Pleasing the palate

“It is in the interest of every brewer, first to please the palate of his customers, and the next, to do it in the way most convenient and profitable to himself”.

“An Elementary Dictionary, or Cyclopædiæ, For The Use Of Maltsters, Brewers, Distillers, Rectifiers, Vinegar Manufacturers, And Others”. George Adolphus Wigney, 1838

Two questions:

1) If a customer’s palate is un-demanding, does the brewer become ever-more profitable?

2) If the brewer puts convenience and profit first, can they still sell beer to customers with demanding palates?

I’d say the answer to both questions is yes. Many of the multinational lager brewers fit the first example; some of the extreme craft/artisan/micro/this-weeks-buzzword brewers fit the latter.

Undemanding palates crave undemanding beer. The brewer can (literally) engineer savings and still meet the expectations of his customer base.

Demanding palates may seem to want more. But what they actually crave is more of the same; not the same flavours, but more experimentation. Or novelty.

So some shyster brewers can marry convenience and profit by adulterating bad beer with an adjunct. And not only sell it but sell it at a healthy margin to those with, ahem, ‘demanding palates’ as it becomes a rarity, a limited release, a one-off special, an epoch-defining rebellion against…ah, you know what I mean.

Both are pleasing the palates of their customers. But only one lot of customers is being cheated.


The first dark beer of autumn

Breeze in trees. Bit of mist. The clocks went back last night. So today I went on one of my four favourite walks.

There's the one on midsummer's day where you walk and walk and walk and end up in a far-flung pub as the sun finally sets. There's the one after the first proper snowfall, all powder crunch and sneaky mid-field snowballs at crows. There's the one on the day when the daffodils come out.

And there's today. Into the woods, through Locko Park and Dale Abbey, to release my inner six-year-old and kick piles of leaves all over every path. To end up at the Royal Oak where an open fire would be warming the backs of punter's legs and I could tuck in to the first dark beer of autumn.

Except the weather hadn't been following this script.

Blue sky, dappled cloud, warmth radiating from brown clodded fields.

No fire in the hearth. No dark beer on the bar.

So I sat outside with a pint of Oldershaw Autumn Gold, which was more than soft and nutty and fresh-baked lemon muffin. It was moreish. As in, I must sit here and drink another two pints moreish.

Summer stubbornly refuses to move on. With beers like this, a perfect segue between seasons, it could drag its heels for a few weeks longer for me.


Book review: Liquid Bread

I do love a good academic paper. Something structured, peer-reviewed, clearly referenced, heaps of jumping-off points into tangential arguments. Most of those that I (struggle to) read with respect to beer involve hop chemistry; I'm fascinated by how that humble herbaceous plant plays a role in brewing that still isn't even close to being understood fully.

History, anthropology, sociology is more my bag. I don't get to see as much beer-based research papers in these areas - so many journals, so little budget - so when I was offered the chance to review a cross-disciplinary collection of perspectives on global beer, I jumped at it.

The International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition held a conference in 2001 which took a cross-cultural approach to examining beer, although it's taken another ten years for some of the papers presented to be compiled and published. The result - Liquid Bread - is a slimmish book that taps into a variety of academic disciplines to provide insight into some genuinely interesting subject areas.

Beginning with an attempt to answer the question as to why animals even bother to ingest ethanol, the short chapters move through a diverse topic list including German beer culture, fraternity binge drinking, sorghum beer in Burkina Faso and beer consumption in the Philippines.

Some of the chapters are truly excellent - Brewlab's Keith Thomas provides probably the best overview of the brewing process that I've read. I found the African insights particularly interesting, particularly those concerning Northern Cameroon and Burkina Faso. A few contributions don't gel quite as well - the piece on New Zealand's 'rugby, racing and beer' culture feels dated and the translations of some papers aren't exactly pulse-quickening. But there's plenty for an armchair academic to get their teeth into, take on board a basic concept concisely made and then go Google for more info.

Although I don't expect many of you to do so. The twenty chapters and 250-ish pages don't come cheap; Amazon list it at £55. Perhaps aimed more at a university bookshelf than an inquisitive reader, which is a real shame as there's something in there for most beer lovers to discover, learn from and shout at. Exampling the latter, in a chapter about the UK - "the two major categories of beer... are dark beer (ale) and 'lager'...". Or how about "... cask beers... i.e. beers which ferment in the usually wooden casks". Feeling groggy? Here's the suckerpunch: "Real ales are unique to the British Isles". Martyn Cornell, if you're reading this, breathe deeply. And in..And out. And in...

It's a combination of academia that works well, but at a hefty price for the layman. If the individual chapters were on sale as PDFs I imagine some of them would sell by the server-load. But at this price, I can't recommend it as a casual read.

Liquid Bread: Beer and Brewing in Cross-Cultural Perspective is edited by Wulf Schiefenhövel and Helen Macbeth. It's published by Berghahn Books; thanks to them for the review copy.


The provenance of supermarket lager

I really fancied a chilli this week. So I really fancied a lager to go with it. Something to take the edge of the heat, to put some bready sweetness back onto a fiery palate.

So I had a bottle of Czech lager. Which one, I hear you ask? Dunno. It was in a bottle that said "Czech Pilsner Lager" on the label. Actually, it also says "Brewed in Prague". Twice.

On the back label, in the small print, it says it's brewed by Pivovary Staropramen. Ostravar-ish, maybe? More likely to be Vratislav-like?

But the question is - who cares? If I'm paying £1.35 a bottle for what is essentially a palate-quencher, do I care about a beer's parentage? If it hits the spot, should I then be bothered if it's a rebadge or a variant or a new brew?

If it cost £10 a bottle, would I care more about where the hops and malts were sourced, where the brewery was based, what the head brewer's name is? Would you care more? Should you? Why? Because you expect to know more at that price point?

If beer does the job that you ask of it - in this case, be cold, wet and refreshing - who cares where it came from?

Not me, for one.


Opening night: Dada, Sheffield

Innovation. Passion. Knowledge. They've been the watchwords of Thornbridge Brewery for some time. Now add an new quartet: beer, music, arts, community. Their pubs in Sheffield use these words their statement of intent. So how well do they apply to their latest offering, Dada?

It may seem a strange name for many. After all, wasn't Dadaism about being anti-art? Turns out that Thornbridge director, Simon Webster, is a fan of the Dada-loving Caberet Voltaire along with other iconic Sheffield artists past and present. So he's been instrumental in the refashioning of what used to be Trippet's from a slightly-gloomy wine bar into a, well, slightly-less-gloomy sixth-form common room.

Plenty of collage and photomontage - ah, there's that Dada influence coming through again. The back room is low-lit with functional-chic furniture and military-green walls. Up front, in the pointy bit that sees the daylight, is space for exhibitions. Currently showing works by Jane Faram and Geo Law, the space is going to be curated by the city's one time music-meister Martyn Ware, amongst others. There's also some nifty table design by gig-poster supremo Martin Bedford.

What about the beer, you say? Plenty. Four casks, two of which will be Thornbridge along with two guests (on opening night they were from Buxton). But it's the keg offering that the bar leads on; eleven taps, five Thornbridge plus guests. Expect to pay the customary craft keg premium for the likes of Flying Dog Pale Ale alongside the brewery's own limited-run beers such as Halcyon. Bernard lager is on tap too. Plus a solid bottle selection - the usual Belgian suspects alongside some choice US and German beers.

'Lady Dada' on the bar has a wistful look; perhaps it's because she's misplaced the Veet. Dada's aiming for the knowingly-cool crowd who want to escape the West Street meat-rack and Kelham Island cask circuit. One thing's for sure: there may be plenty of art of the tables but the atmosphere isn't merely painted on the walls. The staff were well up for a storming opening night and the preview crowd soon filled the fairly-tight floorspace. The music was just there, so you could hold a conversation. How it's going to sound mid-afternoon on a wet windy winter's Wednesday is something I'll have to go back and find out.

Overall impressions? It's a place I could see myself spending time in, particularly on the occasions I'm in the city gig-wards. The beer isn't cheap, but I'd rather buy a pint of quality kegged Thornbridge than a bottle of crap at somewhere later on in the evening. I imagine the place will hack off a bunch of old Trippet's regualrs as it's a very different feel from before. But here's hoping it attracts a crowd who want to drink good beer in a bar that's resolutely Made In Sheffield.

Dada can be found at 89 Trippet Lane, Sheffield S1 4EL. Open noon-11pm or til 12.30-ish on Fridays and Saturdays. Not open on a Sunday.

Thanks to Thornbridge for the opening night invite.


Brewdog Sheffield?

The Morning Advertiser reports that Brewdog are on the lookout for premises in Sheffield.

I'd love to see them in the city. There's definitely room for innovative bars in between the established cask circuit of Kelham Island and the meat-rack theme dens of West Street.

Literally. Last night I went to the opening of Dada, Thornbridge's latest bar. Art on the walls and tables, keg-led, everything the right side of cool. I could see more bars like this starting up in Sheffield, ones that run film nights or performance art or nothing but world-class beer and blues.

Having bars by Thornbridge and Brewdog within walking distance of each other would be outstanding. I'll start keeping an eye out for suitable venues.

More about Dada tomorrow.


Book review: The Oxford Companion To Beer

There are many impossible jobs. Managing Nottingham Forest. Jeremy Clarkson's charm tutor. Cat-herding. To that list, let's add the editorship of beer guides.

Garret Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, says he was minded to "politely refuse" the offer of being editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer. With the book weighing in just shy of four pounds in weight,  there's over a thousand contributions by over a hundred writers. Is that potential burden too great for even Garret's immaculately be-suited shoulders?

Time for an admission. I haven't read every word of the book. Because it's not that kind of book. It's a dip-in-and-weave-around. Always wanted to know chapter and verse on 4-vinyl guaicol? You got it. Curious about the use of sorghum in African brewing? Sorted. If I wanted to read about hops for a week - and, yes, I get weeks like that on occasion - I could happily skip between the finer points of science as presented by the likes of Charlie Bamforth and Matt Brynildson. The page on the characteristics of essential hop oils is the kind of concise eye-opener that I daydream about.

It's when you get into the realms of history that this rich tapestry of beer reveals several dropped stitches. The perpetuation of hoary old porter, stout and scotch ale myths is bad enough. But why the contributors didn't reference books by the likes of Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, both of whom have researched the styles, I can't be sure. Actually, why Cornell and Pattinson didn't get to write these style entries themselves is just as much of a mystery.

There's frustration. The cross-referencing doesn't always, er, reference: 'beer engine' links to 'swan neck' but not vice versa. Some entries seem illogical - why write about Hogarth's classic print 'Beer Street' but not show it? Copyright?

So, by turns, the book is lovable, engaging, annoying, frustrating.

It's the black labrador of the beer book world.

It gets on your nerves by repeating old mistakes. It stinks on occasion and lets itself and its owner down when it shits on the vicarage lawn. But it looks at you with big brown eyes and you forgive it. Because day it, day out, it gets it right more often than in gets it wrong. It's a slightly slobbery but still engaging companion.

The simple fact is this: someone had to contribute, someone had to edit, someone had to publish a work of this scope and scale. Somebody had to start the project that others will refine, amend, append and improve. Garrett Oliver and the Oxford University Press can't please all the beery people all the time. But at least they've made the impossible job a little easier the next time around.

Thanks to the Oxford University Press for the review copy


Boot time, beer time

A lazy walk today. Crows low over the cropped fields. Acorns an inch-thick underfoot along the narrow woodland path. Re-tying my bootlace on a log riddled with ladybirds. A green lane flashing with a dozen chaffinches, dipping their way before me.

Eight-and-half miles. To build up a thirst for four pints of Steel City Escafeld. Sat in my fridge, in a carry-keg. And now being drank deep, half a pint at a time


Take a breath. Take a deep breath now

The Oxford Companion to Beer is flawed, but it doesn't actually detract from collective beer knowledge.

High Strength Beer Duty will not kill off high-gravity beers, be they contemporary styles or historic brands.

Beer style is neither a shibboleth nor a necessity.

The problem of over-analysing a niche within a niche is, sometimes, you can't spot that you're stuck in a tight downward spiral.

If you find yourself getting splenetic over beer, remember.

It's beer. It can be studied and debated and slagged off and lionised and loved and hated.

But at the end of the day, it's brewed to be drunk.

Take a breath. Take a deep breath. And have a beer.

"If I'm the one to throw you overboard / At least I showed you how to swim for shore"

Keen-eyed readers will note that this is a heavily-edited version of the original post. That's because, after a bellyful of ale, I often mistake 'publish' for 'draft'. So now there's less lyrics and swearing, more cogency. Hopefully.


An auction, five bottles and ten sides

Breweriana. It sounds like such a magical place. You know; take a wrong turning back from the toilets, open a suspiciously-wardrobe-like door and you're there. A lion sings and fonts spring forth and spout the best beers in the world....

Oh. Wait. I see what I've done there. That's not what breweriana is.

In essence, it's anything with a brewery or beer brand name on it. And when I say anything, I mean anything. Pumpclips, labels, adverts, windows... breweriana encompasses a broad beery church. As I've mentioned before, collecting doesn't really float my boat but last weekend saw curiosity get the better of me. CAMRA were holding their annual breweriana auction just down the road from me in Burton, so I thought I'd tag along and see if I could snaffle a bargain.

Perhaps a long-lost crate of King's Ale? One of those salmon-pink porcelain mugs so beloved of Orwell, going for a song? A quick shufti at the list of lots revealed lesser splendours for my tastes, but I still thought it was worth a crack.

Burton's Town Hall was fairly quiet and it seemed clear that many in attendance were usual faces at these kind of events. Local MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, Andrew Griffiths, gave a rousing introduction about how vital brewing was to this country; sadly I didn't get the chance to talk High Strength Beer Duty with him. Another time, maybe.

There were a few early lots that I had an eye for. Sadly, the price of a few books and a rather bizarre Gibbs Mew 'Blue Keg' plastic advert sign soon spiralled beyond my limited budget. It's tempting to get auction-fever and pay over-your-own-odds for something; likewise, to bid and buy anything for the sake of it. But I wasn't being saddled carrying a Tetley's Mild pub window home on the train with me. Close call, though...

A disappointing day? Far from it. I'd arranged with auctioneer Mike Peterson to collect some commemorative bottles I'd bought from his collection. They'll find their way into the Christmas stockings of friends, although I'm keeping the Home Brewery D.H. Lawrence Centenary Ale - you take the toper out of Eastwood, but you'll never take Eastwood out of this toper.

And, in a great twist of fate, I actually bought something from one of the stands which I'd have happily bid for. A ten-sided handled glass, bang-on my budget. This one being stamped 301 for the West Riding of Yorkshire. Which is why I'm drinking Timothy Taylor Landlord out of it tonight and really rather enjoying it.


For the kill, not the thrill of the chase

It only takes one e-mail.

Sunday morning, about to reach for my walking boots. Contemplating an early autumn day of fresh breezes and mud between my cleats. And then...

"Sheffield Tap. Just gone on - Kipling, dry hopped with Nelson Sauvin. Also still on Thornbridge/The Kernel Coalition Burton Ale".

The purpose of the Yahoo group Scoopgen is to share, err, gen about scoops. Let's try that again. Members share information about beer availability that they think would be of interest to other members. They can also bore the arses off each other when they forget that it's not a forum for endless pedantic/semantic debate, but that's another story.

I scan through the emails on the web and was just idling through the previous night's updates when I read the one above. And twenty minutes later I was on my way into Sheffield. After just over an hour, I was sat in the Tap enjoying those two glorious beers.

And more - Magic Rock Cannonball and Dark Arts on keg, Brewdog Mr Squirrel likewise. More Dark Arts after missing my train. Marble Weizen on the train.

Sometimes, I'm not interested in the moving target, the hope and expectation, the thrill of the chase.

I'm in it for the moment. I want to get my hands round the blighter.

I'm in it for the kill.

Why the picture of an Orval beermat? Why not? 


Eating my way around Nottingham Beer Festival

There's often a problem with food at beer festivals. It's often shit. Over-priced, under-flavoured, freshly-microwaved slop in those dull municipal kitchens. Burgers from outdoor vans that seem to be selling leftovers from last month's Sunday market. Where's the festival organisers' love for great food, sourced locally, made and presented with the same passion demonstrated by the great beers on offer?

I'll tell you where it is, in spades. Nottingham.

Even for a CAMRA festival offering over 900 cask beers, food has never been an afterthought whilst they've been in residence at the Castle. With so many beers, it can be difficult for a toper to keep eating- after all, there's so many beers, so little time. So many beers... so I needed a plan. And one plan led to another.

I'd eat my way around the festival, find a decent beer match for each meal and keep going until even my solid constitution began to complain. So, where to start? Breakfast.

#1: Jukebox Café sausagemeat and tomato cob, Redemption Trinity

I've never been to this caff, with its award-winning builder's breakfasts, a free-play jukebox and a parrot called Forest. On the strength of their stall here and this cob - sausagemeat split from the skin and cooked on a hotplate before you, plenty of peppery spice - I'll be making a bee-line there soon. Worked well with the feisty, zingy 'mild' by Redemption - sweet malts well tempered by shouty hops.

A swift half of Amber Jasmine IPA proved to be a suitable amuse-bouche. And then it was lunchtime.

#2: RoundHeart roast pork cob with spiced apple slices, Thornbridge Lord Marples

Sister pubs Hand In Heart and Roundhouse joined forces to put on pork and beef both roasted in their house ale, RoundHeart, brewed for them by Dancing Duck. Plenty of juicy meat, wonderful spiced apple, rubbish photo by me. And, yes, maybe I should have had the RoundHeart beer as well, but Lord Marples is an excellent bitter for roast pork, all soft and nutty, liquid bread to envelope chocking great lumps of meat.

Five Towns Guero, 2.9% and stacks of New Zealandish zing, was a classy palate cleanser. Now, what better next than a piece of cheese? Or three...

#3: Cheese Shop mixed platter, Buxton Wild Boar.

I wasn't too sure about the cheeses until I realised it was a deep platter. And that the soft one was so soft you could spread it on the crackers. And that the harder one had a lovely nutty depth. And that the blue one had an outstanding fresh barnyard feel to it. And that Wild Boar was man enough to take on these bold flavours, restrain them but never overpower them.

More IPA required - Five Towns Peculiar Blue added an almost pickled mango flavour into the mix. And having tried two IPAs, I needed another. With something spicy.

#4: Mirch Masala samosa and bhaji tray, Hopshackle Resination

The more vegetarian Indian food I eat, the more I love it. And this was sublime. A bhaji that was all light and airy yet packed full of soft, billowing spiciness. Samosas that had a shattering crust and proper, chunky, damn-good-looking veg. With what is maybe the finest cask IPA in England that you never really hear about, unless it's me banging on about it yet again. Resination is riven with US hops, brewed straight outta Market Deeping and didn't spar with the samosa/bhaji tag team - they just had a big spicy hug and got along tremendously.

More IPA? Why not? Full Mash Bhisti was a bitterer thing than the others only with a calming pear effect. And then it was time for a change in direction. I was feeling full but... no guts, no glory.

#5: Faggots, peas and gravy by the 24th Nottingham Scouts, Hopshackle Aniseed Porter

Now, that's what I call beer and food. Properly-seasoned faggots, the right amount of fat to keep it moist, plenty of mushy peas, robust gravy to round it all up. A dark porter, the aniseed not overpowering, working with the herbs in the faggots to give the whole dish a new depth of flavour.

Burp. Time for a waffer theen meent. Or the nearest equivalent.

#6: Merry Berry chocolates with Blue Monkey Guerilla

No photo. Let's just say these three things: Merry Berry aren't afraid to play with flavours that you can taste (chilli, lime and ginger was good, cracked black pepper even better); Blue Monkey Guerilla ought to be mandatory in every pub over autumn and winter (please, put some in kegkegs, it'd be a killer keg beer); I'd finally eaten my fill. And I forgot to buy some chocolates to bring home for Mrs Scoop. Mistakes like that are not tolerated in this organisation...

All in all, a superb festival enhanced greatly by the fact that the organisers take the opportunity to source food as diverse and tasty as the beer.

And one last toast - a whisky-infused bitter named in honour of the man who for many was Mr Nottingham CAMRA. For Spyke Golding, the former branch chair and newsletter editor who passed away last year, this drink's for you. Cheers!


Surprise and fear: fear and surprise

What I expected at the Nottingham CAMRA beer festival: excellent beer, excellent food, dodgy cover bands, sun splitting above the mansion house and casting jagged shadows all over the southern slopes down to the Trent Valley.

What I didn't expect: Gabriel Van Ingen taking portraits for a wet plate collodion project. A full write-up of Nottm's beer and food and food will follow. As will more photos. But, for now, here's a pic of Gabriel's pic of me developing. It had to happen sometime...


UK bottled beer history for sale

I have a vintage beer collection. When I say collection, I mean a box of beers in the garage. When I say vintage, I mean 1999 onwards. Every autumn I open the box, check the bottles, think of drinking one, put it back, reseal the box. Twenty-odd bottles, sat in my garage.

Mike Peterson has a vintage beer collection. When I say collection, I mean possibly the largest collection of full commemorative bottled beers in the UK. When I say vintage, I mean 1880 onwards. Every year since 1977, he's added to it. Over two and a half thousand beers...

... and he's put them up for sale.

This isn't just a beer garage sale. This is an historic, unique, world-class sale. Champagne-sized imperial Russian stouts from Barclay Perkins. Stacks of Bass Museum specials. Coronation and Jubilee beers from a whole host of English brewers. The first and last brews from historic breweries.

And for the Guinness lover in your life,  a collection of almost one hundred commemorative bottlings celebrating everything from their bicentenary to the thirtieth anniversary of Aldergrove Airport.

An Excel 2007 sheet detailing the beers is available for download here. If you don't have the program, you can download an Excel 2007 viewer here.

Never mind those random ebay auctions. If you're serious about investing in a little bit of British brewing history, go visit his site and make him an offer.


Is the alcohol message all wrong?

If you love beer, do four things today:

- read this by Kate Fox, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre, about alcohol, violence, education and mis-understandinng.

- listen to the full version on Radio 4 tonight - Four Thought, 2045 - and if you miss it then catch up with it via iPlayer or podcast:

- read the original SIRC paper on alcohol and violence:

- use that knowledge in the future. Rebut scuttlebut with it. Counter fallacious arguments across the interwebs. Use it as a line in the sand before neo-prohibitionists and say - thou shalt not cross.

Alcohol is not irresponsible. But some people are - with or without a drink inside them.


Magic Rock, Summer Wine, beer online

Two West Yorkshire brewers have just opened online stores. That's not so unusual. Or is it?

Regional brewers are perhaps expected to have a web retail presence - think Fullers, Batemans, Adnams,  Greene King. But beyond that, it's surprisingly hit and miss. Thornbridge choose to sell through an intermediary.  Castle Rock only sell stuff via their pubs. Many brewers are like Leeds: bulk buy beer orders only.

So the likes of Magic Rock and Summer Wine are to applauded for their efforts to get their beers into the hands of the topering public. And it's not just the bottles - t-shirts and branded glassware shows that the new wave of British brewing have learned a few riffs from the Punks.

There's a heap of reasons why brewers choose not or can not run an online store - lack of storage space, lack of staff to manage orders, lack of logistics experience. But it seems clear that the business plans of Magic Rock and Summer Wine had one eye firmly on cutting out the middleman and forming a loyal direct-buying fan base. Ones who will go for special bottlings. Limited releases. Double-tripe gooseberry hefe distilled from virgin otter's tears.

I'd love to be able to buy a mixed crate-of-the-week direct from Kernel. To buy bottles of weizen by those masters of internet understatement, Marble. That I can buy cutting-edge beers direct from progressive English microbrewers should make others raise their game.


What price the future of the 'craft beer' revolution?

When I was in London in the summer, I wondered aloud more than a few times why there aren't even more entrepreneurs turning around jaded places into thriving places. An article today in City AM by Charlie McVeigh, founder of the Draft House group, shows just how tough it is for even successful businessmen to negotiate credit with the banks.

The problem with the green shoots of recovery is that they're often down-trodden by banking practice. Some of the most attractive pub openings of late have been the result of innovative deals between entrepreneurs and pubcos, whether it involves freeing up the beer tie or finding ways to revitalise tied sales by supplementing them with new brewer's product.

I can see the likes of Draft House and Craft Beer Co being concepts that their owners can exploit not just around the capital but out to cities nationwide. But if their entrepreneurial spirit isn't nurtured, if the banks don't take the sector seriously, we're in danger of losing precious momentum in the 'craft beer' revolution.


Dependable Derby

I live in Derby.

Well, I live in Spondon. Which used to be a village on the outskirts before being swallowed up by the city when the latter became desperate for a charter back in 1977. A city needs a populace; boundaries were redrawn to bump the numbers up. Some villagers - self-proclaimed Spondonians - are still bitter about this. There was a bloke at the pub today who was quite bitter about the claimed wattage of energy-saving bulbs. People need to learn to not be bitter about stuff that doesn't really matter.

I'm always going to have a jaded view because I was born in Nottingham. Lived in Nottinghamshire as a youth. Still support Nottingham Forest, to the extent that you can support a rudderless bunch of muppets that couldn't score in a brothel.

But I married a Spondon girl - a Derby County-supporting Spondon girl - so here I am. Conducting endless missionary work amongst the heathens. And regularly taking advantage of Derby's great strength.

Regular train services to other parts of the country.

Within the hour I can be in Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield. Or into the Peak District. So I don't spend a great deal of time drinking around Derby.

Until today. Gulp. Because I couldn't be arsed to go anywhere else.

The Alexandra Hotel is the birthplace of Derby CAMRA but thankfully there are no awkward stains on the welcome mat. Fyne Ales Jarl was served the cool side of cool and all the better for it.

When in the Brunswick, all of thirty seconds walk from the Alex, I drink one of three beers. Budvar when it's really hot. Brunswick Father Mike's when it's really cold. Brunswick White Feather when I just fancy a beer to knock back. The latter today was its usual combination of slight sulphur, dry malts and wincing hop. It may now be two quid a pint, but I bloody love it.

Most of my drinking time outdoors in Derby is spent at the Smithfield. Sat above the river, the constant grind of the A52 nearby doesn't really detract. There's always plenty of pale & hoppy on - Oakham Citra for me today - and a half-hour spent watching swans stretch their wings and kick lazily upriver is all the entertainment you need on a Sunday lunch.

Speaking of which, I wish I'd eaten at the next pub. The Exeter Arms has always had a reputation for keenly-priced pub grub. My wife keeps telling me how good the lunches are and I've enjoyed the five quid pie-and-pint night. But I didn't quite fancy the pork lunch, so I just supped a pint of Dancing Duck Gold. The brewery now run the pub; their beers are fairly sugary which often clashes with my palate, but their Gold had a Belgique-sweetness and strong malty backbone that worked un-nervingly well.

Perhaps the problem with the Flowerpot is my high expectations. A few years ago they had around 15 beers available on a Sunday, maybe a third of those being on gravity in the glass-fronted stillage room. The beef and mushroom cob was a thing of genius - thick slices of beef from the Sunday roast paired with pan-fried mushrooms in a blousy bit of bread. But times have changed; there's still about eight ales on, including Thornbridge Jaipur on gravity, but the beer range is wanting and the food is really poor. My Sunday roast was a plate heaped full of veg freshly-pinged from the microwave and a sorry tablespoonfull of stewing steak. That's not lunch; that's a cop-out.

There's always a pub up the road to chipper my spirits back up. The Five Lamps is a case study in how to Get The Pub Right; somewhere that was a failing grot-hole made wonderful by the application of a simple equation: good landlord + good staff + good beer + good food + good atmosphere = great pub. Buxton Kinder Downfall was good, but... average. Perfect condition, well brewed, but just seemed to have something missing. Not sure what.

It could be that Buxton brews are usually hopped up the wazoo. It was certainly the case with Adnams American-Style IPA at the Standing Order. One of the festival beers, it survived being poured as flat as a trampled badger. Riven with juiciness. And even though the pub is a real JDW barn - it was a massive banking hall beforehand - I love being there. Huge ceilings to gaze up at. Excellent beer quality. Just a shame that staff don't pick up empty glasses by rote: if you're on the way back to the bar and pass a table with empties on, it makes sense to clear as you go.

Every beer was spot-on quality today. The range was exactly what I expected. And perhaps that's the issue I have with Derby. You're unlikely to find a leftfield brew, a new brewery tick, an adventurous recipe. You won't find anything interestingly kegged. Don't even think of looking for world-beating bottles in the back of those dusty fridges.

Derby delivers what Derby does best: dependable, tried-and-tested beer. I know it could be worse. But, I know it could be so much better. Forty minutes and nine quid away, I can have the best cask and keg beer in the UK at the Sheffield Tap. A monster roast at the Harlequin. Stunning cider and The Best Chocolate Brownies Ever at the Rutland.

Which is why the best place for me in Derby is still Platform 2, northbound...


Writing a last great chapter

I'm a believer in positive re-inforcement. Early morning I visualise the day ahead, in slow-motion, to a steady beat, as the recorded highlights of the day that went well. Then I go out and make it happen.

Today, that storyboard went: Wake up refreshed. Go to local pub for breakfast and watch the rugby. England win rugby. I stay in pub for beer festival. My wife joins me. We get drunk. We make up the rest of the day as it goes. I keep babbling on about how Chris Ashton slipped the line and swan-dived over for a try that took England to within a point of victory. And how every bloodied yard won by the props once the clock had turned red put Wilko in the pocket for the drop goal that sent us to Auckland.

Sometimes, you find the world isn't quite in sync with your mind-track.

It started promising for me, if not England. Pull on the shirt (blue, circa 2003). Go to pub. When you see an Own Taylor's van turn up in the car park, you know that breakfast will be full of the best piggy nom. Several pints of Moonstone Black Five Mild were slaked. And then... England forgot to turn up. Outplayed by the French is bad enough; to be out-thought by them is unforgivable.

So me and my blue funk decided that we could do without sitting around a beerfest for the rest of the day.

What better for a catatonic rugger fan, still slightly hungover by the application of fresh mild to last night's Scotch, than a trip to Tesco?

Slivers of meats, some superbly nutty Ossau Iraty, walnut bread, spag bol constituents, shit-kicklingly good wine by Tim Adams and a basket of beer. In reverse order: Brewdog Punk IPA, still alcoholic Um Bongo; Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, great but still strangely muted, Goose Island IPA: revelatory. Chock full of mango, no lingering bitterness.

And as I wandered up and down the aisles, the comments.

"Where were we in the first half?"

"Ready to drown your sorrows?".

And then:

"Bet you can't wait to take that shirt off".

Actually, no. And now please go and fuck yourself into a cocked hat.

How very dare you!

I'm a quarter Scots and strangely proud of it. Oor Wullie, The Broons, whisky, deep-fried Mars Bars - love it.

But I'm more Lionheart than Braveheart.

I wear the rose and I'm damn proud to do so. Always and forever.

Always and forever. Never ashamed. Never embarrassed.

An afternoon kip, an epic spag bol and several glasses of Tim Adams' finest later, all I can think of is this.

I've just finished reading "Setting The Table" by Danny Meyer. The über-entrepreneurial New York restaurateur. And two quotes from the book resonate, in relation to mistakes:

As told to him by retail magnate Stanley Marcus: "the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled".

As he says himself, on his mission when hearing of a mistake: "write a last great chapter that allows us to end up in a better place".

All I can hope for is that the RFU and Martin Johnson take a long, hard, passionate look at how the leadership dynamic of England rugby has failed the team and the fans' expectations. And handle those mistakes better in the future.

And how do I write my last great chapter? How do I draw a line underneath a day envisioned poorly?  How do I turn a day of hurt into one that I will look back on with fonder memory?

I open a bottle of extremely great beer. Possibly the best tart Belgian beer that isn't Belgian.

Because it's brewed in France.

From Brassiere Thirez, Vielle Brune.

To end the evening with some sour French.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

* cheers to Phil Lowry for the heads-up on Danny Meyer's book

* before you start, I am aware that Richard the Lionheart spent most of his time pricking around in Southern France. Let me introduce to the concept of irony...


Session #56: This Bud's for everyone

For many opinionated drinkers, global brewers are a god-send. They can be pilloried from post to blog post; capitalist behemoths, industrial swill-merchants, adjunct-addicted purveyors of pap. Even better if they have the letter S in their name. So the lazy perpetuation of hackneyed myth can be combined with the liberal insertion of dollar signs into their name.

For instance: Budwei$er.

Yeah, that $tick$ it to The Man.

This month's Session is hosted by The Tales of The Ale, on what he perceives may be hard for some bloggers: giving thanks to the 'big boys'. For me, it's a gimme.

Let me tell you why every beer fan in the world ought to give eternal thanks to Anheuser Busch.

Actually, no. Let Charles Bamforth, Professor of Malting and Brewing Science at University of California Davis, explain why:

"The reality is that it is substantially more challenging to consistently make a product of more subtle tone, there being far less opportunity to disguise inconsistency and deterioration than can be the case in a more intensely flavoured beverage". 1

If you can visit anywhere in the world and a Bud tastes like a Bud... that's supreme control. I know enough brewers who produce a raft of 'specials'. All roughly similar, minor changes in ABV and recipe. For keeping the tickers happy? No. It's because they cannot brew a beer consistently to spec.

As for the brewers who disguise fuck-up beers by mixing them into darker brews and lacing them with a far-out flavour... you can't polish a turd.

You may not choose to make Budweiser your fridge beer of choice. I remember a radio interview with Bamforth where he said something along the lines that he loved cask bitter in a sidestreet pub back in England. But in 100 degree heat at a ballgame, he'd rather be drinking Bud.

So, here's an American institution with a history of fastidiousness. Of borderline-freakish quality control standards. Of absolute faith, backed by researched science, that what they do is absolutely the best they can do. That brews a consistent, popular beer whose sales fund barley and hop development programmes. And the professorship that Charlie Bamforth holds.

And, if along the way, they give the young turks and old grumps something to rail against, even if it's misguidedly, that's great.

If it makes just one brewer stop and think about how they can make better beer, that's a result.

If we see more eclectic, adventurous, flavour-forward beer - still brewed with technical perfection - then that's job done.

Adolphus Busch: this Bud's for you.

1. "Beer Is Proof God Loves Us" (2011), Charles Bamforth 


Ten thousand holes, forty-plus beers

'Steady' Steve Hornbuckle makes it easy to love a beer festival. Perfectly stillaged beers in the function room of the Royal Oak, Ockbrook. Attentive, enthusiastic staff. Cheese platters and pork pies on sale.

And those beers - every year he sources casks from a specific English county to showcase every brewery there, whether its a brewpub or a regional powerhouse. This year it's Lancashire's turn (non-metropolitan, not ceremonial). Truth be told, beforehand I was hard-pushed to name anything from there with the exception of Thwaites. But tonight has been insightful.

Deep tropical fruit in Burscough's Priory Gold. Some slight-yet-moreish bittersweetness around Lytham's IPA. The sheer glubbability of Moonstone's Black Star Mild. Sharp wit-ness with a bubblegum chomp at the end of Blue Buzzard's White Dwarf.

I only had ninety minutes so hardly dinted the beers on offer - gravity in the back room, handpull on the bar. Swift halves were called for. So I'm looking forward to going back on Saturday, early doors, for a few pints.

Early doors being 0830. For England v France in the Rugby World Cup on the big screen. In that function room. Full of festival beers. With a full cooked breakfast at half time.

What could possibly go wrong?


Almost a Spoons festival

Evenings begin with the best of intentions.

Three Wetherspoons in Derby. Bound to be a stack of festival beers. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything. Thankfully.

Starting at the Babington Arms, which has often put on all the 'overseas' brewers' fayre on the first fest night. We even had Luke Nicholas turn up one year. Tonight? Nada. Niet. Zip-doodly-squat.

Six below-average festival offerings on the bar; this scooper's turning on his heels. Then; Summer Wine Diablo. Really? Indeedy.

I never see Summer Wine beers unless I pilgrimage to Sheffield / Huddersfield. So, in a Spoons? For £2.20? It seems that fill-your-boots-hour is hoving into view. But the greying hordes on the next table start to fart; the shell-suited youth by the door is making no headway with his wife / mother / lover by calling her a "daft twat". Time to move on.

To the Standing Order. A splendid looking barn of an ex-banking hall. Rammed full of festival beers. The Bell's Kalamazoo Black Silk was all sticky liqorice. More stuff on offer that I really fancy by the likes of Fat Head's and Mordue. But I thought I ought to pop next door and see what's on offer.

Oh. My.

The Thomas Leaper is literally next door, separated only by the drunk holding two pints, outside on the step, and the semi-comatose bloke slumped by the fire escape. It's a Lloyd's No.1; they have music, fewer piss-stained fat men, more sharper haircuts. Not many festival beers, to be sure.But they had more Summer Wine.

Specifically, Kahuna, the big-fat-grapefruit IPA, and Barista, the chocca-full-of-mocha-stout.

For £1.50 a pint.

You didn't just open a random door into beery Narnia,

£1.50 a pint.

What did I do?

Reader, I drank them.

And drank them.

And drank them some more.

Sometimes, the best thing about well-publicised beer festivals is the unforeseen.


The Sheffield Dilemma

The Sheffield Dilemma is simple: lots of quality pubs and bars, stacks of great beer, not enough time. Crawls can easily become route marches; when the hit-list reaches sixteen places, you know it ain't going to happen. Not without A&E being the seventeenth stop. So on Saturday with the sun blazing in Steel City, I decided to do the sensible thing. Mooch around with no particular place to go.

With Stoph McBride in tow, our PlusBus tickets were flexed and cool beers quaffed. Here's what we worked through:

Sheffield Tap

Early doors, straight off the train for a throat-loosener.

Thornbridge Pivni. Exclusive brew by the Derbyshire giants of micro for the Taps bars. Big fat sticky head with tons of grapefruit. Hardly touched the sides as first beer of the day. And 3.2%? I'll drink to that.

Marble Rye. a.k.a The Last Stronge Beer, swansong of the departing Colin Stronge. Deft touch with the rye, just enough sweetness to temper berries and bitterness.

Buxton Axe Edge. Stoph's pint, which I gladly accepted a taster of. One of the standout cask ales of the year for me, dry-hopped up the wazoo in the inimitable James Kemp stylee. Perhaps the most convincing blackberry flavour in a beer that I've come across.


Up and out of the Eccy Road for something cold and fizzy in Thornbridge's flagship pub.

Thornbridge Steelmaker. The brewer's first ever Helles in support of the Save the Portland Works campaign. Simple, slighly spiced and incredibly refreshing. Stoph had a Thornbridge Wild Swan as well whilst I sank another Steelmaker. Heavenly helles indeed...


Summer Wine Radius. One of those pale ales that long afternoons sitting outside in the sun was invented for. Epic with a cheese & onion cob. Although, apparently, I'm not allowed to call them cobs in Yorkshire...

Fat Cat

Whilst Stoph choked back a Kelham Island affair (Pale Rider, possibly), I couldn't help but have a bottle of Schlenkerla Rauchbier Weizen. A softer touch than the Marzen, still plenty of bacon-smoke but not overpowering.

Kelham Island Tavern

Pictish Brewer's Gold. That's all I need to say. Apart from.... mmmmmm.


Mallinsons Something. No idea what, but it was pale & hoppy. Yes, we should have drank something from Little Ale Cart as the kind man behind the bat suggested (well, practically demanded) we drink but you can't win 'em all. Still, you can't beat a pub that has framed copies of 'Real Ale Twats' on the wall and staff wearing "Buy Before You Try" t-shirts.

Sheffield Tap (again)

Some Bernard Světlý Ležák 12°, unfiltered Czech lager, followed by some more lager for me. Not sure what Stoph had. But I had lager. Oh, yes siree.

The train back to Derby

Marble Weizen. In a plastic cup. From a 500ml bottle. Some clove, some nana, one beer I'd like to try early in the day when my palate wasn't fading.

The upshot? Good beer is where you find it. In Sheffield, you find it everywhere - in smart bars and backstreet boozers; in cask, keg and bottle; in traditional and modern styles. It's all out there, waiting for you. All you've got to do is pick it up and drink it.


The Steel City Festival: tarnished?

I think it's fair to say that the Sheffield CAMRA annual beer festival has a chequered past. Great beers have often found themselves being served in unprepossessing surroundings. Such as mud-ridden tents. Or dull social clubs. So a change of venue close to the city centre must be the right move, surely?

The jury's still out, I think. Many problems, some mitigating circumstances. But maybe not mitigating enough. Cellar quality suffered with the unseasonal weather heating the Ponds Forge sports hall to an uncomfortable level. You may not expect such temps in October. But, for instance, Nottingham CAMRA have kept things cool even when the sun comes out in the middle of the month. Glasses being marked for thirds when the measure isn't being served shouldn't have been an issue - if it wasn't for some staff selling third-pints for one token.

And apart from the extraordinary circumstances, it's still the little things that are notable by their absence. Like adequate signage to find the front door. Like a basic tasting note or style guide in the programme.When there's only fifty-ish drinkers through early doors on the first day, I wonder where the usual trollied hoards have got to.

The city has a fantastic beery heritage. Sheffield CAMRA have some enthusiastic members who know a great deal about beer. It's a shame that their festival sells them short.