Sunday, 12 March 2017

Pedigree vs. Pedigree

There was disbelief and scorn aplenty a few months ago when Marston’s announced a radical rebranding of their core range. Say what you like: the defining feature of craft beer is distressed type and a style of graphic design that was briefly fashionable ten years ago. Nothing else matters. It can be cheap, expensive, brewed in a small brewery, brewed in a large brewery, brewed in somebody else’s brewery, made with silly ingredients, not made therewith, hoppy, bland, well made, badly made, anything. The only thing that counts is the distressed type.

Funnily enough, the old labels described the beer as “crafted since 1834”, but the new ones don’t. Gone, too, is the claim on the old label that Pedigree is “matured in oak barrels”, a lie so outrageous that I meant to blog about it two years ago, but never got around to it. The beer is also now an “Amber Ale” rather than Pale Ale – 200 years of Burton brewing heritage thrown in the canal just like that. It appears marketing people throughout the industry now consider a Pale Ale to be one of those vaguely citrussy golden things.

I don’t drink much Pedigree usually. I find the cask version quite bland, but frustratingly it is (like its cousin Bass) only a few steps and maybe some extra dry hops away from being a nice beer. I also crave the sulphury whiff which – equally frustratingly – Burton brewers have been successfully trying to eliminate from their beers for the last three decades or so. At times I have even thought the bottled version was superior, possibly because one has lower expectations of bottled beer to begin with.

Nevertheless, Pedigree is inarguably an iconic British beer, and I thought this change would be a nice opportunity to compare the old and new bottled versions.

Given the pig’s arse Marston’s have made of the branding, I am pleasantly surprised to report that the beer itself has improved. The major difference is that the bottles are now bottle-conditioned (and presumably, corollary with that, no longer pasteurised).

Both pour with a nice dense collar of foam. Old Pedigree appears much paler in the glass than New Pedigree, but that is possibly because, surprisingly, it is not entirely bright (remember, this is the brewery-conditioned one). Obviously this beer is a few months older than the new bottle (I bought it and then had to wait for the new version to appear on the shelves, which took longer than anticipated), but still well within the best-before date (31 July 2017). The aroma is slightly sugary, the taste crisp and minerally as a Burton Pale Ale ought to be, the finish dry and only slightly bitter. Sadly, this bottle is showing its age despite still having a notional five months of shelf life, which just goes to show you shouldn't buy old beer whatever the label says.

New is a generally cleaner and fresher-tasting beer, the sugary note on the nose has gone and although it is a lightly hopped beer, there is a fair bit of hop flavour and a decent bitterness. There is very little yeast sediment, and you’d probably never realise it was bottle-conditioned if it didn’t tell you on the label. Only on the nose, or if you swill the dregs around is there a bit of yeastiness. Whether the fresher taste is down to the bottle-conditioning, the lack of pasteurisation, or the fact it actually is fresher (best-before date 31 December 2017), I guess we’ll never know.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

A law unto himself

Cumbernauld is one of the Scottish “new towns” stamped out of the ground in the aftermath of the Second World War, to ease the overcrowding of the big cities and allow for massive slum clearance there. To outsiders, it’s best known as the setting for the Bill Forsyth film Gregory’s Girl.

It’s only a very short walk from Cumbernauld railway station to the little industrial estate, and if I were a Cumbernauld commuter I’d wish the brewery down the wooded path had an off-sales licence. Maybe one day, but on this still rather frosty morning it’s time to get to work.

With over 100 brewing operations now active in Scotland, it was inevitable that someone would start up a brewery here, and Craig Laurie was the man to do it with his Lawman Brewing Co.

The name comes from Craig’s legal studies at university; there, however, he discovered homebrewing and real ale, and on completion of his degree went to work at a brewery instead of at court.

Craig struck out on his own in late 2015, first brewing tiny amounts in his own kitchen and then moving to a dedicated unit. Brewers often like to latch on to the history of a previous, defunct local brewery, but that’s not an option here: as far as anyone can find out, Lawman is the first commercial brewery that’s ever existed in the town; the villages that made way for the New Town were too small to have supported one, even prior to the 1960s conglomeration of Scottish brewing.

Craig started out with an American pale ale, Horizon, and Steadfast, a Köln-style effort. The most impressive of these early beers to me was Weatherall IPA, a marmaladey strong country bitter which perhaps is not much like what people think of as an IPA these days, but none the worse for that.

The main beers now – at least the ones I see most often – are the pale ’n’ hoppy Pixel Bandit, featuring Admiral and Belma hops, and Onyx stout, which has been dubbed “Stouty Stout” by drinkers. A rye beer called Mr Beast followed and there’s a black IPA occasionally which I haven’t tried. 

Craig is brewing Pixel Bandit today. I’m “helping” (i.e. trying not to get in the way too much.) I once had the knack of pulling the rip-cord on these sacks of malt, but have lost it. Craig helpfully hands me a pair of scissors.

It is an extremely basic brewhouse at Lawman. Craig’s mash tun is basically a simple metal vat with no hatch or any other mod cons. That means stirring the mash, by hand, A lot. It also means that once the mash is done and run off, someone has to climb in and shovel out the draff. My turn. This is why I try to get to new breweries as soon as I can, before they expand: the smaller the brewery, the less mash I have to dig out. So I pull on my wellies and jump in … and immediately sink up to my ankles in the swampy, wet, very hot grain.

Digging mash is hard on the back and the wrists (if you’re an unfit softy like me, at any rate), but you have a strong motivation to clear a space to stand in as fast as possible, before the heat around your feet and calves becomes unbearable. Back in the old days, when even big breweries had to do this by hand, whole teams of draff men would be in the mash tun, stripped to the waist and with wellies filled with cold water for protection.

The newer beers too are still being developed: Pixel Bandit started quite dry and citrussy and has since become more full-bodied and tropical. Craig is enamoured of the effect of a small amount of Belgian melanoidin malt on the beer; less so of the effects of sudden changes to the mains water supply which led to unexpected problems with the beer.

Obsidian is the occasionally produced, stronger, barrel-aged big brother of Stouty Stout (inevitably titled Stoutiest Stout). Craig acquired some rather unusual whisky casks thanks to connections in the whisky trade of his investors – by unusual, I mean from distilleries that have not previously made a habit of passing their casks on to brewers. The resulting beer is smooth and rich and I think the best thing Lawman has produced yet. When I tried the beer on draught at the Paisley Beer Festival last year, the first thought that came to mind was that if I had tasted it blind I would have guessed it to be from Harviestoun – that’s a compliment, by the way.

Others agree, for the bottled version of Obsidian Imperial Stout went on to win the “craft beer” category in the Great British Food Awards, beating competition from Wold Top and Magic Rock. Not bad for a brewery less than a year old. Suspecting he was onto a good thing, Craig has roped in a well-known face on the Edinburgh brewing scene, Benji Bullen, a.k.a. Elixir Brewing Co, to help with the latest barrel-aging project.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Saturdays at Lommi

One of my must-dos on every Cologne visit is downing a few glasses of Kölsch at the splendid little boozer Lommerzheim, in Deutz on the east side of the Rhine. Like another of my favourite pubs, the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow, nothing much has changed in the fabric of the building for about fifty years. The sign outside advertises Dortmund beer, but inside Kölsch is the only beer on offer. Fortunately, it’s Päffgen, so that is no hardship.

In Cologne itself, the pub is already a cult and you have to know when to turn up if you want a seat, especially at the weekend.

When we arrive at 1620 there are already 60 people waiting for the pub to open at 1630. By the time the doors open the crowd has swollen to 80 or more. Thirty seconds after the doors open, every seat inside is taken. It seems a very efficient way to run a drinking establishment, and the place is, if anything, more popular now than when old Hans Lommerzheim was alive.

In the best Rhineland establishments, the single beer is served by gravity from a keg on the bar. Because there is no choice, the beer pours constantly, never becoming flat or warm. One waiter is dedicated to pouring beer. Clack-clack-clack go the small glasses as he rotates the round tray underneath the tap. The first keg is emptied and rolled away 25 minutes after opening time, replaced by a fresh one. This 25-minute rhythm holds up for at least another two hours.

We have the legendary Kotelett here, an enormous pork chop which is a minimum of an inch and a half thick and often closer to three. Tender and delicious, it’s served with chips just in case you’re not completely sated.

You might have assumed, from experience with over-vented British ale served by gravity, that gravity-tapped beer never has much of a head. Not a bit of it. The Kölsch at Lommerzheim is so saturated with natural CO2 that the beer pours milky at first and soon settles to show a dense, creamy head. I never tire of looking at a freshly poured glass. Sometimes I examine this incredible foam a bit too closely and the waiter asks with a concerned expression if there is something wrong.

You never leave a Cologne pub having drunk only one beer. Even a quick stop sees two or three notches on your beermat. I don’t mind.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Golden Pints 2016

Oh, hello. It’s yourself is it? Well, as you’ll have noticed, I’ve been blogging less in 2016. I have not stopped drinking beer, just found it increasingly hard to find the time to write about it. In fact, I’ve been on more trips than ever, even though there is also more going on at home in Glasgow than ever before.

Please note that I am so far behind with blogging that some of these awards are due to experiences that have not been written about here yet. If you’re curious about any of my choices, wait a while…

Best UK Cask Beer:

I know everyone is saying it (though I was saying it before them, if you must know), but these days I am looking for drinkable, subtle beers. However, due to the butterfly-like drinking behaviour that I, like many others, have succumbed to, it’s tricky to find examples that I have drunk more than once or twice. Aside from the usual suspects (Harveys, Bathams, etc), I guess the acid test are beers that I have gone back for a second pint of, and one of those is Orkney Brewery’s Corncrake, which was found in stunning condition on more than one occasion. On the face of it, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill golden bitter with nothing particularly notable about it, yet I find it massively drinkable. A chance encounter with RCH Hewish Mild in December was also extremely pleasant.

Best UK Keg Beer:

I don't drink much keg – more for financial reasons than on principle – but one that sticks out was Lost & Grounded Kellerpils. Even with more and more lagers appearing from independent breweries, it’s still rare to find one which comes close to the fresh, malty unfiltered lagers of Franconia. This one doesn’t quite match the best of them, but is well on the way there. A great achievement for such a new brewery. (Mind you, the only other beer I've had from them I didn’t like at all, so take your chances...)

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer:

Ahab from Up Front Brewing in Glasgow. Jake Griffin, the head of this outfit, is a master of stout grists, and this “American Stout” dances between coffee and chocolate Ready Brek. If drinking 6% stouts every day were sensible (it isn’t), it’d be in my fridge all the time. Look out for an Ahab variant in 2017.

Best Overseas Draught:

Ulrich Martin Pilsner from Hausen, Franconia; a delight of a beer, with marvellous foam and a magnificent citrus hop aroma; the perfect antidote to ignorant idiots and ideologically motivated craft beer fanatics who claim that German beer all tastes the same. Although looking at my photos would suggest I have drunk more draught Päffgen Kölsch than any other foreign beer.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer:

Probably Rodenbach for 65 cent a can from a Belgian supermarket.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label:

Cloudwater undoubtedly have have some of the slickest and most tasteful labels. Unfortunately every beer I've tried from them has been meh (see below), but one lives in hope. Boundary Brewing from Belfast have similarly attractive artwork, but the print quality lets them down. An honourable mention goes to Glasgow cuckoo brewer Gallus, whose minimalist branding is reminiscent of 1980s photocopier acrobatics (Their production is so tiny that you have to be quicker off the mark than me to actually get hold of their beer – I think I managed two of them all year – one literally the last glass out of the keg).

Under-Hyped Brewery Of The Year:

I’ve had a few very nice pints from Cumbria’s Fell Brewery, but never seen a blog or feature about them. Going by the quality of their beer, you ought to be hearing more about them.

Pub/Bar of the Year:

It was devastating to hear of the death of Jason Lyons of the State Bar halfway through the year. Hard as it must be to pick up the pieces and keep going, that is precisely what the State Bar has done, with the beer quality still holding up enough to win it the local CAMRA Glasgow Pub of the Year award for the third year in a row.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2016:

While Glasgow has a fast-changing restaurant scene, the rate of change in the pub scene is more relaxed. But there have been quite a few new openings worth mentioning. It was particularly delightful to see the Old Toll Bar re-opening after over two years of closure, bringing back a historic mahogany pub interior as handsome as any in Edinburgh. I have high hopes for the new Crossing the Rubicon in the west end, which adds another outlet to the Williams Bros empires and offers fine beer with freshly cooked curries. I have a soft spot too for the wilfuly unfashionable MacGregor’s Ale and Pie Howff, which as the name implies serves ale and pies and that’s it. My favourite of the new openings though is the Hippo Taproom on Sauchiehall St: an unlikely location given that street’s reputation for Stella binges and taxi-queue fights, yet the quiet basement space is an oasis. With seven changing keg lines and three casks, the draught beer selection is small but refined. That it is just round the corner from the State is a bonus.

Beer Festival of the Year:

I haven’t been to many festivals this year, something which needs to change.

Supermarket of the Year:

Not much change in this category. This has to be Booths (again): the last branch I was in had a display of cans and local bottles which outdid a few specialist retailers I can think of. Mind you, they were running a promotion of Warsteiner and Marston's EPA too.

Independent Retailer of the Year:

In Glasgow, several excellent new retailers are well bedded in that didn’t exist five years ago. The one I've been to the most, though, is Grunting Growler, which in March finally opened in its own location after a series of pop-ups. Sadly it doesn’t have an on-sales licence yet, which has limited boss Jehad’s ability to offer samples or run tastings. Hopefully the licensing board will see sense in the new year.

Best Beer Blog or Website:

For several years Lars Marius Garshol at Larsblog is going out week in, week out, doing the primary fieldwork that nobody has ever done before, interviewing Scandinavian farmer brewers about their beer and their way of brewing, breaking new ground in beer research. All this without any outside funding or sponsorship from a commercial operation. If you want to out-nerd your friends, buy his book on Norwegian farm ale now so you can say you had it before it was translated into English.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer:

Goes to @pilotbeeruk for frequently hilarious tweets.

Most Overhyped Brewery: 

Well, maybe it was just a dirty glass.
Even before Cloudwater had launched, complaints appeared about an alleged backlash against them which was, as far as anyone could tell, completely imaginary. A series of, in my view, deeply mediocre beers followed, which were praised to the heavens. Being fair, as far as I can make out none of the hype has actually come from the brewery. Their double IPA has been praised to the heavens elsewhere, but I won’t be forking out or queueing up for it, as I gave up when served this Mittelfrüh Lager which had lost its head entirely by the time I was half way down the glass.

Most Embarrassing Attempt To Be Down With The Kids:

There’s really only one serious contender for this: Marston’s rebranding of their entire range which throws their old-fashioned labels overboard in favour of new designs in a grungy style which was briefly fashionable ten years ago and makes their bottles look like supermarket own-brands. But hey, marketing consultants were paid a fortune to come up with this, so it must be good. My tip to Marston’s: it’s your beer that’s the problem, not your branding. Well, actually, now it’s your branding too, so well done there.

But this thing from Harviestoun for the new canned edition of Old Engine Oil is pretty poor, too. It doesn't match the branding on the bottles or on the other cans, and is gaudy and juvenile (It'll sell like hot cakes then).

Runner-up in this category is Hawkshead with their green-bottled Lakeland Lager, which, as they know full well, will be lightstruck by the time the drinker cracks the cap off. But craft brewing is all about quality over marketing, right?

Weirdest Own Tasting Note Of The Year:

“Amber, peaty, hot, toffee-ish. Smoked courgettes.” Absolutely no idea what I was thinking here.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Oktoberfest visitors are ripped off more than ever, says consumer group

The venerable Munich-based beer consumer group Verein gegen betrügerisches Einschenken e.V. (Association Against Fraudulent Bier-Pouring) has once again hit out at the scandal of short pours at the city’s famous Oktoberfest beer festival.

The litre of beer at the festival, at between EUR10.40 and EUR10.70, is already significantly more expensive than elsewhere in Munich, and costs nearly twice as much as a Maß in the countryside. Drinkers always complain about the extortionate price, of course, but you might think that for the money you’d at least get a full litre in your glass. Not a chance, for the Wiesn is also notorious for short measures.

For many years the VGBE has carried out its own “People’s Pour Check” (Volksschankkontrolle) at the Oktoberfest. This year 40 volunteers bought 67 beers in the 13 big festival tents. The results showed that drinkers were being robbed of an average of 15% of the beer they’d paid for, with the average “litre” containing just 850ml of beer. In 2013 the average Maß was “only” 10% short.

The worst offender was the “Schützenfestzelt” tent, where the average glass contained only 770ml – stealing EUR2.40 worth of beer from the customer.

The VGBE estimates that over the course of the festival the short measure amounts to over six million Euro worth of beer which drinkers never receive in their steins.

The group accused the city’s trading standards authorities of failing in their duty, as they claimsto carry out their own checks, but never publish the results.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

“Nobody asks for a chalice here”

Picture from the Facebook group “Wij willen dat de Stella-ribbeltjesglazen blijven”

Like many large, lumbering brewing corporations, ABInBev appears to care little for its own heritage, save for those parts of it currently deemed useful for marketing purposes.

The latest wheeze from InBev’s marketing department is to abolish the classic Belgian Stella Artois glass – a simple branded tumbler with fluting at the base. The Belgian media reports that the brewery will now only supply a plain boerkje tumbler and the notorious “chalice” as used for Stella in other countries.

Not that I drink much Stella, but this makes me a bit sad. The ribbeltje glass reminds me of a time when Belgian cafés were perhaps more down-to-earth than they are now. When I first visited Belgium a typical café would have only one draught beer, Stella (or Jupiler, Primus or Maes), with all the more interesting specialities in bottles.

It was also usually the cheapest. As is widely known, despite the brewer’s attempt to punt it in other countries as a “reassuringly expensive” premium beer, in Belgium Stella is the bog standard café beer, with a basic, proletarian glass to match. This, of course, is precisely why the marketers hate the glass so much. It’s not chic enough for their pretensions.

InBev has been trying to introduce the ridiculous blingy chalice in Belgium for a good few years, in the interest of a globally identical brand, but has met with resistance from consumers, who think it’s a load of bloody nonsense, and say so. A barman in Leuven is quoted as saying “Nobody asks for a chalice here. Maybe that is different abroad, but here Stella is an ordinary people’s drink and they like it in a ribbeltje or a boerke.”

Now, in a massive two fingers to Stella’s own home town, the chalice is going to be forced on them whether they want it or not.

Other marketers have poked fun at Stella’s pretension in the past

Friday, 5 August 2016

Keep the faith

Busy bar at Jason’s memorial night

We said goodbye to Jason Lyons last Thursday.

Jason, of the State Bar in Glasgow, passed away on Saturday 11 June after a sudden brain haemorrhage the day before. After the initial shock, the staff organised a memorial night last week. Rightfully, the pub was absolutely packed with regulars and friends raising a glass in Jason’s memory. It was not a sombre occasion, either: there was a live band, and punters could even get an imitation of Jason’s trademark mutton-chop sideburns painted on their faces.

Drinkers queue to get into the State
Jason was a natural publican. Even when the pub was busy – and it often was – Jason could find time to say hello. It was largely due to him that the State rose to be one of the top real ale pubs in the city, winning the local CAMRA branch’s Glasgow Pub of the Year award in three out of the past four years.

Jason got to know the regulars, found out the kind of beer they liked to drink, and heavily pushed the cask business, adding more handpumps and introducing new microbreweries to the pub. The State is now particularly renowned for selling the Oakham Ales favourite Green Devil, which has its own dedicated Glasgow legion of fans.

Oakham had sent staff up to Thursday’s charity night in Jason’s memory, and more local breweries were well represented too.

Next to real ale, Jason loved cycling and Northern Soul, and thus “keep the faith” became the pub’s unofficial motto, appearing on adverts and promotional items – like the pint glasses for this year’s Glasgow Real Ale Festival. Sadly, Jason never got to drink from one.

The Brewer & the Barman: The Making of Fyne State from Urbancroft Films on Vimeo.
Ever wondered how real ale is brewed? We take an in-depth look into the brewing process of Fyne State; a Fyne Ales and State Bar collaboration beer.

Just over a year ago Jason went up to Fyne Ales to help brew a special beer, and local videographer Urbancroft made a film about it. I am so glad this video was made, because it captures Jason at his best. I cannot begin to explain how much I and others will miss him.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Shilling the rubes

Glasgow has had a chequered past with regards to brewpubs. There’s a long list of failures through the 1980s and 90s – only the venerable Clockwork survives from those days – but in more recent years things seem to be looking up. Even West, which now appears to be doing very well, had a difficult patch early on when the beer was pretty poor. Even then I hoped they would get through it, because another failure might well have put anyone off the idea of trying it in Glasgow again.

Since then, of course, we have gained Drygate, which has just celebrated its second birthday, and it is already hard to imagine it not being there. Yet when I look at the number of breweries in Glasgow proper, now five, I think there is still room for more. An inspiring thought is that Portland, Oregon has the same population as Glasgow.

The latest addition to the scene is the new Shilling Brewing Co in West Regent St, which bills itself as the first brewpub in the city centre, which I suppose is technically true, with West and Drygate being in the East End and the Clockwork on the south side. The company behind Shilling, Glendola Leisure, is best known for bringing us the Oirish-themed “fun pub” Waxy O’Connor’s, so some beer aficionados were sceptical at first.

Now nobody would call Glendola cutting-edge innovators. What they are good at is identifying a trend and then building well-funded businesses around them, buying in expertise where they need to. And it seems to work: Waxy O’Connor’s is still going strong decades after the fad for Oirish pubs peaked, and Gordon St Coffee is, as far as I am aware, as well regarded as any of the independent coffee places. Companies such as this moving in is a sign of a maturing sector.

The new head brewer at Shilling is Declan McCaffrey, formerly of the Clockwork Brewing Co on the South Side. Declan has made a noticeable improvement in the Clockwork’s beer in the time he’s been there, but having seen the extremely cramped brewhouse, I understand the attraction of brewing on much shinier equipment in the city centre (José Luis Bravo is moving from Arran Brewery to replace Declan at the Clockwork). Former cocktail barman Chris Nicol joins Declan as second brewer.

Oddly enough, the Shilling is not brewing any beers called 80 shilling or similar. The first beers announced are relentlessly modern: Unicorn IPA, a pale ’n’ hoppy effort called The Steamie (in honour of Dorothy Paul, apparently), and Glasgow Red (rather than 80 bob or heavy). I have no objection to this but find it a little odd to then choose such an old-school name. Declan is also bringing his trademark nettle beer, made with locally foraged weeds from Queens Park.

The copper-clad brewery is right behind the bar. From there the beer will be pumped into fermentation tanks in the basement of the building, and when it is ready, back up to the serving tanks mounted high above the bar. Most of the beer is dispensed by gas, but is unfiltered and unpasteurised. Shilling is also going the extra distance by producing and serving some cask-conditioned ale.

I’m not passing any judgement on the beers yet, as they are likely to change: as the brewing kit was only installed in the last week in May, the bar is opening with beer brewed at Drygate (I get a certain feeling of deja vu here, as I remember Drygate themselves having to do exactly the same thing at opening). The red ale is pleasant enough, fudgy with a bitter edge to it; the IPA is deep gold, harshly bitter and watery, the blonde is straw-yellow, harshly bitter and watery. On the other hand, the nettle saison is a pungent, almost overpoweringly fruity 6.2% beast.

I am sure the beers will improve once the brewery is actually in operation – the first real Shilling beers were only brewed in the week after opening. They are already getting the other aspects right – the bar is elegantly designed, with thought obviously going into every detail from the stylish typography of the menus to the rather odd backlit beer taps that for some reason are designed to resemble a spirit safe.

The staff too are friendly, polite and chatty and actually seem to know something about the beer they are selling, which is sadly still something worth mentioning. Even the pricing is not extortionate for the city centre, though it is not really in competition with the bar across the street that offers Tennent’s for £2.

It seems the burger craze is finally receding and being replaced by a pizza craze, for as well as the brewing kit, Shilling also features a pizza oven churning out pizzas for the punters. In these food-led days, what seems remarkable is that there is no food other than the pizzas. The pizza is pretty good too. We shall need to wait and see how the beer shapes up.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Now this is a festival

For the first time in several years, I went to the Paisley Beer Festival on opening night yesterday as a punter rather than a volunteer, and had a great time.

A few festivals ago the Scottish brewing scene had grown to such an extent that the Scottish bar moved into the bigger hall, swapping places with the English bar. This year this system was also found too much of a constraint and the festival now sprawls over two halls downstairs and two large function rooms upstairs, to say nothing of the hundreds of people standing and sitting in the corridors.

When I started going to CAMRA festivals the beer quality was often variable. I’ve drunk, and served, more pints than I care to think about of terribly flat beer, that I would have handed straight back if I’d been served them in a pub.

Punters should be able to expect to get good beer at a CAMRA festival, run by the people who put themselves up as the guardians of real ale. If CAMRA sell them a flat, warm pint, they will leave thinking that real ale is supposed to be like that, and choose something else to drink instead.

Nowadays, I don’t know what has changed behind the scenes, but the beer seems to be in much better condition and nice and cool.

I don’t scoop much any more. Put some Harveys on the bar and I’m happy. The beer orderer seems to share my taste, with many English classics on the bars – Batham’s, Harvey’s, Sarah Hughes – alongside the new wave from Glasgow’s Up Front or Newcastle Yorkshire’s Brass Castle. I could quite happily have supped far beyond my capacity without even referring to the programme. Mind you, having draught Schlenkerla available tends to do that. In fact, Paisley was so good that, although there is much more to be said, I’m off for another session while it’s on, instead of sitting at home writing any more of this!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Hate to piss on your chips, but North Hop is just not worth the money

Having seen the ticket prices for North Hop, a one-day “craft beer, gin, cider festival“ currently beginning a series of events across Scotland, I was inclined at first not to bother with it. You can call me a cheapskate if you want, but I think being £20 out of pocket before you’ve had a single sip of beer is pretty poor value for money.

It’s even significantly more expensive than the highest-priced session at IndyMan, which itself got some stick for being pricey, but at least does offer the spectacular Manchester Victoria Baths as a venue. The Assembly Rooms, despite its expensive refurbishment, is more like a provincial concert hall. After the refurb, hire charges were hiked dramatically, so it’s probably not possible to match the £6 that CAMRA used to charge for a bigger festival in the same venue. I understand that – but three times as much?

Speaking of CAMRA, one of the bugbears at their festivals is often the need to get into the venue several days in advance, so that the cask beer can be delivered and allowed to settle. I am told this is not the case at North Hop, with brewers allowed in at 9am and expected to pour beer at noon. Several brewers, perhaps wisely under the circumstances, chose to bring only keg beer.

It’s a brave brewery that chooses a logo in hot pink, but that certainly makes the new Edinburgh Beer Factory stand out. Their pale lager, Paolozzi, didn’t impress me greatly when I had it in bottle a few months ago, but I’ve been waiting to give the draught version a chance. It’s got a pleasant straw-yellow colour and nice maltiness reminiscent of a nice Bavarian Helles, though not as rich and bready. Not a challenging beer – they tell me that’s not their aim either – and I mentally file it in the category “would happily drink in an airport, or if free”. That’s a little harsh, as it’s certainly better than the Peroni, Menabrea and so on that it’s setting out to compete with.

Right next door, there’s more lager from West, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. Party Pilsner is a tweak on the earlier Feierabend, with Hallertauer Blanc hops and Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria used in the whirlpool. It’s tastier than Paolozzi, but also less clean, with a tad of butter and a slight peanut note that comes from God knows where. Scotland is still definitely lager land, with multiple vendors trying to fill the perceived niche for “craft” lager: hence why every Scottish brewery is craft now. Stewart Brewing also have a new lager, Franz, easier to drink than their earlier Pilsen. I like Franz best of the three.

Drygate have the annoying habit of recycling old beer names for new beers. I was extremely confused to see a limited edition Forelsket on sale, as this is the original name for the beer, part of their core cask range, which is now called Pale Duke. It turns out that it’s a new beer entirely. I hate the smell of dope, but I am rather fond of the American hops that give beer a so-called “dank” aroma which is said to be similar to dope. The new Forelsket is redolent of them. It smells like a tenement landing on West Princes Street on the Sunday morning after a house party.

Forelsket is the work of Drygate brewer Jake Griffin, who has now set up his own brand, Up Front. He’s on his own stand at the opposite end of the hall, having his first ever festival outing with his new beer, Ishmael IPA and Ahab stout. Not all the early customer feedback is positive: one punter asks how strong the beers are, and upon being told they are both 6 per cent, turns and walks away without a word. Jake is phlegmatic about this: “We don’t want to be for everyone,” he says, “we want to stand out from the crowd.”

Soon after I arrive for the afternoon session, some dreary rock band takes the stage and plays at such deafening volume that it’s impossible to order a beer, never mind chat to the exhibitors.

Not that many other brewers are represented: Fallen, currently darlings of pale-n-hoppy enthusiasts; Tempest, SixºNorth, Williams, Wooha, and Glasgow’s Drygate and West. I’d have expected to see Harviestoun and Innis & Gunn here, and the absence of Brewdog is unusual, given it’s the kind of PR-led event that’s a perfect match for their PR-led business. Stewart and Windswept are kind of hidden away in the corner. Wooha, by the looks of things are still bottling all their beers. The solitary cider vendor, as far I can see, is Thistly Cross. If you’d turned up hoping for a cider festival, you’d be out of luck and pretty angry, I imagine.

North Hop is nice enough as far as it goes. It’s not a new breed of luxury festivals, as you might surmise from the cost of admission (unless the bales of straw people are expected to sit on are made of gold, perhaps). It isn’t particularly luxurious, it isn’t particularly big, the beers on offer are not particularly rare. The beer I have is par for the course for a festival: some good, some not so good. Prices are acceptable for beer and I did have a very nice scotch egg, which was actually worth the £4 I spent on it.

However, looking at the ecstatic tweets by people who did have a good time and discovered new beers and foodstuffs, I can’t help thinking they must not get out very much. Perhaps that’s the niche of North Hop: bringing a slight tinge of hipsterification to the well-heeled but ignorant Herald-reading middle classes, without requiring them to actually visit the hipster parts of town.

But I just can’t get over the inflated ticket price, which seems unjustifiable when comparable festivals offer much the same for much less money. 

If style is what you’re after, you could certainly have a very nice afternoon drinking excellent beer in some of Edinburgh’s magnificent pubs just for what North Hop charges for admission. Which is what I recommend you do instead.