Chasing The Dragon (And Other Phrases…)

As a family, we rarely did stuff together as the kids got older. The one thing we DID do – on a monthly basis – was to go to a good pub and have Sunday dinner. Something Fionn & Roisin both loved.

We still talk about some of these fond memories. Like driving all the way to The Crooke Hall Inn (at Daughter Thing’s explicit request) only to find that she was too hungover to actually finish. And wanted to go home!

We still do this. Go for Sunday lunch. TLO, Daughter Thing & I. And I look at an empty space where the boy used to be.

Sunday lunch now means – to us – one thing. The Marble Arch. And it’s bloody magnificent. And consistent. With consistently beautiful beer to wash it down.

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And when I look at that bar – whenever I approach – the first thing I think of? Pint. As good a session beer as you will find. Anywhere. Bright, sharp, reliable. Just delicious.

And? It’s that rather old fashioned thing. A core range beer.

I got to thinking about that quaint idea of having a core range of beers after ending up – as I frequently do after a day trip – at The Brink.

Looking at the bar, I spied an old friend. Stocky Oatmeal Stout by Thirst Class Ale. Rich. Roasty. Creamy. Utterly delicious. And… Another core range beer. From a reliably excellent brewery.

And – at a tangent – something else got me thinking about core beer ranges. And the breweries that still do them.

Instead he relies on research and diligence to score the beers his customers want.

This comment came from a piece in a trade journal (re off-sales), I won’t link to it, it was focused purely on London with no perspective from outside.

The piece was making a point about shops scrambling to get the latest FOMO beers. From the most popular producers. But I had to ask….

Is this where FOMO has taken us? Popular beers being talked of as if they are rocks of crack? REALLY? WTF ever happened about just enjoying good tasty beer? Rather than looking for a hit, a higher high?

I mean, I like hops. But I despair. I really do. And yet – in a small way – I’m a part of this problem. Because of what I insist on for beer supply here.

This chasing of the dragon isn’t new. Far from it.

In 2017 I was talking to a highly respected brewer who opened up the cold store. Row upon row of beautiful, tasty, beer. In keg. Sat there. Because – in his words – “everyone wants something new”. I could have wept at the idiocy of such thinking. But for the simple fact that I was there. Making beer. New beer. To feed the FOMO. To sell tickets. For the FOMO fearers. The new “tickers”.

Hypocrite.

I’m far from old fashioned. As anyone who has seen the line up at an ISBF bar could tell you. But – above all else in beer – what I love most is consistency. Reliability. THAT excites me. Approaching a bar and – inwardly – licking my lips, knowing, with CERTAINTY, that what I’m going to be drinking will be delicious.

I’ve drunk a little bit of Lager & Helles & Pilsner (call Lager whatever you want) recently and really enjoyed them. And had the mantra pushed at me “if you can get a Lager right, that shows that you’re good”. That may be true. But not just Lager.

The breweries that I respect most have a core range. They brew those beers consistently excellently. The quality doesn’t waver.

Runaway Pale, Brewsmith Pale, Marble Pint, Five Points Railway Porter, North Riding Mosaic, Neptune Abyss, Pictish Brewers Gold. These beers – to me – are absolutes. Flag bearers of consistency. Of excellence. Beers that – the moment I see them on a bar, I point to.

Quality. And consistency of quality. These things excite me. Those breweries above have consistently excellent core ranges. They get them right, time after time. Brew after brew. In such ways is my trust earned. I know that each beer – however new – released by these will be reliably excellent.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are breweries out there that don’t have core ranges. That still make excellent beer.

But beer – to me – is like music. I’m currently listening to the new Mountain Goats album. And it’s predictably fabulous. Well crafted songs. Seasoned with beautiful playing. Consistently excellent. (I adore John Darnielle)

I yearn for a time when people just appreciate beer – like music – for what it is. Good, tasty, well brewed beer.

Not just the latest feel good hit of the summer.

The sooner we reach that destination, the better.

The Vultures Are Circling : Cosy Clubs, Cleopatra’s Asp And Negative Marketing – The Spinning Webs of The SBDRC

PLEASE NOTE: All the information in this blog piece is either freely available on the internet or extrapolated from that information. Some of it is direct results from a Google search, some of it from Companies House, some of the harder to find information is from direct quotes to trade publications where the breweries concerned were happy to brag to journalists about growth in one article whilst complaining about competition in another.

Some of it of course – figures wise – is based on my own calculations!

I like audacity. But some instances just boil my piss.

Just when I thought I couldn’t GET more angry, I saw the above piece.

Why am I so pissed? Hogs Back Brewery. Launching beers. At Craft Beer Rising in London.

You see, Rupert Thompson, Director of Hogs Back is one of the main voices (if not THE) of the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition. You know, that cosy cartel of large and family breweries that are intent on making Micro Breweries less competitive. On getting them closed down.

So they can increase their collective share of the UK beer market. They see the “Craft” segment increasing in share, whilst the overall beer market shrinks.

They want a bigger piece of the pie.

To my uneducated eyes, it had all the appearance of Craft Cleopatra clutching the asp to her breast. Except in this case, Cleo has forgotten that the asp has poison in its teeth. And is desperate to bite.

You see – again, I’m a bit thick maybe – this invitation to the enemy into the centre of the “craft” camp, giving them (in Hogs Back’s case) a platform to launch a beer range…… I mean, there may be high level conversations backstage – within the event – that could bear fruit…..Bollocks. I’m not even kidding myself!

You see, Rupert Thompson and his co-conspirators don’t strike me as being about to negotiate with their prey. This is a bunch of hard headed businessmen..

Rupert (for instance) has been a Director – at various stages of a number of different beer companies (Note. I don’t say “breweries”) In his own words, he describes himself as…

“Developing and buying and selling companies….” Er…. OK.

As I said, Mr Thompson is arguably THE mouthpiece of the SBDRC. Note the signatories to this letter to the treasury. These names will come up again….

Now those companies that Rupert has (at various times) been a director of… Kind of read like a “Who’s Who” of Big Beer UK

Greene King, Marstons, Wychwood, Refresh UK, Thwaites (pre Marstons purchase), British Beer and Pub Association – we’ll return to that – Go look at Companies House, it’s all there….

Now, remember those signatories above?

Now then. The BBPA. The British Beer and Pub Association. And those mendacious representations of the 3 separate bodies (Inc the Independent Family Brewers of Britain) all making “common cause” on the subject of duty relief to small brewers.

Rupert Thompson – Hogs Back

Collin Wood – Theakstons

Co-Chairs of the SBDRC. Rubbing shoulders with Heineken. And Marstons. On a BBPA “Small Brewer Relief Working Group”

Like inverted Robbing Hoods, Stealing from the Small to feed the Big. And pretending that there are 3 separate bodies campaigning to reduce relief to REAL small breweries.

(please note : so far as I’m aware, CAMRA does not actively support the aims of the SBDRC)

Rupert is the fella who grew the Carling Mega Brand, marketed Old Speckled Hen as a “premium brand”. That’s what Rupert is. A marketer. Hence his incredibly skilful work at the helm of the SBDRC. And you have to tip your hat. He’s good.

He’s very “reasonable sounding” with phrases like….

“The coalition is fully supportive of SBDR itself and believes it has an essential role in the market….” yet then spouts the key mantra that…

“Smaller brewers are over compensated for economies of scale in the industry”

Let’s nail this ****** down, right now. I know lots of Micros personally. I KNOW how much beer costs. And how much it costs to make. And – at the smaller ends of the scales (ie Those below the vital mark of 5000hl) – it IS more expensive for a small “flavour forward” brewery to make beer, per HL.

Small Brewers Duty Relief allows Micros to compete for bar space. But while Big pubcos (some of whom, let’s not forget – Punch, Enterprise Inns, Heineken – are not exactly disinterested members of the BBPA!) control vast swathes of the market and drive down prices, that space is hugely limited

The SBDRC (and Rupert and his jolly chums at the BBPA and IFBB) can get their tame survey team to concoct and manipulate stats all they like. But their well funded, well oiled and well practised mendacity cannot be allowed to stand.

These people – for all their launches at CBR – are no friends of Craft. They are no friends of small brewers. They are no friends of beer diversity.

They are the enemy. And they need to be recognised as such.

This. The attack on Small Brewers Duty Relief is the existential threat to what is on the lines at your favourite bars and pubs, that choice that you have.

That “Golden Age”.

Because if these people get their way. They will go in a flash.

Get informed. Get involved.

Gratitude and Debts

For what I do with my (limited) spare time, I owe three people. But one person more than others. And I can blame him for everything.

It all started on 21st September 2012. A date that I can remember via the records of others. That was the date that the recently resurrected (and name abbreviated) Dexys played at Bridgewater Hall.

But I digress. Let’s go from the start.

For some years I’d had the germ of an idea. A seed that refused to grow. That idea was to buy a digital camera and take photos of Manchester pubs. And build a website, a website dedicated to those beautiful communal edifices. But, I was a coward. Dithered. Couldn’t be arsed.

Then, in 2012, I joined Twitter and started to virtually stalk an old friend I’d not seen in a few years.

Let’s veil him. Let’s call him “The Music Man”.

I would read his brief descriptive tweets. I was like a greedy fish on a well baited hook. And I bit. And kept chewing on those bite sized chunks of beer intelligence.

And that seed started to germinate.

Then, on 21st September 2012, we met. In a bar I’d never visited. Brew Dog on Peter Street (A place of huge importance to the current Manchester Beer Scene – but that post needs to be written by someone MUCH smarter than I)

That night, somebody else had agreed to meet “The Music Man”. Let’s veil him – thinly – and call him “The Gig Monster”.

I’d known both since my mid – late teens. Since 6th form college in Salford.

That night, briefly, we attempted to catch up on almost 30 years.

One of the things I mentioned was that “seed”. And how it started to germinate upon reading “The Music Man’s” tweeting. “The Gig Monster” told me to go for it. So I did.

It is no exaggeration to say that that exhortation changed my life.

This blog started almost immediately following that encouragement.

I sometimes like to embarrass myself reading those initial beery fumblings. Looking for something. Something to make “mine”. I found that focus after about a year of incoherence.

The North. Beer from The North of England.

But still I felt…… that I was guessing at what I was saying. I don’t lie, I truly mean and believe what I say – always have – but just something felt wrong.

Then I bought a book. It was called “Let Me Tell You About Beer”. It was written by someone called Melissa Cole. And it taught me how to actually taste beer. Techniques to extract almost every last molecule of aroma and flavour from each mouthful.

It blew the cobwebs from my feeble brain.

I don’t ‘know’ Melissa particularly well. But we have met. And I have thanked her in person. I don’t look up to many, but I do to that young lady.

Anyways. Back to “The Music Man”.

He is a known “face” in Manchester Beer circles. I never forget going to a beer event and approaching the bar whilst taking the pith out of him. The guy behind the bar scowled at me. “Leave him alone. Everybody loves (The Music Man)”

That was me told.

“The Music Man” is a member of that commonly derided sub species of beer humanity known as a “Ticker”. He’ll go to places and drink things I never would.

He introduced me to breweries that I subsequently adored. Like Wigan Brewhouse, Offbeat, Mallinsons, enduring beer loves of mine.

We’ve travelled together. Left friends face down in drink whilst we continued to carouse.

He’s utterly solid. A lighthouse in the darkness following our tragedy pre #ISBF3. Didn’t need to say anything. He was just there. Drying my tears. A metaphorical arm around my sagging shoulders. He allowed me to ramble, to let it out. A kindness that it’s useful to remember. He didn’t (and doesn’t) judge.

A true friend.

I learned at his feet. He introduced me – directly and otherwise – to the great and the good of Manchester Beer. And much further afield.

Without “The Music Man”, “The Gig Monster” and Melissa, there would now be no blog. There would be no Independent Salford Beer Festival.

Without “The Music Man” & “The Gig Monster” I would flounder around for a weekend in Salford. Lost.

Without “The Music Man”, my current life would be an awful lot poorer

What little I know. What little I have done in this little beer bubble, is down – primarily – to those 3.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it’s right that you acknowledge your debts.

So. To these 3, I bow. Sorry if I’ve embarrassed you.

Especially “The Music Man”. But some things just need saying.

Honest Burger – Bridge Street is Looking Up

For a number of months last year, I would leave The Brink to catch the No 37 bus home. To get to that bus stop, I passed a bar. It was the most deeply depressing looking hole, brightly lit, noisy and invariably (conversely) quiet.

On Bridge Street – and on the edge of Spinningfields – it grated. It felt wrong. And – consequently – it didn’t last.

Fast forward to this weekend.

And that shabby little venue (following a nice sprucing up) got a new tenant.

Honest Burger is a small chain with outlets in London, Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge & Reading. And now, they have a 6th. On Bridge Street.

And I got a surprise or two.

True to its name, this is a burger joint. The kind of place that normally gravitates towards the Northern Quarter. Now then, I have nothing against the NQ, some of my favourite eating and drinking places are within that orbit. But – it’s nice to see another venue worth visiting open on Bridge Street.

And this place IS worth the visit.

I’m no food critic. But this grub is excellent.

The chicken wings didn’t last long….

The wings were sweet and spicy sticky finger licking joy. TLO loved them too.

Following that was the burger….

For a card carrying Manc, there was really only one choice

The Manchester was a juicy little beast. Sloppy with a beautiful cheese sauce, topped with a rich and earthy slice of Northernness. Black pudding.

Oh. My.

Love at first messy bite.

The Salted rosemary fries just topped the whole thing off nicely.

Service was brisk. Attentive without being smothering. Pitched just right.

Made me forget there used to be that desolate bar ever existed.

And then you go upstairs. On the first floor there are additional tables for service. They were buzzing with chatter. And – I forgot to mention – each of the ground and first has its own bar. Wines, spirits and – oh the joy – a keg bar stocked with Mancunian beer (Alphabet & Runaway)

And that’s not all….

Mark kept THIS quiet….

On the 3rd level, a Runaway tap room.

My eyes nearly popped. An actual Runaway bar. Outside of the brewery.

I’ve expressed my love of Runaway before. Read here, so this was a joy. This may be short term, it may be a lasting thing. That’s uncertain at this point.

What IS certain – while it’s there (Thursday evenings through till Saturdays only for now) – is that this creates a little core of superb bars within a 50 yard radius on Bridge Street, with Gaslamp and The Brink completing that beery nebula coalescing on this short stretch.

Tap Room With A View

The beer – predictably – was lush. The Rhubarb Blush reminded me as to how much I love rhubarb beers. Tart, earthy, refreshing and joyously light of abv. It washed down my Manchester Burger a treat.

The tap room has that rarest of things for a decent Manchester beer venue.

Outside space. In the form of a large balcony overlooking Bridge Street. And that was being taken advantage of. With summer approaching, this will be a draw.

I seriously hope that this arrangement extends through the summer and beyond.

Honest Burger works on its own merits. It’s a belting burger joint. And I’ll certainly be back.

But with that Runaway tap room – and, for now, you CAN go to the room as distinct from the restaurant – it’s a hell of a venue.

I’ll definitely be back soon. Take advantage of that tap room too, while you can.

With this and eateries like Dishoom, Randall & Aubin, Cafe Istanbul and bars like Runaway, Gaslamp & The Brink, Bridge Street is looking like a decent little destination in its own right.

The Sweetest Feeling – Berries, Beans and Beer

Some events hit you between the eyes from the get go.

Some, take their time to find their “place”. Because they feel a bit – advanced. Too soon. Ahead of their time.

That was Berries, Beans and Beer in Crewe. In year one.

I loved it. Could see the aim. It felt so right to me. But sometimes, people need to catch up. To “get it”. That happened last year. In year 2.

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I persuaded some of my Beer family as to its merits. So persuaded, they bought their train tickets and ventured out – away from that oh so easy Manchester bubble – to Crewe Railway Heritage Centre.

And they are coming back. From all over. Because they saw what I saw.

Which is – quite simply – the most relaxed drinks event I’ve ever been to. And that fact that it is a “drinks event” changes the dynamic enormously. I still find beer events very male, slowly changing, but still mostly the traditionally male demographic dominates.

This was different. The fact that it was a more inclusive drinks event, made it more inclusive. The male / female mix was the most even in any event I’ve been to. And that – if anything – enhanced the relaxed feel of year one.

Yes, the was a great beer list (from Michelle Shipman I’d expect no less), but the gin list was simply astonishing. The rum list wasn’t far behind

Having a packaged beer option via the fabulous Otters Tears of Burslem made a huge difference to my lot

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But back to basics.

Crewe is – quite possibly – the best connected town in the North of England. All train lines seem to run through it. It may not be somewhere you’d immediately think “event”. But, when you consider just a little, it makes perfect sense.

The Railway Heritage Centre is about a 10 minute walk from the train station – just enough to heighten the senses. To sharpen the tastebuds.

Michelle has gone to some lengths this year. There is an app for Android phones (iPhone link here) which is so easy to use and shows you everything on offer

(That list of taxis is a nice touch!). The app adds a little extra – hell, I’m not sure I could do that for #ISBF6 (but I might have a chat…)

The gin list is HUGE and – of course – small batch and independent. I might try a few Gins myself – all #ISBF6 research, of course…

And that glassware…

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The Rum bar is none too shabbily stocked either. The coffee selection from HasBean is justly lauded by my Midlands friends and I remember a stunningly fruity thing from year one – when I volunteered.

I come back – as in all my favourite events – to feeling. This event just feels so relaxed. So easy. No posturing, no posing, just a bunch of friendly people shooting the breeze, enjoying their drink of choice, in an ace venue.

It is one of my 3 Unmissables. Alongside EastWestFest (read here) and the Road To Wigan Beer (read here).

You really ought to give it a go.