Friday 28 November 2014

Beer and Pubs - A Personal History

I’ve never claimed to be the typical beer blogger.  It’d be odd of me to do so, as I know I’ve never been the typical human being.

Reading many blogposts about the apparent formative years of your average beer blogger, it’s always struck me “Was life really like that for other people?”.

Most seem to have been introduced to alcohol by their parents, then progressed to the furtive world of underage drinking in parks or simply robbing the drinks cabinet while their parents were out.  Another typical story is being introduced to Real Ale (or its equivalent) at University, and progressing along the Crafty Route with their College Friend fellow travellers.  Then they find they need to share their thoughts with like-minded people.  And the way that’s done these days is via The Blog.
The Beer Bloggers of Tomorrow. Possibly
My life was never like that.  But then my life was never like anyone else’s.

I almost never drank as a teenager.  Certainly not with friends.  I never had any.  I lived in my bedroom, typing various fanzine (remember them?) articles and letters (remember them also?) out while consuming coffee and Pepsi Max in an effort to stave off impending depression and imminent academic failure.  No, I first started my drinking career in earnest back in 1997, when I left home.  Just to show exactly how long ago this was, I bought my own home on a supermarket night shift worker’s wage.  My tipple of choice then was Lambrusco or Bulgarian Chardonnay.  They were cheap at Asda.

Lacking the typical formative drinking experiences, I never got the taste of beer.  It took concerted effort at the age of 24 to even drink Stella or Staropramen.  As a great man once said, by diligent application, I learned to like it.

The pub was an alien world to me.  I went a few times as a child, or more to the point sat outside or in my grandad’s Ford Granada Estate which he used to crawl around the pubs of rural North Lancashire. One presumes the Police were not on the lookout for that sort of thing in the mid 1980s.  I was never taken to them by my parents, as they thought such places were not the places children should.  Or maybe they just wanted to get away from us.  But even then I was aware of the power alcohol had over people.  When my father had one of his infrequent pub excursions with friends or workmates, my mother always warned me not to irritate him after he came home.  Which was odd, as he always seemed to find me less annoying when he was drunk.
Unsecured kids in the back while driving drunk. Entirely safe in 1984
When I was in my 20s, I tried the pub experience by myself to see what all the fuss was about.  My local was just up the road from my house, The Oxford Arms in May Bank, Newcastle Under Lyme.  It was a Bass pub back then, and was shabbily decorated with a “Sports” theme.  I went in once on a Monday afternoon.  It was deserted (despite what the likes of Mudgie will say, pubs were never that busy on Mondays back in 1999).  I read the paper while drinking 5 pints of Stella, followed by a JD chaser.  As I recall, there was only one other drinker there, so there were few people to take exception to my seemingly odd behaviour.  Counting my money afterwards, I realised it was cheaper to drink at home.

After that, I restricted my out-of-home drinking to a couple of drinks in the Hogshead (Whitbread’s 1990s attempt at a JD Wetherspoon), after buying a couple of books at Webberley’s in Hanley.  I sat there.  I read and I drank.  I never spoke to anyone who I wasn’t ordering a drink from.

Your twenties, so I’m told, are meant to be the best time of your life for socialising.  It never happened for me.  Looking back at a distance of fifteen years or so, I probably missed out on what most people would consider a “normal” social life.  It didn’t seem that way at the time, though.  I was doing what I could cope with.  I would have been terrified if anyone had tried to engage me in conversation at the Oxford Arms or the Hanley Hogshead.  The beer, such as it was, was a means to an end, simply there to make me feel less anxious  about being outside in daylight. The few times I ever went out with other people usually ended badly.  I always found the places I was taken too loud and crowded.  This tended to culminate in embarrassing incidents, such as the time at my parents’ Silver Wedding where a taxi had to be called for me when I was found outside staring at the floor.  I don’t like noise and massed people now, but back then I was completely unable to cope.
Clue - no longer there
I lost my job on the supermarket night shift when I was 30.  I couldn’t afford the mortgage, so I sold up and moved back home.  I’ve often asked myself whether the good that came from it has outweighed the harrowing times I endured while going through it.  Sadly, it’s one of the few questions that I genuinely cannot answer.

At first, I lived the same life I had as a teenager.  Though at least there was now the internet to make things a little less tedious.  I got up, I went to work, I bought wine, I came home, I drank it while surfing and then went to bed.  Usually later than I should have, but such things have always been a problem for me.  I had to give up wine in the end.  The sulphites were starting to give me heartburn.
A couple of friends used to take me out around my birthday around this time.  I was unsure of the reasons, but it got me out of the house.  In 2010, this happened to be a beer festival on the Flag Market in Preston town centre.  It was the 21st of December and minus 2 celsius.  You had to drink to keep the cold out.  I tried a few beers, despite it being about 95% Real Ale.  I eventually got to the strong stuff.  Captain Smith’s from Titanic Brewery, 5.2%.  Well, I thought, I’ll pay tribute to Stoke here if nothing else.  I was surprised when I enjoyed it too.
Sadly, Captain Smith’s was a rare sight in Preston.  Whenever I had to go back to Stoke to see family, I made sure I spent more time in Titanic pubs than with my actual relatives. Far more tolerable, and far less awkward, I thought.  Drinking my way through Titanic’s range (Steerage, Anchor, Iceberg, White Star etc.), even I eventually realised that Real Ale, despite being the stereotypical drink of fat, bearded, middle-aged men, had far more diversity of flavour than the mass-market lager I usually drank.
"Captain, you can either go down with the ship, or go back home to Stoke"
It was after one of these “holidays” where, after work, I bought my usual bottles of Krombacher, chilled them in the fridge for an hour and poured them out.  They now had no flavour.  None whatsoever.  I realised I would have to start drinking something else.


But where to get decent beer in Preston?  Not having grown up here, or knowing much about beer, I had no clue what was good or bad.  One day, though, my father brought home a copy of the town’s greatest comedy publication – the local CAMRA magazine “Ale Cry”.  Once my eyes got used to the garish colours and appalling layout, I perused the articles.  One was about The Black Horse, a historic pub in the town centre.  It had just undergone a £400,000 refurbishment and was now stocking, yes, Titanic beers alongside the usual Robinsons range. Yes, I thought, this would be a good place to start.

So, the following week, I went along to the Horse.  And there was Titanic Iceberg behind the bar.  I ordered a pint, but it ran out three-quarters of the way down.  At least I got it for free.  Still, plenty more where that came from.  Or that’s what I thought.  Because in the following weeks, whenever I went into the Black Horse, Titanic was only noticeable by its absence  (I later heard that Robbies had pulled it off the bar because it was outselling their own beer 3-to-1).  Having paid for the bus, I usually stayed and drank something else.  Usually the mild, as it was the weakest and I could drink more.
I'm in this pic. See if you can spot me.
I believe this is the kind of thing every serious beer drinker should do.  Just as you cannot appreciate happiness unless you have known misery, you cannot appreciate flavoursome beer unless you have drunk a standard regional brewery mild.  I’ve always been grateful to Robinsons Brewery for this, because I now know that however weird, disconcerting and sometimes downright awful some craft beers can be, they will at least be more interesting than Robinsons Mild.


And so, where I am I now?

I’m not young any more.  In fact, I’ll be 39 a week on Monday.  As a result, it’s quite anomalous for me to drink in pubs now, as pretty much everyone I know in them is under 25.  Being studenty places, Preston and Lancaster tend to aim for this market quite a bit.  I’m often quite conscious of my age and lack of education, but it’s usually surmountable, even if the young’uns and I do get irritated with each other sometimes.  I’m not yet quite old enough to join the Best Bitter drinking curmudgeons in the dark pub corners saying how everything was better in my day.
Old man with a pint of best, yesterday

I’m better at conversation than I used to be.  If nothing else I’ve learned to use my naturally inappropriate personality for humorous effect.  Drinking good beer helps.  That and discussing the activities of the various other patrons and barstaff gives me something to do.  Even though I still have some rough times (not helped, I’m unhappy to relate, by drinking more than I should sometimes), the rough and the smooth are usually in equal proportion these days.

I’ve not had the typical beer blogger journey towards expressing my thoughts online to the world that cares to read them.  I’d like to think this makes me more interesting, or at least a bit different.

For once, I’ll admit, it’s not for me to say.

Monday 24 November 2014

News In Brief #7

Beer Wins Award

Important, unique and totally above board

In a beer judging competition somewhere, some beer or other has won some kind of award.

Up against several other beers, this beer was deemed the best.  All the judges agreed this beer was the finest one in that particular competition. True to it's style, whatever that was, it was deemed to be one of the greatest beers ever produced by it's country. Wherever that was.

The beer's brewer said after receiving the award "My beer winning this award proves that all is well with brewing. As long as all beers win awards it means all beers are award-winning."

Convenience Store Planned Closure

Soon to be a home for beards of all descriptions

Residents of Offerton near Stockport are up in arms about the proposed conversion of their Sainsburys Local into a Public House.

Local entrepreneur Bob Flybynight said "What with the new beer tie and rent law and everything I've worked out it's actually financially viable to run a pub now. It is, isn't it? Right?"

Protesting housewife Jane Downton-Abbey begged to differ "This decision is absolutely horrifying. I meet all my friends at the bakery section in Sainsburys. It's too ghastly to think this space will be taken up with beer drinkers."

Local pub blogger Curmudgeon was asked to comment and told us "It's what the market wants. So that's OK, then."

Sparkler Spotted In London

Proper Southern pint, that knows

On a trip to Bermondsey last week, visiting Northerner Albert Heckmondwikethwaite ordered a pint of Ilkley Pale in The Dangling Frog and was shocked when he received it.

"I looked at it and knew summat wasn't right. Then I realised. It had a bloody head on it. I mean, bloody hell, I travel all this way to get a flat, foam free London pint and they bloody well give me this. It's not on."

Dangling Frog barman Hector Usedvinyl said "It's a Northern beer and he's a Northerner. I thought they did that sort of thing there?"

Sparkler Evangelist Tandleman announced "Och, the reason why nobody has any sparklers in London is because I own them all. I NEED them."

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Art Beer

I've described how I regularly go to The Moorbrook here, I'm sure.  The manager has a definite liking for beer from Blackjack.  And who wouldn't have?  I'm also an Untappd user (it helps me keep track the progress of my recreational liver destruction if nothing else), and when I have a different beer, I always check it in.

The problem with doing this for breweries like Blackjack is that they seem to make a different beer every time?  I buy a pint of an IPA and enter it in the search box.  But which of the 30 Blackjack IPAs is it?  I scroll up and down the screen, looking for the exact hop varieties and ABV.  And even sometimes the date.  Even after that, I'm often still not that confident I've got it right.

After doing this a few times, it got me thinking (always a dangerous thing). What if Blackjack, and other breweries who make beer in a similar fashion, are not Craft Brewers?  Are they Art Brewers?

The basic definition of "craft" is a process practiced by a skilled artisan leading to a high-quality and consistently repeatable result. And whatever you say about Boring Brown Bitter, or even Thornbridge, its brewers are certainly consistent.

Art is a different matter.  The goal is to create a singular personal vision, the quality of which will only be apparent afterwards.  Sometimes a masterpiece will result, sometimes something bog-standard but ok, and maybe even something awful that's best not shown in public.  But it's all about ambition and creation, rather than knocking out the same thing again and again.

So, is a lot of s0-called "Craft Beer" really "Art Beer"?  If the brewers are not aiming to make a consistent product again and again for people who know what they like, and rather want to make something stunning that will be approved by their intended audience, I would say yes.

Maybe Craft is dead after all.  And Art has taken its place.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

News In Brief #6

There is? Really?

Healthier than the average pub meal
A purchaser of a single chocolate bar fell victim to the latest viral beer publicity campaign yesterday.  Ron Casual, 43, entered his local newsagent to purchase a Mars Bar. "I know it's not the healthiest option," he explained "but I was feeling a bit peckish."

However, the unexpected happened as he left the shop. "I suddenly heard this, like, voice or something. 'There's A Beer For That' it kept saying.". The voice compelled him to go to a local crafty pub and buy a 6% Chocolate and Caramel porter.

"Ever since, I've not been able to even look at food without hearing 'There's A Beer For That'." Casual complained "It's almost as if you're not allowed to consume beer and food separately any more."

Booze maven Pete Brown, operating for some reason in a giant microwave satellite dish thing, was unavailable for comment.

Greene King Will Make Your Pub Craft

Patrons of the Fox & Duck in Walsham le Willows have been staging a sit in at the pub since a week last Tuesday, over it's owners Greene King's plans for the place.

Habitual home-fleer and protest leader Dave Complacent explains "I was sat there with my pint of IPA Smooth, and suddenly people from the brewery started ripping out all the carpets and seats, replacing them with girders and high stools."

It didn't stop there. "They whipped off the pumpclips for Ruddles and Abbot, and replaced them with weird things. What is a 'Kernel' anyway." he continued "Why can't things stay the same for always?"

"It's almost like Greene King are trying to get rid of us."

JD Wetherspoon Proclaims Motorway Pub "Successful"

"10% of every pint of Abbot goes to the Mark Reckless Campaign"
Despite media reports that the apparently notorious roadside pub, The Hope and Champion in Beaconsfield is failing, Wetherspoons Chairman Timbo Martin, surprisingly, disagrees with this assessment.

Brushing his mullet with his official UKIP comb, Timbo pontificated "Yes, it's true alcohol sales are less than other people would think. But it's not because people don't want to be caught swigging next to a major thoroughfare."

He dubiously continued "No, it's because patrons who want a pint are queueing up behind people who only want a coffee and a meal. That and the queue for the toilets is so long the parking terms and conditions expire before they can get a drink."

"So, pretty much like all the other pubs I run, really."

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Normal Service Resumed Tomorrow

I'm not the most social of bunnies, I'll admit. I was asked recently if if Craft Beer helped relieve the rollercoaster that my up and down moods consist of. I said no, I just like drinking and talking about it.

"We can tell." they said.

It's just something I have to live with. I usually go to the Lancaster Tap House quiz night on Monday. Sadly, I'd had two "episodes" that week, so I thought best to restrict my consumption. I believe I broke the record for Dandelion & Burdock drinking that day.

I know alcohol is a depressant. Sadly, so do the people on my Facebook feed when I have a meltdown when pissed. I know something bad has happened the next day when they ask me if I want to meet up for a coffee to talk about things. I'm grateful. I really am. But I'd rather not put myself and other people through it.

It's very hard work, being surrounded in a pub by people laughing and having fun, and all you want to do is crawl into bed and die. You headed out with the best of intentions and it all went wrong. It's nobody's fault, you just have to watch out and do what's necessary to stay safe.

Winston Churchill said "I have taken more out of drink than drink has taken out of me". I wish I could say the same. Alcohol has been good to me, but also it's been not so good sometimes.

I keep on going. It's all I can do.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

I've Got a Bonneville in Bits, But I'm Gonna Sort It Out

I want Dave the Barman to refer me to the blackboard
My CAMRA membership renewed itself by Direct Debit this week.  After two years, I've progressed far up the hierarchy.  They've finally given me a membership card which you can't scratch the letters off.  Is this official policy?  It seems so.

A lot of my readers here will be asking "Why are you still in the Beard Club? Don't you slag them off and take the piss out of them on a regular basis?"  Well, yes I do.  But I do that with everyone.  Leaving aside the Spoons tokens, the discounts and the magazine, the membership fee is worth the comedy value of What's Brewing alone.  The letters page and Keg Buster are almost Daliesque in their absurdity.

I am however awaiting one thing.  The people that run CAMRA Central Lancs said a while back that they'd be contacting every member in the branch to see if they want to contribute anything  (or as they put it in a somewhat dystopian way, 'activate' them).  I did email them myself in August offering my services  as "Ale Cry" cartoonist, but have yet to be contacted for either of these. I can only assume they've read my unflattering depictions of their views and activities on this blog.
You don't say.  You DON'T say.
One person who defended CAMRA to me last year, when I asked what the point of them was these days, has since cancelled his membership, saying he can't stomach giving money to such a backward and sexist organisation any more.  He even tweeted to me  "You're just a number to them , Mr. 416490".  I wouldn't go that far, and I think it's just about worth what I have to put in as a member.  You'll never see me at the Committee Meeting down at the Stanley Arms on Lancaster Road or going on the minibus with the Branch Social to a pub crawl in Accrington, but being a member does as least say you're interested in half-decent beer.  Not being a stereotypical CAMRA Man helps deflect any of the jokes.  I knew there was something good about being an inappropriate paisley-shirted wanker.

CAMRA isn't perfect.  Nothing is.  Not even 'progressive' Evil Keg brewers.  People should be, in such an essentially trivial thing as beer fandom, able to get what they want out of it and discard the rest.

It's only beer, after all