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.

My Favourite Beer Event : East West Fest 2019

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April and May are my favourite months of the year.

It’s in those months that my favourite beer events take place.

Unfortunately – for reasons beyond my brain cells – Bolton CAMRAs excellent event isn’t happening this year. This leaves two. The exceptional Berries, Beans and Beer in Crewe (a future post) and my personal favourite. East West Fest.

Why is it my favourite beer event? If you’ve been, you’d realise that that is a silly question. But it’s a number of things.

It’s the fact that its original inspiration was ISBF1. Which is incredibly flattering.

It’s the fact that it is organised by one of my favourite brewers, who, over these last five years has become a good friend. And he has kept checking up on me recently. He’s good people is Malcolm.

It’s the fact that it’s intimate. That it’s small, friendly and welcoming.

There’s no FOMO shit here. No queues for the latest fad. No soft-serve nonsense. It’s just good beer. Bloody good beer. Brewers from East and West of the Pennines. Sending the good stuff.

It’s the fun that I’ve had in each of the last four years with friends old and new.

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There’s no hype. No nonsense. It’s “just” an event with 20 beers or less. In a red shed. Literally.

Like I said, if you’ve been, you’ll get it.

We get it. We booked our hotel rooms last October. 7 months in advance.

The beer is the least of this. But it always has excellent beer. I still smile fondly at the memory of Malcolm reducing the prices on the final session of year 1. And me & Jaz drinking Malcolm’s own May Day DIPA at 50p a half…..for three solid hours.

Beer. Oh yes, beer. I choose the breweries from the West, Malcolm from the East. And, yesterday, the final piece of the beery jigsaw slotted into place.

So. The breweries

From the East :

Five Towns (obviously)
Abbeydale Funk Dungeon
Chin Chin
Crooked Brew
Nomadic
North Riding
Revolutions
Sunbeam
Turning Point
Wilde Child

And. From the West :

Beatnikz
Black Jack x Five Towns collab
Gibberish
Marble
Northern Monkey
Pictish
Redwillow
Runaway
Torrside x Boutillers collab

For a bijou bash like this, you’d have to go a long way for a better line up. This list is the cherry on the cake.

The rest of that cake is what keeps me and my motley band of friends coming back. Year after year.

Did I mention that each year ALL the profits go to a local charity?

Fun

Good people

Great beer (Look!)

You’d be daft to miss it. So don’t.

We’ll see you in the shed.

East West Fest
The Red Shed (aka Wakefield Labour Club)
18 Vicarage Street South
Wakefield
9th to 12th May

Dose Your Dreams

“I haven’t been myself of late. I haven’t slept for several days.

But coming home I feel like I designed these buildings I walk by…” Station Approach” – Elbow

Whilst this blog space is predominantly focused on beer – and, increasingly, the business of beer – it also serves as my vent space. A place where I can write things I couldn’t say in person. Not because there’s any lack of will, but because I can’t elucidate (at any given time) what’s in my head. The inability to say the right words. At the right time.

Recently is one of those times.

This is decidedly NOT a beer post.

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The date 22/12/2018 will live long in my memory. That memory which is notoriously poor with the important stuff, like putting names to familiar faces.

You see, that date was the last time that I had a proper (non-assisted) sleep. Which, for me, means 6 hours.

That’s almost ten weeks. And I need to sleep.

I have absolutely no idea what had caused this, no single event stands out. No stress at work, no particular stress at home. Nothing.

2 or 3 friends pointed out that this might be related to ISBF. But I pushed that to one side.

Initially, I thought I’d “tough it out”, that things would be alright. That this elusive ship of dreams would right itself. But…

Initially, this was brutal. Xmas day being a particular “highlight”. We went to friends for Xmas Dinner, I was “withdrawn” because I was exhausted after almost 72 near “sleep free” hours. I shouldn’t have gone, but this is my nearest and dearest. My second (closer) family.

I attempted to self-medicate. With strong beer. So out came the 9,10,12% big beasts. I gulped greedily whilst keeping myself away from the throng as – after three days without sleep – my irritability was on red alert.

After finishing enough strong beer to stun a rhino, I set off to bed. 2 hours later I felt murderous (and that exaggeration is only slight). I wanted to confront the partying hordes, screaming and shouting. But I didn’t. It wasn’t their fault. They were entitled to party.

It was the first time I realised that my brain wasn’t healthy.

I got dressed, and – with no jacket or blanket – left the house and climbed into the car, reclined the seat and closed my eyes. (But didn’t sleep). Better (literally) chilling down than destroying decades of relationships.

And that was only after 3 days.

Multiply that by 23 and you can see where I’m at.

Anyone who has ever experienced even the mildest insomnia gets part of it. When your mental health is the equivalent of walking a tightrope, it’s a right merciless bastard.

Speaking from personal experience, grief is like a lead weight on the heart and soul, it drags the joy out of almost everything. Even the most menial and simple of tasks take twice the effort.

Prolonged insomnia is different – to me at least. It’s like there’s a gentle vacuum inside the head, constantly humming. Dragging the simplest of thoughts, elongating them. Making them complicated.

The moments I knew this was really a problem were when I snapped at the people I care most about. Just ended up ranting incoherently (no change there then eh?) getting annoyed about the smallest of things. That slipping of control – for an alleged control freak – is hateful. And there are times when I’ve really not liked myself.

There are stupid things. Like driving to Scarbados on New Years Eve with Morpheus pulling my eyelids down.

And – finally – that night, having got to bed – and sleep – at 2am. And forgetting to turn off my alarm for work. At 5am.

I had to smile at the perversity of it.

4 doctors consultations. No answer.

4 days of medicated sleep. Followed by 48 hours without a single of the due 80 winks.

Like I said. It’s a merciless bastard.

2 psychological consultations. No answer to the problem.

The counsellors wanted to open the box. They were told to f**k right off (if slightly more politely). I’m not going there.

Insomnia isn’t regarded as a mental health priority / problem apparently.

Try telling that black mutt that chewed me up on Friday morning. Thank CHRIST I’ve come off Social Media. At least for a bit.

Fortunately, Friday morning might be a blip. I certainly hope so.

I’ve been counselled that I need to keep to routine. That I need to not nap. That I need to change lots of sleep habits. That I need to abstain from alcohol.

I’ve joined a gym. I’m doing everything possible. But it’s not quite working.

I realise that I’m waffling. Again, no change there.

I just wish to apologise to people. I’ve not been quite myself.

Back soon.

Jx

Newcastle – Go With The Flow

(Alan Hull. Where art thou?)

It’s been a long time since I last visited Newcastle. Vague recollections of training courses at the TUC spring to mind, but that’s at least 10 years ago. And times have changed.

Certainly, Newcastle has changed.

The genesis of this weekend was in the immediate aftermath of a weekend last year in York. The four who went wondered out loud “where next?”

Accommodation was booked a day later. 6 months in advance. In August. And once the four of us booked, others jumped in. This was a team outing.

Newcastle has that kind of pull.

Viewing from afar, the beer scene in Newcastle looked great. Almasty, Anarchy, Box Social, Northern Alchemy, Wylam to name just a few. Drooling was the order of the day. Even 6 months in advance.

Plans were made. Maps created.

I like a good plan.

I also like to swim against the tide. It is almost instinctive to set myself against prevailing orthodoxy and shun the popular, the lauded and head elsewhere. But swimming against that tide can be tiring.

So. Trusting the experts (ie : local drinkers and local social media contacts), I let myself – generally speaking – go with the flow.

Another great (collective) decision, was to avoid the herding of cats. This was a group of 10 travelling up, each with their own priorities. So each have their own story, their own memories.

These are mine. And I won’t be forgetting them in a hurry……

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Walking from the station to our Quayside base, I’d forgotten one of the general characteristics of river cities. Slopes.

Fortunately, pit stop #1 was a mere 50 yards (uphill) from the hotel.

The Bridge Tavern (Akenside Hill)

Handy. And welcome.

If this was a taste of things to come, we were in for a good weekend.

Exposed brick, wood, open plan yet nicely subdivided. This works.

A Brewpub. Associated to Wylam in that respect. It was a good start to see mostly local breweries on the taps – me being a firm “When in Rome” kinda fella – and our initial group split between different locals.

The Cascade by Wylam was delicious. As was the Northern Alchemy sour. Winning.

The pub self identifies as a gastro pub. If that kind of thing deters you ordinarily, don’t let it. This is a belting spot, located directly between the Newcastle side stanchions of the Tyne Bridge.

I just wish I’d tried the food (as others also wished – the next morning!)

That thing about slopes. It means you don’t want to walk too far.

Good job that an icon was close by.

Crown Posada (Side)

And the only pub I’d previously visited. To me, I wouldn’t care if the beer was rubbish. Because architecturally, this place is simply stunning.

Fortunately the Bad Co Milk Stout was lovely rich, roasty and creamy.

But this is about the pub.

To not go here would have been tantamount to criminality.

Narrow, single roomed with seating areas either end of a magnificent very long bar that’s almost half the length of the pub.

I should have taken more pics.

Busy, intimate with friendly and witty bar staff. We’d have stayed longer – and we DID return on Saturday with a different group – but we had friends to meet elsewhere.

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The Box Social (Forth Street)

From the old to the new. And just my kind of spot.

A Micro Pub. And true to the designation, it is indeed wee. But fits quite a lot into that small space with a mezzanine above the bar almost doubling the floor space.

Being effectively the taproom for the eponymous brewery, the accent on their own beers was welcome, but there was plenty of variety from elsewhere with 10 keg and 4 cask lines.

“When in Rome….” dictated a Box Social beer and the “New Trumpet Joe?” Micro IPA was a spot hitter. Refreshing and tasty.

With plenty to go at, I’d have loved to spend more time here, but the lovely Mr Jones from that there Brighton had tipped me off about another special little space.

So myself, TLO and Chris formed the first “splinter group” of the trip.

A bit too far to walk. (My Uber app took some stick this weekend….) But I wouldn’t have missed this place for all the beer in Newcastle….

Coppers of Gosforth (Brunton Park, Gosforth)

From the outside (and even from the inside!) this looks like a supermarket. That’s because it is precisely that. A supermarket.

But….. What’s that? There. Down that corridor?

It felt like a beery version of Hansel & Gretel….. Ah…. More liquid breadcrumbs….

Trust me, happiness this way lies….

6 or 7 taps. Local and otherwise. Impressed. But something was missing.

Mike mentioned a fridge door leading to beer Narnia. But….

Ah… What’s that?

And there we were. Hop Secret. The “not so secret” outside bar at the rear of the shop. With a little closed off warm room for the less hardy.

This place is ace.

You have to go to understand. In a manner of speaking…

Ever had that moment when something just GRABS you? You can’t explain it, it just does? Well. That. That’s how Coppers got me.

We met Charlie here. The other reason we jumped that Uber. We chatted beer and other stuff, he introduced me to that LOVELY Scotch Egg / cheese platter. He’s a lovely fella (even TLO said so – she’s hard to please!) and it was so nice to meet up.

Hopefully he’ll pop South at the end of October….

I had my first beer from local brewery Two by Two (it was lovely) and I caught a #ISBF5 Beer that I’d missed! Northern Alchemy Cola Sour. Oh my that was good!

Even on a chilly Newcastle evening, I could have stayed all night. But… We had friends to go back and see. So, saying farewell to Charlie (and grabbing a fistful of Northern Alchemy bottles) it was Uber time – having checked where the Manc hordes had relocated…

The Mean Eyed Cat (St Thomas St)

“6 cask, 8 keg, a load of bottles and the furniture doesn’t match….”

You simply HAVE to adore a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously!

“Expert Level Photobombing”

A big square room. With rackety furniture. And a whole shit load of charm. It was here that I really started to fall for this city.

Beer was ace, people were chatty. It’s a proper nice place (enjoyed it so much that we came back on the Saturday (well, some of us did)

Wylam “Hickey The Rake”, Out There “Mojito Sour” and (the coupe de grace) Kernel “Export Stout”.

I retired hurt. But what a way to go.

Well, we went to The Town Mouse. But I’ll save that for the next day. A tasty North Riding“Mini Citra”.

Hold that North Riding thought……

Some of us made it for breakfast in the morning. Some stayed out until two.

It was a marathon, not a sprint.


Newcastle revealing it’s charms in daylight (OK. Gateshead. But…..)

This was the morning of the great divide, with several (most of the group) heading towards Exhibition Park. And Wylam Brewery. Criticise ME all you like, but I had friends to meet.

And a surprise.

At…

The Free Trade Inn (St Lawrence Road, Ouseburn)

A gentle 15 minute stroll, as lazy as the gently flowing Tyne was just reviving enough to make a beer seem attractive at 11.30am.

In what is arguably Newcastle’s most vaunted pub.

That view though……

The location is killer. And an excellent beer list to go at too. The Almasty “Echelon” was the “house beer” and did a right number on me. It lifted me up and renamed me Lazarus.

Now I’m not prone to much in the way of fanboydom, but I did get a surprise when Karen & Stuart walked in with Malcolm and Niamh. Stuart sporting his usual levels of sartorial bombast….

He IS delusional you know!

This was where the day was just allowed to flow its own way. Chatting. Fun. Being with friends.

A few beers were had here and I tried to “place” The Free Trade and struggled. It reminded me of pubs from my youth. Except this looked untouched. Preserved. Not messed about. And that’s truly a good thing.

Just to sit, looking through that enormous window, enjoying exceptional beer. It’s a pleasure worth paying for.

I jealously eyed up Malcolm’s samosa….

Then – on Stu’s suggestion – we walked back up the Tyne and crossed over The Millennium Bridge. And sat under The Tyne Bridge

By The River Brew Co

Never have shipping containers been so imaginatively recycled!

Quite a sight.

Just. Yeah. I don’t know how. But it’s bloody good.

Tried 2 of the beers made in the venue (overseen by Wylam apparently) – well, like I said, “when in Rome….”

The Heedhunter Pale may well have been my favourite beer of the weekend. But then, I’m a Centennial fiend. And the aroma was like snorting lemon sherbet. Just…..

It was exceptional. The Brown Ale “Broon” was a bit tasty too.

Inside, the place was open, modern and light and I just forgot the construction. A real surprise. I’m a bit of a traditionalist with pubs and bars. But I just “got” this. It was certainly a beautiful day to sit on the bank of the North’s greatest river, looking up at the Tyne Bridge, eat great pizza (Courtesy of Scream for Pizza) and just relax.

Back over the river though.

And a revisit to a few places from the previous night – cue pics….

Scary….

The Town Mouse (St Mary’s Place)

I DO like a subterranean micro pub. Apparently.

We came in on the Friday evening. And even after several beers, could still taste how exceptionally good the North Riding Mini Citra was. That’s good cellar work.

Stuart let slip (once we’d crossed the bridge), that Mocha Porter was on here. And the catnip called…

The pub was busy. It was their Second Birthday weekend. It’s cosy, warm and open with a kind of two – roomed feel.

Intimate. My kinda place.

I’ll be back.

Retreating via Lady Greys and The Bridge Tavern again (excellence never gets boring), bed called.

The fog descended the next morning like visual poetry.

I’ve always been a “Lady Eleanor” man myself though….

Gluttons for punishment, we “strolled” through the hordes crowding the Quayside market.

Slowly. Bodies pummelled by local beer, it felt like Napoleon’s Retreat From Moscow.

I know. I know. But….

Back to The Free Trade. Northern Alchemy “Small IPA“. Delicious.

All good things come to an end however….

Just two things left to do.

That i “Sublime Chaos” lived up to the first two syllables! (TLO loved the Smash…)

And, back “home”

The idea to go to The Marble Arch for Sunday lunch really WAS my daughter’s.

Honest. (And I didn’t have a delicious Petite or Lagonda. 🤞)

So. Newcastle. How do you sum it up?

I wish it was nearer for a start! There’ll be more beers from round here at #ISBF6 for sure.

It’s just a beautiful city. A city of bridges. A city with some simply ace people (had a great yak in The Mean Eyed Cat on the Saturday night!)

It’s a great beer city. With lots of great places to drink that beer. I get the feeling that I merely scratched the surface.

Like I said, the others will have their own stories to tell. But mine tells me one thing for certain.

We’ll be back.

The Vultures Are Circling – “The Squeezed Middle”

Jesus Wept.

I thought I’d heard it all. But obviously not. Not yet. Not by a long chalk.

Communication tip. If you want to sound sincere, don’t deploy the “cut & paste email”.

Progressive Beer Duty. Launched by Gordon Brown in 2002 to support Micro Brewers and to give them the financial wherewithal to compete. Big Beer UK hates it. They think they’re “The Squeezed Middle”, between the international behemoths of Heineken, ABInbev, Molson Coors & Diageo.

And the little guys. Making the beer I love.

They are obviously struggling to make ends meet, whilst Micros deliver beer from the boots of Bentleys. You think?

Whilst Micros are working out what this Treasury review of Progressive (remember that word) Beer Duty actually means, Big Beer UK has not been resting on its arse.

Oh no. They’ve been mobilising.

And Micros – be it via SIBA or some other entity or grouping – need to do the same.

Enter the IFBB.

Who???

The Independent Family Brewers of Britain. That’s who. Check that membership list! (click the hyperlink) And they are gunning for Progressive Beer Duty. Alongside the SBDRC and BBPA

BBPA? Who???

The British Beer & Pub Association. AKA Big. Beer. Business. UK. That’s who. Check that membership list! (click the hyperlink)

More then. You may (and I encourage you vigorously to do so) have checked each membership list. It’s certainly worth while. There are certain discrete similarities.

Bollocks. They’re a lift and shift. With exceptions of the multinationals and the Pubcos, they’re virtually identical.

Then, THEN compare with the list from last year for the SBDRC…… Oh, go on. Please. It would be amusing if it wasn’t so sinister.

Noticed any similarities yet?

OK. We’re at base camp now.

So. You have 3 “industry bodies”, jointly and severally lobbying The Treasury, to review / reform Progressive Beer Duty.

In their favour. And their memberships are practically identical.

Collaboration is ace innit!

Now then, where was I? (Even I’M getting muddled here!)

Let’s look at the IFBB in more detail.

Richard Fuller. Secretary of The Independent Family Brewers of Britain.

Hang on. Fuller. As in that brewery that is no longer “Independent”? Hmmm

And…..

Yup. That’s him. A director of a pub and hotel company having sold the brewery business. Acting as the Company Secretary of an organisation representing “family breweries”. I trust he’ll relinquish that role soon.

The company as a whole (Fullers) is doing alright. And was only declaring 8 months ago that they had “solid plans in place” for the brewing business…..

Sounds like a sales prospectus…..

However you cut it, £43M Profit isn’t shabby.

Another member of the IFBB, BBPA & (last I saw) the SBDRC is J W Lees

Later results for 2017 & 2018 dip slightly on profits with the dip between 2017 & 2018 attributable to higher investments expenditure.

If I’ve got the figures wrong, please advise, I’m a bit thick at the moment.

Now. Like a lot of the family brewers, they’ll say – with some justification, no doubt – that a sizeable proportion of this profit is due to the tied and managed estates. Sales, rather than simply brewing. But this is still profit.

The tied estates of the family brewers have been acquired over hundreds of years. The Micros of this current period won’t get the chance to gain ANY tied estates – however small – if these 3 (almost identically comprised) pressure groups get their way.

I could go on. I’m told that I do. But this whole Independent breweries sector feels like “family” to me. These people have helped me through some ******g dark times.

If – in whatever small way – I can have an input into fighting off these vampires (don’t forget that comment on SBDRC website about Mergers & Acquisitions), I could hold my head high.

And – to The Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition – if you want a proper debate, come out into the light. Where we can see you.

As I’ve said, I’m no writer, this is emotive to me. I give a toss. Others can – and will – put it better, more eloquently. I can’t wait to read them.

And one more question. There are a lot of professional journalists writing about beer, for a living.

Where are their voices on this?

Big beer is mobilising its troops. Little beer (and those of us who care) ought to do the same.

Before it’s too late.

The Vultures Are Circling. Again.

“Just when you thought it was safe…….” Here go the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coagulation. Again.

Forget the ABInbevs, Molson Coors of the world. In a UK context THIS is Big Beer. Big Beer with all of the PR and spin merchants that it can throw money at. All with the aim of increasing market share. In a declining market.

And using their access to the ear of Government to state their “case”.

If I hear the phrase “level playing field” one more ******g time I might just howl.

You have to admire “Big Beer 2019”. With its pretty websites and finely “crafted” phraseology. All with the ultimate aim – openly stated or otherwise – of closing down the competition. The small guys. The Micros that you and I know and love.

In the name of shareholder dividends and balance sheets.

This is about Progressive Beer Duty. And Big Beer UK’s simultaneously shadowy yet naked attempt to grab a bigger piece of the pie. At the expense of – what I regard as – the golden age of choice and beer diversity.

So. Let’s look at the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition

You’ve got to admire their transparency….. Oh. Hang on a minute……

When this all kicked off last year, there was a list of breweries that signed up. Very quickly, some of the breweries who signed up – not knowing the full agenda – quickly withdrew. Recognising the effect that “pulling up the ladder” would have on others (including many friends) who were on the rung that THEY were on not too long before.

Then I saw a list. A copy of which is in this post.

Having been privy to the letter at the top from H M Treasury (received by brewers this week), I thought I’d have a look on the SBDRC website, just to see who the members were now. Now that their true colours are revealed.

Nothing.

So. Being a cheeky wee scamp, I followed the trail of breadcrumbs to a contact email address….

As you can imagine, I can count the number of replies on 0 fingers. That’s almost 3 weeks later.

(Just double checked – to avoid embarrassment. Still zero)

Some of their PR /Propaganda is quite shameless and – to put not too fine a point on it – so far from the truth to be actually l… (am I allowed to say “lies”?)

“Its unfair to ALL small brewers…..” (I left the apostrophe out)

EH? WHAT???

SIBA published a study in 2017 (sponsored by them but independently researched and written) by CEBR

I don’t mind saying that this is a right dry bastard of a read. (If you – like me – are an insomniac, type “Small Brewers Duty reform report” into Google, you’ll find it. Sleep well!) But my inner stats geek loved an hour staring at pretty graphs and tables….

In essence, this table demonstrates the cost of making beer relative to the size of brewery. And demonstrates the economies of scale that larger brewers have. That it still costs more – even including the reduced duty rate – for small brewers to produce beer.

But no. Our friends in the “Coalition” won’t, can’t, say that. That would demonstrate a levelling of the playing field. Precisely their argument, but thrown back.

Last year, the “Coalition” were talking about reducing or removing the relief from duty for brewers above 1k hectolitres – a hectolitre being 100 litres. Or 2 1/2 9 gallon casks.

Do the maths with me here.

If an average (let’s say 6 or 7bbl) brewer brewed 3 times a week at full cap. Giving a 4 week break (yes brewers, I know that it’s dreamland in terms of hols, but…) that equates to just over 1612hl. If that brewery brewed 4 x per week that is near 2200hl.

Under those terms, that brewery would be paying 50% more duty on those 1200hl above the original SBDRC level.

Take a 10bbl brewery. 3 brews per week… Christ! That’s 2304hl…..

Now they talk about the differences between 500hl and 5000hl. 500hl!

Let’s be clear. Some breweries that YOU know, will be at THIS moment, clinging on. Getting beer into pubs is NOT easy, especially in a market dominated by big pubcos that demand beer at the lowest possible prices. Prices that “Big Beer” can (and do) supply at. Just look at any Wetherspoons bar….

This relief was introduced by Gordon Brown (as Chancellor) in 2002 in order to provide a boost to growth in the Micro Brewing sector. The stats don’t lie. And we have all seen the explosion in numbers of breweries in the last 6 or 7 years. This growth of numbers would not have been possible without SBDR. I quote the CEBR report again….

But that net growth has slowed massively.

I must confess that I worry about new market entries in brewing. It’s very difficult to make a “splash” in this market. For every standout opening like Pomona Island, there are many who don’t make that reputational impact.

And making a reputational impact is all well and good. You still have to sell beer. And compete at the bar, with those very breweries that are seeking to “do your legs” with their ability to sell beer cheaper into the chains and into wholesalers.

And I’ll never forget looking at a young enthusiastic and ambitious brewer in Manchester a few years back – one that was seeking to expand – and asking “Why would you do this?”

I hated not being more positive. I truly did.

I’m not a writer. “I’ve never took a paper or a learning degree” I’ve got no stake in any brewery, other than emotional. The only self interest I have (if any) is the ability to source fabulous beer from the best available independent breweries in the UK for #ISBF6….. #ISBF7…… But be under no illusion, by their own words (re “mergers and acquisitions….”) the Vultures of “Big Beer UK” are Circling.

If the Vultures of the SBDRC get their way – and the Treasury reduce or remove the level of relief for those breweries below that magic 5000hl – the brewery landscape that YOU now love and treasure, those breweries whose excellence allows me to put on #ISBF, will be picked clean to the bone.

What I, WE, love, this “Golden Age” of beer, is under threat.

Them Damn Vultures. Circling. Again.

Historic Pubs of Manchester – Pt 5 : The Collected Classics

I recently checked some old posts and realised – horrified – that it had been almost 5 (FIVE!) years since the last time I wrote of my enduring love. Beautiful old Manchester pubs

Five. Whole. Years.

So I was pleased that this date 26 January has been fixed in the calendar for some time.

You see, as much as I adore fabulous modern beer, it’s the pubs that get me. Architectural delights. Friendly chatter. Warm atmospheres. These things matter. They are – in my opinion – more important (WAY more important) than the cheap thrill of dodging that FOMO moment. That pseudo sexual melting in the throes of a deep dark Imperial Stout.

Pubs matter. Especially when they continue to close at an alarming rate. And – to quote Joni Mitchell – “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone”

So here I am. On the final morning of the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. Dodging the crowds.

For a personal delight.

The Britons Protection (Great Bridgewater St)

This place kind of epitomises the idea of Classic Manchester Pubs. Manchester has a whole bunch of pubs built and trading continuously since before Peterloo. But none with such an intimate connection.

I’m sure I’ve read somewhere a story saying that people sheltered from the massacre actually inside they pub – but maybe that’s false memory syndrome.

What – for me – struck home yesterday is that this is probably the most beautiful pub in the city.

Three rooms. All equally beautiful. The corridor to them wrapping around to the rear of the bar from the entrance. With the two rooms to the rear. All rich reds and decorative details.

And – for someone who has been in this pub repeatedly over the years – surprises lurk around the corner. In (arguably) Manchester’s finest beer garden.

The real fires in the rear rooms are a winter joy too – if not always lit.

The really big surprise for me was the beer selection. What was previously the province of large regionals, somewhat lacking inspiration, here were breweries like Revolutions, Night Jar and a few I’d never seen before.

Smiling, I grabbed a “Candidate” by Revolutions and settled down to wait for my fellow walkers.

Delicious and refreshing, I was gutted to learn that it ran out shortly afterwards. I do like Revolutions beers, tasty and dependable and it’s nice to see them in the BP.

Being joined by company, beers being finished, it was time to exit with a smile on my face and turn right, cross the road and – having walked all of 50 yards – turn left onto the Chepstow Street.

To a place which is the place where drinking real ale started. For me at any rate…

The Peveril of the Peak

The story has been previously told. In early 1982, this was where I had my first encounter with real ale. The first time I went “Ohhhhh….” and put the Carlsberg down and ordered a Wilson’s Bitter.

And never looked back.

In my early drinking days (mid 80s), this pub was a regular fixture. Good beer, solid jukebox, table football (if you call it “fussball”, the sea is 35 miles due west)

Again, 3 rooms – a small and intimate/cozy room to the right behind the bar, the largest to the left and the bar room itself.

Lots of stained glass and wood, some photos on the wall of celebs who’ve drunk here (my favourite being Robbie Coltrane) and a general sense of warmth and welcome.

For me, again a nice (mostly localish) beer selection was a surprise. My last visit ft the usual macro range (plus the ubiquitous Taylors Landlord – I don’t subscribe to the prevailing love affair…) so it was nice to see Millstone & Brightside feature.

The “Tiger Rut” by Millstone was a delicious and refreshing session Pale with just the right balance of malt and aromatic hops. Not had this in ages. A bloody good beer from a frequently overlooked brewery. No longer.

This early 19th century pub is a Manc classic. And worthy of adoration. Go worship.

Leaving along Chepstow Street back towards Oxford Road then turning left and right across St Peters Square then onto Cooper Street and immediate left onto Kennedy Street

The City Arms (Kennedy Street)

Bloody hell but I’ve been drunk in here. A frequent terminus of many mid 80s work outings – or the last pub before The Cyprus Tavern (ah the memories….)

A stalwart of the Manchester Beer scene for all my drinking days and – again – frequently overlooked in favour of easier pleasures. But you’d miss out.

Subdued lighting makes this place seem slightly darker and immediately relaxing.

Converted from a town house in the 19th century, this place can get busy in the evenings with office workers from nearby buildings. And deservedly so.

Two main rooms with two entrances to the pub. The single door to the left takes you into a corridor at the rear of the bar (frequently the easiest point of access) with the double doors to the right leading immediately into the bar.

The room to the rear feels larger being slightly longer and features more seating. I felt fortunate that we could grab seats, not always the case in here.

(A caution from Hilaire Belloc)

This pub is also famous for its drink related philosophy written on the walls…..

Having just had the Millstone, the Moon Rakers Mild by Empire (from Slaithwaite nr Huddersfield) seemed a good shout. And hell but it was!

Just raising it to the nose for a sniff was a chocolate joy. Rich, gentle roast, with cocoa and chocolate. Unusual to see a mild in January, of maybe I’m just going in the wrong places.

Whatever. A belter of a beer.

As a raucous group of good timers were reaching a crescendo in the next room, it was time to leave… And move on

So, right out of The City Arms and left onto Fountain Street then right onto Booth Street crossing Mosley Street onto Nicholas Street up to Portland Street. Turn right and about 50 yards up, you will find another Manchester classic.

A tiny classic

The Circus Tavern (Portland Street)

Intimacy. That’s what you get in The Circus. That and the feeling that you are being watched by George Best. His bloody image is everywhere!

And Bobby Charlton. Denis Law. Matt Busby. And sundry celebs who have had a beer over the years in this tiny watering hole. A place that used to close its doors early evening at weekend. It gets full very quickly.

Built around the late 18th century, this is essentially a tiny bar (it used to serve only Tetley bitter. Nothing else. I shit you not) This bar is that small that it boasts of being the smallest in Europe.

The pub is a narrow corridor to the side of the bar with two small rooms off it to the right. And this is REAL Manchester, make no mistake. And unmissable.

The beer isn’t cutting edge, The Circus doesn’t do that. What it does do is a nice pint of Tetleys bitter. Always has. Easy drinking and gently bittersweet. This is – however – all about the pub. A true Manchester classic.

Leaving the Circus, turn left and walk across Piccadilly Gardens (I’ll tactfully omit our unscheduled diversion – moral : Always check opening hours for The Jolly Angler!) onto Oldham Street. About 200 yards up on the right is…….

The Castle (Oldham Street)

According to the excellent (and all too infrequent – sadly) Pubs of Manchester blog, this pub was built around 1778 and this place – again has a big place in my Beer journey – as the first pub I was refused service.

For no other reason that the landlord was a right miserable git. Fortunately, 35 years later, times have changed. As has the pub.

3 rooms downstairs with the rearmost serving as an intimate live music venue, this gets busy quickly. And it’s a bit low lit. So much so it used to make me think of an ideal Vampire hangout.

Fortunately – as Jock was to discover – there’s a more brightly lit and spacious upstairs room formed when the pub was refurbed.

The beers are split between Robinsons and guests and tonight I went for a Hackney Pale (bizarrely brewed nowhere near Hackney : the brewery name eludes me) it was light and refreshing enough.

Again, this is about the pubs. And The Castle is the one constant presence on that stretch of Oldham Street.

To catch it quiet, you’d have to come early. This gets busy in the evenings when there’s a band on. (I do miss that pool table that used to be in that room….)

Moving on, there are various ways to get to our final planned destination. But we needed a pharmacist…. (nothing to worry about) so we headed right out of the pub and left onto Swan Street to the junction with Shudehill, where we turned left.

And there, opposite Shudehill bus Station and Tram stop is….

(I risked life and limb to take that shot!)

The Hare and Hounds (Shudehill)

Another pub – like The Castle – built around 1778, making it one of the oldest pubs in the city. This three roomed pub (if you include the wide bar area) is tiled heaven. One beautiful interior with lots of wood, stained glass and…. ceramic tiles galore.

And, last night, for the first time ever, I went in the rear room, historically the location for the famous Pensioners Karaoke. A joyful sight and sound.

Tonight, shockingly, you were more likely to hear “Everything’s Gone Green” by New Order!

Like The Circus, this has the clear feel of a local in the middle of England’s greatest city. You get the feeling that it’s full of regulars, chatting and laughing and swapping stories. Friendly in other words.

The beer? Holts Bitter or Robinsons Dizzy Blonde. A beer I can’t stand – on several levels. So Holts it was. And whilst it may have lost bitterness over the years, it was, again, easy drinking. Which was what was required.

And that, my friends, was the (scheduled) end of the walk.

Obviously, being very greedy, we carried on to The Angel and The (mighty) Marble Arch (Stout was exceptional).

A good day. Not a bad beer in sight. And the most beautiful walk between some of Manchester’s classic boozers that you would have to be mad to swerve.

Slainte. Back soon.

J.

(Hold that happy thought)