no more than average bitter strength. But it made more money.

Allied Breweries also indulged in an act of dishonesty when they brought out a “draught” version of Double Diamond. The bottled version had been one of few beers with a reach into the free trade and other breweries’ pubs, and had a strength well over 4% (the recipe was later used as a basis for Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale). The keg imposter was a 3.8% brew, slightly sweet, and utterly bland.

Over the years, Double Diamond, despite all the advertising spend, declined in popularity, and this in turn affected the bottled beer, which is still out there somewhere, but brewed in far smaller amounts. A similar fate awaited keg WorthingtonE”, and the Whitbread variant on this theme, Tankard. Courage’s Tavern (“what your right arm’s for”) also starred, then left the scene.

One of these otherwise forgettable beers, though, has survived: Younger’s Tartan, rampant in the free trade in the 70s, and now brewed at the Charles Wells site in Bedford. But its reach is confined to Scotland, where it is known as “Tartan Special”. And then there is the one that everyone remembers, and which has also (thankfully) vanished without a trace: yes, Watney’s bleeding Red Barrel.

How did they succeed in the first place? As I noted earlier, cask beer did not have a good name in the immediate post-war years, so a brew that was consistent and would not be “off” when served had an advantage. Added to that was the phenomenal amount of advertising spend, and none was greater than the budget Allied allocated to keg Double Diamond.

But the ad-mens’ efforts could also come unstuck: the DD “letters on beermats” campaign (“Q4A DD” and “ICA DD B4ME” were examples) was expertly hijacked by a CAMRA spoof which read “DD=K9P”. Allied’s lawyers had the mats pulped, but the damage was done. So now that these beers are all but extinct, what lesson do they leave? Simples. National brands properly sold can prove extremely lucrative.

So those beers fell by the wayside? So what? They just got replaced by more of the same. The ad-men got slicker, and there were always enough sheep out there.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

4 Hops

Visited on 17 April 2012

Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

So, having left behind the Cheese Hall and a pint of Banks’s “NotOld FlatFarter” Bitter, I clear the earache (“I say! Mine’s bigger than yours!!”) from my head and walk south along Prince Albert Street. At the prompting of the folks at the Chester Beer Project and the Chester Beer Appreciation Society, I’ve agreed to include Hops “Belgian Style” Cafe Bar in the first round of pubs up for review.

What is Hops? Opened in 2007, it’s allegedly a continental-style bar in Crewe. No, I didn’t think so either. Doesn’t compute. What will I find? Will it be appallingly poncy? Will I have a Margritte moment and find myself scribbling “this is not a pub”? Will I stop prattling on and sodding well review the place? Yeah, OK then. First off, it’s welcoming, well lit but not garishly so. It’s got an understated but purposeful vibe.

More than ticking over with midweek custom – I’d previously seen a busy lunchtime trade with folks sitting outside during the milder March weather – the Hops Bar really does have a wide range of British and continental bottled ales, and a menu to go with them (as well as the correct glasses). How correct? Well, someone orders a Kwak (which is a beer, and not a Belgian wet fart) and gets the full deal with the wooden stand. And that means someone is taking beer seriously.

Like the Borough Arms, there are keg taps on one side of the bar, with handpumps on the other. Unlike the Borough, though, just five cask ales are on offer, with four marked as being from local brewers (you can argue that one both ways, of course). I settle on yet another cask stout, Happy Valley Black Magic, and very pleasant it is. This one is definitely up there with Brimstage Oyster Catcher.

Happy Valley Brewery is in Bollington, and also brews Bollywood IPA, which I want to sample just on hearing the name. Whether the owners ever saw the Monty Python sketch of the same name I don’t know (it didn’t feature beer, but did show that smoking could ruin your health). One of the local brews (Townhouse Enigma) is produced specially for the Hops, but not brewed on the premises.

There is no music, muzak, giant TV screen, or any other noise to divert from conversation. Not being built as a pub, the cellar is on the ground floor level – but that doesn’t seem to affect the beer. You could happily spend a couple of hours here: the bloke running the bar is enthusiastic and informative on upcoming guest beers (these are also posted on Twitter).

Food is served at lunchtimes. This has a good reputation. Is Hops a better bet than the Borough Arms (#1)? Decisions, decisions. Maybe further sampling is required. One may volunteer to have one’s arm duly twisted. Another one to mull over as I walk back south past Dunelm Mill, which is a bloody stupid idea. There’s no lighting there at night. Doh!

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

3 Cheese Hall

Visited On 17 April 2012

Here's the photo ...
... and here's the map

This pub was indeed originally called the Cheese Hall. But then it became the Three Lamps, and later Oscar’s (I kid you not), which may have seemed a good idea at the time to somebody. Now it has fortunately reverted to its original name.

It says Marston’s Pub Company outside. But this is no guarantee of seeing a Marston’s cask ale on offer once you get inside. It’s all a bit of a corporate reverse ferret. I will explain.

Marston’s had a tied estate of around 600 pubs, distributed around the country, and did a lot of business in the free trade. They were taken over by Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, whose beers were marketed under the Banks’s and Hanson’s labels. W&B had an estate of over 1,000 pubs, these being concentrated heavily in its West Midlands heartland.

Only later did someone hit on the idea that the Marston’s name might be rather more marketable, and so the Marston’s Pub Company was born. You should get a cask beer choice in these pubs, but don’t expect Pedigree. My midweek visit to the Cheese Hall revealed just Banks’s Bitter.

A long passage leads to a recessed entrance: you then have raised seating areas behind to both left and right. As it’s another corner pub, there is more space down to the right hand side of a long, long bar. There is food on at lunchtimes.

So it’s, er, a pint of Banks’s, then. “It’s a bit lively” says the barman. Maybe this is A Good Thing. I let it settle. And then my Cheese Hall Experience begins to go downhill in short order. My pint of Banks’s Bitter has somehow defied the laws of fluid dynamics. A couple of minutes after being served, it’s as flat as the proverbial fart. It’s, well, drinkable. And then I begin to notice the surroundings.

Somewhere to my left, the bloke who failed the audition for front of house bore at the Unfunny Even When Terminally Ratarsed Bar in Torremolinos is talking up his manhood. Very loudly. Eh? I say! Dead funny, right?!? And! I say!! It’s not the way he tells them. Christ on a bike, I hope he doesn’t decide to do an encore.

A number of studenty types are being asked for ID, which suggests there may be a problem here with under age drinking, or maybe over-zealous management. One obviously under 18 young person is not getting away with being served even after donning an MMU sweatshirt.

There is loud and apparently uncontrollable music playing. And a lot of empty space: this is, after all, a big pub. But there is one plus I can take from this visit: the idea that Marston’s Pub Company equals a decent boozer is not necessarily true. In a word? Disappointing. Hopefully the next stop on the tour will salvage the evening. Ho hum.

Monday, 2 July 2012

How Pubs Evolved – Rise Of The Keg

Once upon a time, pubs dispensed two kinds of beer: draught and bottled. That was the way of the world until 1931, and for many years afterwards in most of the trade. But the die had been cast when Watneys came up with what at first was intended as a niche product for sports and social clubs that could not move enough beer to justify having the stuff on tap.

The stuff of nightmares

Keg beer was “brewery conditioned”, that is, it was dead on departure: unlike cask, which continues to develop, or be conditioned, in the barrel, keg was filtered and pasteurised after brewing. It was then preserved and dispensed using carbon dioxide gas. And the stuff might have stayed in its niche market, had it not been for the Second World War and its aftermath.

The rationing, which went on for many years after hostilities ended, affected not only the amount of beer produced, but also its quality. As almost all of that beer was cask beer, cask beer got a bad name. On top of that, swathes of built up areas in towns and cities were demolished, together with their pubs, as part of the post war move to clear slums and improve living conditions.

So along came new pubs. And here, the newly amalgamated brewing combines saw their opportunity: to introduce new beer brands, which would only be sold in keg form. There would be no chance of the stuff going off, no wastage, and a predictable revenue stream. Publicans were sold the idea of easier cellar work. The ad-men did the rest. Cask beer became unadvertised and therefore unfashionable.

At first, established cask brands remained – typically the house bitter and mild, with some brewers also offering a premium bitter and occasionally a strong or winter ale – alongside the often nationally promoted keg pale ale and the creeping peril of lager, supposedly like continental Pilsner beers, but in reality a pale imitation. But even those brews began to be replaced by keg products.

Many brewers introduced metered dispense, supposedly to make sure drinkers got their full pint, but in reality to ease the introduction of keg beer. If it came out of the same kind of pump head, what could be the problem? Profits kept on going up, older and smaller breweries were closed down, new larger ones opened, and the process then became one of eliminating cask beer altogether.

It’s doubtful that this was the intention back in 1931 when Watneys first introduced keg beer. But brewery conditioned beer became an easy way not so much to a fast buck as to a more predictable and consistent one. That’s what accountants like. And accountants were increasingly pulling the strings at the big brewing combines. That’s how the situation in the early 70s came into being.

Next, a look at national keg bitters. Which are now, mainly and thankfully, history.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

How Pubs Evolved – The Big Six

No part of the recent history of UK brewing and the pub trade is more significant than the growth and behaviour of the Big Six combines that, by the 70s, dominated the industry. They owned and ran tens of thousands of pubs, and their attitude to traditional beer was uniformly hostile. On their watch, whole tied estates were turned over to keg and bright beer and national brands promoted over all else.

Yes folks, it really existed once upon a time

More or less in order of size, the Big Six were Bass Charrington (later just Bass), which at its peak had over 10,000 houses, Allied Breweries, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, and Scottish and Newcastle. The last named did not have the largest tied estate, but did enjoy a significant presence in the free trade. They were the result of post-war mergers and acquisitions on a huge scale.

Bass combined Charrington of London, the Burton brands of Bass and Worthington, Mitchells and Butlers in the West Midlands, and Tennants in Scotland. Allied retained some individual identity for its three largest constituents, Tetley (formerly Tetley Walker), Ansells and Ind Coope. Courage had taken over John Smiths of Tadcaster who in turn had bought out smaller players like the Barnsley Brewery.

Whitbread was a curious mixture of subsidiaries bought up outright, and investment by Colonel Whitbread, the latter often to protect small regional brewers from hostile takeover (Boddingtons being a well known example). But, over time, those protective investments led to total assimilation. Scottish and Newcastle was the amalgamation of William Youngers and the Newcastle brewery.

So what was hotel chain Grand Met doing there? Well, it had taken over the amalgamation of Watney Mann and Truman, later just Watney’s, which had also acquired smaller players such as Websters and Wilsons in the north, and Ushers in the west country. Watney’s, apart from brewing the most reviled national keg brand known to mankind, had the dubious distinction of having invented keg beer.

How successful were they at wiping out cask beer? John Smiths had gone all keg as early as 1970. Newcastle was by the mid 70s a “beer desert”, as not only the Newcastle brewery, but also the Federation clubs brewery had been turned over to tank and keg production. Traditional beer was a rarity in Bass and Grand Met pubs, and Younger’s free trade presence just meant more national keg brews.

Regional brewers weren’t immune to this tendency: Greenalls, Greene King, Matthew Brown, Mansfield, and yes, even Fullers turned significant parts of their estates over to keg beer. And in support of this move was the relentless use of advertising to promote fizzy beer of dubious quality as some kind of lifestyle choice, while in reality it was there to ramp up profits.

So that’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the past 40 years, then. More later.