Tucker’s Maltings Beer Festival, At Last

It’s been running for 24 years but we only made it to our first Tucker’s Malting Beer Festival, in Newton Abbot, Devon, last week.

In the last few years when we might have gone, we’ve either been working or on holiday. But maybe we’d have made more effort if we liked beer festivals more, which we don’t, because:

  1. Eight different beers is about the most we can handle between us in one session so 250 is over-facing.
  2. Our two favourite places to drink are (a) the pub and (b) our sofa; hangars, barns, industrial spaces, town halls, churches, and so on, come way down the list.
  3. There’s too much flat beer, not helped by being served in unwashed glasses that get stickier with each passing hour.

Propaganda-style mural at Tucker's Maltings.

Having said that… Tucker’s Maltings was fun. It’s one of those events that isn’t just about beer, and that isn’t just popular with CAMRA members and tickers.

It generates a merry buzz around the town of Newton Abbot, a place which isn’t otherwise on the tourist trail — ‘It’s a funny old place’, as one attendee said to us — much as Walthamstow Village Festival used to in the days before full-on gentrification, or as Bridgwater Carnival does in Bailey’s home town.

There were faces we’d seen at other festivals (for example, a contingent from Cornwall CAMRA), gangs of young lads with sculpted quiffs and muscles on display despite the chill, ageing hippies, ageing rockers, ageing punks, rugby fans, a stag do or two, students from Exeter University, local dignitaries (Newton Abbot’s mayor is a venerable old gent with something of the German burgomaster about him), and teams of brewers from up and down the West Country in branded polo shirts having it corporately large.

People were drunk, in the 18th-century Dutch painting way, and occasional bouts of dancing, particularly that half-walk-half-boogie merry people sometimes do while carrying brimful glasses.

Whatever the spark of life is, the quality that puts the festiv- in festival, Tucker’s Maltings has it. We’ll definitely go again.

Disclosure: we paid for entry to Friday afternoon’s session and for beer tokens; Guy Sheppard of SIBA/Exe Valley, who is on the organising committee, bought us a half each while we interviewed him; and we were given free entry to the first hour of the session that followed.

Our Obligatory CAMRA Revitalisation Two Penn’orth

The announcement last week of a consultation on the future of the Campaign for Real Ale is a big deal and deserves the attention it’s getting.

This isn’t something that’s popped up overnight — it’s another flare-up from 40 years of navel-gazing, internal tension external criticism and politicking. The last bout, we think, resulted in 2011’s Fit for Purpose review.

John Simpson's depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.
John Simpson’s depiction of middle class student CAMRA members, 1975.

Back in the early 1970s, the brilliance of the campaign was in the simplicity and clarity of the message and the preservation of cask ale became a cause capable of bringing together conservatives, anti-capitalists, casuals, hardcore campaigners, connoisseurs and piss-heads. That’s how CAMRA gained 30,000 members in five years and forced a retreat from the Big Six.

But it lost momentum when that battle was felt to be won (see Brew Britannia, Chapter Four) and, by the late 1970s, the Campaign was already agonising over what to focus on next. Beer quality? Beer purity? Pubs? Cider? Mild? Tasting notes? Lager? Microbreweries? And so it did all of them, a bit, with the interests of sub-campaigns sometimes conflicting. Factions bickered, the public got confused, and membership dwindled. (Though it has absolutely rocketed in the last couple of decades.)

Continue reading “Our Obligatory CAMRA Revitalisation Two Penn’orth”

Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?

This is an interesting Tweet from Matt Curtis who is currently doing some shifts in a pub:

One of our friends springs to mind: he likes bitter, hates ‘that grapefruit thing’ and struggles to find anything he fancies drinking in places like The Craft Beer Co, despite its vast range. He has lately taken to putting his foot down and insisting on meeting in pubs with at least one old-school, brown, balanced beer.

So, yes, we reckon pubs or bars with a craft identity (def 2.) perhaps ought to take account of this potential market.

Of course many already do, often looking to craft breweries (again, def. 2 — founded since about 2005, graffiti on their pump-clips, etc.) to provide something a bit like bitter but with more pizazz — Amber or Red are the usual codewords.

But maybe that’s misguided.

Maybe instead everyone should just acknowledge that the best old-school bitters are made by old-school breweries who have been doing it for 30, 40, 100 or more years, and embrace them.

Fuller's vinyl-record beer mat, 1956.
Fuller’s jumping on the pop music bandwagon in 1956. Needs to be resurrected!

Five years or so ago the sight of, say, a Black Sheep or Timothy Taylor Landlord pump in a would-be trendy post-gastro, pre-craft pub would have made us groan. Too many times we paid over the odds for something stale, warm and headless served in something like an IKEA tumbler. So pointedly not serving those beers, or London Pride, or Butcombe Bitter, was a good way for Proper Craft places to signal their intent: there’s no Peroni here, only Camden Hells; we don’t have Guinness, try this Thornbridge stout; and we certainly don’t sell any of The Usual Suspect boring brown bitters. Then, that made sense. Then, we welcomed it.

But now, that point doesn’t need hammering home and so perhaps it’s time to let Fuller’s, Taylor’s, Harvey’s, Hook Norton (def. 1) et al back into the party.

We’d be quite happy to see London Pride, Landlord or Sussex Best, in really top condition, as part of the offer at the Craft Beer Company.

Or at a BrewDog bar.

[Exit left, pelted with tomatoes.]

Infantile?

Label for Partizan X ale w. crossed dinosaurs.
Art by Alec Doherty. SOURCE: Partizan Brewing Archive.

We’re working on an article about mild in the 21st century, research for which prompted this statement in an email from Andy Smith at Partizan:

The beer was originally simply called mild… We then decided to rebrand as X… This worked OK but not as well as we’d hoped. It was at this stage we put dinosaurs on the label and sales rocketed! I kid you not. It sells as well if not better now as our other dark beers. Dinosaurs! Now we spend our weekends hearing how cute the dinosaurs are (recently changed) and  answering the question what is X?

That’s funny, of course, but also made us think, ‘Huh. So craft beer drinkers are like children?’

We’ve observed before, as has almost everyone else who’s written a tedious think-piece on the subject, that craft beer in cans has been successful partly because they are tactile and colourful, bright and toy-like. Beavertown Brewery’s cartoon-laden designs in particular suggest material for an (admittedly slightly weird) animated series and also make them look like a bit like soft drinks. (Gamma Ray more so than this example we have at hand.)

Beavertown Smog Rocket design.
Art by Nick Dwyer. Source: Beavertown Brewery.

And sometimes, with fruit and residual sweetness and novelty flavourings and higher carbonation, the hippest beers can taste a bit like soft drinks too.

Of course we checked ourselves fairly promptly: one person’s infantile is, of course, another person’s fun, and we understand that you humans enjoy this emotion fun is good.

And even if it is infantile, is that a bad thing? One key reason people drink is to reduce the pressures of adult life and the pub is where grown-ups go to play.

This is a question we’re going to have in mind from now on, though, especially when we find ourselves considering the generation gap between real ale culture and craft beer. (Def 2.)

A Bar Too Far?

Keg taps.

When breweries resort to publicly shaming a bar for failing to pay for beer it’s probably a sign that establishment is in the process of failing.

We’ve watched the increase in the number of craft beer bars outside the very biggest urban centres with interest, and perhaps a little anxiety: can small towns, or even smaller cities, really support these kinds of niche venues?

We try not to be excessively triumphalist (‘The victory of Craft is assured — not one step back!’) or overly pessimistic (‘We’re doomed!’) but, on balance, this is a worrying sign — a small crack in the plaster that might be nothing, or might indicate that one side of the structure is about to fall off.

For now, it goes into a slim file of evidence alongside the time we had a small-town craft beer bar to ourselves for two hours one Sunday lunchtime, and this story from our Saturday news round-up about a supposed craft beer bar being turned back into a traditional pub.

We haven’t named the bar or linked to the Tweets in question because, although it was a public exchange, our instincts tell us it’s private business and that people struggling to pay their bills probably don’t need a pile on. The picture is from the Beavertown tap room and is a serving suggestion only.