Friday, 1 May 2009

Bath’s best pub beer gardens

It is an official sanctioned bank holiday, the Met Office has promised a sunny summer and we live in a nation where the ‘retail experience’ passes for high culture and our national pastime is panicking about the forthcoming aporkalypse. So what is there left to do for those of us whose spare time hangs heavily like a whore’s guilt? Get drunk, obviously, but with the twist of getting drunk outside.

But where to can you go to enjoy the cool breeze against your skin and the cold sting of real ale against your liver? Because while Bath is a beautiful city with its narrow cobbled streets, widescreen Georgian vistas and even wider tourists, the choice of beer gardens is still distinctly small.

Most of Bath’s great pubs are what could euphemistically be called ‘winter pubs’. From the dark wood dominated Star and the gloomy Salamander to the almost windowless Old Green Tree, they only make sense as a retreat from the outside world, not a place to embrace it.

Instead to find a good pint and a beer garden in Bath you need to do something the tourist never do and most of the locals will rarely attempt – to leave the city centre.

The Hop Pole
Hidden between the greenery of Victoria park and the equally green River Avon, this Bath Ale pub’s secluded beer garden is far and away the best in the city. The problem is that most of the other residents know that too.

Instead of being a converted car park or adjunct to a busy junction, it is a designed and planted blend of greenery and gravel. Pergolas and flowering climbers contort with patio heaters and wrought iron furniture to persuade that it you are in the formal garden of a country house, and that a jelly in Laura Ashley is about to approach you about the wellbeing of her Tricky Woo.

Except that your peace and quiet has as much chance of remaining unbroken as a Frenchman's wedding vows because its swing and slide proximity means that The Hop Pole is where parents drag their beloved for regular Nutrasweet re-ups.

And what a delight it is to see Jocaster and Lexmark, kids whose free-spirited nature sorely needs a few boundaries imposing primarily through the medium of a clenched fist. However, you can mostly ignore them since the beer is good, if predictable, and the food is decent, if pricey.

The Royal Oak
It might only be the other side of the bridge from The Hop Pole but The Royal Oak is a world away from its sedate seclusion. For this is a pub for drinking in, not really using the toilet in or eating in. But while it’s rougher around the edges, with bench seating and the odd weed poking between the paving stones; it’s also far more innovative and interesting.

Here the ten beers on offer are all from SIBA breweries, ensuring a selection of some of the most exciting and strange ales from around Britain, along with Budvar light and dark and four local ciders. It’s also home to the fledgling Art Brew of North Chideock in Devon.

Despite the garden being only a fence’s thickness from a busy road where Novas with neons drown in seismic bass, it still manages to be quiet - primarily because the pub remains mostly child-free. That isn’t because this slightly scruffy freehouse isn’t nipper-friendly, more because it is a less pretentious pub created, for and by, people who love beer.

The White Hart
Instead of a thousand words, here is a picture and they are meant to be interchangeable after all - unless you attempt that substitution during an A-Level English exam. It is one of the pub's own pictures too, with all their rights reserved and such.

Like the rest of Widcombe this former locals’ pub has been scrubbed and bleached to fit into a street newly filled with Aga shops, piano merchants and an organic-coffee house. And it is solid and pleasant, much like the Butcombe they serve.

The Bell
If The Royal Oak is worn, The Bell has spent most of its harrowing life stuffing purloined cans of White Ace into its string-supported trousers. Favoured by multi-coloured bowler mad-hatter drinking Westons Organic, its narrow collection of benches attracts all social classes from street drinkers to upper-middle class trustafarians playing at being street drinkers.

The beer is as varied as the conditions it is kept it. Otter, Gem and Pitchfork are among the seven regulars but everything from the green Sign Of Spring to Spingo have appeared alongside a good selection of very strong Belgian bottles.

Everything about this pub is bohemian, so if you are looking to get served quickly the best way is to strike up a decade long friendship with the staff before attempting to order.

Coeur De Lion
With no greenery, no space and no actual garden, the Coeur De Lion’s strip of pavement probably doesn’t tick many of the boxes you might look for in outdoor drinking. But if you can get one of the eight or so seats on offer it can be a wonderful place to spend an evening.

For with this tiny pub, concealed just metres from both the Guildhall and the Abbey, you get all the benefit of the glorious architecture of the city centre - and views of the stained glass front window - all in a location that many residents still struggle to find. And if all the seats are taken, try the almost as diminutive Volunteer Rifleman’s Arms for a similar effect.

Anyway it is probably better to spend your time outside as this one-room pub, as it is far too small to actually go in, except to order from one of the well kept Abbey ales.

The Rest
With its position beneath the historic Pultney Bridge and next to their weir, The Boater almost has one of the best locations in Bath. However neither are actually visible from its endless rows of tree-shaded tables populated either by rugby thugs or the underage. Like The Boater, The Crystal Palace uses its tourist-trap position and walled garden to entice but its over-priced and often ‘creamy’ beers should repel. For a much better pint try the The Pig And Fiddle but be prepared to drink it sat in the warm backdraft of traffic and the splash-range of warm vomit.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Breast Bitter: Pumpclip Idiocy from Cottage

Boobies, tits, melons, bazongas, headlamps and midgets’ crashmats: These are all words that I can write here without cringing. That is provided they are delivered with my tongue wedged so far into my cheek that it looks likes I’m pleasuring a blue whale. However, they are not crudities that I should be forced to speak, in conversation, in a pub, with a person, on a Jesus’s own Sunday.

After all I’m English and so sexually repressed that this talk of jiggling meat-pillows only causes stiffening in my upper lip. So why do Cottage Brewery want to turn us all into an infantilised Sid James by naming their beer Breast Bitter?

Perhaps the news has taken longer to reach Castle Cary - probably because it is a town that still drowns those who use flush toilets - but the 70s are over. Reg Varney is dead, accept it and move on. In our modern world giggling over lactoids, breasticles and silicon-zeppelins is as funny as remaking The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin with all the human warmth of Threads.

But it isn’t just the misogynist moniker of this beer that bitchslaps your decency. Nor the sheer ineptitude of the crayonjockey they hired to Parkinsons out the pumpclip pictured above. Granted it is actually both of those things, but it is also the gawping uselessness of the pun.

Breast Bitter doesn’t work. The name fails to conjure up thoughts of what is actually a nice, slightly hoppy mostly malty 4.6% beer. Instead it creates visions of mummy milking rooms where distended upper-udders are ‘expressed’ 24/7. Or worse it fills your dreampipes with Oedipal fear. And if they really, really like this pitiful pun, it should have at least been attached to a Milk Stout.

But Breast Bitter isn’t alone there are plenty of others out there too. So what names or pumpclips have caused you to ignore an ale? When have you been too ashamed to order a Top Totty? Have you preferred pointing to uttering the words Rite Flanker? Or is the only word that has ever put you off a pint been Stella?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Pub Review: The Old Green Tree

The Old Green Tree
Green Street

They come from the bus tours, they come from the ghost walk, they come straight from central casting. Padded by Taco Bell, clad in velour and as cacophonous as a jet plane, they clog the narrow oak-panelled chambers of The Old Green Tree like chunky cholesterol. Roughly guided by The Lonely Planet and armed only with a lack of self or spatial awareness, these are they are Americans in search of a ‘genuine experience’ of a ‘genuine’ British pub.

It isn’t fair to criticise this Bath institution for the intermittent arrival of these stereotypical irritants, but it would be unfair not to warn you. For this superb pub, situated right in the heart of the centre, isn’t just on the tourist map of the Georgian city– it is one of the annotated highlights.

Part of the problem is that The Tree is small. Not that small though, not compared to the nearby Volunteer Riflemans Arms or the Cour de Lion - a pub whose floor plan is so diminutive that a recent lock-in had to be investigated by The Howard League for Penal Reform. But since The Old Green Tree has just two thin rooms and a bar area between them, you’d generally get more elbow room flying economy on Lilliputian Airways.

It is also quaint. Not that quaint through, because the dark wood panels on the walls and the antique fixtures and fittings are actually faux. In fact the single-roomed original pub was expanded and refitted in 1923 to appear Victorian – making it one of the first theme pubs around.

Despite this ersatz extension the Tree still retains a feeling of times past, not least because of the lack of natural light and the absence of music but also because of the unfailing obsequiousness of the landlord, Tim. In novelty ties and fixed grin, he bows and scrapes to all. And with our overseas guests he displays the kind of studied geniality unseen since P.G’s iconic manservant Jeeves, calmly explaining that drinks need to be ordered at the bar not from a sitting bellow.

Tim’s forelock also receive a extensive tugging behind the bar. For he and his staff are always happy to take you through the six real ales from a varied selection of mainly Somerset beers. The only fixtures being a light lunchtime standard from Blindman’s named Old Green Tree, RCH’s rebelliously zesty Pitchfork and one of Butcombe’s own bitters.

The cider is the flavoursome but bubbly Broadoak and the lagers are standard German and Czech numbers while a number of ineptly coloured posters highlight an extensive list of Belgian beers. Wine and whisky drinkers are also well served with a broad range of bottles and vintages.

The food is also very good. Not the ‘specials’ though, as they are merely nice. So while the blackboard’s offering are mostly experimental, opening the leather-bound menus reveals a range of rehearsed classics: mussels, duck, sandwiches and sausages. It’s all beautifully made in the tiny kitchen above but the rare roast beef salad is the standout option, primarily because these slices of cow-flesh radiate their vibrant pinkness like an autumnal sunset.

All in all The Old Green Tree is a hidden treasure. Not that well hidden though, thanks to Fodors, Footprint, Good Pub Guide, The Rough Guide, The Lonely Planet, The Good Beer Guide…

The Old Green Tree, 12 Green Street, Bath. 01225 448259.
Food served 12 - 3pm Monday to Saturday.

Follow this link for more Bath pub reviews.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Bristol’s Star & Dove shuts. Are more gastros to go?

Update: The Star & Dove is again open and seemingly under new management. Details to follow...

Totterdown’s gastropub and restaurant Star & Dove has closed, at least in the short-term. But can we judge anything from this experiment in food and beer mismatching?

Despite its prime parkside position, expensive and extensive refurbishment just two years ago and a location on a Yummy-Mummy thoroughfare, the pub seemed to have been in trouble for some time.

At first the new owners tried to do everything: a restaurant upstairs with a pub and bistro below. Then as the gastro element stalled there was a Thai night, a steak night, a quiz night and a jazz night. There was everything, except a reliable supply of real ale, lager or cider.

Of late the top-floor top-price restaurant remained firmly shut and the pub itself kept its doors shut in daylight, opening only in the evenings and weekends. And while the current owners Eamon and Christiane have lined up someone to take over, it is clear that this vast landmark is going to be shut for sometime.

But is this just one business dream that went wrong or an early example of tougher times for the gastro?

A few years ago the received wisdom was that the ‘wet trade’ was dead. We were told that those pubs that traded on drink sales alone were as definitely doomed as Damocles’ beenie.

It was handed down as gospel that only those establishments who ran a 24 hour hot and cold all-offal buffet of potted oxen and lark’s spleen catapulted it directly into the ballpool and family fun area could survive.

But sometimes the world doesn’t just turn on its axis. Sometimes it sashays, it shimmies, it grinds its bits in your face like a lap dancer who needs the extras to pay her orthodontist.

Now it looks like the world has once again turned and the only pubs that seem to be able to thrive in this new climate of enforced austerity are the beer-only paradises whose culinary range extends no further than the holy trinity of the British tapas: crisp, pickled eggs and nuts.

The gastros’ other rivals also seem to have better equipped to deal with the downturn: Takeaways takings are up, fast food is selling more swiftly and the chain restaurants are thriving in a flurry of vouchers. Even the top end restaurants are discounting with lunch deals and lowered prices.

Are the gastro pubs caught in between them? After all they are the very middle of the middle market: too informal for big birthday or anniversary meal but too expensive for a casual dinner or a working lunch.

So is this the start of a trend? Are the gastros starting to suffer? Are drinkers’ pubs near you busier than those that went gourmet? Is dinner money being spent on drink and then a takeaway at home?

The evidence here might be anecdotal but for the gastro Star & Dove in Totterdown it must seem real enough for Eamon and Christiane at the Star & Dove.

Read our pub review of The Star & Dove here.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Liberal Democrat MP's second home is revealed as the local pub.

One MP is making allowances in the battle to save the pubs of Britain from over-taxation and over-moralisation. At great personal expense one member of the otherwise apparently corrupt and venal House of Commons, is doing his bit to make sure that the frothy intoxicant we call beer is still available across Great Britain. And at a price that ordinary hard-working families can afford.

You won’t have heard of him though, he’s a Liberal Democrat. But his name is Greg Mulholland MP and he’s the Lib Dem’s shadow Health Minister. That’s right, he’s Ben Bradshaw’s shadow-shadow.

Now you might call him a friend of the people but don’t call him a friend of the pub, that just sounds like a euphemism for the human litter you see hammering on the door of a warehouse-sized ‘Spoons at 8.58 am. And he’s not that, he’s the people’s chosen representative for the sober hard working families of Leeds North West.

But this MP has made the pub his second home, but not literally - we are sure his expenses are completely in order - more figuratively because proof of Greg’s heroism can clearly be seen in the current roster of Early Day Motions. Yes, when it comes to EDM, Greg is first among unequals, a man with a plan, and a pen.

For not only has this brave middle-of-the-roader decided to support the CAMPAIGN TO SAVE THE GREAT BRITISH PUB and the COMMUNITY PUB INQUIRY, he has also added his support to the four strong Parliamentary call to support NATIONAL PUB DAY.

By there is more. Brave Greg his scrawled his spidery signature on PUBCOS AND THE SUPPLY TIE and even got his minions to typed out the following EDMs: CLOSURE OF LEEDS TETLEY'S BREWERY, TESCO AND THE CONVERSION OF PUBLIC HOUSE SITES and the ALL PARTY PARLIAMENTARY SAVE THE PUB GROUP.

But the fight goes on. Now he is fronting a solo campaign to get the House to support NATIONAL CASK ALE WEEK. Which as you all know by now runs from 6 to 13 April 2009 in support of lovely brown booze.

So thegoodbeerblog proposes that we should all join the mighty Liberal Democrat Greg Mulholland MP in his heroic campaign, and hoist a drink with him to saving the British pub*.

Cheers to Greg Mulholland, MP for Leeds North West, friend to drinking types nationwide and all-round good egg.

*Although obviously we can’t actually drink with him as the bars of the House of Commons (despte being heavily subsidised) are members only.

Brewdog and The Independent: Extreme Beer and Extremely Poor Journalism

Feisty beer-makers Brewdog have made themselves another enemy, blandsheet newspaper The Independent. Now perhaps sharing an office with The Daily Mail has unaligned the chakras of this previously mild bunch of hacks but it does seem that someone has micturated in their skinny lattes.

So in this article under the attention grabbing, Google-snagging, and largely unsupported by quotes headline of Health fears over 'extreme beer' craze, they set their soy-milk fed attack dog (answering to the name of Martin Hickman) on those scamps at Brewdog, Otley, Thornbridge Hall and Dark Star.

However what remains of their poor old subs desk don’t seem to have been quite on message with this crusade against slightly strong(er) beer for slightly young(er) people and so have left the piece riddled with errors, from the misspelling of Adam Withrington’s name to failing to correct Alcohol Concern's miscalculating of the alcohol content of a 10% beer in units.

Strangely the loudly bugled health fears never actually materialise in the copy and especially not in the form of a quote from anyone within the medical establishment. As for the craze element of that headline, only one of the ales listed in available in supermarkets while the rest are mostly sold in pubs or via the dusty shelves of a few specialist retailers, where they are ‘boldly marketing’ apparently, through labels, on their bottles. However some credit must go to the gluten-free Martin Hickman though, as both of the other elements of the headline - ‘over’ and the reported speech ‘extreme beers’ are 100% correct.

As usual proper beer writer Pete Brown makes sense of it all with a clarity and purity that shames the words that tumble out of here, so please go read this walking wall of common sense’s rebuke to the Indy here.

Go on, there is nothing else here.


Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Golden Goodbyes: Swindon’s Archers The Brewers Gets Credit Crunched

Archers brewery has gone into compulsory liquidation, making it one of the first of the real ale producers to go under in this recession.

Pub paper the Morning Advertiser tweeted the news yesterday that the Swindon-based brewer, which was created in 1979, was to be liquidated just over a year after a takeover saved it from administration. Now, with an insolvency practitioner appointed, Archers are hoping to find a buyer to keep their beers in production.

When it was just estate agents and bankers, it was funny. Then the Credit Crunch started to chewing up ordinary ‘hard working families’. And me. Now, somehow, watching society slough away like putrefying flesh isn’t the endless source of chuckles it once seemed. Especially after news like this.

Because while the loss of any brewer of ale moistens the ducts, Archers feels closer to home, mainly because it was, a Google Map close. For as someone who pretty much started their ale-drinking career with pints of Golden in an Archers pub only a few hundred metres from the brewery, today my mucus membranes have become almost desiccated.

To guess why and how this 10,000 barrels-a-year plant and its 20 staff have ended up surplus to requirements would be to indulge in wild, pointless speculation based on no inside information whatsoever...

But this is a blog, it’s what we do.

Part of the problem must have been the sheer range of beer, produced in addition to the core four of: Golden, Village, Best and Crystal Clear. Back in 2007, then administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP quoted Archers’ beer range as 190 brews strong. The stupidly comprehensive Beermad also list 274 ales produced, although they have 194 of those down as dead or deleted.

And if you could ever identify an Archers’ beer you liked from this ever-changing range, finding them in the South West seemed to increasingly be a problem.

Despite living in Bath for a decade the amount of times an Archers ale turned up in any pub could be counted on the webbed fingers of one hand. The same goes for that former Archers pub in Swindon in which I did so much of my formative drinking. Never again has a beer from 400 metres away made it across the tracks to former freehouse The Gluepot. Instead various Golden-like pints were spotted and sunk on days out in Stoke, Huddersfield or Oldham, but never seen again in Swindon.

So was it a case of aiming too far and too wide? Who knows but one landlord I spoke too even said that he found the brewery difficult to deal with, with them preferring answerphones to answering calls or answering his questions.

For most beer drinkers Archers were probably a producer of some pleasant but samey straw coloured ales but for some of us, Swindonians mostly, it will be missed. Even if we haven’t so much as seen a beers of theirs in ten years.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Pubs, Politics, Parliament and Half Measures From Planet Pod

The last working class man in Britain, Doris Karloff and a Liberal Democrat go into a pub… What a perfect example of political harmony.

It might be a joke refashioned from an old Bernard Righton routine, but it also happens to be true. But only if you take a look a look at the names of the MPs who have slapped their monikers on an Early Day Motion designed to protect the British pub.

It’s a trio that naturally go together like oil and water, or the Pope and the 21st century: Parliamentary furniture Dennis Skinner, reactionary-turned-national-treasure Ann Widdecombe and Werther's Originals frontman Ming Campbell.

Under the title of CAMPAIGN TO SAVE THE GREAT BRITISH PUB (The all-caps policy must reflect the Parliamentary tendency to bellow), these MPs call “on the Government to adopt the campaign's Last Orders, a five-point plan to save the British pub, as a way forward in safeguarding the future of Britain's traditional public houses.”

But the glittering list of names doesn’t end there (Actually it ends 191 later with Dundee West’s Jim McGovern, but that is just a quirk of chronology) because Kate Hoey, Lembit Opik, Nick Winterton, Derek Conway, Michael Ancram, Frank Field, Bob Marshall-Andrews and Vince Cable are all signed up pub-lovers too.

So hurrah for one and all! Yes, well done chaps. That will teach Darling, Brown and everyone who seeks to ruin this sceptred isle. That will show them that Britain is still a land as pure and chaste and unchanged since a sort of hazy-imaginary-time when King Arthur roamed the hills in an Austin Allegro listening to The Kinks on a mobile gramophone and sending the occasional gunboat to deal with those swarthy foreign types.

Except that Early Day Motion motions are the Parliamentary equivalent of internet polls. If they sound like something that the heavily cushioned Nick Soames gets after his butler wakes him for a hearty breakfast before noon, that is because that is exactly what they are worth. They are a sop, a way for MPs to appear active while actually remaining inactive for longer than Mount Vesuvius. They are never voted on and they rarely reach the floor of the house, but most importantly they can be signed from a chaise longue, bath chair or deck chair.

However with 191 signatures, this EDM does kick some Parliamentary arse easily toping Graham Brady’s EDM supporting Lacrosse and even Martin Caton’s EDM recognising the Year 10 football team from Penyrheol Comprehensive School in Gorseinon. And this mighty pub campaign has even collected 60 more signatures than last year’s calls for an independent Ombudsman for grocers.

So well done to Mr Pinty and the Axe The Tax types for all their hard work but if we are relying on cranks, oddballs, former non-Cabinet ministers and the Liberal Democrats to save the British pub, we might have to find another way.

If you are wondering about the Planet Pod thing, see The Guardian's Simon Hattenstone, after all it was he who said "Ann Widdecombe is from Planet Pod".

Thursday, 12 March 2009

IPA v GTA, Punk v Portman, Hype v Indifference

Roger Protz smells faintly of dill, all Fuller’s beers contain string and the Portman Group don’t wash their hands properly after flushing. These words are lies, utterly transparent lies that I won’t standby in court and apologise for right now. Sorry.

But these blatant falsehoods also prove how easy it is to kick against the Aunt Sally that is ‘Establishment’, especially when the ‘Establishment’ is as orthodox and conservative as the world of real ale can seem. After all, this is a world in which apparently you can seem to stand out in simply by being under 30 or having a vagina. Or both.

Which is a roundabout way of bringing us to Scottish brewers Brewdog and their self-styled rebellion against all that is traditional, all that is dull, all that is predictable about British beer. Yeah, they’re rebels, they’re renegades and they’re punks – just like Johnny Lydon and Iggy Pop are.

They also remind me of professional controversialists, fellow residents of Scotland and part-time video game developer Rockstar. So much of their infamy has been built on poking and twizzling a Grand Theft Auto-shaped stick up the censor’s nose and then surfing the resulting streams of condemnation straight into the hearts and wallets of the spotty-serial killer market.

It’s a model that Brewdog seem keen to follow in their recent well publicised scuffling with the Portman Group. Lots of sound and fury and lots of publicity. With a sneer Brewdog are manning the barricades in a war against the conventional and the bland. Well that’s only true if you replace the word ‘barricades’ with the words ‘shelves of Tesco’ and the word ‘sneer’ with ‘carefully considered marketing strategy’.

Because it was through that retail giant and Brewdog’s carefully considered marketing strategy that a bottle of Punk IPA appeared in my cupboard. That and the messy spurtings of praise lavished by so many bloggers, tenting their trousers in delight at this beer.

“On my first tasting my tongue exploded, followed by most of my skull and three of my four young children. As my liver was immolated in pure delight, I tasted hops and the kind of joy only experienced when all your Easters, Christmases and Bar Mitvahs come together at once” wrote

“The experience of drinking Brewdog IPA was akin to draining 330ml of The Lord’s own tears, distilled in the mouth of an angel and carbonated by mafipulation through all seven stomachs of the holy cow. My second bottle also gave me eternal life”. Tastingnotesfromasmallisland@wordpress,com

Again these are lies but the truth isn’t so distance this time. Ahead of even last year’s favourite, Thornbridge Hall, Brewdog seem to be the chosen ones. Beer writers and forumites seem to love their chutzpah, their beer and some even seem to like the design of their bottles. Which is strange because moderation must be the new anarchy if these unsatisfyingly small 330ml bottles with their dated ‘stamp’ design are impressive.

After all the bluster and all the blogging, hopes were high for the beer, but this yellowy brew isn’t exciting enough to justify this much alcohol. The citrus and grapefruit bitterness bludgeon while the aroma and oiliness of pine needles and alcohol gives it a bleachy, clean toilet aroma. Sure it’s smooth, hoppy and grassy but it is also rather average compared to the American bitterbomb which have inspired it.

Obviously we could put this indifference down to personal taste - that I like beers with balance, with perhaps just a tiny smidge of malty flavour, with depth - but as their own bottle sneers “We don’t care if you don’t like it.” Except they do care, deeply.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Pub closures, beer, ties, tax and ITV

As the pubs keep closing, the mouths keep flapping open and the numbers keep climbing. So six pubs are closing per day but what is there to add? Publicans, politicians and pressure groups are tumbling throughout in the hourly news cycle like the rogue red sock in a white wash. Endless oars are being inserted as each side forklifts all the blame into the lap of the opposition: It’s the tax, it’s the tie, it’s the smoking ban, it's the economy, it is the fact that British people have become soulless anti-matter that would rather chug a litre of something with all the charm of a bus’s backdraft in their over-mortgaged hovel than risk conversation over a civil ale.

So what it there to add? Only a hollow laugh at the troubles of ITV and a picture by a Mr hYpe of That, and the sound of gentle sobbing.

Friday, 20 February 2009

CAMRA’s Roger Protz strops over Oz and James

Oh dear. King CAMRA and former Swoppie Roger Protz, has gone a bit Daily Mail.

For in his latest blog post all the toys have departed the CAMRA pram. And the reason? Oz Clarke and James May’s continued failure to talk about his organisation on their contrived, hideously overstretched and somehow one-dimensional exploration tour of Britain’s booze culture.

Yes, the programme is frustrating with its endless edit-suite padding and caricatured voice-overs from the all-knowing smugster versus the hairest dolt in town. It has also lasted longer than the Hundred Year’s War and yet has somehow surfed along the details like an un-briefed minister unwittingly rolled into Paxman’s thousand-yard stare.

The tone of the piece is grating but to write “I repeat, Camra is the story” is as blinkered as it is clumsy. Oz and James Drink Britain reached around 3 million possibly Non-Discerning Drinkers for its first and second episodes, only two million less than the inauguration of than the 44th president of the old colonies did. Surely that does the drink and the organisation some good? Especially since as Rog's opening paragraph admits most people have heard of CAMRA, then surely the problem isn't awareness but presentation? Wouldn't it be better to look like professional inclusive organisation that can take a ribbing, not a petulant prissy and fragile interest group?

Could we not think in widescreen for a moment, and not 4:3?

Yes the programme is two buffoons buffering and bickering around Blightly in a big car, it’s not the Ascent Of Man with Doctor Jacob Bronowski, and the music is considerably more jaunty. But people watch it. Millions of people watch it – although a good number of those will be beer bloggers. But never mind the quality, feel the coverage – for real ale and ultimately for CAMRA and all of us.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Three reasons to drink to the recession

Stop jabbing at your jugular and put down that jagged strip of bean tin. Choke up that gut load of aspirin, Relentless and shame. Clamber carefully off that rickety chair and take you neck out of the shoelace noose. Come on, stop all that and listen here instead:

The recession isn’t that bad.

Go on admit it. Just because our economy has reached parity with Zimbabwe’s is no reason for mass panic.

And anyway your Ikea light fitting wouldn’t have stood up to having your trans-fat bloated corpse dangling from it. When they did find your body, rendered unidentifiable by the nibbling of local cats, it’s likely to be covered by a plasterboard shroud and a small pile of the wrong screws for the job.

Because there are really are three reasons why the recession will actually be good for drinking and drinkers – and not just because everyone who gets sacked immediately heads to the pub to get so mind bendingly skullfudged that they are halfway to work the next morning before they’ve sobered up enough to remember that the faceless corporation to which they’ve dedicated two-thirds of their life considered them to have less worth than a urinal cake - and a slightly worse pension.

Look at the entirely fabricated evidence…

Bankers + Bonuses = Brewers
Now you might find it hard to squeeze any sadwater out of your eyes when you see pinstripe parasites being locked out of their Norman Foster Associates tower of glass and idolatry, however once these shills drift off into the shires they’ll need something else to do. And what do men with money do in the sticks? Exactly right, they pour their vast state-subsidised bonuses into opening new breweries. There they can make exciting beers with exciting pump clips and exciting names such as Libor Pains, The Alan Stanford Prison Experiment, New-Facile Brown Ale and Darling Black Label.

Saloon With A View
With bricks and mortar now offering the same rigidity and reliability as chocolate teapots and marzipan dildos, surely pubs will be safe from developers? Since mortgages are now confined to the history books along with permanent jobs and the joyless smiles of ITV regional presenters, no longer will anyone want to turn your humble local into sixty self-contained rat-holes.

Bad Mad Men
The greatest disparity between real ale and the test tube swill so beloved by the bovine herds wasn’t always in taste – it was in advertising. So while Stella spent millions attempting to bridge the canyon of cognitive dissonance between Jean de Florette and a Saturday in casualty, real ale’s ad budget stretched to a XL T-shirt made skin-tight over a XXXL stomach. Now with ad spend collapsing like a Windies bowling crease, the difference is down to a few billion. Okay so the playing field might not be levelled but it is slightly less vertical.

Now, how much damage can a desk fan do to your face?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Bristol Pub Review: The Star & Dove

The Star & Dove

It has to be the easiest bit of selling ever performed - that second pint. You are already through the pub door, you’re already warm, and you’re already made yourself comfortable. More importantly you’ve already got foam on your lip and there is no anecdote and no tale worth the telling that can ever be fully explained in the time it takes to sink a solitary pint.

No act of silver-tongued salesmanship is required. You are a large, mildly intoxicated fish in a particularly beery barrel. Except at the Star & Dove in Bristol has never managed to sell me that second beer - despite two separate visits.

Because twice we’ve visited this recently re-fitted festival of artfully-rickety furniture and pre-scuffed paintwork. We’ve even eaten well there too. And from real plates too, not just licking the cheesy and oniony shards from the shiny side of a packet of Golden Wonder. And twice we have left without having a second pint.

We’ve tried though. Both times we’ve been denied because they’ve run out of beer – all beers. No, it was neither too late nor too early, both times were around eight o’clock on a Monday and a Wednesday respectively.

All Gastro, No Pub

But it isn’t just the three handpumps that seem to regularly run dry in this sizeable but eternally empty gastropub. On our first visit as we finished our well looked after pints of Bath Ale’s Spa, we watched another customer attempt to buy a pint of ale in a scene distressingly reminiscent of Month Python’s Cheese Shop routine.

First he ordered a Tribute, then a BOB and then a Spa. ‘All off’ muttered the starched halibut of a waiter drafted in from the upstairs restaurant. So the customer glanced along the bar and opted for an Amstel. ‘Nope’. Foster's? He asked more in desperation than desire but again an answer was shrugged in his direction – ‘only the Extra Cold’.

It was a moment of pure genius. Well, it would have been except that the Guinness had a glass over the handle too. And it wasn’t even a one off because on the previous visit all three ales, two lagers, both ciders and black stuff had been unavailable.

No beer, not much lager and an intermittent cider? You might wonder what kind of pub this is? The answer can only be that it is a very confused one because seemingly this otherwise promising large local is having a bit of a crisis.

The problem seems to be that as gastro element of the pub has drawn the attention and most of the funds, and so the pub part has suffered. But while running a pub on beer alone must be difficult - except in a few wonderful cases - but running a pub solely on food? Well there is a word for that - it’s a restaurant.

Scrapping The Barrel

The resulting establishment seems to be a bit of a basketcase, attempting to appeal to any demographic that might be wandering past. So on Monday there is Thai food, Tuesday is jazz night and on Wednesday the menu changes again to steaks. Add in the quiz evening, cinema night, and the Sunday roast and it is no wonder that the staff forget about the day to day items such as drink.

So perhaps it is no surprise that the barman seemed confused and twitchy, too distracted to remember any of the items on our three-item-long order. And that ten pounds plus ten pounds does not equal thirty pounds.

The Right Staff

As were waited sipping our sole beer, orders were lost, plates of food were taken from room to room in search of customers in a barely quarter full pub. No one knew if the restaurant upstairs was open or closed leaving the waiters ignoring the customers as they faffed with rotas.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. Beer and food can be fused successfully as The King William in Bath proves both wonderfully. There the drinkers and diners sit happily alongside each other, even though space is far smaller. The outward simplicity of the menu is complimented by the bold choice of local beers. There is no safe selection of goldens there, instead of the five handpumps, one or two are often dedicated to darks or tastebud testers instead of frothy non-entities.

It is a balance that the owners, who have clearly invested a great deal of time and money in the place, need to also understand. Unless that happens the Star And Dove seems little more than a Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmare’s waiting to happen. At least until it is taken over, and hopefully that is at least one sale that they can manage to make.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Oz And Gluck: A Pint Of Bitterness

Thanks to the iPlayer making the previously eminently missable now fast forwardable I’ve finally caught up with BBC 2’s Oz And James’ Great Free Booze Up. And well, yes, it is mild enough to be inoffensive, mildly education and mildly dull.

The priggish Oz Clarke, and part-time Stirling Moss look-alike, clearly knows rather a lot about booze while James May’s blitherings can amuse. In fact with their clashing voice-overs it is a little bit like a sedate version of Peep Show – but only if Jez and Mark had enjoyed a good private education, and had less disturbing sexual habits. Or at least nothing that can be tried in a caravan.

It’s a light, gentle, warming piece of work - unlike this pitiful cockery from Malcolm Gluck, a man with so steeped in print that he probably squirts ink if accidentally surprised.

But now Gluck has hit the web and he is angry. No tell a lie for rhetorical effect - (why not he does) he’s actually desperate, servicing-the-needs-of-dockers-for-food desperate.

Otherwise why would a once respected copy-monkey even type such wrist-tossed drivel as: “Well, beer is only drunk by losers and sadsacks, unsexy people who care nothing for their minds or their bodies.”

It’s obviously lazy, horribly lazy work. The kind of drivel that would shame a Tourette sufferer's Twitter feed. It is also stupidly short-term hit-garnering of the worst kind, as pathetic as me writing NUDE KITTEN BRITNEY LESBIAN KAKA SEX OBAMA MYSPACE.

The Guardian should really know better, and so should I. NUDE KITTEN BRITNEY LESBIAN KAKA SEX OBAMA MYSPACE should be at the top of the page and include today's celeb stiff-fest RICARDO MONTALBAN and PATRICK PRISONER MCGOOHAN.

Of course rising to his petty bait would be silly, especially if it gets added to his Comments list. Responding would be dignifying his unwarranted poking of the beery beast. Instead it is far better just to leave him to his gutter-dwelling without mentioning that his reference are out of date, his prose is leaden and that is face looks eerily like the weird curly-haired boy who once valued antiques on Wogan and is now a woman.

Just because one wine critic is doing well from himself eh Malcolm?

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Beer Review: Born In A Barn

Art Brew

The decorations are down, the nation is back at work (until their P45s arrive) and the BBC have stopped repeating the festive Doctor Who on a daily basis. Yes, Christmas is finally over.

And to fully embrace the ending of over-eating, over-heating and endless relatives staying over, you need fresh zesty beer that pulls you into the New Year with vim, vigour and a hoppy smack in the chops. Except that it is minus ten outside and even the once predictable pavement is as treacherous as any of Bond's bedfellows.

So actually what you need is a beer that warms, that comforts, that contains enough booze to make every flat slab of un-impeding tarmac feel like an ice-rink. You need a Born In A Barn.

This beer tastes of Christmas, with all the trimmings. There seems to be a bit of everything in this drink, almost as if the brewer brushed out his luxuriant beard after Christmas dinner straight into the mash tun.

The nose is distinctly acidic, not the pickled onion aroma of an off-pint, but a pungent hint towards what lies beneath the loose, pale head. The taste though is warming, the perfect simulacra of port and brandy together. It fuses the soft fruit and raisin flavours of the fortified wine but the alcoholic kick of the spirit. It’s a heady, giddy, heart-warming combination and one of the best of the new brews from this fledgling brewer.

It's just a shame that we are probably going to have to wait another year for another pint.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Clutching At Straw

Welcome to a whole new year, the same as the old year. Welcome to another 364 days when the humble pint of beer can be demonised as the greatest threat to our civilisation since Adolf left the army, little Osama decided against joining dad’s construction business and women/blacks/the poor were allowed the vote.

So two days of 2009 have gone and already J.D. Wetherspoon’s decision to cut beer prices is being hailed as a Licence To Binge by those indignation-hawkers at The Daily Mail. Now I’m not getting involved in the politics behind beer. That isn’t why I periodically mash my face into this keyboard and let the spellchecker pick the bones out. Others can fire-hose opprobrium around, but I just like beer. Anyway I’m sure that you have your own opinions and they are no doubt less fabricated from ill-conceived mouthguff than mine.

But we need to look to the future for beer. We must - primarily so we can get there before a junior minister sees fit to flop his swollen credentials onto the dispatch box in an attempt to sate an imagined demographic that only really consists of Melanie Phillips and her bubonic afterbirth.

But I have a nifty plan. If we create our own headline-grabbing programme of anti-booze measures we can discredit any future governments plans. After all anything and anyone that appears on this blog is instantly discredited.

So we must create a raft of measures and thus render them all laughable. They must also be radical, they must be draconian too because any Speakers’ Corner driveller can call for curfews or increasing the minimum drinking age to 21.

In fact, someone somewhere on a forum is probably right now advocating the return of National Service for anyone who has ever consumed more than a small gin in a 24-hour period. It might be fun though. After all watching the CAMRA membership run over an assault course would at least be a cheap laugh and somehow more dignfied than some TV programmes.

Go Guantanmo On Their Arses

The Government have already nabbed these high-visibility orange jumpsuits for their Community Payback idiocy but that shouldn’t stop us. Originality is no bar is it Jack?

To further distance the deviants who like the odd glass of ginger wine from the rest of decent, honest, puritan, white society, anyone planning a night out or even a swift pint on the walk home should be forced to wear one of these orange jumpsuit. Not only will it have safety benefits as drivers will know to expect their toddleresque lurching on the way home but now all you need to do is pop granddad into his day-glow romper outfit before he has a Harvey’s Bristol Cream and the rest of humanity will know not to listen to his deranged and racist ‘reckonings’ anymore.

Pedestrian Breathalyser
Roads are a dangerous place to be boozed-up, sure, but what about pavements? Have you ever had to walk too near a crumpled prole or a gutter-hobbit because of their unreasoned foot-stumbling? All we need to do is equip every copper - and borderline authority figure such as teachers/masons/T.A. members- with cuffs, a breathalyser and some weapons-grade sarcasm. Combined with some comprehensive SUS laws, we could even dress it up as part of the fight against knife crime, and the GWAT. Or just introduce it into infant schools from Monday.

Warnings On Booze
Printed cigarette warnings have clearly proven a vast success; there isn’t any evidence to prove this – except that it is a fact. So logically beer warnings must use the same technique of stark slogans and big print. No, in fact the font must be bigger, bolder and the words somehow less nuanced - because remember these people might be drunk. Surely the simple sloganeering of: “No!”, “Bad” and the Alice in Wonderland-themed “Don’t Drink Me” would suffice?

To truly save the youth from the demonic drink perhaps we must take this whole principle further and attempt to shatter the traditional link between alcohol and fun. So from now on all booze should be advertised under the slogan "Party with Shami Chakrabarti”. All we need to do is let Liberty's misery in mascara glower her way through any advert for alcohol and even the delightful Old Purple Tin won’t taste so sweet.

Failing that one in every twenty bottles of Budweiser contains a surprise. Instead of ricey-goodness, each special bottle would fire steel bolts from high-pressure rams up into the roof of the mouth piercing the brain and performing an instant Budotomoy.

Alcoholic-proof bottle caps

Clearly a major problem with these unruly booze-hounds isn't just the quantity of hooch consumed, it is the timing. So by simply adding alcoholic-proof bottle caps to the top of any bottle of spirits, the hours that the grog can be consumed can be cut. Much like the childproof caps on pills, these simple devices would click annoyingly until the next Centrally Mandated Drinking Hour sounds when they would be able to unleash their intoxicating contents.

Start Your Two Minutes Of Hate
Can you do better? Of course you can, you aren’t Jacqui Smith. But why not pretend to take a hammer to the Statue Of Lady Justice yourself with your own short-term idiocy designed to appeal to Simon Heffer and his hellspawn. Type them here. Go on, it’s that or talk to your co-workers.