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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Saturday, 29 March 2008

Good reasons to go to Wetherspoons

Is this really a pub? If the beer's good enough, does it matter?


Wetherspoons fascinates me as a chain. It's a car crash of the really, really good and the irredeemably shit - there's nothing just 'alright' or 'not bad' about it. Someone in the press recently commented that the chain has replaced the working man's club, which I suppose is true in a functional sense, though it lacks the charm and the sense of belonging and ownership of the old WMCs that were still around when I was growing up.

A group of beer aficionados recently told me they didn't consider Wetherspoons to be pubs, but retail outlets: they don't have real landlords, there's no personality behind the bar and no individual character to your local branch. Well, there is - they make a point of making each branch reflect the local area and history - but it's decoration rather than something in the soul of the pub.


And yet, a higher percentage of Wetherspoons outlets have been accredited with Cask Marque status than any other pub group, there's always a range of decent real ales and while they may not be kept in as good condition as a top real ale pub, they're always drinkable.


Anyway, right now the really good outweighs the irredeemably shit by some margin, because the Wetherspoons InternationalReal Ale Festival has started.


"International real ale?"


Yup, as well as nearly fifty beers from around the UK, and a selection of international speciality beers, there are cask-conditined beers from countries you wouldn't expect.


I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.

Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.


The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale.

It slipped down distressingly easily. After a couple of minutes I noticed I’d sunk half a pint, and casually asked Mitch what strength the beer was. “Well, we had to compromise,” replied the man I suddenly remembered was responsible for beers such as Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, “so it came in just over 7 per cent.”

Not a lunchtime pint then. But this, together with the cask-conditioned Tokyo Black from Japan's Yo-Ho brewery, brewed a few weeks ago up at Marston's, makes it worth enduring any number of mad shouting old men to grab a pint.


The festival is on until April 14th - I can't see the Stone IPA lasting that long.

12 comments:

Sid Boggle said...

This is the subject of a Mrs Merton-type 'heated debate' at Stonch's blog, and probably elsewhere in the London Beer blogoverse.

I suppose the heart of the question is in the strap on your picture. Does it matter?

I think it must. Any interaction with a retail 'offering' is transitory, so if your aficionados are right, the problem lies in being required to separate the 'offering' from the 'experience'. Culturally, we don't 'use' pubs this way. Does that make JDW the same as any theme pub, only with better beer? And then, what about the beer. I haven't asked any small brewers how they feel about dealing with JDW. Are they getting a fair price for their product, or does the comparison with retail extend to pinching discounts out of them in exchange for shelf space?

I don't visit JDW as a rule, but wanted to try these 'international' beers. You're right about the Stone, but I haven't tried the Yo Ho yet. Why? Well, the pumpclip indicated it was on at the Crosse Keys on Thursday, but when I asked, it had kicked. It's a small thing, but one of the reasons I won't visit JDW pubs. Every other pub can turn the clip round, so why not them? Irritating.

How credible is Cask Marque?

chris_o said...

Say what you will about Spoons, providing the means for Mitch and Toshi to brew over here deserves some serious plaudits. The Stone beer was truly fantastic and, hopefully, has given the guys at Sheps something to think about.

Sid Boggle said...

Chris - you think?

Greg Koch told me Thursday that he'd hit some serious hostility to what Stone does from some of the British brewers during the Wednesday evening get-together for the trade at the Crosse Keys. 'Aggressively negative' was his term.

Good for Shep's for being so open-minded, though - the outcome is an excellent beer.

Stonch said...

Judging by the marketing they've adopted, I think Koch is actively seeking that agressive and negative reaction and would be disappointed if he didn't find it!

I spoke to directors from two very traditional breweries who attended the bash on Weds, and both very entirely positive about Stone.

brendan said...

Greg's North American Bragadaccio just probably does not translate well in the UK. Still in the UK, land of constant irony(as opposed to the land of part-time irony: CA) one would think that Arrogant Bastard and the whole you are not worthy thing would be understood for what it is.

Sid Boggle said...

Marketing where, Stonch? His domestic market(s)? The UK isn't a Stone 'market'.

Brendan, he didn't strike me as a braggart, neither did Mitch Steele. First time I've met either of 'em, though...

And anyway, isn't the question here the relevance of JDW?

brendan said...

I was suggesting that the way men are socialized in NA, especially in the US is much different than the folks in the UK, and that these other brewers might not have understood the marketing of Stone Brands in their proper context.

Anonymous said...

Hey Pete (and Chris and and Sid all you other 'blokes' I met while over there)!

Pete, it was actually Mitch Steele and me (Greg Koch) that you met last Thursday. It was Mitch and my founding partner in crime at Stone (formal title: President & Brewmaster) Steve Wagner that came over in February to do the brewing.

By the way Sid, I didn't say that the reaction of many UK brewers was 'Aggressively negative' -- I did not get any negativity at all really, especially from the polite British! What I did say was that I was a bit surprised that they weren't keen on even sipping a half-ounce of some of the bottles of special strong beers that we had brought to share. That, and the fact that I asked them many more questions about what they did, than they did of me. Being the lone US brewer participating, I was quite surprised that I was not peppered with questions about the US Craft Brewing movement in general, and Stone in bit in particular.

So, I termed it 'Aggressively disinterested.'

All in all, a great time and I thank everyone for their generous hospitality and for taking us out for (more) beers, great Indian food, and a LOT of camaraderie!

Cheers,

Greg Koch, CEO
Stone Brewing Co.

Sid Boggle said...

Oops! Sorry Greg - didn't intend to misrepresent your comments.

-- Boggle

Pete said...

Greg, I'm so sorry - how embarassing! I thought you didn't look much like your photo in the programme. And you gave me a card and everything. Would you ever guess I have no formal journaistic training? Hope you enjoyd your visit! Pete

Dave said...

We don't even have Stone on cask here in LA!

No one really cares about Real Ale yet, but there are a couple places that are just putting in some beer engines.

Maybe you can send a couple brewers out to California and teach us a thing or two about ESBs!

Battersea Pig said...

If I had to examine it more closely than strictly necessary, I go to pubs for roughly six reasons, in no particular order.

1: the décor
2: the staff
3: the punters
4: the food
5: the beer
6: the ambience

Now its incredibly hard to get all six in the bag, but get three or four and I’m a happy bunny. This is the reason I don’t go to Wetherspoons – it passes muster on #5 and very little else. Cost doesn’t come into it for me, personally. I’ve had worse food and service in other places, but on an average, the fun-time-factor of spending time in a converted carpet shop with those clichéd old men and burger meal deals just doesn’t cut it for me. Same reason why I steer clear of beer festivals – that air hanger drinking experience just isn’t that same as a lazy afternoon in the Compton Arms, or Old White Bear.