Scotland #3: Tennent’s Lager

Tennent’s has been producing lager since the 1880s and Scotland became a lager drinking nation long before England.

We knew we wanted to drink at least one pint of Tennent’s on our trip to Scotland but didn’t expect to like it quite as much as we did.

Despite the ubiquity of Tennent’s branding around Glasgow – big red Ts jut out from pub fascias all over the place –it actually took us a little while to find the opportunity: either the pubs we found ourselves in had something else we wanted to try, or they had no Tennent’s tap at all, replacing it with something more upmarket from breweries such as Innis & Gunn or Williams Bros.

We had our first taste at The Pot Still in central Glasgow, served in tall, branded glassware with a whip of shaving-cream foam, and bubbling furiously.

What were our expectations? Low, if we’re honest. We’d noticed a couple of other fussy buggers expressing affection for it but wondered how much that might be down to contrariness or sentimentality.

But we liked it.

Now, we choose our words carefully: liked, not loved. It’s good, not great. We enjoyed it but it didn’t make our toes curl with delight.

Isn’t that enough, though? To be able to go into almost any pub and order a pint of 4% lager for a reasonable price and enjoy drinking it?

We asked our Twitter followers what they thought and their collective judgement, though it falls on the wrong side of the middle line to ours, feels fair:

Especially compared to Foster’s:

Tasting notes feel redundant as it’s hardly a deep or complex beer, but we’ll try: it’s more sweet than bitter but in a wholesome way that suggests grain, not sugar; the high carbonation stops it feeling sticky; and there’s sometimes a wisp of lemon zest about it.

After our initial encounter, we found ourselves ordering it even when there were other options. After a long day walking in the sun, it was perfect – gets to your thirst, fast. In a questionable pub which looked like it needed hosing down, it was a safe option, and tasted just as good. It certainly suited watching Scotland v. England on a big screen in a pub in Fort William. In Spoons, it beat Carlsberg’s relaunched ‘Danish Pilsner’ hands down, though the latter was just fine.

Of course this positive reaction is partly down to us taking pleasure in drinking a local product on holiday but, look, you know us by now – these days, we don’t force ourselves to drink things that aren’t actually giving us pleasure.

And Tennent’s Lager did.

The thrill of the new

For ages, we’ve thought the trick to showing Ray’s parents a good time was taking them to proper pubs. It turns out we should have been going to craft beer bars.

Now, we’ve had some bloody good fun with them in places like the Merchant’s Arms and the Annexe, playing euchre and sharing bags of pork scratchings over pints of Butcombe or London Pride.

The other weekend, though, as we crawled around central Bristol with them, we were inspired to take them to Small Bar.

The specific trigger was a round of awful, buttery Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter at the William IV – a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all but does at least usually have cheap, decent beer.

We left feeling down in the dumps, the session in jeopardy, and Small Bar, Bristol’s craft beer central, seemed as if it might be the antidote – a short, sharp shock to jolt us all back to life.

“You might not like it,” we got in, preemptively.

Ray tried to identify something vaguely like Dad’s usual bitter and the staff reacted rather wearily, as if they get asked this all the time. In the end, it was two-thirds of Lost & Grounded Kellerpils that did the job. Ray’s Mum, who drinks lager when she’s not on whisky, got a murky pale ale – the kind of thing we don’t really enjoy, as a rule. And do you know what? She loved it.

In fact, they both thought Small Bar was great. It had a vibe, a bit of a crowd, and despite being the oldest people there by some stretch, they didn’t get looked at twice.

After that we thought we’d try them on BrewDog, which they also liked a lot: Punk IPA, it turns out, is a decent substitute for Butcombe. (Not sure BrewDog will be pleased to hear this, mind.)

They’re now planning to bring a couple of friends up for a craft beer crawl later in the summer.

For our part, we’ve learned a lesson: don’t make assumptions about what people will enjoy based on what they’ve enjoyed in the past, or based on their age.

Next time, we might take them on a taproom crawl – they’re probably cool enough to enjoy it, unlike us.

Sparklers, in summary

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

So, to summarise:

  • Sparklers work best with well-conditioned beer, bringing some of c02 out of suspension to form a denser head, but leaving plenty in the body of the pint.
  • But if a beer is low on condition, a sparkler might well rob it of what little CO2 it has, leaving it with a head, but even flatter beneath.
  • Therefore, sparklers might equally be used to make beer in poor condition look better than it is, or to give a beer in good condition a particular presentation.
  • But there’s no way for a drinker to know until they taste it.
  • Sparklers may also mute or otherwise affect perception of certain flavours and aromas. Some beers are brewed with this in mind.
  • Otherwise, it’s a matter of personal preference.
  • So sparklers are neither purely good, not purely evil.

Is that about it?

Hazy Beer Due Diligence

A pint of hazy beer.

When you’re ordering a beer, what more can you ask for than this?

“Now, before I pull a full pint, I’m going to put a bit in a glass so you can see how it looks. It’s just gone on, and it’s hazier than we were expecting. But we got some photos up from the brewery’s taproom, and this is how it looks there. It tastes great to me, but do you want to try it before you commit?”

As we didn’t know the beer (Northern Monk Eternal) and are used to being served pints of hazy pale ale these days, we wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. But it was nice to have a dialogue.

It’s a weird facet of beer culture in 2019 that this new bit of etiquette is necessary, but here we are.

At any rate, we didn’t bother trying the beer, we just went for it, and it did taste great.

That Little Bit of Magic

Cask ale collage.Drinking extraordinarily good Bass at the Angel at Long Ashton on Saturday we found ourselves reflecting, once again, on the fine difference between a great pint and a disappointment.

A few years ago, when we were trying hard to make the Farmer’s Arms in Penzance our local, we had a session on Ringwood Forty-Niner that made us think it might actually be a great beer.

But every pint we’ve had since, there or anywhere else, has been pretty dreadful.

What gave it the edge that first time? And what was missing thereafter? Extra high frequencies, or an additional dimension, somehow.

This elusive quality is what we tasted in eight pints of Timothy Taylor Landlord out of ten at the Nags Head in Walthamstow for several years in a run, and what is so often not there when we encounter it as a guest ale anywhere else.

It’s what makes recommending or endorsing cask ales in particular a mug’s game: “Is it only me that’s never got the fuss about London Pride?” someone will say on Twitter. No, it’s not, and we don’t doubt that you’ve never had a good pint, because it can taste like dust and sweetcorn, and does maybe more than half the time we encounter it. But when it’s good, oh! is it good.

Bass isn’t a great beer in absolute terms, but it can be, honest.

Harvey’s Sussex Best can be a wretched, miserable thing – all stress and staleness – and might well have been every time you’ve ever encountered it. But the next pint you have might be a revelation.

Are the lows worth enduring for the highs? Yes, and it might even be that they make the highs higher.

(We’ve probably made this point before but after nearly 3,000 posts, who can remember…)

Price as substitute for quality in unfamiliar territory

“In the absence of information, people tend to take a price of the unfamiliar product as a signal of its quality, so high prices do not diminish the quantity demanded very much. When information is provided, the signalling content of the price diminishes. As a result, demand becomes more elastic. In particular, informed consumers see no reason to pay more for the new product given that it has the same ingredients as the familiar one. The effect of the information is thus to encourage more people to switch from the substitute product to the target one at low prices, and vice versa at high prices.”

That’s an extract from an academic paper (PDF) on the behaviour of purchasers of medical products in Zambia, but you’ll encounter versions of this argument everywhere from self-help books on how to sell! sell! sell! to articles in the business press.

The conclusion often drawn is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, if you price your product higher than the competition, many consumers will assume yours is better and worth the extra money.

Conversely, if your product is too cheap, it might seem suspicious: “Hmm. What’s wrong with it?”

Does all of this also apply to beer?

Twenty years ago, we were certainly aware of the aura that surrounded Premium Lager, and Pete Brown has written memorably about the damage Stella Artois did to its brand by reducing the price.

But drinkers these days have lots more information to go on, from beer style to ABV, from hop varieties to brewing location. All or any of these might override price in the decision making process.

And, of course the actual relationship between price and quality in beer is complex: there are lots of bad expensive pints out there, and some really good ones that are relatively cheap.

Our suspicion is that price might be a proxy for quality in situations where none of the brands are familiar, and the only other information is price; or (as this paper suggests) where the choice is between broadly similar products under the same brand name: Carlsberg, or Carslberg Export?

With all this in mind we find ourselves once again thinking about the Drapers Arms, where not only is branding held at arm’s length but also the price structure is flat. As a result, we’ve probably tried a greater variety of beer there than anywhere else, even allowing for the fact this is where we do most of our drinking by default.

Craft Lager and Whatever IPA

Whatever IPA.

We’ve been observing the way people, including some of our own friends and colleagues, order their drinks in pubs these days.

Here’s a fairly typical exchange:

“What you having?”

[Pointing at the keg taps] “Whatever IPA they’ve got.”

“Maltsmith’s?”

“Yeah, fine.”

Maltsmith’s (Caledonian/Heineken, 4.6%) is the same as Samuel Smith India Ale (5%, coppery, English hops) is the same as BrewDog Punk (5.6%, pale, pungent) is the same as Goose Island IPA (AB InBev, 5.9%, amber, piney).

We’ve noticed more or less the same tendency with ‘craft lager’ – a phrase we geeks could probably lose weeks bickering over but which to most consumers has a fairly clear meaning: something with CRAFT LAGER written on its label, and a brand invented in the past decade.

Fuller’s Frontier, Hop House 13 (Guinness), St Austell Korev, Camden Hells (AB InBev), Lost & Grounded Keller Pils… They’re all seen as avatars of the same thing, despite the vast divergence in flavours, and regardless of ownership, independence, and so on.

It was weird the other night to be in Seamus O’Donnell’s, a central Bristol Irish pub, and see on draught not only Guinness stout but also a Guinness branded golden ale, citra IPA, and two crafted-up lagers – Hop House 13 and Guinness Pilsner.

This line-up is what people expect to find in 2018, and breweries are obliged to respond if they don’t want to lose space on the bar to competitors.

The frustration for beer geeks is that this feels and looks like what they wanted, what they clamoured for, but the beers themselves are so often disappointing – hops a little more in evidence than the old mainstream, perhaps, but rarely more than that.

And if you’re wedded to ideals of independence, quality and choice, it’s all a bit worrying: most consumers are apparently easy to befuddle, or don’t care, which is bad news for those who do.

The Questions We Ask Ourselves

A question mark leads a man by the hand.

Is this beer consistently tasty? Are the brewers good people? Is the project laudable? Is the beer, brewery or style in need of our support?

It’s entirely possible to answer yes to one question but not the others.

A dreadful idiot who behaves appallingly can brew a great beer, and a wonderful local brewery owned by the loveliest people on earth can produce complete rubbish.

That’s obvious.

For some people, ethics, localness or independence are the only important factors, and they can probably live with a mediocre or even flawed product on that basis. (Perhaps their brains even trick them into genuinely enjoying the beer more – a feature, not a bug.)

But others will say, no, beer quality is the only thing that matters. (We try to be objective like this, but we’re only human.)

Still others might make their decisions based on price, out of necessity, or through a principled belief that the market is the ultimate arbiter.

Where there might be a problem is when people fail to express the distinction between those different ideas of “good”, or perhaps even to understand it.

BrewDog, to quote a notable example, brews (on the whole) beer we enjoy drinking. But believing that and saying it doesn’t mean we endorse their values, or uncritically support everything they do.

On the other hand, we felt a little churlish the other day when we couldn’t give Tynt Meadow, the new British Trappist beer, a wholehearted recommendation.

It is interesting.

We’re glad it exists, and expect it to improve.

If we lived in Leicestershire we might even feel somewhat proud of it.

But we’re not going to say it’s GREAT! because we like the concept, just as we’re not going to say Punk IPA tastes bad (it doesn’t) to take a cheap pop at BrewDog.

Whether local equates to good when it comes to beer has been debated endlessly over the years. Increasingly, we’re coming to the view that while it’s never as simple as that, there are certain beers that get as close to good as they ever will when they’re consumed near the brewery, where people know how they’re supposed to taste, and the quirks of keeping them; and where there’s a chance the brewer might pop in for a pint every now and then.

We certainly hope people can read these codes when we use them:

  • ‘fond of’ or ‘soft spot for’ is personal and emotional;
  • ‘interesting’ is about narrative, culture and significance in the industry;
  • a mediocre beer that’s very cheap can be ‘good value’;
  • ‘worth a try’ means we didn’t like it, but can imagine others might;
  • and you might not want more than one glass of a beer that is ‘complex’.

In practice, of course, the question we’re most likely to ask is: “Which of this limited selection of beers is going to taste the best?” (Or perhaps, depressingly, “least bad”.)

A New Axis: Classic | Standard | New-Local

A pint of beer.

Where are we in the cycle? At the point where seeing Elland 1872 Porter, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Thornbridge Jaipur, Fyne Ales Jarl, Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Bank Top Mild on offer in our local is tremendously exciting — that’s where.

Andy Hamilton, who writes about booze and foraging, and foraging for booze, is promoting a book and convinced the Drapers Arms to hold a mini festival featuring some of the beers it mentions.

The Drapers has a pretty serious commitment to local beers, listing distance travelled for each beer, and average distance for the entire list, on the menu blackboard.

In fact, that’s a trend reflected across Bristol: it’s not unusual to walk into a pub and find the whole beer list made up of beers from within the city boundaries.

The beer list at the Drapers Arms.

That can be great — we’ve discovered some impressive West Country breweries this way, and it’s certainly fuelling the Bristol brewery boom — but is also mildly frustrating.

Let’s consider Jaipur. It’s a beer that’s well into its second decade and has gained the status of a classic. In bottles, it’s reasonably easy to find in supermarkets. But how often do we get to drink it on cask? Twice, maybe three times a year? And that’s mostly in Wetherspoon pubs.

Old Peculier is another beer we’ve encountered on cask only a handful of times in more than a decade of beer blogging, and which we’re hoping will still be on when we pop round to the Drapers after posting this. We felt a genuine thrill when we saw the A-board outside the pub announcing its arrival last night.

All this has made us think that as well as our longstanding wish for more pubs to make a point of having one of each colour (brown, yellow, black) perhaps there ought to be another axis: big classic + standard + local/new.

We can imagine going into a pub with that kind of mix and starting on the classic, trying the newcomer, and then deciding where to stick for a third round depending on how the first two tasted.

In the meantime (this kind of thing is always fun) what’s your suggestion for a line-up which covers brown/yellow/black and classic/standard/local-new?

Old Peculier, London Pride and Bristol Beer Factory Nova would do us nicely, for example.

Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Saturday, for logistical reasons, we ended up in a gin-and-dining waterside pub a bit off our usual beat where we saw a remarkable queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cutting right across the main service area and towards the front door.

We Tweeted about it…

…not meaning to convey any particular judgement, only that it was unusual. As is often the case, that kind of minimalist openness elicited an interesting range of responses.

“It’s a sad reflection of the lack of experience in “real” pubs by millennials. It’s not McDonalds #FFS”

“Have people forgotten how bars work?!”

“I think anywhere with this automatically loses their pub status.”

“I ignore it and do what I’ve always done — go to the bar.”

“I’m a big fan, saves having to concentrate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

“Excellent Britishness on display. Makes you proud.”

“I’d prefer queuing to having to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most efficient and fairest service of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every other aspect of British life it is considered practically sacred.

But the pub… The pub is supposed to be a jumble. And when we say “supposed to be” we mean “is usually portrayed as”. Look at this famous painting, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Henry Henshall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tradition of gleeful disorder.

In response to our Tweet Terry Hayward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this subject which contains the following stirring story:

I decided to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a comment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burgers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just wanted a good pint of fine foaming ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen people queue like this in a pub before. They conceded it was unusual but used the Homer Simpson defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

“Ah”, said I, “but by standing there you’re only making the situation worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each other nervously, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we started to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being naturally polite, we made sure we took others with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that centuries of tradition were not being thrown out of the window.

But, again, check that nostalgic instinct: what if, as one person hinted on Twitter,  queuing might make the pub more of a level playing field for women? (It’s interesting that Mr Hayward’s story uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for anyone other than large, confident people with sharp elbows?

It’s perhaps no surprise that the current spate of pub queuing seems to have started at branches of Wetherspoon which, for all its down-to-earth reputation, is also often a step ahead when it comes to making previously excluded groups (and their spending money) feel more welcome.

On balance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we visited on Saturday. Places that aren’t in historic pub buildings, with little history about them, and where the number of punters greatly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adherence to an ideal wage-percentage. In fact, it was pretty convenient, keeping things clipping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before moving on to a Proper (queueless) Pub.

But something would certainly be lost if queues started appearing at, say, The Royal Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvious queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to service. It’s just invisible, managed by staff and customers between them, through a system of eye contact, deference and polite murmuring.