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

What's new?

What's new?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Friday, 30 September 2011

A jolly weekend in Cockermouth (stop sniggering at the back)

Great weekend last weekend, but I have to slow down and get this damn book written.

After the Social Media Beer Tasting in Glasgow, I went down to the Lake District for Taste Cumbria.  They're really doing an awful lot to promote Cumbria as a food and drink destination, and it's working really well.

Friday night I stayed at the Kirkstile Inn just outside Cockermouth, one of those pubs where the thick stone walls, wood fires and silence outside save for the hiss of river and tree lull you to sleep like a baby.  Another reason to go there is that it's the brewery tap for the Loweswater Brewery, also known as Cumbrian Legendary Ales.  Their Loweswater Gold was named Champion Golden Beer of Britain at this year's Great British Beer Festival, and the only thing better than sinking a few pints of it would be doing so after tramping across some of the irresistible mountains just outside.  They were calling to me, I tell you. They just weren't calling as loudly as the comfy seat by the fire, or my bed, or one other very noteworthy beer.

CLA also brew Croglin Vampire.


Completely out of keeping with a range of beers that's very nice but nothing you wouldn't expect from a Cumbrian brewer, Croglin Vampire is an 8% Doppelbock, rich and spiritous, dark and brandy-like, and utterly wonderful.  Currently the Kirkstile Inn is about the only place you can get it.  Don't worry, it's a worthwhile trip.  Just as well they have rooms.

Next day we were off into Cockermouth - yes, Cockermouth - for the festival itself.  This is where Jennings Brewery is.  Again, the beers are good quality but nothing that you wouldn't expect here.  But I love the story of Jennings brewery.  I'm not an apologist for big regional brewers - I just have an open mind about them.  I find this quite an interesting place to be. When Jennings was bought by Marston's in 2005, the local CAMRA branch shouted that Marston's were going to close the brewery, and continued to shout this even when Marston's invested £250,000 improving the brewery.  If Marston's had the slightest intention of closing the brewery, they had the perfect excuse to do so when it flooded in 2009.

Photo: Vanessa Graham on www.visitcumbria.com

But they didn't.  They invested millions getting it open again.  I don't know if anyone still thinks Marston's are going to close Jennings, but if anyone does think that, I've got some magic beans you might want to buy.

But I digress.  On the first day of the festival, Jeff Pickthall and I were doing a beer and food matching event.  We're both a bit vague about organisational stuff, and so were Taste Cumbria, so we ended up with about two hours to put some pairing suggestions together from food and beer being exhibited at the festival.  Not everyone was keen to have their stuff featured.  It was like an episode of the Apprentice. But as people filed into the room, we were just about succeeding in putting plates together for the following:

Mitchell Krause Hefe Weizen with goats cheese from Wardhall Dairy

Hardknott Cueboid with smoked cured boar

Jennings Sneck Lifter with lovely raisin fudge from Duerdens Confectioners of Burnley

Coniston Brewery's Blacksmith ale with an amazing chocolate cake from Ginger Bakers in Ulverston

(We swapped these two around - people were split on what went best)

The aforementioned Croglin Vampire with Parsonby, another cheese from Wardhall which has been rind-washed in The Black Galloway porter from Sulwath brewery.  Beer washed cheese is the future, if you like your cheese smelly and overpowering like I do.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to donate stuff for us.  Amazingly, despite time constraints, exploding hefe weizen bottles and seventy extra people turning up just when we thought we'd done enough plates of food, it all went rather well, and the matches were ace.

Later, we sampled the delights of Cockermouth nightlife.  And encountered the Boogie Bus:

The 'Big Boogie Bus' - does that mean there's a little one somewhere?

As you can see, it's a pink bus that has pole dancers and lap dancers and glowing dance floors inside it. It roams the streets of Cumbria, stopping to lure stag and hen parties on board.  Then it glows brightly, drives off, and the stag and hen parties are never seen or heard from again.

Jeff and I decided to pass.  Instead we roamed the pubs in search of good beer.  And finally, after trying everywhere else, we found Cockermouth's perfect pub, a place I'd be happy to see in any town.

1761 is modern and stylish without trying too hard.  It has Guinness, Strongbow and Carlsberg on the pumps because that's what people want.  But it also has a good selection of local cask ales, and a small but perfectly formed range of craft beers in bottles including Little Creatures, Orval, Duvel, and Pietra.

There isn't a full kitchen, but they do something I wish more pubs would do - a small, simple tapas menu.  We had stuffed jalapeno peppers, a cured meat platter, cheese platter, and some chorizo cooked in wine, which formed a great alternative to the curry and Cobra we were planning on.

I write about 1761 because it deserves to be written about.  It's not a fully fledged craft beer pub, but it's a pub with aspirations that understands the needs of its local community, is independent, and friendly.  It's not boring like some.  It's not too raucous like others.  There should be more pubs like it.





Monday, 26 September 2011

The Cask Report: everything you ever wanted to know about cask ale, launches today

The Cask Report was conceived four years ago to help solve the paradox of the UK cask ale industry: there are few if any national brands, it's a fragmented industry consisting of over 800 brewers with many voices and little internal structure.

This is what appeals about cask ale: its relative lack of corporate bollocks, its regionality and localness.

It's also one of cask ale's biggest weaknesses: no one voice putting a coherent case for the industry as a whole.

So it's brilliant that, despite their differences, CAMRA, SIBA, the key large regional players, the Family Brewers of Britain, and Cask Marque, can come together and agree to jointly issue a keynote industry report.  I'm paid by these people to write this report every year, and this is the fifth time we've done it.  Of course it's positive, but as an independent writer (who likes cask ale and likes a great deal of other beer as well) I try to keep it objective, accurate and informative, and resist the desire to make it too sales-y.




This year's report is out today and you can download it at www.caskreport.co.uk.  It's primarily aimed at publicans who may (or may not) be interested in stocking cask ale, but some of it may be of interest to others who write about beer, or are interested in it.

It's been a really tough year for pubs generally - and cask ale is only available in pubs.  The story for the last few year is that cask is in decline, but compared to the decline in the overall beer market, cask's decline is very small.  It's been getting smaller every year, but has not quite managed to get back into sustained volume growth.  With 25 pubs closing every week, beer duty up by 35% in three years and the total on-trade beer market down by more than 7%, that's not surprising - what is surprising is that cask is doing as well as it is.  Here are some positive indicators in a difficult year:

  • Cask ale drinkers are more than twice as likely to go to the pub regularly as drinkers who don't drink cask ale
  • The number of cask ale drinkers has fallen overall - but the number of young people drinking it (18-24) has risen for the second year running
  • This represents a broader recruitment trend - of all people who say they drink cask ale, 10% of them started drinking in the last year.  37% started drinking it in the last ten years.  Cask ale drinkers are leaving the market at one end, but they are entering it at the other - a clear sign of the revival of interest in cask ale
  • 2500 more pubs are stocking cask ale this year
  • Cask ale's share of on-trade beer has increased to 15% - getting on for one in six pints served in the pub
So if it's so good, why isn't volume increasing?  Because for most drinkers, cask is an occasional drink within the repertoire.  Cask ale drinkers are more curious, experimental, have broader interests, go out more and try new things more than non-cask ale drinkers.  This is both a blessing and a curse - it means they're more likely to try cask ale - it also means they're more likely to try other things too.

So the task is to get people to drink more of it, more often.  This year, we commissioned some independent qualitative research to find out how publicans might do that - nine focus groups, across the country, probing attitudes to cask ale, and behaviour around it.

The results make for interesting reading.  Some of the solutions sound obvious - but if they were, more pubs would already be doing them.  I won't go into a full analysis here, but some of the most interesting things for me were:
  • Only the beer industry and beer geeks debate the merits of micros versus big regional brewers.  For most drinkers, the dynamic in the market is about 'familiar' versus 'unfamiliar' beers - it doesn't matter who brews them.  Depending on who you are and where you drink, Thornbridge Jaipur could be more familiar than Adnams Bitter.  Pubs need a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar brands.  If you have, say, three hand pumps, three familiar brands is boring, while three unfamiliar brands is too eclectic (unless you're a specialist craft beer pub, frequented by passionate beer geeks).  Most drinkers want to experiment, and then go back to what they know.
  • The single best way to sell more cask ale is to pre-emptively offer tasters to people who look unsure at the bar.  We've been saying this for five years now.  It's still the first thing that comes up in research.  Yet so few pubs do it.
  • Another failsafe method - which sounds so obvious - is a chalkboard featuring names, ABV and, if you like, something about taste, style and provenance.  At a busy bar people can't scrutinise hand pumps properly and feel pressured into making a quick decision.  Often, they'll default to Guinness or lager.  A clearly visible chalkboard gives them plenty of time to choose a cask ale
  • We didn't ask this, people told us: cask ale is natural, flavoursome and 'a little bit cool'.  The explosion in the number of new beers available, and the growth in the number of pubs selling them, suggests that cask beer has momentum, and it's becoming generally regarded as cool in an 'old school' way rather than uncool in an 'old fashioned, way.
Those, for me, are the points anyone interested in promoting cask ale should be banging on about.  There's plenty more in the main report.  I hope you find it interesting and useful.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Social Media Beer Tasting - Tonight! In fact, in about 7 minutes!

Social media and the world's most sociable drink: and the explosion in beer blogging has shown, the two go together like Worthington White Shield and Keen's cheddar.

This week is world Social Media Week.  Real world events across a whole host of subjects are happening in Glasgow, Chicago, Vancouver, Milan, Berlin, LA, Beirut, Bogota, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aries and Moscow, and being broadcast in real time.

Right now I'm at the WEST brewery in Glasgow, which is hosting a social media beer tasting.

I'll be tasting beers and meeting the brewers of WEST, Harviestoun, Magic Rock and Kelburn, tasting their beers and talking to them about their beers, beer generally, social media, and anything else that comes to mind.

It's being filmed and broadcast live, and you can see it here.  And if you can't get the same beers as us, get a different beer!  We'll also be monitoring the #smwbeer hashtag on Twitter, and unless you're being rude about our personal appearance we'll probably work in some of your tweets to the discussion, in a gigantic virtual feedback loop of beery social medianess.

So open a cold one and come and join us!

UPDATE 28TH SEPT:
Here's the video of the event if anyone wants to relive it!

Watch live streaming video from smw_glasgow2 at livestream.com