Friday 31 December 2010

Your Local: A State Of Mind?

The following piece was published almost exactly five years ago today in the New York Times...
FOR the last nine years, the Blind Tiger Ale House on Hudson Street in the West Village was one of the best places for New York's beer lovers to be on New Year's Eve. But last night, its doors were locked. The wee hours of Dec. 29 marked the end of an era - the last pint was poured at the Tiger...

The place had been around for only a decade, but in that time it became practically world famous for its beer selection. American microbrews, classic Belgians and a selection of others handpicked from around the globe were poured from 24 taps, two handpulls and endless bottles.

But the Tiger was more than just a place where you could count on drinking a Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale in the fall and Southampton Double Espresso Stout in the winter. It was a cornerstone of the West Village, a place where people from the neighborhood and beyond came to enjoy good company and great beer.

It didn't seem special at first glance. It was dark and a little dingy, just one small room with a few wooden tables. The graffiti in the downstairs men's room elevated profanity to an art form, and not all the barstools had their legs intact. The bar itself was elegant - a deep brown wood with zebra-like stripes in the grain. There were two televisions, but the Tiger was no sports bar.

I soon became one of the regulars. So regular that on Friday afternoons, the Tiger became my office. I sat at the corner of the bar with my laptop and cellphone, drinking seltzer, chatting with Louise the bartender and trying to make sure the bar cats (Sierra and Liberty) didn't pounce on my keyboard. And though the Tiger was a good place to work, it was an even better place to socialize.

But now, the bar is closed. Apparently, what has happened one block over on Bleecker Street is now happening on Hudson. The small, independently owned businesses are giving way to the fancy chain stores... While I understand the economics of the situation, it is still galling, even wrong. I have so many memories associated with the Tiger. Of sharing good times, birthdays, engagements. Of rallying behind a friend in need. And I'll never forget that night in September when regulars and a soot-covered news crew gathered at the bar as Humvees barreled up Hudson Street, away from the smoldering ruins of the twin towers.

There's talk that the Tiger will return, a few blocks away, and I would be the first in line for a pint. In a city of strangers, we find our families in funny places - coffee shops, office cubicles and, sometimes, the corner bar. I haven't yet heard of that happening in a Ralph Lauren boutique.
My mate Pete Fornatale wrote that, marking the closure of the old Blind Tiger. I met him and a lot of my other NY friends in there, and when I go back, the new Tiger on Bleecker Street is the first place I go. Last time I was in NYC, I hardly left. It's my New York local, and for more reasons than just the beer. It's a place where everybody knows my name. OK, I exaggerate, but chances are somebody will be there who I know if I stop in for a pint.

The loss of The Royal Albert in SW8 (Stockwell or Clapham or Vauxhall depending on your preference) started me thinking, and Pete's piece is as fitting a eulogy for a lost pub as any I've read. The Albert was a 'local' for me for almost a decade from around 1993. A pub owned by reviled Whitbread, hiding under their Hogshead brand, yet a committed management team used to run regular real ale fests around the time I started exploring the UK cask beer scene. When it stopped being a Hogshead and the beer choice became pedestrian, I still used it. Last time I was in, almost a decade ago, the barmaid was a tranny and it had a 'fringe' vibe. I was drinking light & bitter, the bitter being Worthington Smoothflow. Another mutation of a pub that must have reinvented itself almost half a dozen times in the years I used it. Most recently, it had apparently gone gastro, to no avail.

I've never really had one pub that runs as a thread throughout my beer-drinking. But I wonder, does anyone? Our expectations and tastes change, the market changes and pubs come and go. As the Albert slips into oblivion a neighbouring pub, The Canton, which I knew as a lairy locals pub with Sizzling Steaks, keg beer and Big Screen Football is apparently one of Fay Maschler's Top Ten new London restaurants (it's a PUB, Fay).

How many 'locals' does a drinker have during a lifetime? Is it always a local for the same reasons? Does it have to be nearby to be local? Perhaps there are weird and mysterious psychogeographical forces at play which lead us to our watering-holes. I dunno. This year I've paid more attention to the numbers of closures, the "49 pubs a week", "29 pubs a week" tale of the tape BBPA reports on every quarter, but I wonder, does anybody ever record the personal stories, the community of experiences, that were lost with each pub that closed? "In a city of strangers, we find our families in funny places", wrote Pete. Does that ring true in 2010 Britain?

Go careful now. And Happy New Year!

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Dear Dredgie...

(I'd have posted a reply on the blog, but since you upgraded, I can't leave comments)

A beautiful piece of work. Got me dribbling. But you don't say where the unblessed can buy it. Give us a clue...

Friday 24 December 2010

Ho Ho Ho! Russian River Upsets Spoogebeerians For Xmas

Highly-regarded Californian brewer Russian River has upset members of the beer trading community by announcing their programme for sales of seasonal Double IPA Pliny The Elder in 2011.

If you were reading back in the Spring, you'd have seen that a 'growler' (64 US fl. oz. container) of the stuff made it here. RRBC launch the beer each year saying it should last "longer than a day, but less than a week". In 2010, it didn't even last a day, as queues round the block exhausted the batch in record tine. Much of it ended up being traded by the vile spoogebeerians who infest a dark corner of the beer-drinking community. RRBC was also targeted when it released a special beer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and spoogebeerians bought up the lot.

For the 2011 Pliny The Younger release, RRBC has taken steps to ensure Pliny The Younger is available in the pub for 2 weeks, and that means they won't be filling any growlers. As Natalie Cilurzo says in the RRBC blog,
kegs will be allocated to last for exactly 2 weeks. Therefore, we may run out at the pub each day, but will have more the following day for 2 weeks. It will be available in 10 oz. glasses only- no growlers or bottles to go. This will allow more beer enthusiasts like you, as well as our regular customers, to enjoy some Younger this year! And we won't see it on Ebay!
Predictably, this has exercised some of the BeerAdvocate 'community', who've have taken their heads out of their backsides arguing over whether a hefeweizen is an ale (see Ron Pattinson's post, but be prepared to lose your will to live) for long enough to notice what RRBC are doing.

Never mind a brewer is plugged in to the local community and wants to ensure regulars and locals can drink their beer, this isn't good enough. Some BAs think that the brewery needs to consider massive expansion so they can sell into all 50 US states. One thought that RRBC needed the trading market driven by these selfish buggers to build business. Yeah, right. Like a hole in the head. A few voices of reason surfaced, but the sense of entitlement that comes off some of these people is nauseating.

So, a craft brewer strikes a blow against the Grinches of the spoogebeer trading collective. Hopefully they won't be the last.

Joy on earth, peace and goodwill to all men*, ho ho ho and buy the Frank Sidebottom box set! Merry Christmas!

*but not spoogebeerians.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Boggle Awards 2010

I don't have the budget or the engagement in the wider beer scene to be able to put together something like the impressive 'Golden Pint Awards' trailed on Young Dredgie's page. But I did want to recognise some good experiences in the London beer scene, so I've designed the "Boggle Awards", which are awarded in four categories:

Best London Brewer - Kernel Brewing
Best London Pub - The Harp, Chandos Place
Best London Beer Bar - The Rake, Borough Market
Best Beer Retailer - Utobeer, Borough Market

I decided to differentiate between a pub and specialist beer outlet because I think they cater to different demand, though it's clear that in some cases the lines are blurring. As London suddenly has a healthy brewing scene, I wanted to acknowledge my favourite local brewer, and the retailer award takes care of the off-trade.

The retail side might look like usual suspects, but it's still early days as new outlets look to craft beer to grow their business. Cask Pub & Kitchen gets an honorable mention for this year, and this time next year I'm sure there'll be new on- and off-trade outlets vying for recognition. As things develop, I'm sure I'll develop some more rigorous criteria to help me decide winners in future years. Or maybe not.

I haven't bothered to pick out a favourite London beer, since I don't take notes and I've supped several excellent brews this year. My top 10 UK-brewed would include Lovibonds' astonishing Sour Grapes, Saltaire's excellent Triple Chocolate, Kernel's delicious re-imagining of a Baltic Porter and my go-to pint, Dark Star's lovely APA, but really, so much affects the beer-drinking experience, so I'm not going to try and reduce a good year for beer to a list.

Thanks to all the brewers, pubs and bars, and shops for providing me with these experiences.

Saturday 11 December 2010

From The Spambox

I don't get too much spam as a result of writing this blog. The occasional request to publish feeds from trade recruitment companies, or some PR trying to generate some excitement over a beer-naming competition for Butlins. I expect the 'opinion-formers' of our community are pestered more. Still, the odd interesting email turns up. I fished a couple of missives out of the spam box this week which I thought I'd share.

First was a request from a character called Uncle Wilco, who introduced himself thus:
Hello I follow you on the interwebs and read your beer stuff (but I am different from the other nutters)
Hullo, I thought, makes a change from claims that the contents of the email will increase traffic and help me monetize. This guy runs what I'd call a beer porn site called, but I've encountered him before in his guise of garden shed enthusiast, when I posted this pic of Frank Sidebottom on flickr. He runs a site called Readers' Sheds, so definitely not your usual nutter... anyhow, seems he wants to do for beer what he's done for sheds, and he's signed up such luminaries as The Boy Dredge and Zak Avery to reveal all, so watch out for my dirty little beer secrets being revealed alongside theirs.

The other email was from Meanatime, announcing their College Beer Club. This was trailed earlier this year, and expressions of interest invited from 'aficionados' to see if the limited subscription of 500 memberships would be taken up. Interestingly, at the beginning of the week, my source 'Deep Pint' texted me to enquire rhetorically, whether I knew how many members there were. I assume there weren't any because the club hadn't formally launched, but if you know different, drop me a line.

My initial thought was, who is this for? £350 for 12 months is a lot, even if the core offer of 24 bottles of exclusive Meantime spooge means access to beer nobody else will drink. Is that a good thing? Peter Haydon, who wrote out to the blogerati, proudly exclaims that
When you join the College Beer Club, you are not just buying beer you are buying a first class ticket on a journey of discovery
He goes on to describe some of the other benefits, including:
...exclusive brewery tours, brewmaster’s dinners, tutored tastings, and a range of exclusive events and offers with Club’s affiliate organisations including, the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Sir John Soane Museum, Class Magazine and 86 St James.
Class Magazine? 86 St James? Really, I mean, who IS this Club for?

As a mate of mine said only this Thursday, it's only beer.

Thursday 9 December 2010

The World Is Just Like One Great Big Gigantic Xmas Tree

Oddsmakers predict that, at the moment, Evil Emperor Simon Cowell will likely be pushed for Xmas Number One by either Surfin' Bird by The Trashmen (thanks to repeated exposure on Family Guy over the past couple of years) or the celeb-performed 'Cage Against The Machine' gimmick release of John Cage's 4' 33".

While I quite like the idea of X-Fucktor being beaten by four-and-a-half minutes of silence, it isn't really Christmassy, is it? So I'm reminding you all that you need to get on Frank Sidebottom for Number One. Right now, Paddy Power will give you 40/1, so you could slip a crafty fiver on, then get all your mates on board. If I had any friends, that's what I'd be doing.

To get a taste of the true Spirit Of Christmas, here's a video made by Frank associates Paul McCaul and Mark Alston, with a little help from the residents of Timperley...

Bet you feel all warm inside now...

Let's Get Fantastic Frank To Number One! Sunday 12th December, download from Amazon or iTunes!

Thank you.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

"I Was Working In The Lab..."

This morning, your correspondent was at London's excellent Kernel Brewery, as Rake manager and Rabid Barfly Glyn Roberts embarked on another brewing adventure, this time swapping the valleys of Wales for the backstreets of Bermondsey.

Our host was the affable Evin O'Rioirdain, who in less than a year has built a formidable portfolio of bottled beers and a brilliantly simple yet effective brand. Already a SIBA winner, he produces an impressive array of delicious hop-forward golden ales alongside his interpretations of some old-style darker brews, like London Porter, Export Stout and his recently-released Imperial Stout.

Today, with Glyn as a catalyst (actually, more like Igor to Evin's Dr. Frankenstein), Evin is fusing his two signature streams to create a version of San Francisco brewpub 21st Amendment's Back In Black Black IPA, a beer Glyn has raved about since his honeymoon. A 6.8% brew with Carafa roasted malt and hopped with Centennial and Columbus, 21A were generous in sharing their recipe with Evin.

As I arrive, Evin and Glyn are preparing to commence the boil. Mike, a homebrewer with thoughts of stepping up to commercial scale, is helping out around the brewhouse, getting a feel for the ebb and flow of a brewers' day. It has me reflecting that, in all the heated debate about 'craft beer' occupying the thoughts of the UK blogosphere, one of the criteria ought to be the level of automation. Here, it's all hoses and buckets. No computer controls, no Star Trek console telling the kit which valve to open, how much liquor to pump and where, just a brewer seamlessly interacting with his plant to produce an impressive finished beer. And then there's Glyn...Here, our Barfly weighs out the Carafa, steams up his specs while checking the brewing copper temperature, weighs out the first addition of hops, then, strangely, rubs hop oil on his upper lip. He says it's a natural decongestant, but that look on his face isn't because of Vicks Vaporub. Evin only uses whole hops, so there's every chance Glyn was blissed out in Druid Street way before the time came to put the yeast in.

Here's some more pics from the lab...
Like I said, Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. Igor checks the mash tun temperature, while that foaming stuff is new life (last seen as a prop in Woody Allen's Sleeper (1973) ). Finally, Evin commits bruicide by throwing himself into the brewing copper after Glyn snorts one too many hops.

Talk is that some of this might be available on cask as well as bottles. I find myself mischievously wondering whether kegging might suit the style better, but you know it'll be good. I can't wait...

Sunday 5 December 2010

Ho Ho Ho, Hee Hee Hee...

In a week or so, we'll have some sub-pub singer at the top of the pop charts, courtesy of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas No. 1, pop impresario and freak-wrangler Simon Cowell.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Next Sunday, 12th December, Cherry Red Records are releasing Frank Sidebottom's "Christmas Is Really Fantastic" on download via iTunes and Amazon, in the hope that his fans will end the year we said goodbye to Frank, by giving him the chart hit he never had during his life, and a cheeky bid to keep Cowell and his circus off the top of the pile. The final chart of 2010 will be released on 19th, and they (and his fans) hope he'll be on it.

This song was my first-ever Frank vinyl acquisition. The 12" EP version was picked up for me by a Manchester mate on a trip home, the title song being two-and-a-bit minutes of cracking Christmas happiness that reminds you of the days when we had proper Christmas songs, when you'd watch Top Of The Pops after dinner on Christmas Day and there'd be Slade or Paul McCartney or Mud rounding off the show with the Christmas Number 1. The whole EP gives off a slightly off-balance Christmas Party feel, with Frank's trademark riffs surfacing in both his own songs and his excellent cover versions of Mull Of Kintyre, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day and his Christmas Medley, and banter between him and his nemesis/conscience/bobbins puppet little frank. I still have it.

Cherry Red will be donating some of the proceeds to charity in memory of Chris Sievey, Frank's creator and doppelganger, and if you're still looking for that special gift, the box set of all Frank's In Tape releases, his albums, some previously-banned tracks (the Beastie Puppets songs which the Beastie Boys' record company injuncted) and a DVD featuring his video version of Panic, is out on Monday 13th, just in time for the big day.

It has been said that, if you want a proper Christmas song doing, then Frank is your man. If you hark back to the Yule of Yore (and Mine), if you resent the Cowell machine using the top slot to feed his empire, then buy this song next Sunday. Let's take Number 1 back and make sure Christmas really is fantastic! Thank you.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Pssstt! Wanna Watch A Car Crash..?

Then have a look here for the next few days. A Thousand Beer Vouchers American! For a bottle of beer!

Story from the shadowy Beer Underground is that this beer was very nice on release some five years or so back. Locals knowing it was a one-off anniversary brew (Sarah Palin?), bought up a few cases, and have been slowly dripping it into the spooge beer pool as tradebait. The seller in this case has been on HateBeer to explain his motives. Seems he wants to sell some spooge in order to buy his dad some Remy Martin Louis XIII brandy, which is supposed to sell at anything from $1,600 to $3,000 a bottle.

Another one of my Underground contacts says the buyer might have to prepare themselves for disappointment. He says he had information that a bottle opened recently had aged "into shit territory", so buyer beware. Of course, if a spoogebeerian is buying it, it won't be for drinking. Dear me no. It'll be straight into his Beer Mausoleum, probably in a little refrigerated display case with some tasteful display lighting.

I don't think I've ever tried any Midnight Sun beers, but some very good stuff occasionally emerges from Alaska. Safeway and Beers Of Europe used to sell Alaskan beers, giving rise to weirdness where I could buy a case of their 2004 Smoked Porter here, and had to take bottles back to New York, since the beer wasn't available there.