Saturday 30 October 2010

The Shop That Died Of Shame

Each year, "Top Peoples' Shop" Selfridges (sorry, I don't know what a "Top Person" is) gets a lot of media play over their Christmas window displays. This year, with a theme of play, they invite customers and passers-by to reconnect with their inner child, lighting up their storefront all along Oxford Street with a riot of colour and cleverness based on Christmas Day in a dolls' house.

So far, so good. Then, this pic got picked up by several papers...

Could that be a female Frank Sidebottom? What a coincidence! The pic got picked up by some of the Frank Sidebottom fan groups on Facebook, with questions being asked about whether or not Selfridges had permission to use the likeness. Seems not - they hadn't approached anybody connected with the Sievey/Sidebottom estate. Well, after all, it could be Betty Boop. Right?

I went along this morning to see if there were any more faux Sidies. Oh yes. Several, in fact.

If that's Betty Boop, then I'm Walt Disney.

Selfridges ought to be ashamed of themselves for stealing a dead man's clothes, and I hope they do the right thing by either removing these heads from their display, or make a sizeable donation to the fund being set up to get a statue of the Great Man erected in Timperley.

Thursday 28 October 2010

First, There Was The Clone Beer. Now...?

...the UK may have its first clone brewery! Yes, folks, say hullo to Kent Brewery, a new start-up in the Garden of England. I say start-up, as the business is caught up in a planning dispute which has delayed their setting up in a permanent home. While they work with their prospective neighbours and the local authority, they are keeping their hands in with the help of a neighbouring brewer, said to be Larkins, to produce some test brews.

They do have a website, which has a wonderfully evocative theme about Kent's place in our brewing tradition, lofty ambitions in the area of provenance and the exciting possibilities of the New Hops. However, these are forward-looking brewers, as they explain,
[we] will not be recreating old recipes (although we may take guidance from the best), or keeping only to traditional hop varieties, because we are looking to the future rather than to the past for our inspiration.
Ah, guidance from the best. Who's the best? Might be the former employer of Paul Herbert (our Kentish Man), judging by the couple of unfined gyles of beer which have made their way to his old place of work. My source (we'll call him/her, "Deep Pint") takes up the tale.

Numbered Gyle 1, the first contained a 5.5% Porter, while the other cask is described as a "pale hoppy beer". Both might be described as 'signature beers' of the former employer. One has been a Champion Beer Of Britain. Recent sampling of Gyle 1 caused raised eyebrows, as the beer appeared to be exactly to the recipe of his old employers' Porter. A little side-by-side sampling took place outside the brewery, which confirmed the suspicions. According to Deep Pint, his erstwhile colleagues are "fuming" about what they see as ripping off their recipes.

Now, it's possible that Herbert is just using these recipes until his own brewery is up and running. Or perhaps "guidance" means copying lock stock and hopsack. Just to make sure, I expect his old mates will be in touch to wish him well and ask for their recipe book back.

Monday 25 October 2010

Where's The Beer?

Greene King has launched a series of ads for press and TV, following a survey they commissioned asking punters what they thought made up the 'proper pub'.

I saw these two in yesterday's Observer...

There will be a series of six of these ads, picking up some of the popular responses from the survey. I could only find these two online, so I'm guessing the campaign will be refreshed by releasing the others through the duration of the campaign. I believe one deals with beer gardens.

The question I have for Greene King right now is: Where's The Beer? Shouldn't one of those glasses on the table in front of the settle, be a pint glass? You brew the stuff, don't you want to sell it in your pubs?

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Missing A Trick?

The news today is that our beloved leader "CallMeDave" Cameron gifted bottles of Fullers London Pride to each of 'Los 33', the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days until last week. In return, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera gave 'Dave' a lump of rock from the floor of the cave.

A couple of things occurred to me. While CAMRA were delighted that Dave had finally 'got it' with his gift of real ale (is Pride Real Ale In A Bottle? I didn't think it was), didn't he also 'get it' with his little beer trade with US President Barack Obama a couple of months back? And, why Fullers? Is that a little pat on the back for Michael Turner's support of the Comprehensive Spending Review? He signed the letter published in the Daily Torygraph a couple of days back.

If it had been me, I'd have been on the dog and bone to Demon Brewer Don Burgess, to blag a couple of cases of his excellent (and bottle-conditioned) Freeminer Deep Shaft Stout.

The final thing is this lump of rock. I remember going to Berlin during April of 1990. All along the western side of the Wall, people were knocking out chunks of it, preserved in little plastic bags. Turned out that enterprising 'Osties' were casting concrete, spraying it with paint and smashing it up to sell to people like me. If I were you, 'Dave', I'd make sure your bit of cave rock came with a certificate of authenticity before popping it on eBay.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Spooge Vampires Bitten On The Bum

A delicious tale of spoofery and angst reaches me from The World Of Spooge. The normally reliable site carried news of a beer launch from the well-regarded and ticker-targeted Captain Lawrence brewery of Pleasantville NY. Reading from a press release purportedly from founder Scott Vaccaro, the site informed readers of the launch of several highly-desirable beers.

The 'news' was posted on Beer Advocate, where the trading forum vibrated into action. A few members with functioning cerebella smelled a rat and wondered why they hadn't seen the info, since they are on the brewery email list. Their voices were drowned out as the Vampires worked out how to corner the market in the precious nectar. Some bleated about the scheduling, complaining they had other spooge to hunt. Then, later the same day, word came down that it was all a hoax. Vaccaro had seen the info late in the day and passed word that it wasn't true. published a correction and apology, and BA admins locked down the thread before anybody exploded with anticipation.

All well and good? Well, not quite. The Ladies Of Craft Beer pondered a while and concluded that Captain Lawrence are somehow culpable because they don't have anybody scanning the social media interwebs 24 hours a day. Instead of just accepting somebody perpetrated a clever hoax that got a lot of knickers bunched, there has to be an inquest.

You want an inquest? The often despicable behaviour of these people in their single-minded pursuit of eBay and trading fodder continues to be hothoused by the online beer communities providing them with trading fora. They have become predictable in their greed, and eventually, somebody was bound to dupe them. To claim that a brewer has some complicity because he isn't baby-sitting a bunch of avaricious numbskulls instead of trying to run his business is to offer excuses for shallow greed and disrespect for beer. The Vampires scored big last month when they cleaned Russian River out of commemorative beer in 24 hours, this month they've been made to look stupid. Get over it.

Here's to the next stunt!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Cask Report: The Kennington View Pt. 2

In the first part of this article, I set the scene and wrote about some of the pubs located around Kennington Cross. Thanks to local blogger The SE11 Lurker for linking to part 1. If you're a Kennington resident and found your way here via his blog, I'm interested in getting your non-'beer geek' perspective on the local pubs - the beer (especially handpulled cask beer), the prices, the clientele. For this you have my grateful thanks.

To kick off this part then, it's on with the visits.

The Pilgrim (left) and I go back a ways. This was my local through much of the 80's and early 90's after I came back from Germany, the guv'nor being quite tolerant of things like having a chorus line doing 'New York, New York' with their trousers around their ankles at last orders, or filing in on a busy Friday night with underwear being worn on the outside. Those things create a bond. It was a Courage house for years, and was the first pub in which I started to regularly drink cask.

These days, the pub has a very young feel with friendly hipster bar staff, and the two beer engines look a bit out of place. I noticed the large fridge had several bottles of ale (sorry Martyn) though. Perhaps Da Kidz prefer their top fermented beer from bottles. Only one cask beer was on, Deuchars IPA. Again, it was in mediocre form. A couple of older drinkers sitting at a table supping pints of lager (the working man's pint says The Pub Curmudgeon, and I agree) looked out of place.

The original landlord of The Pilgrim stayed in the area, taking over the nearby backstreet boozer The Duchy Arms (right), and he's still there. This is a family-run pub, rare these days. Those working-class drinkers I was looking for drink in here, though there's some lunchtime office worker trade too. This place has been a sometime local for me in the past, but I've usually steered clear of the cask offering. The pub used to have two beer engines with Adnams and a guest, and last time I popped in it had the worst Rosey Nosey I've ever tried. Pure vinegar. These days The Duchy has three beer engines, and my half of Wye Valley HPA was pretty good, in fact apart from the Late Red, the most drinkable beer I had on the day. Pricewise, it was just under £3 for a pint.

The next stop is also a blue-collar pub, The Ship (left). Not a pub I ever frequented much, it provided a base for Peckham RL club many years ago. Despite sitting amidst terraces of million pound townhouses, it's tended to draw custom mostly from the local housing estates. A couple of beer engines, but only one with beer, this time Courage Best. It was in pretty poor shape, though much cheaper than in the more upmarket pubs.

I went by a little oddity, The Royal Oak (right) in Fitzalan Street. It's like the 80's never happened. Note the old Youngers' sign on the wall. The old guv'nor (now sadly passed on, I believe) used to run a Rolls Royce, which he parked outside the pub. Hours were whatever he felt like, he'd pay you to play the jukebox and would buy the whole pub a round. Cask beer? Not a chance. This place gets customers from the nearby estates, and probably always will. Time might have stopped for some of them, as well...

If Kennington Cross is the town centre, Kennington Park Road near Kennington underground station is the town end. More nice houses, Guinness Trust flats and a couple of large estates, very little in the way of shops and two pubs right next to one another, unfortunately on the wrong side of the underground to appeal to thirsty travellers. I say two, only one is actually trading. That's the Old Red Lion. This was a geezers' pub, all keg and big-screen sports. I didn't know it had changed hands since the Grade II listed facade always made it impossible to tell if the place was open or shut, but since earlier this year it has been part of the Antic Pub Co. This, alone of all the pubs I visited, doesn't try to attract any lunchtime trade during the week, with opening hours from 4pm to midnight. The interior has been remodelled extensively, creating a curiously dissonant effect setting mock tudor against 60's modern furniture. There are 6 beer engines. Only one was dispensing beer, Purity Ubu being sold from a tap with a parcel tag instead of a pump clip. On the other side of the island bar, a Doom Bar clip was turned around. £1.60 for a half which was OK.

On the left of the picture you'll see The Mansion House. So what? you'll say. The bloke who owns The Hermit's Cave in Camberwell used to have it, sold out to Shepherd Neame who spent a fortune on a new kitchen but couldn't make any money, and it's been closed since. It's of interest because it would have been a genuine destination pub in Kennington. If you ever heard talk of Oakham Ales opening a London tap to be called 'OAKA', this was it. They even gave out free pint vouchers at GBBF a few years back. I don't know why it didn't come off, but Kennington still sits and waits for a genuine decent beer venue. Footfall might pick up on this side of 'town' when a new Tesco's opens next door to The Old Red Lion.

That's all the pubs. Well, pretty much. I left a couple out, and there's the many that have disappeared over the years - The Alderman, The Rising Sun and Court Tavern, lost to residential use; The Cricketers and Horse & Groom near Newington Butts, The Giraffe, The Carpenters Arms, all closed. The Cock Tavern in Kennington Road is now South London Pacific, a cocktail and cabaret club.

Conclusions? Well, there's this idea of the 'community pub'. I'm not sure which of these is a 'community pub'. Possibly all of them are since they are clearly targeting different markets in the area. Thirty years ago, most of them were selling to a working-class clientele which during the week was swollen by workers, with regular lunchtime trade Mondays to Fridays. These days Kennington is much more socially-mixed, with almost all of the newer residents being squarely in the crosshairs of the Cask Report's ideal drinker profile. Several of the pubs have mutated (evolved?) into gastro and food-led establishments to service their business, and the neighbourhood has more dining out and bar/bistro type places competing for that business as well. Only The Royal Oak on my tour is wet-led.

Cask presence? All of the pubs that used to ignore cask beer now sell it, and what's more, most sell it at what to me is a premium. The 'town centre' pubs have already priced the working-class drinker out of the area. Prices were between £3.30 and £3.40 a pint. Compare that to specialist beer venues like Cask (£3.35) and The Rake (£3.10), and noted real ale venues like The Harp (£3.10). The two pubs which attract a more blue-collar clientele were the exception - The Duchy Arms and The Ship were both £3 or less, and I'd assume they have relatively lower prices for other drinks.

The beer. There were some usual suspects, hardly anything micro. Taylor's Landlord and Sharp's Doom Bar turned up regularly. Neame has their own beers on the bar at The Prince of Wales, and Young's, Black Sheep and Bombardier were about. Most of the pubs are either free houses or part of small pubcos, but all played safe with brands which might be familiar to cask drinkers. Most of what I had was in average shape. The Courage Best from The Ship and Doom Bar in the Tommyfield was clearly on the way out and shouldn't have been on sale.

That brings me to the matter of beer quality. Judging by what I found, this is a substantial hurdle. The only beer I tried in really good form was in The Prince of Wales, a tied house. The Cask Report suggests the ABC1 cask ale consumer is a fickle one. Unless their cask experience is routinely good, they'll turn their backs on it. The Report suggests cask beer is some kind of shorthand for craft offerings to a receptive audience who are tightening their belts but will still spend on quality. Curmudgeon does an excellent job of deconstructing premiumisation here. I don't know how the manager of The Tommyfield (the only clear 'gastro' venue trading on local provenance) sets about quality control in his cellar and among his punters. I don't know what his company's position on having cask on the bar is, except to wonder that the atmos they're striving to create might be undone the first time a customer spits out the pint of near-vinegar they just sipped.

Can you get away with premium pricing and a 'craft' proposition if the beer is routinely in poor form? Which way do you turn when sales drop off? Do these places provide suitable training for their staff? Do any of the pubs offer samples and tastings to customers? Of all the pubs I visited, only The Duchy Arms is a member of Cask Marque. While I hear mixed messages from the trade about their value, membership is at least a pointer to some kind of commitment to keeping and selling cask beer in good condition. Maybe the 'Guardian-reader' pubs don't expect to sell much, or rely on the ignorance of their customers to get away with beer in poor form. The two pubs with a decent lunchtime crowd in, were the two pubs with cask in drinkable condition, though I didn't see anybody else drinking it after I left The Prince Of Wales.

This is all anecdotal. I didn't rigorously sample every cask beer in every pub. I didn't check temperature, or try to find out how much each place sells, the proportion of wet sales, or the prices of keg alternatives. I didn't ask the pub operators for a comment about their commitment to cask beer. But taking the long view, having some historical knowledge of many of these pubs, it seems clear that Kennington does, in fact, reflect some of the good and, especially, the bad of what the Cask Report has captured and concluded. For me, I'll still be on the bus outta there when I'm after a decent pint...

Saturday 9 October 2010

Cask Report: A London Case Study?

Probably not, actually. But I've been musing on some of the commentary which followed the publication of the latest Report. Target markets for cask, premium pricing, exclusion of non-cask consumers, have all been fermenting in my noggin. To test some of these points, I thought I'd have a stroll around my neighbourhood, and see what's what in the local pubs.

I live in Kennington in South London. Really it's Central London but when you live south of the river, you're never 'central'. Kennington is like a commuter suburb. Not much in the way of local commerce or light industry any more, residents mostly work away from the area by day. Large local employers like James Burroughs (Beefeater Gin) and Naafi are long-gone. These days, estate agencies are prominent. They used to say Kennington was known for churches and pubs. I don't think too many churches have disappeared over the years, but a lot of the pubs have. Those that are left get some lunchtime trade, but tend to be busiest in the evenings.

Much of Kennington is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Head up Kennington Lane from Vauxhall, and most of the housing on the left-hand side of the road is former Duchy estate workers' housing. MP's have had flats and houses here for as long as I've lived here, and there are also some very large council housing estates, so Kennington is quite a socially-mixed area these days. That's because in the late 80's, huge amounts of the Duchy-owned housing were put on the market. Though some of the new influx were transients, generally, they've stayed and consequently the demographic in Kennington is much more upper-middle class and professional. The type of open-minded, adventurous, young ABC1's the Cask Report talks about reaching out to.

It's had an effect. Kennington went a couple of decades without a supermarket until Tesco opened up in 2000. Dining out is a lot better. Boris has put huge numbers of his Bikes in the neighbourhood. And there are now local associations and fora, and an annual 'Village Fete' and boules (or bocce - I don't know the difference) in Cleaver Square. Amusingly (to me, anyway), when Transport For London decided Kennington Lane was the southeastern boundary of the congestion charge zone, the more well-to-do residents, horrified by the prospect of having to pay to take little Jocasta and Guido to school in Westminster or wherever, tried to stymie the plans. Cue gatherings with nibbles, all very genteel, all very Kennington.

I mentioned earlier that a lot of pubs have gone. In 1980 you could have gone from Vauxhall Street to Newington Butts and, without leaving the two main roads leading there (Kennington Lane and Kennington Park Road) very far, visit 26 pubs. Today, I think you'd be lucky to find ten. Now, I'm not one for drinking locally. I like Zeitgeist in Black Prince Road but my beer geekiness means I tend to leave the area for a pint, and that's been the case for some years. We've never had any really good pubs, but recently I've become aware that some have changed hands or changed their 'offering'. With Kennington also being a different place these days, I wondered how much the pubs had changed. Did they have cask? Did the locals still use the pubs? What was pricing like? Thus, I ventured forth to have a look...

Since I've babbled on to set the scene, I'll do the pubs in two parts. This bit will deal with the pubs around what is recognised as the 'town centre' at Kennington Cross. Our first stop is The Prince Of Wales in Cleaver Square. In the 80's this was a Courage house and had a reputation as a bit of a villains' pub. I remember they did sell cask, though. The story goes that residents got fed up with late-night noise and police vans circling the Square looking for 'faces', and got Courage to close it. Greene King had it for a bit, and now it's a Shepherd Neame pub, In fact, a plaque says it won Best Cellar for 2009. A compact space, it's clearly aimed at dining punters - where there used to be a jukebox, a small dining area has been created. I had a pint of Late Red, which was pretty good. Three beer engines - the other had Kent's Best and Spitfire was off.

Next, I popped into The Tommyfield. This was always The White Hart, in Watney's hands. It became a tapas bar in the late 80's and a few years ago was bought by the small Renaissance pubco. They put in a new kitchen and bar and restored the White Hart name (they say Kennington used to be deer-hunting grounds), although a refurb and relaunch earlier this year saw the 'offering' tweaked to a more 'gastro' food-led pub with emphasis on provenance, and a name change. They have Meantime Pale Ale on keg (sometimes), and three beer engines, which I don't remember the old White Hart having. I had a half of Sharp's Doom Bar. They also had Taylors' Landlord and another beer I'd never heard of.

Across the road is the Dog House, formerly The Roebuck (see? More ungulates). This was a Charrington House popular with the 'old git' contingent. In fact, an old git was outside having a half of lager when I popped in. I guess some regulars will hold on to their local pubs as long as they can. This was the first pub in Kennington to target the new influx. In the mid-90's it reopened with bare walls and floors, reclaimed furniture, board games and wines and spirits leading the menu. I remember they used to have a fake handpump with a keg bitter, but that's now gone and they have three beer engines. I had a half of Black Sheep Bitter, and they also had Bombardier and another beer.

Number four on my list was The Black Prince. This was a pub popular with locals off the huge Ethelred Estate. I remember it as having no cask beer in the 90's, but it's recently changed hands. Check out the bar back - it's still the original Double Diamond one that was there donkey's years ago. Ironic? The pub is now food-led and has four beer engines. I had a half of Young's London Best. Young's Ordinary, Doom Bar (again) and another beer were available.

So far? All but the Prince of Wales is free of tie, though The Tommyfield is part of small pubco. All of the pubs have cask these days but, apart from the Neame house, it was mostly in poor condition, making me wonder if these places can support three or four beer engines. Cask in these pubs was priced between £3.30 and £3.40 a pint which I'd say is premium (The Harp in the West End is £3.10), and based on the quality, not worth it.

I'll round up the rest of the pubs in my next post here, try to find where the C2DE's are doing their drinking, and draw some dodgy conclusions. Stay tuned...

Saturday 2 October 2010

The Curious Case Of The Beer That Never Was...

One of the things I like about many US brewers is their sense of place and their support for the communities they sell beer in. Not just by the act of brewing and selling beer, but by embedding themselves in the life of the community.

So it is that, each October, Russian River Brewing Co of Santa Rosa CA, supports Breast Cancer Awareness Month by raising money for a local womens' health centre in Santa Rosa. Parade floats, sales of special "All Hopped Up For The Cure" merchandise, raffles and sales of beer. Last year, they wrote a cheque for $12,000, and hope to beat that for 2010.

As it turns out, they already put $3,000 in the kitty, but nobody is jumping up and down too much. RRBC brewed a small batch of beer (supposedly based on their Beatification ale), oak-aged for 6 months with raspberries. "Framboise For The Cure" was released at their pub on Thursday, but before they could announce it officially, the Spooge Vampires got wind. The lovely and fragrant Natalie Cilurzo takes up the tale on RRBC's blog:
I will admit, I am a little bummed that someone posted it on Beer Advocate before lunch yesterday and all 23 cases were snatched up in less than 24 hours.
From Beer Advocate, I learned that people were frantically calling local contacts to help them obtain the beer. Seems like our friends the mules were also in evidence to help the greedy buggers get around the '2 bottles per person' limit RRBC set to ensure fair availability.

I'm happy that RRBC sold all that beer and put a nice wedge into the fundraising kitty. What annoys me is the behaviour of these sad gits every time a limited-edition beer is released, even when it's for a worthy cause. HateBeer and BA trading forums are now glowing with traffic generated by this, with some traders self-righteously patting themselves on the back for supporting such a good cause. No doubt some of this beer will wind up on eBay selling for multiples of the $12 retail price, and bottles will be traded back and forth. After all, with only 276 bottles brewed, it's uber-rare. I don't suppose any of the profiteers will think of making a donation to the cause.

I'll leave the final word to Natalie:
And to those who did get a couple bottles, please drink it humbly with friends and family in honor and memory of the survivors and especially the ones who lost the good fight.
Fat chance.

Pic above by Mario Rubio