All Things in Balance

@gaedd: 'We can't build a great British brewing industry on cheap beer, so I'm shredding these.' [Wetherspoon's Vouchers]

The above heartfelt Tweet from brewer Eddie Gadd kicked off another round of debate on beer pricing, Wetherspoons, pub preservation and the purpose of the Campaign for Real Ale this week.

We can see where Mr Gadd is coming from, but we can also see Tandleman’s perspective:

@tandleman: "@gaedd Beer for the rich? Good slogan. Concerned about this sort of casual thoughtlessness."

But, after a decade or so thinking about all this stuff, we now feel quite capable of squaring the two: Spoons can be a problem, but it is also part of the balance.

We wrote a post about ‘healthy beer culture’ a couple of years ago and, in the meantime, it’s become something like a philosophy for us. A Britain with nothing but 3.5% cask ales would be miserable and monotonous, as would a world with nothing but Foster’s and Stella, as would a diet made-up only of keg IPAs.

A situation where every pint costs the equivalent of £5 would be exclusive; but if every pint cost less than £2 (barring sudden massive tax breaks) we’d have very little choice and probably very few really great breweries.

The reason we’re not very good at taking sides is because we don’t want any particular side to win. The ongoing tension is what keeps things vibrant.

The comparison that often comes up, and came up in the debate this week, was corner shops and supermarkets. Supermarkets (with which Wetherspoon pubs have much in common) are said by their opponents to suck life out of town centres and to make it impossible for small businesses to operate. But we find it hard to imagine that if our local Tesco shut everyone would suddenly start shopping at the local Deli or Farmers’ Market. They simply couldn’t afford to, even if they were so inclined.

Similarly, we find it hard to imagine that if every Wetherspoon pub shut down, it would do much to help non-chain pubs. Perhaps they’d feel a slight bump but many of those exiled Spoons drinkers would just give up on pubs altogether and drink at home.

In fact, lots of people, like us, probably do a bit of both: supermarket for bulk products and to fill up the fridge with affordable every-day beers; specialist suppliers for oddities, treats and things where (unfortunately, in some ways) we’ve learned to tell the difference. And a mix of trad pubs at £3.40+ a pint and Wetherspoons to make the money go further.

Wetherspoons sign: All Ales £1.69.

Wetherspoon pubs are now an essential part of the mix. (It could be any value-focused chain but they won that battle.) They make interesting beer (terms and conditions apply) and nights out accessible to people with less cash in their pockets and/or in towns where there’s otherwise not much going on. But they shouldn’t be allowed to completely dominate and need to be kept in check — perhaps the reason there isn’t much going on in some towns is partly because Spoons arrived? As it is, a balance seems to be found quite naturally in most places. Penzance, for example, has a busy, popular Spoons, but also plenty of busy, popular proper pubs too.

(We do think CAMRA’s relationship with Wetherspoon’s is ethically tricky: a consumer organisation sponsored by a retailer is clearly problematic. But that’s a separate issue.)

HELP: Wetherspoon’s, Manchester, August 1995

Stained glass window.
Stained glass at the Moon Under Water, taken on our visit in February 2016.

This is very specific: we want to talk to anyone who recalls attending the opening of The Moon Under Water on Deansgate, Manchester, on 15 August 1995.

We’ve heard from people who went not long after — memories of mannequins in the former cinema stalls, and awe at the sheer size of the place — but no-one seems to remember day one.

There must have been a ribbon-cutting ceremony — Eddie Gershon, who does PR for Wetherspoon’s, reckons it was covered in the Manchester Evening News though he doesn’t have any clippings or photos.

If you were there, get in touch. If you have a vague memory of your mate having gone along, or your cousin working behind the bar, give ’em a nudge. We’re contact@boakandbailey.com and any memory, however small or apparently insignificant, might be just what we need.

Also feel free to share on Facebook or wherever else you fancy.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 12 March 2016

Here’s the most noteworthy beer- and pub-writing of the last week, from home-brewing to the March blues for brewers.

→ For Vice‘s ‘Munchies’ section Chloe Scott-Moncrieff reports on ‘London’s Secret Homebrewing Club’:

Around the long table, I meet Tom Burrows, a 28-year-old physicist… “I think you can find lots of scientists in homebrewing,” he admits. “Although I know an accountant who doesn’t stick to recipes and while he has some misses, he’s created some brilliant beers.” He sounds slightly envious.

(Via @totalcurtis.)

→ Frank Curtis works with the malting industry in the US and has written an insider’s-view guest post for the London-based blog run by his son, Matt. The bit that really caught our attention was the idea of ‘craft’ malt:

Troubadour Malt, is located in Fort Collins, Colorado and I’ve followed their development with interest from the very first ideas to the consistent delivery of product – all produced from locally grown barley. Troubadour Malt is owned by Steve Clark (the engineer and scientist who designed the plant) and Chris Schooley (the artist and craftsman who kilns and roasts the malt to a wide set of specifications).

→ Dave Bailey at Hardknott provides a customarily frank account of the struggles of running a brewery in the post-Christmas doldrums:

It is my feeling that this year the post Christmas beer sales slump have been worse than ever. Dry-January seems to be getting ever more popular. Yes, I’m sure you, the reader, has decided for whatever reason that you are right to take part. You help us out every other month of the year shouldn’t feel any guilt. Perhaps you are right, but it still puts a great big hole in our cash-flow and our yeast maintenance alike. Not to mention the problem of managing stock.

(If we were managing his PR we would advise him against posting this kind of thing; as nosy bastards keen to know what’s going on behind the scenes, we’re very glad he does.)

→ Blogger Glenn Johnson keeps a close eye on the Micropub movement (we quoted him as an authority in our big state-of-the-nation piece last summer) and this week provided an update on two new entrants to the club in the Midlands.

The Tremenheere, the Wetherspoons in Penzance.

Wetherspoon’s watch: the pub chain’s headline-grabbing abandonment of Sunday roasts, the raising of prices, and the handing-off of several London pubs last year have raised questions about whether JDW might be struggling; but with their latest profit report they insist it’s all fine. (All links to The Morning Advertiser.) J.D. Wetherspoon also makes a cameo appearance in obituaries for Bristol reggae DJ Derek Serpell-Morris: he visited all of their pubs and collected receipts to prove it. (Via @fly_redwing.)

→ BrewDog watch: the Scottish brewery featured in an episode of the BBC’s Who’s the Boss (iPlayer) which no doubt raised awareness of BrewDog without necessarily improving its reputation. Mitch Adams sticks up for James Watt here; and there’s some (thin) commentary and a round-up of Twitter reactions from The Drum here. Meanwhile, the brewery’s Islington hot-dogs-and-beer bar has closed but Keith Flett doesn’t think there’s any cause for concern.

→ Andreas Krenmair has been home-brewing Berliner Weisse to historic spec, without a boil.

→ And, finally, a vital question has been answered: yes, you can use apps to swap faces with beer packaging.

Alternate Spoons in the Craft Continuum

We went to our local Wetherspoon pub twice last weekend and found its craft makeover quite startling.

As usual, what drew us through the door in the first instance was a craving for beer that isn’t local. Oh, yes, local beer is great, and very worthy, and all that, but blimey, can it get monotonous. During the regular Spoons real ale festivals, even our fairly conservative branch usually has something pale, hoppy and from up north on offer. On this occasion, Rooster’s Union Gap, at a mere £2.25 a pint, fit the bill admirably.

Continue reading “Alternate Spoons in the Craft Continuum”

More Signs of the Times

There’s been more evidence this week that the march into the mainstream of ‘craft beer’, whatever the hell it is, continues apace.

Having tested the market in the last few months with bottles of BrewDog Punk IPA, Goose Island IPA, Brooklyn Lager and canned beer from Sixpoint, the Wetherspoon chain of pubs has made some interesting announcements in the last couple of days:

(This.Is.Lager is the absurdly-named new beer from BrewDog.)

And we’re sure we saw someone say on Twitter that selected Spoons outlets would also be getting BrewDog Punk IPA in kegs, too.

Then there’s this:

Finally, we note with interest that Butcombe, brewers of the brownest of brown bitters since 1978, are launching a (one-off) saison. It’s seems amazing to think that, in 2007, we’d never tried a single example of this somewhat challenging, mysterious Belgian style of beer.

The end is nigh — repent! Repent!