Archive for the ‘Beer’ Category

Has The Evening Standard Been To Forty Green?

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011
Evening Standard 'News'

Tonight's Breaking News

It’s good to see some reporting of what’s really happening in the debate about alcohol pricing, although the Evening Standard can hardly think that tonight’s front page is in any way ‘news’ to most of their readers. (One of the civilising aspects of central London is that so few people drive to work and the pubs are so numerous that an after-work drink hasn’t been eradicated by the health-fascists from commuters’ social lives.)

The headline (and the name of the paper) is quite apposite to my recent experience as I shelled out for my first £4+ pint of British real ale last week. Admittedly it was strong — Old Peculiar — but not strong enough to erase my memory of having had to pay for it. It was at the Royal Standard of England in Forty Green near Beaconsfield (in fact a 20 minute stroll from the station, as we proved). It’s a lovely old pub, claiming to be the oldest free-house in England with some parts dating from the 14th century, but at £12.50 for fish and chips (very good, mind you) and beer (also good) rising from £3.30 to £4.30 (ouch) according to strength, sadly we won’t be returning there too frequently.

But beer and wine are becoming a lot more expensive as almost anyone who buys them will know. Tesco’s are notorious for their ‘half-price’ wine sales where they reduce a bottle of mass-produced plonk from an eye-watering £9 to a more realistic £4.50 and try to suggest that’s it’s a short-term bargain when anyone who paid the higher price has more money than sense (and knowledge of wine). There are very few genuine bargains any more — as the Evening Standard article explains.

I wonder if those clamouring for the deterrent effects of high alcohol pricing will now notice a corresponding decrease in alcohol-related problems now that the weak pound, inflation and a government not above stealth-taxing sin have done their bidding? Even if a relationship was proved then I doubt they’d be happy — probably choosing to switch to the contradictory argument that alcohol is so addictive that its users will consume it whatever the cost.

But back to the story being on the front page of the Standard — I bet the journalists weren’t disappointed when they were given that story to research!

Is This Real Ale?

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

As found in the Parcmarket in Center Parcs Elveden Forest (why not Parcmarcet)?

Is This Real Ale?

Is This Real Ale?

I didn’t check the mini-casks carefully enough to see if there’s a ‘CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale’ logo on them but I very much doubt if this packaging would earn one. The casks themselves seem very similar to the type that breweries like Tring and Hop Back use to package their ales – although normall on an ‘on-demand’ basis, assuming that the beer is going to be consumed relatively quickly.

As these are being stacked on Center Parcs’ supermarket shelves then perhaps they’ve had some special ‘conditioning’ to ensure they don’t spoil.

But isn’t this exactly the sort of product that, in the broader sense, CAMRA should be championing. After all, Adnams are one of the leading ale brewers in the country and they are evangelists for cask conditioning (I’ve been to one of their ‘Meet the Brewer’ sessions with the transparent-ended cask used to demonstrate secondary fermentation).

If a bunch of people on a weekend away pick up one of these barrels rather than a platter of Kronenbourg 1664 or Fosters then that’s surely better? And while the bars in the place itself seem something of a real-ale desert then perhaps that’s better than massacring some local brew by not turning it over fast-enough in their bars — and it’s an inevitably sad fact of demographics that the real ale lovers will be the ones in these situations that are dispersed in the evening to their responsibilities in their holiday villas (don’t say ‘chalets’ or you’re frogmarched out of the perimeter fence) rather than hitting the Sub-Tropical night-time paradise.

Not Drinking

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Today, being Easter Saturday, is the last day of my Lenten abstinence from alcohol — a full 46 days without a single drop of the stuff passing my lips (the closest I’ve come is an M&S Tiramisu, which I calculated had about 1% alcohol in it). I’ve not followed this for religious reasons, more that, on the face of it, it seems to be as good a time as any to do it — not coinciding with any holidays, not a totally depressing time of year (like January when you need a drink) or (I thought back 6 weeks ago) any good weather. Apparently, I’ve been over-strict in my observance by the religious yardstick as Sundays don’t count as Lent (this is a method I tried a couple of years ago) and Lent’s considered to end after Good Friday (46 days minus the 6 Sundays is how it’s calculated I believe).

M&S-Apple-Soft

M&S Hop Flavoured Apple Juice Drink -- Better Than Low Alcohol Beers

Why did I do it, if not for religious reasons? Probably the main reason is just to see if I could do it. Normally I like a drink as much, if not more, than most people and lots of my social life involves pubs and drinking. But I’ve never really had an problem not drinking if necessary — for example if I needed to drive anywhere. It might seem surprising but I’ve not been seriously tempted to have a drink during Lent, even though I’ve been in situations where most other people have been drinking — in pubs many times and bottles of beer and wine have been easily available at home. I’ve also had a few situations, such as returning from job interviews and the recent gloriously sunny weather, when my normal reaction would have been to open a bottle or sit in the beer garden for as long as possible.

At the time of writing memories of what it’s like being pissed are strangely abstract and I’m actually a bit nervous about the effect my first few days of drinking will have on me. The booze will definitely act more quickly if last year’s almost complete Lenten abstinence (exactly 6 weeks) was any guide. I’m sure the feeling of trepidation won’t last.

In an almost perverse way I’m pleased that I can stay off drink for that long because I can then feel happier when I resume drinking. There’s an almost constant stream of health advice and warnings about alcohol that I’ve blogged about in the past (my theory is that the Treasury gets the Department of Health to soften taxpayers up for sin taxes by this dripfeed of scare stories). By abstaining for so long I hope to prove to myself and anyone reasonably minded that I’m not an alcoholic (of course, many in the anti-alcohol lobby are so unreasonably minded that they believe the only way one can prove one’s not an alcoholic is to never drink, ever).

However, I knew anyway that I could easily give a drink a miss if I needed. In fact I think a large proportion of CAMRA members and others who are discerning over what they drink are, almost by definition, not alcoholics. No matter how foul a pint of bad real ale or tasteless and acidic a glass of wine, they contain as much alcohol as their more palatable equivalents — maybe the reason why so many pubs serve bad beer without improvement is that they have a core of non-discerning customers who just drink for the alcohol alone? These people, unlike most CAMRA types, would never risk the hassle or embarrassment of taking a bad pint back to the bar or walk past many pubs that served OK beer to reach one that served an excellent pint (or endure complex public transport journeys to get to one). Yes, drinking is something CAMRA types enjoy but it’s not the sole end in itself — and I have enough of a Puritan conscience sometimes to think it’s the people whose small basket of shopping at Tesco’s includes a litre bottle of own brand gin or vodka who are those who have the real problem.

On the health aspect, I’m also relieved in a contrary sort of way, that I haven’t continued to notice any dramatic change in physical well-being. For the last few years I’ve tried to do a perfunctory bit of exercise and drag myself comparatively slowly around the roads and footpaths and do the occasional race (I’ve managed to complete the Wycombe Half Marathon in a time that’s not been completely embarrassing for the last couple of years). I’ve definitely noticed the effects of a few pints the night before — both in feelings of fitness and in increased readings on my heart-rate monitor. However, after about three days without drinking I’ve found there’s no further tangible feeling of improvement — certainly I don’t feel any different six weeks on compared with a week in.

One aspect that I did have to adjust to was sleeping — drinking has a soporific effect on me after a certain threshold and it was a bit difficult to get used to nodding off naturally for the first few days. But I didn’t experience any energy boost. In fact, with the prospect of not having another drink to stay in the pub for or staying up for then sleeping becomes a more attractive option in the evening — perhaps making me paradoxically less productive overall.

Sadly, seeing as alcohol is meant to contain lots of  ’empty’ calories, I’ve not seen the pounds drop off, despite doing fairly regular exercise. This is probably due to a desire to have a drink being substituted by other forms of gratification — edible ones, particularly hot cross buns. But I do wonder if there is anything in the arguments that are sometimes advanced about alcohol not necessarily being as readily converted to fat at the rate its pure calorific content might suggest.

One undoubtedly positive effect has been financial. I’ve still been going to the pub and the drinks I’ve been ordering haven’t been cheap — in fact the White Hart’s J2O’s at £1.90 are more expensive than a pint of real ale with a CAMRA/Wetherspoon discount voucher. Unlike beer, though, I’ve not felt much need to drink several of these so rather than spend going on for £20 on a fairly average night out, it’s been more like £5 — and I’ve been able to drive everywhere I’ve wanted to go. But I have decided not to go on some potentially enjoyable social occasions — the CAMRA members weekend in Sheffield was one and the Good Friday pub crawl in High Wycombe was another.

It’s these events that would probably be the biggest loss were I to decide (however unlikely) that I’d abstain permanently — the ceremonial purpose of alcohol for social bonding and cementing friendships is probably more difficult to manage without than the substance itself.

J2O-Frenzy

My Tipple of Choice in Wetherspoons This Week

I’m not sure it would have been quite so straightforward to sip orange juice and lemonade had I not had an end-date to look forward to. I’ve been counting the days as I’ve been going but that’s partly down to thinking how I might best mark the end of the abstinence rather than any intrinsic desire to consume booze for its own sake — I’m hoping to have a pint of real ale on the stroke of midnight.

On Monday, just under six weeks in, I sat in the White Hart in Aylesbury with a J2O and several CAMRA friends who were all sampling some fascinating beer and I was almost shocked when I realised the thought of drinking beer myself hadn’t entered my head and that I was actually quite happy with my soft drink.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever thought that before — perhaps it’s a good job I’ll be getting back to ‘normal’ imminently?

Let’s Get Quizzical for Lent

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Apologies for the blog being quiet — this is mainly due to a few deadlines coming up in the past few weeks, particularly the submission of my MSc dissertation last Monday.

This gave me just the rest of Monday and Shrove Tuesday to celebrate in the traditional way before I tried to continue my own personal tradition of the last couple of years and attempted to give up alcohol for Lent. It’s now nearing the end of day 6 and I’m going strong — the only problem is that I keep eating all the time.

On Monday, to mark finishing the MSc, I was quizmaster at my local pub’s quiz night. I did 20 picture questions, 20 normal questions and 20 music ones. If anyone who wasn’t at the pub is interested I’ll post them below and then post up the answers in a few days.

First the picture rounds.

Name the painter (click on image to expand):

Name the Painter

Name the Painter

Name the famous British tall building (unless otherwise stated):

Name the Building

Name the Building

Now the 20 general knowledge questions:

  1. Professor Brian Cox presents the science programme ‘Wonders of the Universe’ but what was the name of the pop group he played keyboards for?
  2. Who was the referee of Tuesday’s Chelsea v Man Utd game – criticism of whom has earned Sir Alex Ferguson an FA charge?
  3. The world’s most expensive painting will shortly go on show at the Tate Modern. Who painted it?
  4. Who was runner-up in last year’s ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’?
  5. What was the name of the female referee’s assistant who Andy Gray and Richard Keys were sacked for criticising?
  6. Next week CAMRA celebrates its birthday. How old is it?
  7. Which fashion house recently sacked the notorious designer John Galliano?
  8. The rock group Beady Eye released their first album recently. They were created after which famous other rock group’s break up?
  9. Which nation of cricketing minnows beat England on Saturday in the world cup last week?
  10. Who won best actor in this year’s Oscars?
  11. The M25 is London’s orbital motorway but what is the name of Manchester’s equivalent?
  12. What is the web browser developed by Google called?
  13. Which prime-minister lived at Hughenden Manor?
  14. Which brewery produces Tinner’s and Proper Job ales?
  15. A cottage pie is traditionally made out of which meat?
  16. What was the route number of the London bus that was bombed in the 7th July 2005 terrorist attacks?
  17. How old is the Queen?
  18. In which country is the wine growing region the Maipo Valley?
  19. What were the names of the two female dolls on BBC’s Play School?
  20. Who wrote the Angel series of novels, the titles of which include Angel, (2006), Crystal (2007), Angel Uncovered (2008), Sapphire (2009) and Paradise (2010)

The music round — this should play in Windows media player (if not other devices). Name the artist: Quiz Mar 11 3

Sainsbury’s Merry Christmas for Traditional Beer

Friday, December 31st, 2010

When all the supermarkets are doing 3 huge crates of fizzy pop beer for £16 or £20 at least most make an effort over Christmas to promote traditional British bottled ale.

Waitrose has a fantastic selection, Majestic has beers from Rebellion, Loddon and Tring and Asda and Morrisons make a reasonable effort. Bigger Tesco’s, such as the two Extras in Aylesbury, also have some great beer, such as the Finest ‘Double’ IPA (see previous post). Even the modestly sized Tesco in Princes Risborough has three or four metres of shelving of bottled British beer, including some local breweries.

But Sainsbury’s, at least the Aylesbury branch, has a pathetic offering — see photo below. This is quite a large branch, albeit a town centre one and there’s a long aisle of wine, spirits and other beers (of the crateloaded discount variety). But only two rather pathetically chosen shelves of British traditional beer are on offer — and all below knee level where most people might not even look.

And look at the diversity: Newcastle Brown, plus Fullers, Hall and Woodhouse (available in almost every supermarket), Greene King Abbot, Marston’s Pedigree and Hobgoblin, Young’s and Wells Bombardier and Courage Directors (whoever brews that these days). At least they were selling them at 3 for £4 — maybe ale drinking doesn’t fit with the pukka Jamie Oliver cheeky chappie image. No doubt he’s guzzling champagne on all his book sales but I reckon Sainsbury’s probably pose him with something like a bottle of inoffensive, profitable Peroni.

Aylesbury Sainsbury's Christmas Ale Range

Aylesbury Sainsbury's Christmas Ale Range

Innovation and Tradition

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

Here’s a photo taken in the Belle Vue in High Wycombe this week. The left shows an exhibition of photographs in the pub’s new art gallery, the right shows the more traditional image of ale drinking.

Belle Vue: Tattoo Culture and Pub Culture

Belle Vue: Tattoo Culture and Pub Culture

Bull

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

In the Aylesbury and Wycombe area we thought we’d suffer a lot more pub closures post-smoking ban and post-credit crunch than we actually did. However, it seems like the bad news may have been postponed. The Rising Sun at Little Hampden closed over the summer — and it was a smart country dining pub in an idyllic Chiltern hamlet. Sadly it had been granted permission for conversion to a private house in 2006 — so the battle had been lost already.

In the summer a pub in Aylesbury, the Duck in Bedgrove, was demolished after being sold to new owners without any change of use permission being sought. (See the local LibDems blog for a good photo.) This was a type of pub that is fast disappearing — an estate community pub. It certainly wasn’t the sort of pub that lured real ale drinkers. However, huge areas of towns like Aylesbury are now without pubs.

In a couple of years the Southcourt and Walton Court estates have lost the Steeplechase (boarded up) and the Skinny Dog (now a Muslim community centre) and the Huntsman is due to disappear in a redevelopment of the local shopping centre. The first pub that’s on the road between Southcourt and Aylesbury town centre, the Old Plough and Harrow, has recently undergone one of the most common conversions for dead pubs (and one that doesn’t need any planning permission) — into an Indian restaurant.

Twenty or thirty years ago these sort of estate community pubs would be packed with drinkers, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s not hard to think of reasons why they’re now in trouble — the smoking ban has hit these pubs harder than most (many customers no doubt went there specifically to smoke as well as drink) and the idiocies of modern marketers have also done their damage — targeting drinks like lager and alcopops at young people with relatively large disposable incomes but also very disposable common sense once they’d had a few wife-beaters down their throats. Pool tables and noisy machines would also target this particular demographic — and many pubs weakened their community links as a result.

But the main factor is surely economic. The typical price of a pint is now fairly close to £3, if not more, and is set to rise a lot further when VAT rises in the New Year as well any beer duty rises in the pipeline. Even using the government’s recommended 21 units of alcohol, this would work out at £31.50 per week (based on a session bitter)…and that would realistically only have a person in for 3 or 4 pints three times a week — far less than the traditional customers of such pubs would tend to do. The likes of Professor David Nutt would no doubt find this cause for celebration, except that the previous customers of community pubs are not likely to have moderated their consumption — they will be down the town centre supermarkets where, on a good day, £31.50 could buy them about 36 cans of Stella (more than four times the units of alcohol) and probably enough to keep most people stocked up with a tin to hand while watching TV for the whole week.

Beer in pubs is too expensive — simple as that. The social act of going down to the pub as an end in itself has been priced out of many people’s reach — and those who can afford it are too busy making more money for themselves or are eating in poncey restaurants or swilling their bonuses away in pubs in the City.

Town centre pubs will still do OK as people go to a destination for a night out. Also some pubs, particularly in the country, will keep their heads above water by concentrating on food — although the example of the Rising Sun shows that even serving up upmarket pub grub is less lucrative than turning the place into a country retreat for the kind of person who’s too posh to go to pubs.

And this also underlines another reason why supermarket beer has become far cheaper than beer in pubs — because pubs, like houses, have had their property values massively inflated and most pubs are now owned by companies who’ve foolishly raised money on the financial markets against these notional values — and the servicing of this debt has been passed on to landlords and customers.

Whereas a generation ago pubs only had to open their doors to get customers coming in, the above factors mean that pubs now have to differentiate themselves to generate custom — and offering interesting and well-kept real ale is a way to do this. The Whip in Lacey Green is an example of a pub that has a bar that’s still packed out most nights — offering five real ales that turn over, on average, every two days. The pub did about 800 different ales last year — that’s well over two a day. And the pub steadily built a reputation on quality — only adding a fourth and fifth beer when demand allowed, unlike the many pubs who offer more real ales than they can turn over before they spoil.

The Bull, Stoke Mandeville

The Bull, Stoke Mandeville in Sunnier Times (Summer 2006 -- there's now a smokers' shelter at the front).

There’s now cause for concern about one pub, which has been a Good Beer Guide stalwart for several years. The Bull in Stoke Mandeville is an old-fashioned, two-bar community local which has bucked the downward economic trend in large part by serving three well-kept real ales. Due to various complicated reasons not entirely unrelated to those above, Stuart, the long-standing landlord has left the pub. His last day was Wednesday this week when I went along to watch the Manchester derby on Sky. It’s a particular shame as the Bull, under Stuart’s management, was a quiet gem of a pub and embodied many of the attributes that many would reel off as intrinsic to the British pub.

A Nutty Report

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

The BBC gave huge publicity today to a study in the Lancet that supposedly compared the harm done inflicted by various ‘drugs’. As it was co-authored by Professor David Nutt and his ‘Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs’ it will be no surprise to anyone that alcohol is the worst drug by a long way.

It seems the BBC will jump in ecstasy to report any supposed scientific ‘facts’ about alcohol but most reasonable and scientifically literate observers should now realise that these neo-prohibitionists are overstating their case so much they’re now discrediting themselves.

How is it that they can  possibly equate the harm of alcohol usage with that of heroin and crack cocaine when the vast majority of the population of the UK use alcohol without inflicting any harm whatsoever on the rest of society? Because for the simple reason that more people use alcohol in aggregate.  What kind of scientific logic is this? When interviewed on Radio 2 today Nutt readily accepted the equivalent argument, based on his premise, that knives cause far more harm to society than guns — their ready availability might mean they are implicated in more crimes overall than guns but is that an argument for removing them from everyone’s kitchen?

There are valid points to be made about alcohol abuse and (proper) binge drinking but this study is such a lightweight piece of self-re-inforcing prejudice that it’s surprising that it ever got published in The Lancet. If I understand the BBC report correctly then it’s just a weighted model of the subjective opinions of a group of self-selected experts.

I wouldn’t like to live in a society where the numbers of people using crack cocaine and alcohol were reversed. It seems the last home secretary was right to dismiss Professor Nutt as he’s clearly a man with his own agenda. As a Daily Telegraph report from last year showed he is not without his own person interest in this debate — they report he’s working on a commercial alcohol substitute.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect the government to protest too much at shoddy statistical prejudice declaiming the evils of drink — they stand to cut a substantial amount of deficit by taxing our sin. It’s a shame that the actions of the likes of Nutt, by providing a supposed justification for higher duty, might cause responsible alcohol consumption in pubs to be endangered in favour of supermarket tinnies of wifebeater — but that’s what perhaps they’d like to see more of?

Multibuy Offer on for Magners

Monday, October 25th, 2010
Special Magners Offer

Magners' Special Offer

Here’s a great offer from Tesco’s that will have Magners’ drinkers queueing up out of the doors — it’s probably best appreciated if they’ve had a few Magners already.

Waitrose British Beer Promotion

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Between now and early November, Waitrose are promoting traditional, bottled British beer. It’s a bit difficult to tell whether it’s a blanket 2 for £3 over the entire range — only certain beers had shelf labels indicating they were in the offer but I managed to get it on two beers that weren’t explicitly advertised as being included.

I got 6 for £9 from their Thame branch — which is a good discount on their normal prices. While these normal prices are quite a bit higher than other supermarkets, very few will have a range as good as my examples show below. The Bengal Lancer is a superb IPA from Fullers, which I sampled on draught at the Victoria in Strathearn Place, near Paddington station in the spring.

Six of Waitrose's Best

Six of Waitrose's Best

Lurking on the right there is one of the most extraordinary labels I’ve ever seen on any product sold in a supermarket. It’s on a bottle of Skinners’ ‘Cornish Knocker’ — a bad enough name in itself. There’s some spiel on the label about knockers being friends of tin miners and so on but this detracts from the impact of the label itself. What is it suggesting? The mind boggles on all sorts of levels.

Skinners Cornish Knocker

Skinners' Cornish Knocker

The beer itself was very nice — a bit lagery in body and colour. Is that the point or are they going somewhere else entirely?

When Is A Pub Not A Pub

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

…when it’s the Shoulder of Mutton in Wendover and it mysteriously decides that the whole pub is to become a private function room for a night. Last night two of us cycled to this picturesque small town at the foot of the Chilterns (now blighted by the prospect of the HS2 line ripping through the hills right at the end of the High Street).

We enjoyed a very nice pint of ‘London Pride’ in the White Swan then walked up the hill to the Shoulder of Mutton and breezed in, slightly underwhelmed by the choice of Old Hooky, Adnams Broadside and Courage Best. The barmaid told us ‘guys’ that sadly we couldn’t have any beer (not even if we sat in the garden to drink it) due to a private function — of which there had been no mention on the outside. Maybe she didn’t like the sight of my sweat soaked body — having underestimated the effort required to cycle up the hills on the way to Wendover. The pub is a massive Chef and Brewer with many rambling low-beamed rooms so it must have been some function.

There’s something deeply wrong about this to my mind — it’s bad enough when a part of a pub is sectioned off but a pub that excludes the public isn’t really a public house at all.

We then went on the King and Queen where we had the extraordinary experience on leaving of being described as ‘two gorgeous men’ by a lady of a certain age.

Buoyed by the compliment we sampled the wares at the Red Lion, George and Dragon and finished with a nice pint of Okells at the Pack Horse. Shame about the Shoulder of Mutton or we’d have done all the pubs in Wendover — although perhaps, on that night anyway, maybe we did visit all the genuinely public houses.

Wetherspoons in Aylesbury Are Like Buses…

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

…you wait twenty years (well, seven in my case) for one to turn up, then two arrive at once.

For about ten years now Aylesbury has probably been the biggest town (pop nearly 80,000 in the 2001 census) without a branch of J.D.Wetherspoon. In June the company opened two pubs — both conversions. The Bell Hotel in the Market Square became The Bell and Chicago’s Rock Cafe (or whatever it was) on Exchange Street was converted into the White Hart, which is the more Lloyd’s No 1 of the two.

The White Hart is in a clever location it currently sits apparently forlornly looking out over what passes for an inner ring-road with just a closed-down furniture shop for company (at least the last time I remembered that’s what it was). But come November the new Aylesbury Waterside theatre is opening over the road and when all the barricades come down then hordes of intellectuals will come flocking down to the new cultural quarter down by the canal. Perhaps. But the White Hart shares the same development as the Odeon multi-screen and there’s going to be, eventually, a new shopping centre in the area and, we’re told, Waitrose is definitely on its way. So Wetherspoons might have been pretty shrewd in getting into this particular piece of real estate.

Inside the White Hart, Aylesbury

Inside the White Hart, Aylesbury

Wetherspoons gets a hell of a lot of flack from the bloody-minded, anal retentive wing of CAMRA types — almost all of it unjustified. The only thing they do that gets my back up is their policy of pretending there are more real ales available at any one time than there really are — the notoriously tiny ‘Coming Soon’ sign that perches on the pump clips of what are inevitably the most interesting beers.

I also admit that they can be chronically understaffed and if you’re unlucky you’ll have an infuriating delay in being served — something I’ve found at the Falcon in High Wycombe. But this is a corollary of their pricing — a bit like how Aldi and Lidl might trade off queueing time against discount pricing. It would be pretty churlish to complain about less than instant service if you get a good pint of real ale for £1.89 — or 5op less if you use one of your £20 of CAMRA members’ discount vouchers.

Wetherspoons do vary — the Falcon in Wycombe is now looking very shabby and in need of serious refurbishment — but they do put something of an objective quality reference point in an area’s pub stock. Put simply, if the best pubs in your area are Wetherspoons then the other pubs aren’t really up to much.

To take Aylesbury as an example. A few years ago there were no Aylesbury town centre pubs in the Good Beer Guide. Then Chiltern Brewery took over the King’s Head and Vale Brewery transformed the Hop Pole. Suddenly there were two destination pubs for ale drinkers and many of the other pubs raised their game.

Yet both the King’s Head and the Hop Pole aren’t cheap and so aren’t particularly threatening the trade of their rivals. The same can’t be said of Wetherspoon’s arrival. With really cheap real ale now consistently available it would be a shame if established pubs were undercut. The Queen’s Head is currently closed but this pre-dates the Wetherspoon arrival.

But it could be argued that, like the Hop Pole and King’s Head, Wetherspoons is also expanding the market, rather than cannibalising it. For example, I was in Aylesbury on Friday lunchtime and had a quick drink in the White Hart (surprisingly, it was non-alcoholic). I’d anticipated probably buying a sandwich from M&S for lunch, or similar, but at £3.10 the Wetherspoon ham, (free range) egg and chips (not many of them though!) was much better value for money.

Prices for beer are so high in pubs that people tend to binge on cheap supermarket beer before going on a night out to save money. If Wetherspoons, with cheap real ale, gets people into the pub rather than boozing on bland stuff at home then what’s not to like?

A Summer ‘Tradition’ We Can Do Without

Monday, July 12th, 2010

I’m sure John Major in his rather risible but memorable speech about warm beer, long shadows on cricket grounds and so on from the early 90s would have included Morris dancing in his wistful list of unchanging Englishness (see the photo below of the Towersey Morris and Aldbury Morris Men performing outside the Swan, Great Kimble on 7th July).

Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble

Towersey and Aldbury Morris Outside the Swan, Great Kimble

That speech is a particular bug bear as beer should NEVER be warm — the belief that real ale is best drunk tepid has allowed bad landlords to get away with serving undrinkable crap. It should be cellar temperature (about 10-12 C) and it’s sometimes so difficult to keep it that way in unrefrigerated cellars that even usually reliable pubs might be wisely avoided in temperatures of the upper 20s and even 30s C of the sort we experienced at the end of last week and this weekend.

In fact, on our trip on Saturday to the Black Country, I had more than one pint in usually exemplary pubs that, while by no means bad, that certainly weren’t on top form. It’s not a problem we’ve really had to worry about over the last couple of summers but, in hot weather, if the beer comes out as anything like ambient temperature you know you’re likely to be in trouble — whatever rubbish John Major came out with years ago.

Best London Pubs?

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

I’m spending so much time in and around ‘That Big Place’ at the end of the railway line that I’ve even bought the last couple of editions of ‘Time Out’ — possibly regressing about 15 years when I used to have it delivered every week and used it for the TV listings (now I use the cheaper ‘Radio Times’).

This edition was worth buying as it lists their Top 20 London Bars and Pubs (note the word order, it says a lot about these metropolitan types). The article is really a puff for the new edition of their bar and pub guide book, which has 500 of them in.

But it’s interesting to see which pubs Time Out picked as worthy of inclusion in their top 20. Here are a few with my own observations.

One is the Rake near Borough Market. This is really just a place that people visit for curiosity value — an old greasy spoon building with a patio bigger than a drinking area — is it really a pub at all? It has quite a lot of interesting ‘world beers’ and a couple of real ales that people apparently rate highly — but on the couple of occasions I’ve been then they’ve not been out of this world.

The Old Brewery in Greenwich is Meantime Brewery’s pub. It’s the wrong side of London to me and I’ve always had mixed feelings about Meantime. I read an interview with someone involved with them who suggested they liked to export their beers to the US because Americans had better palates than the British and appreciated their beers more. I also view their packaging and labelling as ludicrously pretentious (and lazy — one label on a bottle I bought said the beer should be ‘refridgerated’) — and they’re expensive. Yet Meantime still have the CAMRA politburo purring over their supposed quality and championing of ‘lost’ beer styles. Maybe I’ll go there and see for myself.

The Sloaney Pony in Parson’s Green gets in there (White Horse) fairly predictably — along with a mention of the nectar of Thornbridge Jaipur IPA — any pub in London that sells this lovely beer is automatically in my Top 20.

Also included is the Charles Lamb in Islington — it’s a sort of trendy-ish gastro place by all accounts near Angel but I’d like to go there as it’s in the GBG 2010 (I think). Highest placed pub, and another I’d like to visit, is a place called Draft House in SW11 which apparently does 17 ‘unusual’ draft beers (not all of these are real ale, though). I took a look at the website and it’s suitably pretentious for the area (Battersea) but the beer list looks pretty good — and they do some interesting selections of thirds of pints.

Washed Down With Lashings of Young’s Ordinary

Friday, June 18th, 2010

On a similar theme to the quite famous Brooke Bar at the Pink and Lily (which is at Parslow’s Hillock, which is basically in the middle of the woods on the hills above Princes Risborough) that is dedicated to the poet Rupert Brooke, another local pub has also dedicated a room to a local writer. Unlike Brooke, who probably sold very few books in his lifetime (he died young during the First World War), Blyton is no doubt the biggest selling author from the local area — writing 800 books which sold a staggering 600 million copies.

Most of Enid Blyton’s books were written at Green Hedges, her house in Beaconsfield, which is very near the Red Lion at Knotty Green, about a mile out of the town on the road to Penn. The snug in the pub, on the right as you walk in, is now the Enid Blyton room. There are various pictures on the wall, lots of her books around (apparently donated by the Enid Blyton society) and a fair selection of her characters sit in corners around the room.

Enid Blyton’s works are famous for their forthright depictions of the mores and prejudices of the English upper-middle of the wartime era and just afterwards — something unforgettably sent up by the Comic Strip Presents in ‘Five Go Mad in Dorset’ broadcast on the opening night of Channel 4 in 1982, featuring French and Saunders, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmonson. Apart from the second series of The Young Ones, none of them have probably worked on anything better since. The Famous Five, in particular, still seem to generate a lot of indignation from Guardian readers — and writers. Here’s an example from 2005 by Lucy Mangan.

Many modern editions of Blyton’s books seem to remove some of the more extreme racial, and even gender, references. Therefore, here is an attempt to rehabilitate Noddy and Big Ears as contemporary blokes — enjoying a pint of Young’s Ordinary.

Noddy Enjoying Young's Ordinary

Noddy Enjoying Young's Ordinary

Another huge-selling author, though not in Blyton’s league in terms of volume, was brought up around the corner from the Red Lion — Terry Pratchett (of Discword fame). He comes from Forty Green a village just outside Beaconsfield which is home to another pub — the Royal Standard of England. This claims to be the oldest hostelry in the country.