Perfect Pride and the fear of the shred

Last night at our local, The Drapers Arms, we enjoyed perfect London Pride: solid foam, dry bitterness, a subtle note of leafy green, wrapped in marmalade, with a lantern glow.

Delightful as this was, it also triggered a sense of frustration, because lots of people won’t believe us, because they don’t believe that Pride can be that good, because they’ve never had a pint that isn’t half-dead.

The thing about beer, and cask ale especially, is that all the subtle variables make recommending or endorsing any particular product a risky business.

It’s as if you’ve told people about a great song…

…and then when they try to act on your advice and listen to it they get, nine times out of ten, the shred:

Or like giving a film five stars but the only version on the market is the studio cut, pan-and-scan, VHS-transfer with burned in Dutch subtitles.

That’s why these days we tend to talk about specific pints or encounters rather than saying “Pride is a great beer” or “Tribute is fantastic”.

Or, alternatively, give mild endorsements with multiple caveats.

The best you can hope for, really, is that a beer will more often be good than bad when people encounter it in the wild.

A footnote: The Drapers had Pride’s beer miles listed as 6,120. It’s not as if it’s being brewed in Japan in the wake of the takeover, of course, but ownership matters.

BWOASA: Fuller’s comes through

Fuller's barley wine.

After our depth-testing was a bit of a failure last week, we were starting to get really worried: was this going to be a month of posts about the absence of barley wine, old ale and strong ale?

Then we realised there was at least one safe bet: Fuller’s.

The Old Fish Market isn’t a pub we’re mad keen on, tending to the businesslike in terms of atmosphere, though it does the job from time to time when we want a fix of one of our favourite London breweries.

Crucially, we also know it carries both Golden Pride and 1845 in bottles, and so on Friday night, before Ray caught a train to London, in we went for a bottle of each, with a chaser of ESB.

We don’t drink Golden Pride often, perhaps once every couple of years. There’s a lingering sense in our minds that it’s a bit… trashy, maybe? It’s not bottle-conditioned, it’s less complex than some other Fuller’s strong ales, and has a less interesting backstory. Which is why a mission like this is helpful in focusing the mind: it’s a great beer, and we’re lucky it still exists.

Copper-coloured and jewel-like, it delivered everything we expect from the ideal barley wine: sweetness, fruitiness, richness. Sherry, fruitcake, dates and prunes. Golden syrup, honey and brown sugar. An avalanche of marmalade.

Again, we found ourselves wondering where the boundary between this type of beer and old-school double IPA might lie. Perhaps side-by-side the distinction would be clearer.

Anyway, yes, here it is – the official standard reference barley wine, against which others should be judged.

* * *

We used to love 1845, the classic bottle-conditioned strong ale, but apparently we’ve grown apart.

Perhaps it was the close comparison to Golden Pride but, even at 6.3%, it seemed thin, harsh and unpleasantly earthy. As it warmed up, it gained some weight, and the bitterness fell back into something like balance, but it lacked fruitiness.

Its main effect was to make us really, really want a pint of ESB.

* * *

We’re lucky to have ESB, too. At its best – and on Friday, it was at its best – it’s a beer that brings the depth and density of a nip-bottle-sipper into the pub pint glass.

Even after drinking Golden Pride at 8.5%, ESB at 5.5 tasted chewy, charming and luscious. You know the flavours but, just in case: marmalade, fruitcake, mild spice, cherry and orange zest. Hot cross buns perhaps sums it up.

Maybe this is why we don’t drink Golden Pride more often – because ESB provides 80% of the pleasure with far less boozy intensity, while still feeling like a special treat.

* * *

We floated out of the OFM quite happy, feeling that we were finally on the right track.

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.

News Pubs and Old Favourites #1: The Forester, Ealing

We spent the gap between Christmas and New Year in West London, on the hunt for Proper Pubs. Four stood out and we’re going to give each one its own post.

Jess first visited the Forester in Northfields, Ealing, in 2016, during research for 20th Century Pub, and has been trying to get Ray there ever since. It’s of academic interest, being built in 1909 as an early Improved Pub to a design by Nowell-Parr, and retaining a multi-room layout with lots of period details.

It also happens to be a suburban backstreet corner pub – our current favourite thing. As we approached, it peeked into view between the corner shops and terraced houses, like a steampunk cruise ship at berth.

It’s a Fuller’s pub, too, which means touches of the corporate, but not to an oppressive degree. It helps that the light is kept low and (not to everyone’s taste, we know) the music loud, so every table feels like its own warm bubble.

The Forester, Ealing -- interior.

The locals seemed well-to-do without being posh, sinking beer and gin, and throwing out the odd raucous joke: “Bloody hell! When you bent over then, Steve… Either you’re wearing a black thong or you forgot to wipe your arse.”

They ignored parties of outsiders – a group of what we took for professional footballers on tour, all designer shirts and hair product; a trio of twentysomethings, apparently from the middle east, when-in-Rome-ing with pints of Guinness – without apparent malice.

The beer was excellent, too – Fuller’s as Fuller’s should be served, gleaming and brilliant beneath clean arctic foam. The ESB in particular was hard to resist, demanding to be treated like a session beer, which maybe it is at Christmas.

We made time to visit twice during a four-night trip, which should tell you something. You might find it worth a detour next time you’re in London.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK

Here’s everything we’ve read about beer and pubs in the last week that excited us enough to hit the bookmark button, from glitter beer to Kölsch.

And what a week it’s been — a positive flood of interesting writing, lots of it on the hefty side. We’ll never work out the rhythms. It’s just odd that some weeks we post five links and think, well, that’s it, we’re done, and then on other occasions… Well, brace yourself.

Madeleine McCarthy (L) and Lee Hedgmon holding glasses of glitter beer.

First, a story we didn’t expect to care about but which did something interesting: it actually changed our minds. Glitter beer is the latest Oh, Silly Craft Beer! trend, easy to dismiss out of hand, but Jeff Alworth made the effort to go and try some and was won over:

What you can’t appreciate from still photos is that glitter exposes how dynamic a beer is. The tiny flecks ride the currents in bands and whorls, following the convection of released carbon dioxide or the motion of the drinker’s hand. As you look down into the glass, you see it roil and churn. It’s riveting. Beyond that, imagine drinking a green, shimmering Belgian tripel and trying to make it track to the taste of, say, Westmalle. It’s an object lesson in how much appearance factors into our mental formulation of “flavor.” The slight breadiness and vivid effervescence have fused in my mind with the qualities that define a tripel; looking at Lee’s beer, I was forced to go back to the basics of what my palate could tell me.

We’re not saying we now desperately want to drink a glass of sparkly pale ale but if we see one on sale, we’ll definitely try it, which is not what we’d have said last Saturday. Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 24 March 2018: Glitter, Ilford, AK”

Thought for the Day: SIBA & the Family Brewers

St Austell Brewery.

Last week SIBA members voted not to permit larger independent brewers to join as full members, against the urging of SIBA’s leadership. And we reckon, well, fair enough.

Yes, family brewers are an endangered species and worth preserving. Fuller’s and St Austell are fine breweries whose beer we generally love, and a different breed from Greene King and Marston’s. They’re certainly a million miles from AB-InBev and are ‘goodies’ in the grand scheme of things. (Disclosure: we’ve had occasional hospitality from St Austell over the years.)

At the same time, Fuller’s and St Austell already have significant advantages over genuinely small breweries, not least estates of pubs which those small brewers are effectively locked out of. They also have national brands, and apparently substantial marketing budgets.

If we ran a really small brewery and were struggling every day to keep our heads above water, competing for free trade accounts and scrambling for every last sale, we’d be pretty pissed off at the idea of those two breweries muscling in on what little benefit SIBA membership seems to bring.

And much as we admire Fuller’s and St Austell we don’t think either is perfectly cuddly. If they were keen to join SIBA as full members it was probably out of a (entirely reasonable) desire to secure some further commercial advantage. If we’re wrong, if we’re being too cynical and it was simply a matter of longing to belong, then they clearly have more work to do getting that message across.

Helping those small brewers to sell a bit more beer, without strings attached, would probably be the most directly convincing way to go about it.

Further Reading

More on Fuller’s and Dark Star, Plus Links

Illustration: dark star -- SOLD

Having reacted in the immediate aftermath of the news that Fuller’s has acquired Dark Star we’ve been thinking and talking about it since, and seeking additional input.

First, we asked on Twitter whether they thought this was good or bad news. Predictably, lots of people wanted a not sure, don’t know, don’t care option, which we deliberately omitted because we were after a decisive result. But of course that’s the camp we’re in, though erring on the optimistic side — Dark Star seemed in the doldrums to us and this is more likely to lift it than destroy it. Of the 425 people who did feel strongly and sure enough to vote, 65 per cent leaned that way too:

In the meantime some concrete information has emerged. For the Morning Advertiser James Beeson interviewed Dark Star MD James Cuthbertson who said:

“There will be some overlap in our accounts and sales teams, and there will be some redundancies, which we will hope to keep to a minimum. However, Fuller’s have worked very hard to make sure their ex-staff are well looked after, and this ties back into the overriding point which is that they just ‘get it’; they know how to treat beer and treat people.”

There have also been substantial reflective pieces from Pete Brown, who is typically keyed into the emotional aspect of the story:

When a brewery gets bought, depending on the circumstances, it can feel as though people you believed in to live the dream on your behalf have turned out to be just like everyone else – they’ve disillusioned you and let you down. Alternatively, it may be that they stood heroically for as long and they could, but eventually had no choice to succumb, proving that a rebellious, anti-establishment stance is always ultimately doomed to failure.

And Roger Protz, who is generally critical of takeovers and sensitive to corporate skullduggery, but here says:

The success of the craft beer sector is creating a number of acquisitions…. These takeovers have been driven to a large extent by rapidly declining sales of global lager brands and old-fashioned keg ales. Fuller’s on the other hand is not a global brewer and its beer sales are not in decline. But working with Dark Star and creating collaboration beers with Moor Beer of Bristol and Marble has shown the kudos that can be gained by identifying with a craft sector that has such appeal to younger and discriminating drinkers.

His summary of the background to Fuller’s takeover of Gale’s in 2005 is helpful, too: an uninterested family, a decrepit brewery, and little choice for Fuller’s but to close it down; but lingering local resentment all the same.

* * *

Some people seem puzzled or even irritated at the focus on this story, especially those who don’t live in or anywhere near London and the Home Counties, but of course it’s not just about Dark Star — it’s a case study in what might happen elsewhere in the country.

If you want to play the prediction game perhaps start by looking for a brewery with a convincing modern craft beer identity and high profile, but that has seemed a unsteady in recent years. Dark Star, the example at hand, lost its superstar head brewer, Mark Tranter, in 2013, after which its beer was widely perceived as having dipped in quality. It also seemed to be struggling to maintain its relevance in a world of Cloudwaters and BrewDogs, always one rebrand behind the zeitgeist.

Or, to put all that another way, breweries rarely seem to sell up in the heady hype-phase — it’s during the come down that they’re vulnerable.

Thought for the Day: Fuller’s and Dark Star

Fuller's pumpclips.

News broke this morning that Fuller’s has taken over Dark Star, one of the pioneering UK craft breweries. (Definition 2.)

Those who have studied their British beer history, or happen to have lived through it, will perhaps wonder if this is Fuller’s moving into Whitbread territory. Back in the post-war period Whitbread ‘helped out’, then took over, a slew of smaller breweries until they had become a national operation — the precursor to the rather faceless international brewing firms we know today.

The difference, it seems to us, is that back then (to generalise very broadly) Whitbread were after pubs, not brands. They wanted outlets for their own products — a hundred pubs here, a hundred pubs there — but did away with local brands and closed down local breweries, which maximised the impact of national advertising campaigns and kept things simple, if bland.

Now, in 2018, firms such as Marston’s and Greene King have pubs but feel under pressure to offer a wider range of beer. For them, owning a portfolio of smaller breweries or at least brewery names is a great way of doing so while controlling margins and simplifying supply chains. Some people call this ‘the illusion of choice’ which is accurate if you define choice as the ability to decide where your money ends up. But often it really is choice, at least in terms of styles and profiles, to a degree. Better than nothing, at any rate.

Fuller’s has tried selling its own craft brands, with some success, but Dark Star really is something different. Fuller’s has golden ales and summer ales but no Hophead of its own and we imagine that’s the specific beer this deal has been done to secure. (Perhaps based on sales figures from The Harp, a central London freehouse acquired by Fuller’s long-regarded as an unofficial town tap for the Sussex brewery.) Dark Star’s four pubs are neither here nor there — probably more trouble than they’re worth — and Fuller’s is not Whitbread circa 1965. We’re not even sure it’s the Fuller’s that bought and shut down Gale’s in 2005-06, to general outrage, and we’d be very surprised if production of Dark Star beers moves to west London anytime in the next decade, given increased interest in provenance and transparency among consumers.

Chainpub Encounter

Our mission to visit every pub in Bristol means we’re going to interesting places we might otherwise give a miss, like The Old Post Office in Fishponds.

It looks, sounds, smells and acts like a branch of Wetherspoon, but isn’t, which is fascinating to us. It’s clearly part of a chain but unlike JDW pubs the brand isn’t blazoned on the building’s front or mentioned anywhere else that we could see.

“This is a daft question but… which chain is this pub part of?” we asked the person who was serving us.

“It’s not Wetherspoon’s,” they replied instinctively, even though that wasn’t what we’d asked. “Everyone thinks that but it’s actually part of a company called Stonegate. I’d never heard of them until I started working here but it turns out they’re huge. Great to work for, too — fantastic benefits and training.” (All this offered freely and apparently sincerely without any additional prompting.)

It’s true — Stonegate is a big company, running almost 700 pubs and bars from behind the cover of several well-known brands such as Yates’s, and Slug & Lettuce. The Old Post Office is part of their Proper Pubs sub-brand: “Our Proper Pubs are the perfect place to enjoy a quiet drink, grab a mid-week bite, get together at the weekend or enjoy the best sports coverage around.”

The pub itself isn’t lovely — too plastic for our taste, lacking even the distinctiveness of decor Wetherspoon pubs generally shoot for, even if they don’t always score. Nonetheless, it was absolutely crammed with families sharing meals, and groups of football fans arranged in various odd ways around their tables so that they could see the TV screens. It felt, as the cliche goes, like a pub truly serving its community — buzzy and informal, but smart with it.

The beer range wasn’t as titillating as a typical Spoons either with a smaller range of interesting bottled beers and no novelty guest ales. Instead, there were five pumps for Sharp’s Doom Bar, Fuller’s ESB, Harvey’s Sussex Best, London Pride and Wadworth 6X, with the last two tagged as Coming Soon. If you’re going to have a line-up of old-school brown beers, though, Harvey’s and ESB are good choices — enough to get us a little bit excited, anyway. Sussex Best wasn’t quite at its most thrilling but was still very good — quirky, dry, a little leafy — but the ESB… Well, that’s where we had a problem.

The member of staff who pulled it saw at once that it wasn’t right, forming no head at all. “It might be the glass,” they said, and tried with another. This time, it was not only flat but also hazy, and obviously so.

“Don’t worry, just make it two Sussex Best instead.”

But at this point what we assume was a manager got involved, apparently the final arbiter of whether a beer is off or otherwise. He said firmly, even sternly, “No, it’s meant to be like that,” and rushed away.

Now we know, and you know, that ESB is not meant to be hazy or headless, but the member of staff pouring the beer had clearly been put in a tricky position. So, chalking it up to experience, we broke the deadlock and agreed to take it, bearing in mind that it seemed to be a mere £2.40 a pint and, cosmetics aside, tasted acceptable, if a touch sweet and subdued.

Sitting outside on the patio watching the traffic go by we couldn’t help compare this experience to our recent experiences in Wetherspoon pubs, where the slightest complaint seems to trigger a full apology and a replacement without hesitation. We wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on one visit to a Stonegate Spoonsalike, and one fumbled transaction, but it’s certainly a first mark on the scorecard.

Disclosure: we sold a copy of 20th Century Pub to someone who works at Stonegate the other day.

Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.

Continue reading “Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s”