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.

Feelings about Fuller’s

On Friday it was announced that Asahi had acquired the brewing wing of Fuller’s, subject to rubber-stamping, and we felt, frankly, gutted.

Jess, being a Londoner, took it especially hard, though not, perhaps, as hard as the person who runs the London Historians Twitter account:

For Fuck's sake Fuller's. What's wrong with you?

With a few days to absorb and reflect we’re still feeling disappointed, despite commentary from those who argue that Asahi aren’t the worst, that it’s a vote of confidence of cask, and so on. It still feels as if someone you thought was a pal has betrayed you.

We know this is completely irrational, business is gonna business, and so on and so forth, but we kidded ourselves (or were seduced into?) thinking Fuller’s was a bit different.

Of course the signs were all there (the lack of respect for Chiswick Bitter, for example, in favour of anything they could slap SESSION IPA on) but there were positive indicators too – surely if they were going to sell up they’d have done it in 1963, or 1982, or… And why the interest in old recipes, in collaborations and so on, if there wasn’t some kind of sentimental attachment to the idea of the family business, heritage and beer?

Oddly, when the news broke, we were eating breakfast in a Fuller’s hotel-pub, and it seemed that the staff were as bewildered as us. As customers asked them for their views, they politely muttered, “We don’t know much about it, I’m afraid.” They appeared to be reading news websites and social media to work out what was going on in the company they work for.

We made a point of going into a couple more Fuller’s pubs over the course of the weekend, like mourners clutching at memories of the recently deceased. The beer tasted as good as ever – better, in fact, especially the stuff badged as Dark Star and Gale’s. Again, staff seemed on edge, in one case openly snapping at a beer bore who insisted on lecturing them about Asahi and how the takeover would ruin the beer.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that this was being talked about in several pubs we visited, including one non-Fuller’s pub, all of them, we’d have said, ‘outside the bubble’. People have heard of Fuller’s and were interested in this news, which got covered heavily in the mainstream press.

From a couple of sources, it became clear the brewing staff were in shock, too. Head brewer Georgina Young:

It was a long and very emotional day.

Here’s what one Fuller’s employee said to us in a private message on Saturday:

I wish I knew more – we all found out yesterday… It’s a rational business decision but a devastating one for beer. If we are not independent, what’s the point? What do we still represent? All this stuff about brands and growth is pretty meaningless to Fuller’s customers who will just be pissed off.

Maybe this will not damage the beer in the long run, who knows. We’re aware it’s a controversial view but we’ve been really enjoying Young’s recently, ironically in lots of Young’s-branded pubs where the average punter probably doesn’t realise the brands and the pubs parted company years ago. We’d certainly be quite happy to walk into pubs and find cask ESB alongside Pilsner Urquell. (And Frontier Craft Lager hurled into the skip of history.)

What we do worry about is those hidden gems – the non-flagship backstreet pubs in West London where grey paint and fake ghost signs have yet to take hold, and which still feel vaguely like boozers. They’re either going to get trashed, or ditched, aren’t they?

And we worry about whether this means Fuller’s, as a brewery, will stagnate. What will motivate disenfranchised staff to try new things, or throw themselves into reviving old recipes? It’s been hard to find London Porter in any format for a couple of years – will this finally kill it off for good, along with poor old Chiswick? Look at Meantime: the quality or the core beer may be good, but the breadth of the offer is now distressingly bland.

All that’s kept us going into Fuller’s flagship plasticky, faux-posh corporate pubs for the past decade is the beer. We go to the Old Fish Market in Bristol because we crave that distinctive yeast character once in a while, not for the branded coffee and gin experience in surroundings that resemble a hotel lobby.

We don’t know how this will turn out. We’re not going to boycott Fuller’s. We’re not ‘butthurt’. But something in the relationship has changed, and we will probably end up drinking less Fuller’s beer without thinking much about it.

The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success

This post was made possible by the support of Patreon subscribers like  Nick Moyle and Sue Hart whose encouragement justified us spending several days of our free time researching and writing. If you like this, and want more, please do consider signing up, or just buy us a pint.

How did a beer born on an industrial estate in Cornwall in 1995 become a ubiquitous national brand in just 20 years? And what about it inspires such loyalty, and such disdain?

A few incidents made us really start thinking about Sharp’s Doom Bar.

The first was a couple of years ago on a research trip to Manchester, having travelled all the way from Penzance, when we walked into a pub – we can’t recall which one – to find two cask ales on offer: St Austell Tribute, and Doom Bar.

The second was at a pub in Newlyn, just along the coast from Penzance, where we met two exhausted cyclists who’d just complete the John O’Groats to Land’s End run. They wanted one last beer before beginning the long journey home to the Home Counties. When we got talking to them, one of them eventually said to us: “You’re into your ales, then? I’ll tell you what’s a good one – Doom Bar. Do you know it?”

People love this beer. They really, genuinely, unaffectedly find great pleasure in drinking it.

Sales statistics support that: from somewhere around 12 million pints per year in 2009, to 24m in 2010, to 43m by 2016, Doom Bar shifts units.

So what is, or has been, Doom Bar’s secret? And is there something there other brands might imitate?

Continue reading “The Secrets of Doom Bar’s Success”

Our Golden Pints for 2018

This is always an interesting exercise for us but all the more so as we’ve got better at keeping records throughout the year.

Those records, in the form of just-about-weekly Patreon posts on which beers we’ve enjoyed most each weekend and spreadsheets from #EveryPubInBristol, help to avoid the recency effect and push us to be honest.

So, after a good bit of back-and-forth over Lemsips on Wednesday night, here’s our list of the best beers and pubs of the year.

The best English pub of 2018

It’s been a year of pub lists for us (1 | 2 | 3 | 4) and we’ve visited some great places that were new to us, as well as looping back to old favourites.

But let’s be honest, there’s only one winner: our local, The Drapers Arms, on Gloucester Road in Bristol.

The Drapers Arms -- a collage.
A selection of our ‘Drapers‘ photos from Twitter.

It’s a micropub and has funny hours. It tends to be either a bit quiet (Monday evening, Saturday afternoon) or crammed (the entire rest of the time). Occasionally, we wish there was a regular, reliable beer on the list.

But the stats speak for themselves: at the time of writing, we’re just shy of our hundredth visit since moving to Bristol. (Not including the times one of us has been in without the other.)

Now, that’s partly down to proximity – it really is the closest pub to our house – but we’ve challenged ourselves on this: is our number three pub, the Barley Mow near Temple Meads, better than the Drapers? No, it isn’t.

Best Pub: the Drapers Arms.
Best non-Bristol pub

The Royal Oak at Borough, London, is the best pub in London, for now, and that’s not opinion, it’s scientific fact. Sussex Best! Those salt beef sandwiches!

The best Belgian bar

We find ourselves going back to Brasserie De L’Union in Saint-Gilles, Brussels, so that’s our winner. It’s earthy, a bit grotty, utterly bewildering, and there’s usually someone behaving downright weirdly. The beer is cheap, the service cheeky, and a diplomat’s girlfriend forced us to accept a gift of exotic fruit. And maybe the most important thing – we found it for ourselves.

The best German beer garden

We had such a nice time pretending to be regulars at the Michaeligarten in Munich in the autumn and can’t stop dreaming about going there again.

The best beer of 2018

Certain beers came up repeatedly in our Beers of the Weekend posts on Patreon, some of which surprised us when we looked back:

  • Young’s Ordinary
  • Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
  • Lost & Grounded Keller Pils
  • Five Points Pils
  • Bath Ales Sulis
  • Bristol Beer Factory Pale Blue Dot
  • Harvey’s Sussex Best
  • Dark Star Hophead
  • Thornbridge Jaipur
  • De la Senne Taras Boulba
  • Tiny Rebel Stay Puft and Imperial Puft
  • Titanic Plum Porter
  • Zero Degrees Bohemian
  • Zero Degrees Dark Lager

And there were also some one-offs that we remembered, and remembered fondly, even months down the line: Siren Kisetsu, a saison with yuzu fruit and tea, for example, or Elgood’s Coolship Mango Sour.

But there’s one beer that we both agreed has become a favourite – that we find ourselves excited to encounter, and sticking on when we find it in a pub – and that’s Cheddar Ales Bitter Bully. It’s clean, consistent, properly bitter, and a very digestible 3.8%. It also almost in that northern style for which we’ve got such a soft spot.

Best Beer: Bitter Bully.
Best foreign beer

Based on volume consumed, and time spent dreaming about, it’s got to be De la Senne Taras Boulba.

Best Tripel

Look, we’ve been over this: it’s Westmalle, but, boy, are we loving Karmeliet right now.

Best blend

Tucher Weizen with Oakham Green Devil – Hopfenweisse!

Best blog/writer

With a year’s worth of news, nuggets and longreads posts to look over, this is another we don’t need to leave to guesswork because certain blogs (or writers) got linked to time and again:

But there’s one blog we reckon stands above the rest for its frequency and depth, and for the measured insight it offers into a beer culture not our own, and that’s Jeff Alworth’s Beervana.

Best blog: Beervana.Best beer Twitterer

It’s @thebeernut. Again.

Best beer publication

Original Gravity because it’s different, both in terms of editorial approach (creative, impressionistic, thematic) and distribution model (free, in pubs). Good job, ATJ! (Disclosure: we’ve been paid to write a couple of bits for OG.)

* * *

And that’s us done. We’ll also try to find time for our usual Best Reading and Best Tweets round-ups in the next week or so.

Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand

Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

Every now and then we’ll reach a point in a conversation where the person opposite wants to know, “What’s a good beer I should be looking out for, then?”

This used to be fairly easy to answer, but with more breweries, and more beers, and what feels like a tendency away from the concept of the core range or flagship beer, it’s become tricky.

There are beers we like but don’t get to drink regularly enough to say we know, and others that we love but don’t see from one year to the next.

Last time someone asked, though, it just so happened that we’d reached a conclusion: “Well, not a specific beer, but you can’t go wrong with anything with Citra in the name.”

We were thinking of Oakham Citra, of course – the beer that effectively owns this unique American hop variety in the UK, and has done since 2009.

In his excellent book For the Love of Hops Stan Hieronymus provides a potted history of the development of Citra:

[Gene] Probasco made the cross in 1990 that resulted in the Citra seedling. At the time brewers didn’t talk about what would later be called ‘special’ aroma, but “that’s where all the interest seems to be these days,” he said. In 1990 he cross-pollinated two plants, a sister and brother that resulted from a 1987 cross between a Hallertau Mittelfrüh mother and a male from an earlier cross… [In 2001 hop chemist Pat Ting] shipped a two-pound sample to Miller… Troy Rysewyk brewed a batch called Wild Ting IPA, dry hopping it with only Citra… “It smelled lke grapefruit, lychee, mango,” Ting said. “But fermented, it tasted like Sauvignon Blanc.”

Citra was very much the hot thing in UK brewing about six or seven years ago. It was a sort of wonder hop that seemed to combine the powers of every C-hop that had come before. It was easy to appreciate – no hints or notes here, just an almost over-vivid horn blast of flavour –and, in our experience, easy to brew with, too.

We’re bad at brewing; Amarillo often defeated us, and Nelson Sauvin always did; but somehow, even we made decent beers with Citra.

Now, with the trendsetters having moved on, Citra continues to be a sort of anchor point for us. If there’s a beer on offer with Citra in the name, even from a brewery we’ve never heard of, or even from a brewery whose beers we don’t generally like, we’ll always give it a try.

Hop Back Citra, for example, is a great beer. It lacks the oomph of Oakham’s flagship and bears a distinct family resemblance to many of the Salisbury brewery’s other beers (“They brew one beer with fifteen different names,” a critic said to us in the pub a while ago) but Citra lifts it out of the sepia. It adds a pure, high note; it electrifies.

Since concluding that You Can’t Go Wrong With Citra, we’ve been testing the thesis. Of course we’ve had the odd dud – beers that taste like they got the sweepings from the Citra factory floor, or were wheeled past a single cone on the way to the warehouse – but generally, it seems to be a sound rule.

We were recently in the pub with our next door neighbour, a keen ale drinker but not a beer geek, and a Citra fan. When Hop Back Citra ran out before he could get another pint his face fell, until he saw that another beer with Citra in the name had gone up on the board: “Oh, there you go – as long as it’s a Citra, I don’t mind.”

All consumers want is a clue, a shortcut, a bit of help. That’s what they get from IPA, or ‘craft’. And apparently also from the name of this one unsubtle, good-time hop variety.

Cash or Cashless, the Problem is ‘Only’

Both cash-only and cashless-only are barriers, and both tend to be driven by the needs of the business rather than what works for customers.

We got talking about this in the pub last night because of a poll from the Beer O’Clock Show:

The arguments against card-only have been piling up for some time:

  • it excludes the poorest in society
  • it discriminates against older consumers
  • it plays into the machinations of global tech giants
  • it contributes to the tracking and influencing of our behaviour.

But on the ground, in daily life, we very much understand the appeal of paying by card in pubs, bars and bottle-shops.

It saves us having to wander round suburbs or industrial estates looking for cash machines, and makes it easier for us to manage our various bank accounts and budgets, with every transaction recorded and reported.

And not taking cards can be excluding in its own way. One publican in a cash-only business recently told us they’d been thinking about getting a card machine purely because they were aware of constantly turning away young people who expected to be able to use cards. About half of them were willing to find a cash machine and come back, but the rest just moved on down the road.

A lot is made of the cost of processing card payments but depending on the size of the business, cash can be just as expensive to handle, and certainly less convenient.  It can require extra staff-hours for counting and banking, and needs transporting, either at considerable cost (secure pickup) or risk, with a member of staff walking to the bank with a sack of readies. (I’ve managed cash-heavy concerns and write from experience. – Jess.)

The presence of cash can also make premises more vulnerable to crime or, rather, advertising total cashlessness can be a good way to deter it.

And some of the objections cash-only businesses have to cards seem to use to be a hangover from a decade ago when banks charged a lot more for the service, and when people who paid by card in the pub were amateurs and freaks.

It used to mean five minutes of faffing around with signatures and pin numbers, holding up the line. Sometimes, there’d also be another minute or two of trying to get up to the limit for paying by card without an additional charge – “What are your most expensive crisps?” Nowadays, it’s a quick one-handed tap and done, and its people fiddling with coins and waiting for change who seem to cause a delay.

Fundamentally, though, we bridle at the idea of businesses doing only one, or only the other, because it’s convenient for them, rather than offering both with the convenience of their customers in mind.

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”.)

These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs

Over a few beers the other week we found ourselves making a list of pubs we love and find ourselves longing to be in.

It’s not The Best Pubs, it’s not a Top Ten, it’s just some pubs we like enough to feel wistful for. We’ve been tinkering with it since and decided to share it.

Brains bitter at the City Arms, Cardiff.
The City Arms, Cardiff

10-12 Quay St, CF10 1EA
This is, in fact, the pub where we had the conversation. It was our first visit but love at first pint. The perfect mix of old school, new school, cask and keg, it just felt completely right to us. Worn in and unpretentious, but not curmudgeonly, and serving a revelatory point of Brains Bitter. (Not SA.) Is it an institution? We assume it’s an institution.

The Brunswick, Derby.
The Brunswick Inn, Derby

1 Railway Terrace, DE1 2RU
We loved this first time, and it’s still great. Flagstones, pale cask ale, cradling corners, a view over the railway, and the murmur of lovely local accents. Worth breaking a train journey for.

Continue reading “These are a Few of our Favourite Pubs”