Going places the civilians don’t

I’ll be frank: one of the good reasons for becoming a beer blogger is the opportunity it gives to go places, meet people, do things that you wouldn’t otherwise get to do. (Free beer too? Well, there is some of that, true, but I turn a fair bit of free beer down, because I don’t do reviews, much.) The chance to get into places the public doesn’t get to see is one big reason why I decided to go to the European Beer Bloggers’ Conference in Dublin: I suspected there would be a chance to see extremely interesting things normally hidden from public eyes, and as we shall see, I was absolutely right.

One for the I-Spy Book of European Brewers … Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell doesn't look as impressed with Doom Bar as perhaps Stewart Howe of Sharp's would like him to be …

One for the I-Spy Book of European Brewers, at the EBBC in Dublin … Vaclav Berka of Pilsner Urquell doesn’t look as impressed with Doom Bar as perhaps Stewart Howe of Sharp’s would like him to be …

Fortunately for me, I have relatives in Dublin, so I was able to stay in the city for free: and I signed up early enough to grab one of the “bursaries” Molson Coors was offering, which effectively refunded the €95 conference fee, so mostly all it cost me was my air fare from Heathrow. When I signed up to come to the conference, I hadn’t been to Dublin since my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday in 2006, and as I said in my previous blog entry, in the past eight years – in the past TWO years – the Irish craft beer scene has exploded, so I was also keen to see how the beer offer had changed in Dublin’s bars, and what these new breweries were like.

As it happened, I had to go on a mother-in-law-related trip to the city in May, and took a day off to visit places recommended by the ever-excellent Beer Nut, Ireland’s premier beer blogger. Thus the Thursday night pub crawl organised for EBBC attendees and led by Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale was less of a revelation to me than it probably was to some of the other 30 or so people on the tour, since, unsurprisingly, the BN had marked my card with several of the places Reuben took us to.

London & Dublin Stout at the Porterhouse

My Wedding Ale, London & Dublin Stout, still on display at the Porterhouse

They were certainly as mixed a selection as you’ll find in any good city, from the basic – Brew Dock, part of the Galway Bay Brewery’s own chain of pubs, but selling much more than just GBB beers – to the more typically Dublin elaborate-mirrors-and-dark wood of Farrington’s/The Norseman (it keeps changing its name back and forth) in Temple Bar via another very Dublin concept, the three or four-storey pub, of which JW Sweetman (named for an old Dublin brewery) and the Porterhouse are good examples, to the “stripped pine and books on the wall” Black Sheep, another Galway Bay Brewery pub, rather more like a “normal” English-style craft beer bar than most craft beer bars in Dublin, to the Bull and Castle, a substantially sized “craft beer steakhouse”. Just as a point of comparison, the only two places you would have found craft beer in back when I was last in Dublin out of that list would have been Sweetman’s, previously a homebrew pub called Messers Maguires, and the Porterhouse (which still, I was delighted to see, has the bottle of my wedding ale I presented them in 1997 on display in one of the bars).

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Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump Wetherspoon’s?

The two Irish beer fans lowered their voices and spoke almost in awe. They had been looking through the windows of the new JD Wetherspoon pub in the upmarket Dublin suburb of Blackrock, due to open its doors for the first time this Tuesday. “It’s got TWELVE handpumps!”, they said. That is twice as many as any pub in the Irish Republic has ever had before – and even that pub only had four handpumps actually working at any one time. Indeed, according to one (unverified) estimate, the 12 handpumps at the new ‘Spoons, the company’s first in the Republic, will boost the total number of working handpumps in the entire country by 33 per cent.

Is Ireland ready for a 12-handpump ‘Spoons? I was last in Dublin all of eight years ago, when the beer scene was still pretty dire. Since then, the country has seen a London-like explosion in the number of craft beer breweries, from a small handful to around 40 (indeed, one of the newest – N17 – actually sounds as if it ought to be in London, though it’s named after the road that runs from Galway to Sligo, and the brewery is in Tuam, rather than Tottenham).

Brew Dock Amiens Street Dublin

The bar-top line-up of craft beers at the Brew Dock in Dublin

Accompanying that has been a boom in the availability of craft beer: yes, Guinness, Budweiser and Smithwick’s are still ubiquitous, but if you’ve got the excellent Beoirfinder app, you’ve got a good chance of tracking a pub or bar with at least something more interesting on tap. And there are now bars, such as Brew Dock in Amiens Street, Dublin, near Connolly station, where the bar top has more than 20 craft keg taps, selling beers from the United States and Britain as well as Ireland.

If you can discover a working handpump anywhere, though, it’s likely to be just the one, and you could find, as I did in the Alfie Byrne bar in Dublin last Sunday, that the beer on the one handpump is almost irritatingly familiar – in this case Fuller’s London Pride. I can drink that 10 minutes’ walk from my house. Ironically, many great old Irish pubs still have a row of “policeman’s truncheon”-style handpump handles on the bartop, but they’ve not been used for 50 years. As soon as Guinness perfected the nitro-serve for draught stout, in the early 1960s, keg beer immediately replaced cask from Bantry Bay to the Derry quay, and from Galway to Dublin Town. (It was that dire situation, of course, that helped inspire them four fellas on holiday in the Republic in 1971 to form the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale.) Continue reading

You won’t believe this one weird trick they used to fly beer to the D-Day troops in Normandy

Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”

Spitfire droptank fuelling

Tangmere, Sussex, July 1944: in front of a Spitfire IX of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron, a standard 45-gallon Typhoon/Hurricane ‘Torpedo’ jettison tank modified for use on the Spitfire (because of an expected shortage of 45-gallon shaped or slipper tanks) is filled with PA ale for flying over to Normandy while an RAF ‘erk’ writes a cheery message on the tank. The pilot sitting on the wing in this clearly posed government publicity picture is wearing a Norwegian Air Force cap-badge – something no one who has reprinted this picture seems ever to have pointed out. Is the man filling the tank a brewery worker? Surely. Is the beer from Henty and Constable’s brewery in nearby Chichester? It seems very likely …

It would not be until July 12 when “real British beer” finally officially reached the battling troops in Normandy, and even then the quantity was enough only for one pint per man. But long before then, enterprising pilots in the RAF – and the USAAF – had been engaged in shipping beer into Northern France privately, using what the troops called “flying pubs”. Continue reading

How I helped design a new lager at the White Horse

Václav Berka explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

Václav Berka, senior trade brewmaster, explains the secrets of brewing Pilsner Urquell in the upper room at the White Horse, Parsons Green

I’ve taken part in many beer-related events in the upstairs room at the White Horse in Parsons Green, from tasting porter rescued from a 19th-century shipwreck to making a presentation on my historical beer heroes, but I never thought I would one day be helping to brew a lager there. Even more unlikely, this lager was made with genuine Plzeň well water – and it stood a fair chance of going into large-scale production.

The event was organised by Pilsner Urquell, the invitation came from Mark Dredge, to whom I am extremely grateful for such a fun day, it was called the London Brew-Off, and it involved three teams of beer enthusiasts, each put in charge of a 20-litre Speidel Braumeister brewing kit, handed four kilos of ground Czech malt, pointed to bags containing a selection of other speciality malts and eight or ten different hop varieties, and told to think up a recipe for a pilsner that would be good enough to go on public sale, using those ingredients, and then brew it. Our raw, hopped wort would be cooled, then have proper Pilsner Urquell yeast added, and be taken away for fermenting and lagering and, finally, bottling. On Tuesday July 15, that is, just over six weeks later, all the lagers the teams had made will be test-tasted, and the best one will be put into full-scale production – 30 hectolitres, 5,270 pints by Windsor & Eton Brewery, ready for the White Horse’s Euro Beer Fest in September. Continue reading

Doing my bit for the Surrey hop-growing industry

I’ve been invited on plenty of brewery visits over the years, but never before has the invite come with the request: “Please bring wellies and a spade.” This, however, was a field trip in a considerably more literal sense than normal: to the two and a half-acre field right opposite the Hogs Back brewery in Tongham, just outside Farnham in Surrey, to witness – and take part in – a historic event: the first planting of the Farnham White Bine hop variety in its native soil since the last bines were grubbed up 85 years ago.

This is not just, however, a footnote in Farming Today magazine: this is, according to Hogs Back’s chairman, Rupert Thompson, an important step towards increasing the “localism” aspect of the brewery’s products. Once the new hop ground (the proper Surrey name for what elsewhere are called hop gardens or hop yards) is producing a healthy crop, those hops can then be used to flavour the beer being brewed just yards away: Surrey’s own hop variety, grown in Surrey, to produce Surrey beers.

Jeff Sechiari of the Brewery History Society, one of the volunteers at the Hogs Back hop ground planting,  with a Farnham White Bine rootstock prior to planting

Jeff Sechiari of the Brewery History Society, one of the volunteers at the Hogs Back hop ground planting, with a Farnham White Bine rootstock prior to going into its hole

A century and more ago, Surrey was an important hop-growing area, and for a very long time, up to at least 1850, Farnham White Bines were the most favoured hop variety in the land, described as having “a most delicate flavour”. Richard Bradley, Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge, writing in 1729, called Farnham “the first capital Town for Hops in Britain.” Three years earlier, the Reverend John Laurence, in a book called A New System of Agriculture, said: “The noble Plantation of Hops at Farnham where for Regularity and Exactness the appear like Woods and groves cut into Vistaes is a beautiful Sight.” Arthur Young, the agriculturalist, said in 1798 that “they grow very large quantities” of hops around Farnham, and hop grounds were let in the district “from £3 to £9 an acre, which last price is very great.” In the second half of the 19th century, Kentish hops overtook those from Farnham in favour, but Farnham hops were still ranked second in quality after those from East Kent in 1890, and even in 1909, George Clinch could say: “The Farnham hops have long been famous for their excellent quality.”

In 1886, Surrey had 2,937 acres of hop grounds: half the size of the Sussex hop crop and a third that of Hampshire, but more than either Hereford or Worcester. Disease – to which hops in general and Farnham White Bines in particular are prone, especially downy mildew – hammered the Surrey industry, and the county’s own hop disappeared from its homeland in 1929, to be replaced by more disease-resistant varieties. But even in 1959, there were still 1,879 acres of Surrey hop grounds, which made up 9.2% of all the land then given to hop cultivation in Britain. The collapse of the industry since that time is encapsulated in one telling statistic: the planting of hop bines at Tongham this week doubled the number of existing hop grounds in Surrey.

Before the planting on Monday, Rupert Thompson said: “It will be wonderful to look out from the brewery and see the raw materials we use growing in the next-door field – that’s local! That is part of what makes the craft brewing revival so exciting.” Right now all you can see is a muddy field with, if you look carefully, row after row of angled pieces of metal sticking a few inches out of the ground, all carefully spaced one foot apart. Each marks where a hop plant was planted by a small but enthusiastic squad of helpers, including me. But in a few weeks, once the hops start to grow, the trellising will be going in: and a couple of months after that, the field should be a magnificent sight: two thousand or so hopbines (slightly fewer than half Farnhams, the rest the American variety Cascade), leafy and green, climbing 15 feet or more into the Surrey sky. Continue reading

How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

Micropubs: revolution in the making or just five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space?

The micropub movement – numbers now past 40 and rising, with new examples seemingly opening every week – seems to have avoided any sort of critical backlash so far, probably because it’s still very, very tiny (like the pubs themselves). But I fear it won’t be long before a definition of “micropub” appears based on a TripAdvisor review of the “original” micropub, the Butcher’s Arms in Herne, Kent: “Five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

The Old Cock, Fleet Street, London

I say this as a card-carrying member of the Grumpy Old Man demographic myself, but that is the surprising aspect of the micropub “mini-boom” – it turns on its head every recently received wisdom about the way forward for the British pub, about how the wet-led boozer catering for old gits who are only interested in pints and chat is on its Last Orders, about how those pubs which fail to gastro-reinvent themselves are doomed to end up as supermarkets or blocks of flats.

The facts are, sadly, there to show that, across the board, places that stick to “LADs” – long alcoholic drinks – as their main attraction are putting up the shutters. It’s not just pubs: between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of social clubs in Britain fell by 417, or 3.1 per cent, a closure rate of eight a week (and with no help or hindrance from the pubcos, you’ll notice: you do NOT have to be a pubco tenants to find the current climate extremely chilly. ). But pubs are suffering, of course: over the same period, “wet-led” or drinkers’ pubs fell by almost 600, or 2 per cent, a rate of just over 11 a week. Many of those were town centre pubs, which are particularly feeling pain. Food-led pubs, meanwhile, nudged up slightly, from 11,334 to 11,357, while restaurants shot ahead, with a net gain for the year of 1,470 outlets. In other words, for every wet-led pub that closes, two and a half new restaurants open. That trend looks set to accelerate: between now and 2018 it has been predicted that the number of “wet-led” pubs will fall by 10 per cent, or about 2,900 boozers, while food-led pubs will increase in numbers by 7 per cent and restaurants by 5 per cent. (All figures from CGA Peach.)

Now, all the micropubs in Britain added together right now still don’t beat one month’s “wet-led” pub closures. But since a micropub – food-free, no keg offering, the sort of beer-only alehouse that was already disappearing before the Second World War, typically filled with unaccompanied men over 50, often in or near town centres – is a reversal of everything else happening in the pub market right now, we may eventually have to ask: “Is this just a few hobbyists, or have the big pub operators actually missed a trick?”

Indeed, the micropub movement looks to have produced its first home-grown entrepreneur, with James Mansfield, owner of the Medieval Beers brewery in Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, opening a third micropub under the name “Beer Shack”, in the town that shares his name, to follow the first two Beer Shacks in Hucknall and Burnley respectively.

Could this be the sign that micropubs are moving from what could, even a few months ago, be dismissed as an eccentric hobby into the mainstream of British hospitality? There are, apparently, so many people now looking to open a micropub themselves that the Micropub Association has declared that “the micropub revolution is going bonkers”, and put a warning on its website that “due to the sheer numbers of enquiries we get from potential micropub owners, we are unable to give you any individual advice [or] enter into individual email discussions regarding the viability of the setting up of your micropub.”

The Association has just restated its definition of what a micropub is, moving from a declaration that it had to be small, in size, a conversion of an existing premises, primarily selling real ale, with “NO lager whatsoever”, and filled with “lively banter and chat with no music”. Today the Association says that “a micropub is a small freehouse which listens to its customers, mainly serves cask ales, promotes conversation, shuns all forms of electronic entertainment and dabbles in traditional pub snacks.”

Is the micropub as a route to running your own pub business a threat to the traditional pubco tenancy? As the Micropub Association’s website points out, the would-be micropub landlord has a fair number of advantages over those looking to start up a “traditional” pub. The small size of a micropub means low costs and maximum use of space; no music means no costly music licences and no expensive sound system to pay for; no food means less work, fewer skills required, less space needed, no hygiene exams to pass, no additional costs because of the potentially expensive oversight by environmental health officials, and no “scores on the doors” rigmarole to deal with; no keg lagers or other keg beers means no complicated equipment and no need for bar space; the potential for low rates due to being rated as a shop rather than a pub; from that, low water rates, which are traditionally based on the rateable value; and if you keep turnover below £75,000 a year, the chance to save on 20% VAT. What’s not to like?

We won’t, I don’t think, be able to tell if the micropub movement really is a revolution or a fad until micropub numbers get into at least low triple figures, and we don’t see a rash of closures. But the fact that the movement has gone from a very slow start – the Butcher’s Arms opened in 2005, there were no more micropubs until 2009 and still only a dozen by the end of 2012 – to what looks like a (still small) rocket surge suggests that something extremely interesting may be happening.

How will it affect the rest of the pub business if micropubs really do become mainstream? Well, it could certainly cut back on the number of people looking to run a pubco tenanted pub, if they think they can start up a micropub all of their own for, probably, less money than acquiring a tenancy would cost. But a pub that takes in a year what the average JD Wetherspoon outlet takes in a fortnight is probably not going to worry too many big operators. And the big operators – and most other pubs – probably won’t be losing much business to the micropubs anyway, since the customers micropubs seem to be attracting look to be those who stopped going out to “ordinary” pubs 20 years ago, and stayed at home instead.

On the other hand, since the micropubs seem to be proving that there is a demographic out there which is not currently being served properly by the “mainstream” pub industry, and since new business is always welcome, it may be that big operators start to consider the advantages of running micropubs themselves. In just the way that Tesco, having captured the “big destination shop” supermarket sector, moved into town centres with smaller Tesco Metro stores to mop up what remained, could we see someone like Wetherspoon, having captured so many high streets, decide to move into the suburbs with a chain of “Spoons Local” micropubs?

(A variation of this article appeared on the Propel Info site)