Categories
homebrewing

Our cider experiment one year on

When I sought advice on making cider last year, the one thing everyone agreed on was timing – I should, the local gurus all said, leave it at least a year.

I don’t think my fermentation conditions were the best, truth be told. I put the vessels in the cupboard under the stairs, which is dark, but not particularly cool.

I also managed to grow mould in one of the carboys, but I’m pretty sure this is because (a) the carboy didn’t have a proper stopper (b) I had an accident with the emergency coronavirus flour sack and scattered the stuff all over everything. None of the other carboys, which were all properly sealed, had this issue.

I did try this cider at three months and at about eight months to see how it was developing. It was pretty raw but not totally unpleasant at three months.

At eight, it had begun to taste pretty mature and, it turns out, didn’t change much in the months that followed.

So how is it now?

It’s a gorgeous pale gold and very clear.

The aroma is ever so slightly vinegary, which isn’t a good sign, although the acetic aroma dissipates quickly and doesn’t carry through into the taste.

It is very dry, unsurprisingly, but I found a teaspoon of sugar per pint was enough to take the edge off.

I was very pleased with the taste and aftertaste. It has a crisp, clean, fresh apple character that hangs around for a while and does what cider should: brings the tree back to life, even when it’s out there, stripped and spindly.

Its ABV is about 6%, which appears to be the standard strength for cider.

On the whole, I’m pretty happy with the end product and look forward to seeing how it develops in the bottle. We didn’t add any further priming sugar or sweeteners but, even after a fortnight, there’s a slight hiss on opening, but no fizz.

It mulled nicely, too, providing a great baked apple background to clove and cinnamon.

We would have liked to make another batch this year but there was no way we were going to go to all that labour on our own, and obviously, our plans for a neighbourhood cider pressing party couldn’t go ahead, coz, Plague.

We’ll do it again one day, though, despite the fact we’re moving away from our lovely apple tree. Much like George’s Marvellous Medicine, there’s no way I’ll be able to recreate the serendipitous blend of varieties donated by our kind neighbours so it will be like doing it for the first time again. Next time, though, we’ll definitely use a straining sock.

Categories
pubs

Ordering by app makes you look at the pub differently

We’ve now been to the pub three times since lockdown lifted, not counting various visits to the Drapers for takeaway – twice to a St Austell house and once to the Highbury Vaults, which is a Young’s tenanted pub.

In all visits, we’ve sat in the garden and used an app for ordering. The two apps are pretty similar and easy to use, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find it’s the same underlying software.

This technology has been around for ages and is pretty affordable. When I was indirectly involved in running a large pub-hotel in Cornwall, I recall being offered a similar product during an EPOS update in about 2012, but not taking it up because, well, honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to order like that.

But now, I can definitely see more places doing this in the near future, even quite small places.

This weekend, as we drank our electronically-ordered pints, we considered some of the ways apps might change pub habits.

First, it’s interesting that we caught ourselves going back to the same pub twice because, among other reasons, “We already have the app.”

Although the apps are reasonably easy to use, there is a bit of time required for setup and those of us nervous about data protection are reluctant to sign up with ten different apps.

Secondly, the availability of an app really brings the ownership of a pub to the surface.

We don’t tend to think about the Highbury Vaults as belonging to Young’s. It’s not as if they hide the fact but they have managed to preserve a distinct identity thanks to a quirky interior, home-cooked food and the fact the landlord’s been there for 25 years.

Now, all of a sudden, it immediately feels more of a corporate, homogenised space, even if the pub itself is still its lovable old self.

On a similar note, we expect that many Bristolians outside the beer bubble will be surprised to discover over the next few months that Bath Ales is owned by St Austell.

Thirdly, there’s an obvious points about transactions being potentially easier for some people (people on their own, those unable to stand at bars or place orders verbally) and more difficult for others who may not feel comfortable with the technology.

As long as app-based ordering isn’t the only option, and in both places there are waiting staff with notepads on the floor, then apps should enable rather than impede.

Finally, as social distancing continues – remember that as we write this, in England, you are only supposed to socialise with other households at a distance – remote ordering might provide a nice way to buy your mates a pint, whether you’re in the same pub or not.

There’s precedent for this: when the Wetherspoon app launched, there was a spate of stories about people soliciting drinks by sharing their table number on social media, only to get sent plates of peas.

If there’s one obvious improvement to be made, it’s the addition to apps of real-time information on how busy a given pub is. This might help reassure more nervous customers and match punters to pubs that need them.

Categories
breweries

Brewery merger amnesia

The recently announced ‘joint venture’ between Marstons and Carlsberg made us think about how modern brewery mergers are much more commercially savvy than 1960s and 1970s equivalents.

Nowadays there is a recognition that local brands are important and that if you keep then more or less the same then, after a while, people might forget that there is a new parent company.

A while back, for example, we were corresponding with a journalist about modern bitter brands and he was completely unaware that Marstons had taken over the brewing arm of Charles Wells.

More embarrassingly, I momentarily forgot that Magic Rock had been bought out by Lion in March 2019 – and I’ve written about Magic Rock at length on multiple occasions.

To be fair, it isn’t featured at all on their lovely pictorial history page, or on their about page, so maybe they forgot too.

We’ve also astonished friends by breaking the news to them that Camden and Beavertown are no longer independent. Those takeovers were big news for beer geeks but outside the bubble, people either missed the announcements, or instantly forgot.

And in one case, they were gutted about it, too: “Oh. I thought I was supporting a local independent brewery.”

You might say it’s too early to tell how things will play out with some recent takeovers. The Big Six in the post war period usually allowed a year or so before closing down breweries and rebranding products. (See: Usher’s.)

And consumer preferences change. During the takeover mania of the 1960s and 70s, CAMRA lambasted Watney’s and Whitbread for doing away with local brands. Now, you might argue that at least their uniform packaging and design was honest.

When there’s actual ownership and rights splits, provenance can be more obvious. So, for example, when Asahi bought the Fullers’ brewery, there was a requirement to set up a separate Fullers Brewery website to maintain the distinction between that and the pub operator. And that website does mention Asahi at a couple of points.

Interestingly, though, the first search results for “fullers beers” still takes you to the pub company’s website, so if you weren’t following closely, you might just assume it was business as usual.

All of this underlines that transparency isn’t a one-off event – ownership needs to be clear to consumers from packaging and promotional material on an ongoing basis.

Categories
pubs

Initial thoughts on the guidance for reopening pubs

The government has published its long awaited guidance on safely opening pubs, or to give it its full title, ‘Keeping workers and customers safe during Covid-19 in restaurants, pubs, cafes and takeaway services’.

It’s written for employers and business owners, but here are some thoughts from a consumer perspective. 

The language is very much should and not must. So although there is talk about apps for ordering and disposable cutlery, these are not mandatory.

This is helpful for businesses as it allows flexibility and puts the onus on their risk assessments and their decisions about what is safe.

While some people may object to this, it would in practice be impossible to legislate for every leisure and hospitality business. And we think that customers will vote with their feet if they don’t feel businesses are operating safely.

On that latter point, we think it’s a no-brainer for pubs to share their risk assessment, or at least evidence that they have done one.

It’s a really good way for them to reassure customers that they have thought about everything from a customer and an employee perspective.

It’s also a good way to deflect potential criticism such as “Why aren’t your staff wearing facemasks?” As the guidance says, “face coverings are not a replacement for the other ways of managing risk”. You could cover of all your other decisions with reference to the guidance in the same way.

We also think it’s interesting that keeping customer data for 21 days is only a should. We’d be pretty happy to provide contact details to a venue, as tracking and isolating is going to be the only way to return to anything like normal.

People may have concerns about data protection but it’s all covered by GDPR, and it can be as simple as a behind-the-counter visitor book, with the relevant pages destroyed after 21 days.

Incidentally, there is a slightly mysterious line in the guidance about government working with the industry to design a suitable recording system for customer contact, which rather implies pubs won’t need to worry about this if they don’t already have something in place.

A couple of other things really grabbed us:

  • There is advice to keep background music and noise low to discourage shouting. This is likely to have as many fans as detractors. 
  • Public transport limitations still apply so venues are encouraged to think about providing bike rack space or other ways to discourage travel by public transport. Obviously this is going to impact more on venues where people are going to become intoxicated. So pubs will need to think about who is within walking distance, which may not be their existing clientele. 
  • Limits on gatherings still apply – although this will be relaxed to being able to see another household.

The latter is probably the most important point for us.

As we wrote in our newsletter the other week: What is the point of going back to the pub if you can’t meet up with friends, let alone mingle with strangers?

This isn’t to say we disapprove of people going to the pub when they reopen.

We’re lucky to have our own drinking bubble, and doubly lucky to have the Drapers round the corner selling takeaway cask ale.

Without these things, we’d probably be more likely to be heading pubwards on, or soon after, 4 July. 

Ultimately,for us, going to the pub is more than an economic transaction.

It’s about enjoying a space that isn’t yours. It’s about mixing with other people in your community. It’s about (slightly) losing your inhibitions. It’s about popping in on instinct, or staying for one more than you should.

These are all things that are fundamentally at odds with battling a pandemic.

There will be plenty of other customers who are too nervous to go back into public spaces at the moment.

Many people are uneasy about the fact that “the two metre rule has been relaxed” without a clear accompanying message from scientists that this is “safe”. Of course people will have their own thresholds about what they consider to be safe, and ultimately both this and the progress of the fight against the pandemic are outside the control of the pub landlord.

So what’s the solution?

It’s easy for us to say as consumers and armchair publicans but a hybrid business model seems to be the way to go.

Offer a cut down and carefully controlled space for people to visit but also provide takeaway – which will also provide some kind of contingency in the event of future lockdowns.

Long Live the Jug and Bottle!

 

Categories
pubs

Games people play: pub cricket

Maybe one of the reasons I can spot a pub a mile off is early training playing pub cricket on long car journeys as a child.

Pub cricket, as we used to play it in my family, is based on spotting pub signs and calculating runs based on the number of legs on the sign.

So for example, the Red Lion has four legs.

The Swan with Two Necks has two.

The Coach and Horses has… well, there’s a question. In our version we assumed that if no specific number was depicted in the image on the sign then there could only be two horses, and would therefore count eight legs by default. And then get into a row about whether the coach driver should also be counted, of course, which was half the fun.

There were further questions of interpretation around pubs with Heads and Arms in the name. If a pub is The Queen’s Head, is it fair to assume the Queen also has legs?

Wikipedia includes further variants, including ways of deciding whether a player is out or not.

As Wikipedia suggests, this game was actually much better suited to the network of British A-roads, before the development of motorways.

To account for this, in my family, we ended up adapting the game as motorway cricket, which had complex rules based on the number of wheels on passing lorries. It really wasn’t so much fun, because pubs are better than lorries.

Did you play pub cricket as a kid? What were your family’s rules?