Monday, 15 May 2017

Beer Nemesis

Boak & Bailey wrote a piece on their beer nemesis last week and I wanted them to do a series on the types of nemesis you meet in pubs, beer festivals, bottle shops and online. They graciously declined. I kept thinking about it though, wondering who mine might be, and the answer came to me over the weekend.

“Oh, you’re not having that are you love?” Says the doubter, taking a half-step back from the bar for emphasis. You insist that you are. He’s looking you in disbelief over the rim of his glass while he drains the last of his ruby red pint. “Not for me that one. Nasty stuff. Was sure it was off until he-” he’s jabbing his thumb at the owner of the small bar, “told me different.” The bar owner shrugs dramatically in your direction. There’s no convincing some people. You take your pint and sip it before the liquid settles, to prove a point. The doubter rolls his eyes, muttering something to his friend and you turn back to your table, packet of crisps and glass in hand, all the great things you should have said to change his mind filtering up to the back of your throat. It’s all very well coming up with frothy epithets once the moment’s over.

My nemesis is The Doubter. I work for a small pub in Clitheroe and I get defensive when I hear people slating beers that I enjoy. I lumber into conversations to try and change minds and win over the unready. Simon, the owner of the pub, has managed to turn his regulars into Neck Oil fans, which in our part of the world is no small feat. It’s on keg and not cask, for starters.

So it’s my own fault then, if I’m ever disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm for a particularly exciting single hopped or artfully-soured masterpiece. I bite every time, taking it personally, shooting looks at the men who dare to pass comment between themselves about my hazy, unfined beer as though there’s something wrong with it.

“Doesn’t it knock you sick, that?”

“It’s those ones that give you a hangover.”

“Cloudy that one. Not pouring right.”

There’s a certainty in The Doubter that their opinion is the only one. They know how each beer should pour and they know instinctively how it should taste. You can only protest so much. I spent my last night out at the pub convincing all the people stood around the bar to try one particular IPA (Navigation Kea - a stunner.) One converted, but four people were mad that I’d made them spend £3 on something less sessionable than they expected. I took the flack - my bad.

They still drank all of it though.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Clitheroe Beer Festival

For the first time, Clitheroe Beer Festival has moved locations to Holmes Mill, or what's locally known as "The Mill", a huge renovated space on the edge of town, directly downstream from my house via the Mearley Brook. If I had a dinghy, I could float there. As it happened,  I don't, so I walked.

This is my friend, the lovely Jason @dappercellerman who happens to be the bar manager at Holmes Mill. He and his loyal crew have been tapping and venting and prepping and testing and pouring and cleaning all week to prepare. It was him who kindly popped my name on the guestlist so I could have a sneaky peek at what was to come.

Aside from me there was a selection of local pub and brewery owners, loyal CAMRA members and other special guests upstairs in the very nicely decorated beer festival area.

I spoke to Bowland Brewery brewer Simon Gill (the guy on the right in the picture above) about the mill and hosting the festival. He poured me my first beer while I got my notebook out.

Beer 1: Deeply Vale Deviant DIPA - 6.5%
I started my evening with a DIPA because why not? I was massively impressed with this. Really pleasantly bitter with a sweet note that doesn't overpower - I often say (nobody agrees) that DIPA juicers tend to taste a bit overly rotten-fruity to me. I think I'm a bit sensitive to it. Anyway, Deeply Vale swerved that and also managed to hide the strength too. After a third of a pint I was very enthusiastic about whatever it was I was talking about.

Simon told me that he brews on Bowland's smaller kit. The brewery moved to the vast expanse of Holmes Mill around 18 months ago and once they re-perfected the recipes in their core range to suit the massive new fermenters, they let loose on some more experimental projects on a tinier scale. It's Simon's hope that more creative beers take off in the area, encouraging more of the local drinkers to try something new.

"I'm looking forward to using the freedom we have now on the smaller kit and seeing what we can do with it," were his words, I'm pretty sure. I wrote them down when he dashed off - he'd insisted on running to the brewery to grab me a taster of new brew Hypnotic Hopnotic (4.5%), the light and refreshing creation of Craig, the brewery's production manager.

"We're looking to can special editions to show off the creativity of the brewers here starting this year. And Lagers! I'm hoping we can start to brew a world-class lager too." Something for Alec Latham there, perhaps.

It's nice to hear a local brewery that's so ubiquitous, at least within the Ribble Valley area, is allowing its talented brewers the space to experiment. I look forward to tasting some of their wilder things later this year.

Beer 2: Roosters 24/7 - 4.7%

Famously hoppy and delightful, I didn't actually ask for this one but you can't really argue if a brewer brings you a beer to your table with a wink. I've had it in cans before but this cask version actually did taste lovely and fresh, pulling out even more juicy dryness (is that something that can happen?) with a nice smooth finish. Big fan.

At this point a CAMRA couple shuffled along the table to join me, under the subtext of borrowing my pencil. I'm not normally a pencil-user, but my phone was running out of battery and I needed it for the camera function because I'd left my Olympus' memory card at home. Quality reporting as ever. So, scribbling ostentatiously with a pencil in a notebook like some sort of antiquated scribe, I drew attention to myself. The couple wanted to know what I was doing and which beers I liked. They were a quietly interesting pair, well-dressed and faintly awkward in a room of mingling industry-types and acoustic guitar music. Likeable. I, of course, returned the question.

Wife: It's a lovely space here. I enjoy my blonde beers and it's good that there are so many of those. Yes, I stick to my blondes, nice and light.
Husband: I love an IPA. Not too strong though, I don't like the very strong ones.

They both used my pencil to write their choices of winning beers on competition entry slips, keeping their answers very secret, and then left for home.

Beer 3: Heavy Industry Electric Mountain - 3.8%

How could I not gravitate towards a beer named after a hydroelectric power station and visitors centre? As a sessionable bitter, it was actually quite outstanding. Cask bitters usually leave me a little cold, but there was enough zip and zing in this to keep me interested.

At this point I was interrupted by men, who wanted to talk to me about brewing beer. I enjoyed their company for another twenty minutes, in which time I learned a lot about them but I'm not sure I introduced myself in the end. It doesn't matter, they were both quite polite. Either way, I blame the pencil once again for attracting undue attention.

When I could get a minute, I slipped to the bar.

Beer 4: Se7en Brothers Stout Porter - 5.2%

I'm just going to transcribe my notes faithfully for this part, as I'm sure I knew what I was on about at the time.

Beautiful. Smooth and toasty, chocolate in waves with a bit of coffee. Not enough to think "ooh, this is very coffee-y" but enough to warm you through. I know I like it.

So it's fair to say it was a hit.

Then, because I was getting tired and a bit hungry and I felt like being a menace, I ordered my next beer and got Jason over to break into the conversation a bit.

Beer 5: Wishbone/Elusive Brewing Parallax IPA - 7.5%

"Go wild, then go home!" I said, and a guy at the bar gave me an approving pint-lift. I'd been recommended this as soon as I walked in, and I wasn't disappointed. Complex and sweet with a bitter finish, I've written "strong and you know it". Let that be a warning to you. I called a man out on his beer kit exaggerations (I think the word I used was "BUSTED!"), shook hands because they had been nice people, and strolled home, stopping for a battered sausage and curry sauce supper. All in all an excellent evening.

The Clitheroe Beer Festival is an annual mainstay in our small town and this years' takes place on the 12th and 13th May at Holmes Mill, Clitheroe.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Earning it

The Lake District is one of my favourite places in the world. I say that about a lot of places, but the Lake District really is at the top. I spent the first ten years of my life in Morecambe, and if you've been to Morecambe, you'll know that its most redeeming feature is the stunning views of the South Lakes from over the bay (plus the sunsets which I will always maintain are the best in the world, no competition.) From that viewpoint, there's a ridge of knobbly pikes that stick up just a fraction higher than the first layer of rolling hills of South Cumbria and on a good day, you can see them. Those are the Langdale Pikes.

Great Langdale is one of my favourite places in the world. Driving up through the Yorkshire Dales (one of my favourite places in the world) with its macho flat-topped giants and weather-grizzled limestone turrets, the distinction between the two neighbouring counties becomes ridiculously exaggerated. In contrast, Great Langdale is a magnificent ice-cut valley littered with Herdwick and uniquely beautiful drystone, with huge and handsome mountains rising up in greens and slate from the ground in a 360 degree panorama. Up close, the Langdale Pikes demand a bit more reverence. And then there's the pubs.

Walking in Great Langdale is handy, because most routes end at a good pub. If they don't, it's not much of a stretch to make sure they do. We played it safe and camped up at the National Trust campsite a quarter of a mile from the number one location of our visit - The Old Dungeon Ghyll.

Once a cattle shed on a thriving Victorian farm, the owner extended his sideline inn business into a hotel and bar and it's remained the same ever since - cow stalls and everything. Unfortunately I didn't get a good picture of the exterior, it was cold enough to shrink our lungs like crisp packets on a fire and also happened to be half ten at night. When I go back later in the year I'll take one in the daylight, how's that?

The pub itself is decorated with climbing effects collected over what could easily be a century - has recreational climbing been happening for that long? Hand-crafted wood and steel implements rest dustily in yellowing cabinets and above the main entrance like a coat of arms. Proudly retired.

In the Old Dungeon Ghyll, you hear a lot about climbing, scrambling and hiking exploits. Try to eavesdrop a conversation or two and you'll hear a 60+ year old daredevil talking fondly of the time he nearly lost his skull to a granite cliff face. In many ways, climbing is like fishing. 

I chose a Pennine Kinder Scout, with the sole aim of warming up. Rather than a thick, velvety style I'm used to from a porter, it was a really pleasant dark maroon ale, if such a thing exists. Malty and easygoing and with a slight earthiness. Just like the Pennine moorland it's named after, I hope.

The next day we walked. We walked and walked for hours on the first really sunny day of the year and it felt really good to be edging closer and closer to the sky. We climbed Pavey Ark by lunchtime avoiding Jack's Rake (because I'm not a scrambler - at least not yet) and ate flapjacks overlooking Grasmere and Windermere from our snowy mountaintop.

Three hours later, we'd checked off Harrison Stickle and made our way downhill, sunburnt and thirsty, to Sticklebarn Tavern a the bottom of the beautiful Stickle Ghyll. The National Trust-run Sticklebarn Tavern is very Ambleside-y, in that it's well-presented, spick and span, has nice touches of interior design and aspects of gift-shoppery. These are in no way criticisms - it was a really welcome place to crawl into after five hours of walking.

There's something about a post-walk pint that makes every single difficult step and accidental fall disappear. (I fell through a very small snowdrift up to my waist and although we were alone on the hill for an hour, somebody actually managed to see me do it. Typical.) Add beaming spring sunshine and a really very lovely beer garden into the bargain and you're basically guaranteeing yourself one of the best pints you've ever tasted. The Hawkhsead Lakeland Lager was immensely refreshing and lemony - perfect, since all I'd wanted was a Bluebird Bitter shandy and had to compromise. Not enough places sell Bluebird. 

I'd love to tell you what Tom is drinking here, but I can't remember, and mostly only wanted to share this picture because of the cute Lakeland house with the shortest, fattest chimney ever built in the background.

Great Langdale, then, is perfect if you like walking, but the pubs are also well worth investigating. I'd recommend doing both.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Behind Closed Doors: A glimpse at the history of Thwaites

Although the sight of Thwaites' brewery tower bluntly prodding the grey clouds above Blackburn is a familiar one, it's not a view that will endure. As Thwaites completes its half-decade long relocation project to the Ribble Valley, some four miles north west of its iconic Penny Street factory, the people who've grown used to the huge brutalist slabs in the middle of their town are getting ready to say goodbye to them. It'll be strange, getting used to the loss after spending more than 50 years learning to admire that browning concrete.

As part of Found In Blackburn -- a series of art exhibitions and installations placed around the town by Blackburn Is Open -- photographer Richard Tymon has been working with Thwaites to explore the empty Eanam brewery and document its gentle slouch into retirement since its closure in 2014.

Behind the red gate

A site that's guarded by brand guidelines and company interests, photographs of the interior's decline are hard to come by. Being that Thwaites is still operational, (in fact, it is expanding) it's in some way understandable that the organisation wouldn't want its landmark headquarters to evoke the dusty spectors of a booming former workplace.

But images like these are intriguing and important. They give people an insight into the secret world behind the bricks and cloying smell of malty mash. Giving life to sterile environments, a veneer of dust can add pathos and personality where once there was glossy paintwork and stainless steel.

Richard's exhibition was installed at the stables on Eanam Wharf,  the historic heart of Thwaites, by the edge of the Leeds - Liverpool canal. Still home to the brewery's prized heavy horses and an impressive array of vintage carts and carriages, the stables represent a Blackburn that's firmly in the past, but somehow omnipresent in the fabric of the town. A great location to celebrate some local history, then.

Richard's photos looked into the brewery's recent history, recounting the life its had since the Sixties. Alongside photos of state-of-the-art equipment left to rest were snippets of interviews with Thwaites employees from over the years. 

"I enjoyed that part a lot," says Richard with a grin. "In the past Thwaites brewers were given beer rations -- it was enlightening to learn that there was an area of the factory nicknamed 'mothercare', especially for workers who'd slightly overdone it."

One overarching theme from the exhibit was a strong sense of personal and local pride. Richard was quick to agree. "The Thwaites staff were proud to work for the brewery. It was and is an institution and is synonymous with Blackburn itself."

Quotes from his interviews:

"I'm proud to have invented a Thwaites beer called Golden."

"On Christmas Eve the switcboard operator used to sing carols over the tannoy."

"We had so many parties that my husband used to say we'd have a knees-up for moving chairs."

"I'm proud to work here, to be part of Thwaites."

There is an elephant in the room however, and it's bitterness. The iconic, if imposing, building will be torn down over the next few years, making way for new developments and the progression of the town. Change is inevitable, necessary and often good, but it's never easy. Richard's exhibition, though small, gave a snapshot into the melancholy all towns feel when history has to be tidied away into photos and memories to make room for the future.

Photo credit: Richard Tymon, used with permission

Photo credit: Richard Tymon, used with permission
Not everybody left on bad terms - Writing in the dust on the rear hopper reads "All the best," left by a former employee.

Find out more about Found In Blackburn by visiting the Blackburn Is Open website:

See more of Richard Tymon's work:

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The greatest pump clip of all time

Stop trying. It's over. The greatest pump clip of all time has been created.

The bells have cracked. The sun: Eclipsed. The birds are hushed and the trees have ceased to sway. In the pursuit of perfection, a masterpiece of our time has been released from its marble monolith of InDesign; chiselled deftly with love and ardour into a shining beacon of hope in these drastic times.

This showed up on my Twitter feed and my heart stopped beating. Gaze upon the majesty of Alphabet Brewing Co.'s Zack de la Rocher and tell me you haven't just stared into the face of Apollo.

Yeah, and what's more, it's a brown ale incorporating the band that taught me to read the Communist Manifesto and my favourite flavour combination ever - chocolate and hazlenut. Always a sucker for whole nut, me.

Stay tuned as I try my fucking hardest to source such a godly treat so I can review it and let you know if they really are spoiling urrrrs.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Avoiding the promotion of alcoholism

When you're "into" the alcohol industry, no matter the particular drink you're selling, there's a public health line you have to tread carefully. People are responsible for their own choices, of course, but there are ways that brands can try not to fully encourage the misuse of their product.

By law in the UK you can't advertise alcohol as being a product that makes you drunk. This seems somewhat ridiculous given our country's penchant for using it to do exactly that. You can, however, advertise alcoholic beverages as delicious, refreshing and fun; an enhancement to your already vibrant and fulfilling life. let's call this a "marketing challenge".

Take a look at Jagermeister's "It Runs Deep" campaign. It's funny how they manage to avoid any mention of 2am Jagerbombs throughout.

Also notice the look and feel of this ad - they've pitched their drink as a revitalising pick-me-up after a hard-day's competing in extreme winter sports and appearing in Red Bull-backed short films. It's a total tone of voice re-brand and I have no issue with it per se. It's really cheesy, but it's okay and the message isn't harmful. Moving on.

Other brands have a harder time toeing the line of acceptability/responsibility. There seems to be a lingering feeling, I assume amongst older marketing exec-types, that recklessly drinking to excess is cool. The reason I bring age into this is because it's reported repeatedly that Millennials are not interested in drinking until they pass out, and Generation Binge begins with people of my age and upwards, and we, my friends, are getting on. I turned 29 the other day.

Perhaps this is why occasionally I see advertising campaigns like this:

Without digging too far into the psyche of the team of people who thought "Shane McGowan is a great posterboy for our whiskey, let's get the band involved," I want to unpack this a little bit. Perhaps for my own handwringing's sake.

"The official Irish whiskey of the legendary band" it says on the label, but official or not, it's still fairly distasteful. A band famed for it's lauded poet frontman Shane McGowan as much as it is for their back-catalogue and raucous live shows, people unfortunately don't remember them without seeing his face, ravaged by years of alcoholism. Looking at the bottle of Pogues whiskey, I'm not sure if linking long-term alcohol abuse to a rockstar lifestyle and packaging it into a beautiful, black bottle perfect for Father's Day is actually a great way to act responsibly.

Another example: One brand I persistently roll my eyes at is Jack Daniels. The brand is as ubiquitous worldwide as Coca Cola and has, for me, all the problematic connotations "The Pogues" whiskey has. Famed from the 60s-onwards for being the tipple of choice for people as talented and mercurial as Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, Janis Joplin and of course, Lemmy, the connotations of the easily-recognisable square bottle and black and white brand were those of recklessness and ultimately, unreachable cool. The brand has retained that feeling and having stars swigging from the bottle in beautiful backstage photoshoots helped the brand reach iconic status. People wear Jack Daniels branded merchandise much more than you realise. Teenagers still use empty JD bottles as candle holders.

No matter how much a person's health is their own responsibility, encouraging the idea of alcoholism as aspirational will never sit right with me, particularly knowing the devastation it causes. I know that it's not up to the alcohol industry to make sure people are drinking responsibly. Perhaps though, the line between fun and dependency is blurred for some. Instead of drawing lazy comparisons between drink and hedonism, brands could use their influence to create better, stronger campaigns that both act responsibly and show off their products in a better light, particularly to a Millennial audience who don't want to crawl home at dawn. Wouldn't we all benefit from cleverer marketing and better products anyway?

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Hipsters: My unpopular opinion

You there. You don't like hipsters do you? No. Nobody does. Hipsters are a scourge on society, what with all their strange facial hair and their penchant for foods and drinks you've never heard of. What's wrong with a pint of Fosters anyway? Exactly. Posers. Showoffs. Get back to Shoreditch.

Except hipsters don't just live in Shoreditch, do they? They haven't done since the turn of the millennium. Hipsters have infiltrated society, putting food in zinc-adonised minibuckets and drinking obscure spirits from Guatemala. Hipster culture is everywhere, in your newsfeed, in your local pub, in your coffee. Hipsters have changed the way you live, whether you like it or not. I, for one, am glad.

The disdain for hipsters (and mostly for their beards, which to be honest, have been disappearing of late) has come from the natural progression of trends. Lashing out at cool stuff is a national pastime. I say that the modern hipster has helped to bring new tastes into our lives, and judging by the reaction to this Tweet, I'm not the only one:

Far from the Nathan Barleys of over fifteen years ago, hipsters are helping to buck trends in beer, just as they have with food, spirits, clothes, hairstyles and music. Am I a hipster? Maybe. I live somewhere too isolated to really be able to tell. Where I am, a hipster is still somebody who prefers Bombay Sapphire to Gordons.

Thanks to those sweet, sweet hipsters, good coffee is now standard. Shakshuka is an acceptable alternative to bacon and eggs. Records are no longer obsolete. My Joy Division-themed Christmas cards (hand-made, you'd have loved them) were a roaring success. Craft, niche, bespoke and artisan are all words we scoff at but actually denote a level of care, obsession and quality in production that is often lacking in a lot of the products we buy.

Without the hipster, would enough people know what a DIPA was in order to make it a finacially viable product? Without the hipster paving the way, would people love Common Grounds as much?

It's cool to drag the hipster. But it's cooler to accept that they made your life a little bit better. Love your local hipsters.