Friday, 27 April 2018

Pub Culture Songs: Same Old Thing

If there's one thing I love, it's music that tells a story. As a kid, I always loved songs that put me in a totally different place and made me think about things - things like lust and nightclubs and fit girls and something hiding in the woodshed - I'd never heard of before.

This love has endured and now I'm in my 31st year of life, I still love a song that takes me somewhere I didn't intend to go. There's something totally transportive in hearing an embellished anecdote disguised by the artist as a tune. It's like peeking round the kitchen door in their house and hearing them chat to their mate about it on the phone. I always feel like I'm there in their imagination with them, seeing what they saw, indulging in the little exaggerations they've added to make it a more interesting tale. All the best storytellers do it. I first noticed it as a 7 year old when I heard Disco 2000 for the first time and assumed it was about people at my school meeting in Lancaster "by the fountain down the roaaaa-hoad." Jarvis Cocker became a beanpole Shakespeare to me, before I understood what Shakespeare really was, telling me about the squirming, bawdy underbelly of life and how it could be revelled in, showing me the human experience before I'd even turned 8.

I had another such revelation when I was 16 and over my metal-only phase and Mike Skinner entered my life. A man intent on telling the stories of his resolutely average life in full, flashing neon, I ate Original Pirate Material like a meal every day for a year. It was so refreshing to me, to hear the everyday in such blunt and brilliant terms, patched right from one brain to mine.

In particular, I loved The Streets' central themes of dossing about in the pub. Every day was the same, but different, and most of them ended draining pints or cans, depending on how skint he was. When I left home at 17, I could suddenly relate hard.

Who's round is it?
Down that beer quick, smash my glass back down
Fall over the table, all rowdy and pissed
Seems the only difference between mid-week shit
And weekend is how loud I speak

When Thursday beers down the pub (it's the quiz!) turn into a cheeky couple on a Tuesday (rude not to, the pool table's only 30p) become your life, it's easy to turn your local's lounge into your own front room, meeting your mates there every day for crisps and shit-talk. You're not necessarily there for the beer, it's just somewhere to be, something to do, but you're appreciative of it all the same. It loosens up the grip of boredom. Makes it feel like you're making sense of the world.

Pick a bottle off the table, peel the label, tell a fable

Time moves differently in your local, a fact Mike Skinner knows too well. The last pint always ends up penultimate. No matter your intentions, no matter how much time you spend in there, you're somehow always there too long, running late for some prior engagement, nefarious or otherwise.

Gotta see a man about a dog, can't be late, I'm always late
Raining cats and fog but nice and dry in the Black Dog
Down it in one, my son
Can't sit here, gotta run, things need done

You hate the boredom of the place, but it's an extension of your home too. A shelter from the shitty, grey world outside, somewhere where there's always somebody to listen to your thoughts, no matter who they are. Leaving's a wrench, especially on a wet Thursday, even when all you have in there is the sound of the fruities and enough change for another two Carlings. Mike's adept at talking about male loneliness and depression and I think although this tune is more a tongue-in-cheek look at wasting your life down the Dog, there are aspects of these themes surfacing. As they do in life. That's why I like him. He's so good at what he does.

Apparently there's a whole world out there somewhere
(It's right there, right there)
I just don't see it, I just don't see it

What I love most about "Same Old Thing" is the monotony dredged right up from his tarry lungs. But even inside that loop of stabby strings (used throughout the album - he loves a bit of classical drama does Mike) there's a glint of comfort. He likes the familiarity of his everyday - moaning about nothing changing in your own shithole town is just a pastime. You might mean it, but you're not changing it anytime soon. You're not trapped, you're just... Anyway, who's getting the next ones?

If you like The Streets, please read this fantastic interview with Rut Blees Luxembourg, the photographer and artist whose work "Towering Inferno" was used as the album art for Original Pirate Material. Her insights are extremely on point.

If you like me and my writing, please consider buying me a pint via my Ko-fi page. It really puts me in a good mood!

Monday, 16 April 2018

Stropping off: Wetherspoon's decision to quit social media

I've decided to call any company's snap decision to quit social media as "stropping off", a term that simultaneously combines the banal act of logging off from social media with being loud about your reasons for doing it in an entirely tiresome way. Wetherspoon's Tim has decided it's their prerogative to be the first in what he sees as a tidal wave of businesses quitting Facebook and Twitter for good; a great example to put my new phrase into context.

He's decided once and for all that his company doesn't need social media to succeed, a decision that no doubt suits since I'd wager it was highly unpopular with him to begin with. Like many large businesses, social media at Wetherspoon's was at best a direct complaints network, used by customers to air grievances about 75p surcharges for poached eggs and to ask where missing items from redesigned menus had disappeared to. Their Twitter account never really became the hub of pro-Wethers activity the company had no doubt hoped it would be, and with managers of each individual pub being given the task of running individual accounts too on top of their regular floor and bar duties, there was no real sense of cohesion. Without proper company-wide training and a level of respect and time given to digital marketing, this was a project doomed to fail.

That's the thing about social media marketing though. If you only use it because everyone else is, you shouldn't be on it. Get far away from it. Go outside. Paint a noticeboard and hand out flyers, they'll proabably be far more useful to you. If you see social media marketing as a hindrance and an exercise in time wasting, as Wetherspoon's Tim has said in a recent statement, you're not doing it right. Get somebody in who understands how to use it effectively and who can give you statistical proof of its effectiveness each month. Train your staff to be able to do this and give them the time to do the job properly, or get rid of your platforms. After years of one star Facebook reviews getting ketchup all over his page, he's chosen the latter.

As a former Wetherspoon's employee and a freelance content marketer, I feel like I can say with some confidence that I know where this went wrong. It was the moment that Tim thought Facebook was a totally free marketing tool where visitors to his pubs could frolic freely amongst themselves, liking photos of Steak Night plates with genuine enthusiasm, sharing anecdotes from their most recent #spoonssesh until they went viral. It could have been glorious. Oh what a cruel mistress the reality of online marketing truly is.

Everything comes at a price. Twitter might be free to use, but the daily cost of seeing highly visible negative #content pile up like dirty all-day breakfast plates is too much for some companies, especially if they're not well versed in social media crisis management. In an age when everyone has a camera and access to the entire world in their pocket, you're going to need to be around to see what they say and to counter any bad feeling with an appropriate response. By getting rid of his accounts, Tim has effectively cancelled Wetherspoons online, and opened up the door to a thousand unfunny hoax accounts, the lowest form of Twitter wit.

It takes time and effort to run a successful business social media account, and rather than being an idle pursuit for the terminally bored and lazy, it's becoming ever more complicated. Customers want to engage, but in very specific ways often known only to them and working it out takes longer than typing out "Happy hump day!" and hitting send. Sadly I presume most of the team leaders tasked with creating online 'Spoons microclimates were given roughly four seconds per shift to do so. In fact, this quote from his official statement says it all:
"We were... concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers" - Tim Martin, from an official statement, 15.04.18
If your boss feels part of your job isn't "real work", of course it's going to take a lower priority than wiping the bar down every 30 seconds. After all, if you're leaning, you should be cleaning; not interacting directly with your customers.

Essentially, I feel like this decision has been made bullishly and with little regard for how much being able to update the work Instagram account made people's jobs a little bit more enjoyable. By claiming Wetherspoon's withdrawal from social media is due to a backlash against the unhealthy nature of social media is quite hilarious. How many people have complained that they wished they could delete their Facebook app but simply couldn't afford to miss the latest news from their favourite chain-owned local? At least we've still got Carpets of Spoons to keep us company.

Quotes pulled from Tim's statement and how I chose to translate them:

"We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business."

"I have been told by a number of paid professionals that digital marketing can be incredibly effective, but quite frankly what with GDPR and other things cropping up that I don't have the time to get to grips with, I don't care. It's all millennial nonsense. Get rid."

"I don't believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever."

"It's laughable that anyone could say that not being part of something sad people do instead of going to the pub could ever affect my business. What's a Twit anyway? Who wants to see what Stormy had for breakfast? Bloody hell, I think I know what's best for my business, not the people I paid to do my market research."

"...This is the overwhelming view of our pub managers"

"We asked our pub managers if they felt that updating their pub's social media accounts and dealing with complaints took up a considerable amount of their time, and they agreed."

"If people limited their social media to half an hour a day, they'd be mentally and physically better off."

"Everyone is on their phones these days instead of talking to each other. Really talking to each other. Really getting to grips with each other's psyches. Reaching into the depths of human existence until it stares back at them, the maw of eternity at their feet, willing them to take one step further into the abyss; endless, endless blackness engulfing them, until they are nothing more than the atoms they were formed from at the dawning of creation. And if they could do that at their local Wetherspoon's over a bottle of Villa Maria and two orders of scampi and chips, so much the better."

"It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion."

"People don't know what's best for them. They are lucky that somebody like me is out there telling them what to do so they can be better citizens."

If you enjoyed reading this bit of pseudo-analysis fun, why not take a quick look at my Ko-Fi page, where you can support me as a writer by giving me a tip? Think of it like busking, only I'm not playing the bagpipes and you've chosen to come here and read my post all the way to the bottom. Thanks!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

What was the first beer you drank?

It's a simple question, unless you're being asked it point blank on live radio. There should be a simple answer - some small glint laying there in the past that points towards the moment you decide, "this is mine."

Well, sometimes you don't want to share that moment. Maybe it's private. But then maybe you feel self-conscious, because it's only beer after all, and the person was only asking to be polite. So you make something up. I do that a lot. Then, the made-up version becomes the truth and I tell it easily. So on the radio, I heard myself tell a story that wasn't true, but I'd said it with such ease that I'd believed myself. And that's why I've decided to take some time to get to the bottom of it. What got me interested in beer? And while we're at it, when did I first drink it?

The funny thing about beer is that, for me at least, it's deeply personal. Beer is a social lubricant and for most people, it comes hand in hand with the most social of our situations - the pub. When I talk about my enjoyment of beer, I'm simultaneously discussing my love of pub culture, which in turn encapsulates a love of people, their stories and their own individual lives. To me, you can't separate the two. That's why it's difficult to unearth the truth about what interested me in it. I'm having to dive deeper than my first pint. It's far more ingrained than that.

And this is where it gets personal. Was my first positive experience of beer in the warmth of a local bar? Or was it with friends at the park? No, I think it was earlier than that. The metallic smell of cheap lager and the sound of cans being drained and crushed is wrapped around some of my earliest memories like fishing line. Those cans, enjoyed in the sun on some camping field at a bike rally - maybe Kent Custom Bike Show, maybe the Bulldog Bash - were a sign of relaxation. Holiday time. I'm trying to think of any moments when the adults in my life drank in front of me other than this, and besides maybe the odd pint in a pub, I'm struggling to recall. I knew they did, when they headed out to Town, or stayed in with the mysterious Jack Daniels that sat on the high countertop, but I didn't see them drink it. I just knew it.

Because of this, I think, beer has never left a shadow hanging over my life, and I feel lucky for that. I've maintained a cheerfully positive view of alcohol throughout my life. Nevertheless, it's always been present, as I'm sure it has for many, and there was never any doubt that I'd be a beer drinker.

I feel like I'm not being totally honest. I can't get nostalgic without talking about something I never talk about, and so far I've been extremely evasive. One of the reasons I hate answering the question "when did you first drink a beer?" is because it's an intimate family portrait of a girl and her father. They're sat at a small, round table in a pub, and she's taken a gulp of his Guinness while he'd turned his head. He's laughing. She's grimacing.

I don't speak to my dad. I know where he lives, I know what he looks like and I know his phone number, but we've been estranged since I was 14 years old. If he saw me in the street, he wouldn't recognise me. I know this because he's walked past me before, without a flicker of recognition. I talk about him in the past-tense, because he's a man I used to know, a long time ago, when cans of Boddingtons in fields of tents with family friends dressed in ripped denim and fringed leather were the exciting normality of my life. He's the man who shaped my taste in music and gave me a short temper, a mean streak and an interest in garages full of motorbike parts. If he ever comes up in conversation, I stick to the safety of my past-tenses and hope this pointed grammatical quirk underlines my desire to never mention him again.

The thing is, he does get mentioned again. In everything I do, there's always a memory of him, or an imagined memory of him, that begins to surface. So now that beer is something I really care about; a topic I enjoy learning; an industry I can see myself trying harder and harder to gain purchase in, naturally his influence, however tenuous, begins to show itself. And for so long I was doing this by myself, totally for myself, and that was fantastically freeing. But now, in my head, he's back.

"When did you first drink a beer?"

I first drank a beer with my dad. I used to steal the foam from the top of his pint with my tiny fingers, hoping that this time it would have developed a delicious, vanilla-cream flavour to match the texture my eyes had already tasted. This is one of the only good memories I have of him, and I'm choosing to share it, because beer is something I love and I'm not letting sad old thoughts attach themselves to it.

The first beer I ever drank was a Guinness, during a stolen moment between a man and his daughter. Over the thousands of times I've recalled that scene, it's been worn to a polish. Now what I have instead of a first drink is a loaded image of a table in a pub. We probably all have one. That's one of the things about beer though, isn't it? That it's so very, very personal.

I was inspired to write this because of Drinks Maven's amazing recent piece for Original Gravity. If you enjoyed reading this piece, please consider buying me a pint over on ko-fi. It really is appreciated!

Monday, 26 March 2018

Craft Beer in Burnley: Moorhouse's Rebrand

"Brewed in the shadows of Pendle Hill" says the crisp new strapline, branded indelibly into Moorhouse's well-worn hide. For years, the Burnley brewery has enjoyed steady business with a loyal and local customer base who would never dream of straying from their beloved Premier. Now, with margins squeezing every last drop of profit from wet products, bottling and distribution have become more of a focus than ever to the business in order to stay afloat in this age of high-competition.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned the appointment of MD Lee Wiliams, the former Marketing Manager behind Thwaites' foray into craft. Their IPA 13 Guns has become one of their most popular beers in gastro pubs around Lancashire - of which there are seemingly hundreds. Wainwright too was an exercise in the power of the rebrand, an unassuming pale ale given new life by association to a Northern hero and clever visuals.

For Moorhouse's, the product wasn't the only reason a rebrand was necessary. It would be an understatement to say that the sexy-witch branding of old was detrimental to the brewery's reputation. Plenty of beer lovers found it tone-deaf and increasingly outdated in a modern world; many contacted the brewery over the years to explain their unhappiness - that the beer was fine, but the labelling was not. The days of the accepted and ubiquitous use of women as bar-dressing without comment or creative alternative have gone. All breweries now know the general consensus - that degrading their customers in any way leads to negative publicity and an impact in sales. And if they claim not to, this is through sheer ignorance, stubbornness or stupidity. (Cask Marque's recent Twitter turd a la Robinsons shows that there are still pockets of resistance to common sense and courtesy, however the backlash was encouraging, if not exhausting for all concerned who just wished they wouldn't have to keep repeating themselves.)

New pump clips - a better view of the photography inside the images
But back to Moorhouse's. 

"When I joined, Moorhouse's was a strong brand, tied into the provenance of the local area," said Lee when I met with him a couple of weeks ago. "But we are guilty as charged. Our branding was indefensible and really could have happened sooner. What I wanted to make sure of was that when we did this, we did it right. I wanted Moorhouse's to set out its stall, to bring in a new brand ready for the future. We hold our hands up."

New Moorhouse's branding - local photography and witches' familiars.
Doing away with the Moorhouse's witches is a solid first step in bringing a traditional brewer into the modern world. Another interesting development is the brewery's designs on using their temperance roots to inspire more experimental beers. Larger breweries have a tendency to promise experimental hop bombs and deliver four indistinct versions of session pales, so it'll be interesting to see where these sarsaparilla/ginger/juniper/low ABV plans lead to. One such beer they've already begun trading in bars and pubs across East Lancashire is Malkin, a 4.1% keg beer (yeah, keg from Moorhouse's) brewed with Citra, Eldorado, Calypso and Cascade hops that'll also be - get this - sold in little crafty cans. It'll be followed by further additions to their keg range, and a lager. 

A bit of background - Malkin Tower was where the Pendle Witches were said to have summoned the devil. 
But back to the sexism. When I spoke about visiting Moorhouse's to brew on their new 100l kit - an installation they've acquired to test out batches of brand new crafty beers - I realised the extent of the disappointment people felt over the old branding. I was glad that other people were speaking out for me. I'm not a confrontational person, even from behind a keyboard. I've been taking notes from the people I admire who do the most in the name of equality in the beer industry and hope I can do better in the future. Sexism in the beer industry isn't going to go away overnight, but the constant reiteration of our expectations is doing good things. I hope this rebrand stirs up conversations around this important issue in the places that it matters - not just online where we agree with each other, but in CAMRA meetings, pub lounges and supermarket aisles.

I've recently taken the plunge and gone totally freelance. I rely on being paid to write these days - I know, mad right? - so if you enjoyed reading this post, or any on this blog, please consider buying me a pint over on ko-fi. It really is appreciated!

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Craft Brewing and Snooping at Moorhouse's

I'm an enthusiastic student if the subject interests me. If you've caught my attention, you can be assured that I'll do my best to make you proud - I'm the human equivalent of a golden retriever. I'm hoping this came off as endearing when I spent the morning with the team at Moorhouse's in Burnley on Tuesday 13th March. Being invited in to use their new 100l brew kit on my second full day of freelancing was an exciting prospect and once I'd finished my Nutella sandwich breakfast I was ready for a day of hard graft and learning. Lots of learning.

Assistant Brewer Jordan would be my teacher for the day and my first task was to walk through the brewery getting to know the equipment and the team busily working to a soundtrack of BBC Radio 6 (no complaints from me.) Jordan came to Moorhouse's after an early career in bar management. He told me he decided he liked the nightlife industry aged 15 when he began working as a cellarman for a local nightclub and continued to enjoy it as a bar manager until he saw a trainee brewer position come up.

"I just went for it, I thought, what have I got to lose? You've got to try."

Well, quite. It's not like I've not had the same exact internal monologue for the past three months. It's a hard logic to ignore. I asked him what he thinks made them choose him despite his lack of experience.

"I was really enthusiastic," he said. "And when they asked me what beer I'd like to brew, I told them a lambic, in a bathtub outside."

Next to the huge stainless steel equipment all around, the 100l craft kit looked tiny. Cute, even. I was shown the grains we were going to use, and the hops, and then we set to work mashing in with an extremely technical wooden paddle.

Jordan had helpfully written out the brewing record for "my" american brown ale before I got there. As you can see, there's a bit of torrified wheat for head retention and dextrin for body. On the whole, the grains were chosen to create a lovely malty taste but avoiding biscuitiness so the juicy Citra and Ekuanot can do some shining. I asked Jordan about the ratios and he said he'd asked a few people and read a few recipes to gauge what might be the best option.

"The best way to weigh a cow is to ask 200 people," he said, cryptically. "You'll get some outlandish answers but you'll get a lot of medians. In there is the right answer." Wiseness or insanity? Well, it seemed to work.

Once we'd mashed and cleaned up a bit, I went to speak to head brewer Dan, who after deciding to change careers in his 20s from a biochemist to a brewer, studied brewing at Herriot-Watt university. He's brewed for Jennings, Tetleys and a number of large breweries across the north of England, and perhaps surprisingly given his background, he has a passion for brewing experimental beers. During our conversation - which was much more like me asking him endless questions and him displaying the patience of a saint - we talked about sours and geuezes and his desire to brew bretted beers at Moorhouse's ("but we'd need to do some serious thinking about that because of the fear of contaminating the other beers with different yeasts.") He also told me he's a fan of hop-forward beers and that Cloudwater are his favourite new brewery.

It's conversations like this that a geek like me lives for. If you'd have told me that by visiting a traditional brewery in Burnley I'd end up talking at length with a very experienced brewer who's favourite beers are dank juicy boys, I'd have told you you were being silly. But here we are. Never judge a brewer by his hometown.

While I waited for the mash to do its thang, I enjoyed looking around the lab by myself, mainly because it made me feel like I was in a game about to replenish my inventory.

The most interesting thing about looking around the lab was finding ingredients for the experimental brews that'll be created on the 100l kit I was using. Juniper berries, spices, fruit extracts and herbs were sat patiently waiting for their day to come. Being able to let everyone loose with the experiment kit has piqued a lot of interest and saved a lot of potential wastage - at least if anything goes wrong, there's only 100 litres of bad beer to drain pour. It's much harder to justify letting your brewers experiment with huge, industrial scale equipment to the people paying for the ingredients and counting on a return. Another secret snoop found me a wooden barrel. I wonder what's going in there once it's been refurbed?

Back to work - it was time to test the colour of the run-off and would you look at that? It's brown af! 

Using another hi-tech stick we added our initial hops to the brew, went for lunch, then came back to siphon it all into the copper with a good dose of Moorhouse's own-grown yeast that's unbelievably valuable and smells very delicious. Before we did that we had a bit of a try. Hot, un-alcoholic, un-yeasted beer is an experience. It's got a healthy taste, but also old-fashioned in its vague sweet vegetableness. Like a Victorian protein shake.

Look at that yeasty cloud. What a babe.
Once all the brewing was over, I took a trip upstairs to see Lee the MD. He wanted to talk about the future of the brewery, and he also wanted to set some records straight. Although most of what we talked about is under embargo at the moment (I've got a feature on standby for when it's lifted,) what I can say is that he said he's looking forward to stepping away from the sexist branding on his products - and I believe him. It's almost common knowledge that Moorhouse's are undergoing a rebrand at the moment and Lee hasn't kept it a secret, but he wants the reveal to have impact and be on the brewery's own terms. All I can offer is the most un-newsworthy thing ever - I like it. I like the concept and the aesthetic. It's good. And this is my blog, so if you want to call me biased because I met and liked these people, you should also remember that this is a place for personal opinion. And that I've never lied to you before.

There's a lot riding on this rebrand. A brewery with beers that have been credited with awards for their quality and consistency is looking to become more inventive, more exciting and more relevant with a newer type of drinker. No matter how popular they remain, it will still cause controversy among some long-time fans. 

"The recipes are remaining entirely the same," I was assured, more than once. "We're looking to the future but we aren't forgetting what Moorhouse's is. We are not changing the taste or recipe or brewing methods of any of our beers.*"

On Monday 26th March, I'll be able to talk at length about the rebrand and so will you, because it'll be officially launched. I'm very interested to see what sort of reception it receives. I also wondered how the team felt about the future, but they're secure. Dan said when I asked him about what he thought of it all:

"I like it. Lee's at the front steering the ship and we all trust him."

*Full list of current beers: Pendle Witch, White Witch, Blond Witch, Pride of Pendle, Black Cat, Premier Bitter and Stray Dog.

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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Katie Makes Beer (Apparently)

I've been given the opportunity to work with a proper brewing team to use a pro kit to make any beer I want, and my initial response was to start freaking out slightly because WHAT DO I CHOOSE?

(Fun side-quest: if you're not sure what imposter syndrome is, look it up here and tell me which number you are! I'm a hard five, as you can tell. I'm re-starting my blog post with more confidence.)

In exactly one week I'm going to be heading to Moorhouse's brewery in Burnley to work with brewer Jordan Hamer on their new small-batch kit. It's a really exciting opportunity for me because when it comes to brewing, I've only ever helped out my other half on the homebrew kit we have - the kit that the council said we needed to stop using outdoors if we wanted to get a license for it. I maintain that the added leaves blowing in etc. added character.

MD Lee contacted me following the post I wrote recently about developments at Moorhouse's. According to Jordan I'm going to be the first person to guest brew/help out on the new kit and I'm pretty excited about it. I love visiting breweries and seeing how they tick and I particularly like the idea of brewing somewhere where beer has been made for more than 100 years. I'm thrilled to have been asked and happy that on what will be my second day of self-imposed unemployment freelancing I'll be busy doing something practical and learning stuff. I like to learn stuff.

The beer I've chosen to brew is an American Brown Ale recipe, using cascade and citra hops. (Jordan's getting back to me with the malt bill, I'll update when I know.) We're also keeping the ABV to around 4.1% to try and entice session drinkers. Think Magic Rock's The Stooge.

I've chosen this style for a couple of reasons, the first being that I've noticed an aversion to super hoppy pale beers in our customers at The Ale House. Locals are branding craft beer as not to their taste based on the main types available to them - mostly IPAs and DIPAs. Well-meaning mates buying them super-strength cans as an ill-advised entry-level drink hasn't really helped this  connotation. The other reason is pretty simple: people ask when there aren't as many brown, ruby or darker beers on offer, and whenever we have these, they go quickly. I really want to be able to make a beer that's darker in colour, malty in taste and still retains juicy hoppy goodness so that I can try and turn a few anti-craft frowns upside down. Being able to make this with a brewery that's well-known locally for consistent traditional ales will, I hope, strengthen the message. Really, I'm crusading. What are you going to do about it?

Jordan seems keen on this idea too, so that's a great start isn't it? Now all I need to do is find a boiler suit.

We're going to be looking at using:

Mash bill
  • Marris Otter
  • Pale malt
  • Crystal malt
  • Chocolate malt
  • Roast Barley
  • Dextrin
  • Torrified Wheat
  • Citra
  • Centennial
(We're also going to have a look through the stores to see if there's hops we'd prefer to use once I'm there.)

Friday, 2 March 2018

The Session #133 Hometown Glories - The John O' Gaunt, Lancaster

The John O'Gaunt  is a pub I measure all others against. Modestly squatted between high-street shops and the Sally Army on Market Street, Lancaster, its pot-bellied, stained glass window gives only a glimpse at what lies within.

On most Friday, Saturday and Sundays, you'll find a band tuning up in the bay window at the front, playing anything from cajon and double bass to Casio keyboard. Although the pub and bar scene in Lancaster could be better, it's hard to think of a small town that has more commitment to smalltime live music. 

Everyone has their own idea of when Lancaster's nightlife heyday was. Through it all, from the Iron Maiden-playing-Lancaster-uni 70s to the goth-nights-at-the-crypt 90s, right the way up until the how-can-Hustle-still-be-open 2010s, the John O'Gaunt appears in every story, offering pints and dark corners to people from all parts of Lancaster and Morecambe society.

The last time I visited, it was on a windy and cold Sunday afternoon as part of a pre-Sunday roast walk. Popping your head in to scout for seats won't help you out here - you have to walk right in and brave the smiling locals. (They actually do smile, it's a really friendly place.)

We had a pair of Titanic Plum Porters, on account of the law which states if you see it, you must drink it.

I was here to visit, more than anything else. I miss the place. The coloured lightbulbs in the frilly brass light fittings and the wide-legged pants on the extremely metal folk guitarist. The panting white bichon frise on the open mic stage. There's nowhere else like it in the world.

Thoughts on beer accessibility

"Peroni is aspirational. Cloudwater is something beamed down from another planet."

These words by the Pub Curmudgeon stuck in my brain after reading his piece on working class drinkers, not least because I am one. It made me think about the angle at which I approached beer from, and why I'm finding myself more and more towards the obscure craft end of the beverage spectrum. After all, given my inauspicious beginnings as both a working class female and a Northerner, it seems I should never have strayed too far from the Carlsberg and lime. Which I maintain is a perfectly acceptable drink.

One of my favourite pastimes is sitting in country pubs drinking perfectly pulled pints and eating pork scratchings. I can't really describe why I enjoy it so much more than drinking at home, but I have a feeling it's more about the context of the beer than the beer itself. I'm a people-observer. I didn't go to study journalism for no reason - I find the human race fascinating and I want to know everybody's stories, from the guy in the waxed cotton fisherman's hat propping up the bar to the quiet couple in the corner feeding crisps to their cocker spaniels. Pubs are perfect for getting to know a place. When I was studying for my degree, a visiting journalist told us a tip that would immediately familiarise any surrounding. Read the local paper from cover to cover in a local pub. Now I'm no longer studying to be a hack, I still like to use my local as a hub. There are no gossips half as enthusiastic as your older gentlemen bitter drinkers.

One of my favourite pubs has the best cross-section of punters,
 including a vast array of taxidermied animals
- The House of Trembling Madness in York
When I set off to uni, I wasn't a beer drinker at all. The name of this blog comes from the sound the only beer I drank made - the snap and the hiss of Tennents cans, drained one after the other in parks, at friend's houses and in fields at music festivals. I didn't care about the taste then. For the most effective buzz, I drank cider anyway, or boxes of Country Manor perry. As a young mosher living in poverty, you made the best of what you could get. Being poor at university didn't make me unusual, but it meant I was still choosing drinks based on effectiveness rather than taste. Everyone I knew had preferences but I hadn't formed mine. I ordered a different drink every time I came back from the bar, sticking to quids offers and freebies. Mates who drank pints seemed impossibly grown-up, and I wondered if I'd ever have my shit together as much as they did. Little did I know I could create that illusion simply by ordering one for myself.

Seeing a pint of Fosters as aspirational is hilarious to me now, but that's how I felt back then. Beer was a drink for adults, something I wasn't really ready for. I didn't start drinking ale and craft beer until my early to mid twenties, when it became more accessible in supermarkets. Despite living right around the corner from the amazing Beer Ritz in Leeds for more than 5 years, I didn't dabble in anything other than cherry Lindemans and Duvel, and the odd bottle of Saltaire Triple Chocolate. When I went to pubs I still asked for a lemonade top whenever I bought a lager. I went to beer festivals and chose scrumpy. I feel bad for younger me.

The thing about beer as an aspirational product is that it excludes in both directions. I know plenty of people who wouldn't touch Carling yet happily drink Estrella. Is there really much of a difference? I know that given the option I choose the latter, but I'm under no illusions - as a marketing exec through and through, I'm happy to pay extra for branding that makes me feel good about myself. By choosing a frosty chrome tap that beams visions of Barcelona heat into my head thanks to their scarily effective advertising campaigns, I'm buying an experience. I'm okay with that. For the same reasons, there are plenty of people who'd choose Carling because of how they feel about its familiar and matey style - and how much they really don't want to be a part of Estrella's smiling, slightly smug Mediterranean lifestyle choices.

I wasn't joking. They've found a tone of voice and rinsed it.
Seeing craft beer and real ale at odds with each other always takes me back to this self-made comparison. To me, it becomes a minor class war. The conversations I have with customers who don't want to try new styles can usually be boiled down to the same sentiment: "It's not for me, that."

I always ask a question in response - so, who's it for then? It's my job as a barperson, I think, to make sure everyone in that pub holding a pint or half glass knows they are beer drinkers, and therefore everything we sell is relevant to them. Nothing has been brewed with the intention of excluding them.

Inevitably, cost is often a prohibitive factor when choosing beer. I can state this as fact because it is for me, too. There are hundreds of beers out there I'd love to drink, but I'm left out because either I can't justify the cost at the moment they come out (I really should learn to beer budget) or I'd have to pay postage on a big ol' shipment because I have nowhere to buy them from individually - one of the only downsides of living in the affordable, beautiful Northern countryside. I am fully aware and appreciative of the costs involved in creating beer and I am in no doubt that prices are fair (for the most part.) I just know that I'm not flush enough. So what am I suggesting here? That breweries should make no-frills beer for us poor people too? That there should be a pay-it-forward scheme involved? No, of course not. I'm just highlighting the fact that keeping up with trends in craft beer is exclusionary in it's nature and there should be some awareness of this. Not everybody can take part. This doesn't necessarily mean that the people who can't or don't take part are any less enthusiastic about beer than the people collecting new cans like Pokémon cards. Which I also couldn't afford to collect, but now I'm just intentionally trying to elicit sympathy so you'll buy me a ko-fi. E-begging is the future, I swear.

I suppose the quote I began with rang in my ears because to many, breweries like Cloudwater do seem like they're from another planet. Perhaps there could be more done to try to bridge that gap. There are people out there who really do want to know more and feel left out through accidental air pockets in market reach. Brew Dog have really capitalised on those gaps, bringing craft-style beers to people all over the country who'd normally never take a second glance. That's great, isn't it? You can say what you like about the brewery itself, but there are now thousands more people interested in the industry we love, enabling it to continue moving forward and generating a new gen of drinkers, bar owners and brewers. Bringing craft beer to everyone doesn't just give customers more options, it benefits the industry as a whole. That's why accessibility is so important.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Moorhouse's and "embracing the craft beer revolution"

Burnley-based Moorhouse's Brewery has undergone some grand changes in recent months. Back in April 2017, they appointed new Managing Director Lee Williams, a distinct strike out into fresh new waters. Williams had previous success bringing rival brewery Thwaites into craft beer contention with popular hop-forward 13 Guns and the big success of Wainwright, which I have to confess I choose over most beers when I see it in a Thwaites pub. (I'm a sucker for the Lakes.) His appointment was given a fanfare many were unsure of - he had come to build a "modern, contemporary" brewery, filling the shoes of David Grant, a traditional MD whose career with Moorhouses spanned 14 years. Do you remember what Moorhouse's was like 14 years ago? Their Premier Bitter won a gold medal at The International Beer and Cider Awards. The brewery hadn't yet opened a visitors' centre. It was exactly 100 years since the owner of the brewery was killed by an exploding bottle. That last one isn't so relevant to my point, but it's a pretty gruesome and interesting fact.

Last summer, the brewery lost jobs as part of a restructure, which sounded to many like the start of  a radical change. Then, two more awards came, for very trad, very Real Ale White Witch and Blond Witch, and folk settled down a bit. Cue Mr Williams' grand plans. I think we're going to have some fun with Mr Williams.

Why do I say that? Local beer blogger and columnist Mark Briggs aka. Real Ale Up North posted an article yesterday (Thursday 22 February, 2018) in the Lancashire Telegraph (among other local papers) revealing Moorhouse's plans to "embrace the craft beer era" - their words, not mine.

Previously content with their offering of CAMRA-pleasing trad ales and a couple of fancy extras - Stray Dog, for example, made in collaboration with New Order - they're now moving into the brave new world. In his piece, Mark describes a "tiny" 100 litre brew kit, used twice a week to craft 400 litres of experimental beers. He continues:

The beer that was currently being brewed, was a ‘high octane’ Russian Imperial Stout at 7.9%. Assistant Brewer, Jordan Hamer, trusted me with adding the Willamette hops into the boil.  

Lee [Managing Director of Moorhouses] said: “We will be doing this Imperial Stout for the World Cup in Russia - it seemed appropriate. The Vanilla Stout we brewed recently had good feedback from both the Pendle and Manchester beer festivals.”

Head brewer Dan Casaru added: “[the new kit] gives us the option to play around with our different styles... it gives us the opportunity to brew more bold and creative beers.”

Bold and creative beers from Moorhouse's. Those words are music to my ears. This time last year, you could often catch me raising my hands up to the rainy East Lancashire heavens, willing my tiny world existing just outside of the fringes of the craft beer bubble to accept craft beer as a good thing. We have a few breweries really excelling in this area, including Northern Whisper who are working on some pretty exciting things at the moment, but our big hitters seemed staunchly resistant to change. It's understandable - as pointed out in my post a couple of weeks ago, there's not the appetite for craft beer here like there is elsewhere in the country. However, in my opinion, that's never a good enough excuse not to innovate. People didn't realise they needed Reggaeton and now look at us. I'm now truly excited to find out a) what Moorhouse's start creating and b) how this changes our beer in E. Lancs. 

This article couldn't have come at a better time for me. I read an article in our local Campaign for Real Ale magazine over the weekend that suggested the two types of beer were brown (good) or grapefruit (bad). I'm still pretty raging about it. The more opinions like this (no matter how tongue in cheek) are challenged by our local well-respected brewers, the better. People's loyalties lie with the likes of Thwaites and Moorhouse's, no matter how large* they become. I'm hoping they use this powerful influence to gently win the hearts and minds of their customers. I'm hoping this is the start of an exciting new chapter in Lancashire brewing. I'm hoping that the era of identical blonde and pale session ales is over. I'm hoping, and I don't think that's an unreasonable or naive thing to do.

*Thwaites is mostly owned by Marstons, Moorhouse's remains independent.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Pub Culture Songs: The Copper Top

Music is hugely important to me and so I thought this new series of blog posts could reflect that passion from a pub culture point of view. The thing is, most legendary songs are written in pubs. On the back of beermats, on torn up cigarette packets, noted in a phone, or just half-thought of and remembered in a haze of hangover the next day, these songs are the lifeblood of modern culture, and as real to us as our own lives. And they're not just written in pubs, they exist in pubs and they emulate them, taking personal experience and transplanting it into a shared one, so we can all enjoy its deeper meaning. We've all sat around a table, peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray, changing the world with our deep conversations, or avoiding life completely. Pubs are part of our lives. Understandably, there are a lot of songs about this.

The first track I've chosen isn't an easy one, but it's wrenched from a place that's easily and instantly understood but still unique in its own way. It's a song about new grief. There's no euphemism I could write to make it sound more chart-friendly, I'm afraid. It's about gently beginning to surface into reality in the hours after a funeral, and coping in the only way you can. Death and pubs, our two certainties.

The Copper Top by Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat and jazz musician and composer Bill Wells is a song that arrests the world around you. Since I was little I've always loved story songs; songs that have a start and a middle and an end, that take you on a journey, no matter how mundane. Songs were the first place where I heard about what went on in pubs. I was the only kid who read the lyric booklets. The only 7 year old in Morecambe with a well-worn tape of Different Class. Like Jarvis, Aidan Moffat's storytelling is always breathtakingly on the nose, and I couldn't write about his work without mentioning the first time I heard his 1996 track "The First Big Weekend". It was a full transportation into his world. Deadpan delivery and hyper-realism the likes of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen would be proud of. No room for psychedelia. The real world's fucked up and unbelievable and boring and wonderful and depressing enough.

The Coppertop, Falkirk

The Copper Top is a bar in Falkirk, now offering European food and good beers, in 1996, it might have been a very different place. Immersing myself in Moffat's world, it seems that way.
The bar's busier than it should be on a weekday afternoon as the door swings shut behind me, but I'm the only one wearing a suit. No-one seems to notice my entrance though, I suppose they must be used to mourners in the nearest pub to the crematorium.
In two sentences, he sums up the strange out-of-routine sensation and the general heaviness of time that comes hand in hand with an unusual day off work. After the funeral, he's headed to the nearest pub for a quiet pint. His own private wake.
 I buy a pint and sit down.
The thing about escaping to the pub is that as well as being a place of enjoyment and togetherness, it can be a refuge. Moffat's sought out solitude in a busy bar, knowing he can enjoy the peace of a pint in comforting surroundings, where there are people but none of them will bother him while he drifts off into his own disparate thoughts. As he notes - they're used to seeing mourners in their local that they'll never see again. Like jetsam passing over their reef.

If you listen to the song you'll see that despite the gruff spoken-word monotone of Moffat's voice, the musicality of it is really magical. There are slight moments of reflection caught by brass and piano I really couldn't explain to you in words. All I can say is that they'll sound familiar, because you too have been sat deep in thought, mulling life over with a pint glass in your hand. After a brief interlude, Moffat interrupts himself.
Halfway through my pint and a text message from John says he's waiting outside, sooner than I'd expected. I down what's left and step out into the bright afternoon and get in the car. I look up and see the pub's once brilliant copper roof has oxidised over the years and it's now a dull, pastel green. Everything's getting older.
 A boring description of an everyday action. He steps into the street, slightly surprised by how light it still is, and gets into the car, his last moment of insular reflection resting on the now green roof of the pub. In his open and emotional frame of mind, it's a sign that although old and corroded, it's always been there for those customers inside, and it was there for him. A local that's always busy. A hideaway for crematorium escapees. One of our many immortal pubs.

Friday, 9 February 2018

You're answering the wrong questions about craft beer

If you follow me on Twitter, you might already know that I successfully completed my first bar shift in more than 7 years recently. No mean feat, considering my customer service and mental arithmetic skills have been made slow and lazy by desks. I'd been tentatively excited about it. Working behind a bar is something I remember with extremely pinkish lenses, despite knowing in my heart that, much like the fond memories of comradery I assume the Deer Hunter chaps felt about their first days in Vietnam, the fun and games were short-lived and tinged with tragedy, injury and lifetime-lasting scars. But that's working at Leeds Train Station Wethers for you.

As it turns out, working a cash till and pulling pints is like pulling on a comfy old pair of boots. The best part of working in a local pub is the conversation and the people watching, but this particular pub - The Ale House in Clitheroe - has a magical combination of folks from all walks of life. You'd be hard-pressed to spot a millionaire in there, or a sheep farmer, but I'm just saying, you'll probably pass both on the way to the loos.

Obviously, most of the conversations taking place centred around the range of beers on offer. When you've got a tiny bar and a clientele who demand only the finest hand-pulled ale, there's not much room for any other sort of talk. I'd brushed up on my knowledge of the stock we had in before my shift like a right old nerd and was expecting to get into one or two barneys about sexism on tap badges or the haziness of unfined IPAs. What actually happened was a bit of a surprise.

Yes please, what y'avin?
 It turns out, outside of the craft beer bubble, nobody really gives a shit. I'd learned the wrong facts. I was ready to have the wrong conversations. 30 miles north of Manchester, craft beer is just beer. How weird is that?

Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you're so far down your own rabbit hole that you don't know what they don't know. A large percentage of drinkers aren't invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don't understand what they're buying. A lot of drinkers aren't actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes - some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision - truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It's time to admit it: we're answering the wrong questions about beer.

These basic misunderstandings keep the craft beer scene separate from the average drinker, and whether the intention is to add mystery or superiority or not, the truth is that most find it off-putting. I spent long, long transactions attempting to convince beer lovers that yes, all craft beer is for them. And bear in mind, these are people who stepped into a craft beer pub by choice. I felt guilty for being so heavily invested in a culture that relishes being so "other," that people who'd actually enjoy being part of it feel they're not knowledgeable, or cool enough, to join in. Call me sad, but I like it when everyone is included.

So, I collated a little list of the actual questions I was asked during my shift, from real punters, who genuinely wanted answers. Whether you pay attention or not is up to you, but what I want to do is show the disparity between beer fans and beer drinkers (which includes the Song of Ice and Fire that is CAMRA v The Craft Beer Folk) and maybe foster some sort of truce. If we can be a little less insufferably keen, maybe everyone will get along a little better?

What's the percent of that?

I would say around 80% of customers were concerned with the strength of the beer on offer, and most who weren't concerned about taste (we'll get to that) chose their drink based on ABV and nothing else. NOTHING ELSE. Not who made it, not what it looked like, not the hops, not whether it was light or dark, even. Strength, or weakness, was their sole priority. Make U think.

What's the strongest beer you've got?

Sensing a pattern? Most visitors who asked this were the after 8pm crowd, and they didn't want to waste valuable catch-up time drinking session pales. Some, it has to be said, quickly changed their mind when it turned out to be an 11% Noa Pecan Mud Cake Imperial Stout at £8.70 a bottle, however we did still sell one based on a combination of strength and colour. Happily, the customer who ended up with it told us later that it was the best beer he'd ever drank. Now that's customer service.

Which beers are local?

That's right - I got asked on more than one occasion which beers we had on from nearby breweries. I liked this question because supporting local breweries is obviously a great thing to do. It did seem that people didn't care much about what the beers were like though, just that they were from the village over the hill.

Is it like Magic Rock?

People have started deciding that they like beers based on the brewery. I heard somebody say the words, "You can really taste the Beavertown in that." I was modifying my recommendations based on brewery, rather than type or taste of beer. I can understand it, every brewery has their own style, but we all know that you can't really gauge whether you like a beer you've never tried from a brewery you've never tried based on whether they make beers like Magic Rock. This phenomenon is strange. It's exactly like when I was really into drum and bass and talked about music by label rather than artist. Is Beavertown RAM Records? Is Verdant Shogun Audio? Who, apart from me, would really get this analogy? I should quit while I'm ahead.

Why is this £5 per half?

A common complaint. Explaining the ins and outs of brewing expenses falls on deaf ears at 9pm in a small rural town and the best thing to say is, "It's just really nice. Would you like to taste it?" My only thought is to create a written menu people can look at if they want, that explains what's in each beer, to try and foster some sort of interest in the craft (and therefore cost) of making specialist beers for anyone who's interested. But not many people will be, because in all fairness, if one pint is £2.70 and another is a tenner, and you don't really know what you're drinking, which one are you going to go for?

Can I have a half?

Biggest surprise of the evening - a lot of people drink halves. It's not a fancy hipster pub I work at either. Northerners both male and female drink halves by choice and nobody mentions it. I need to do more research on this because I'm not sure if it's because people need less alcohol or if they just don't like drinking whole pints of liquid.

Can I try that?

Punters are ready to give things a go. They are open to guidance too - as long as you're not patronising about it. Even the stoniest-faced Lancashire auld boy wanted to test the liquorice porter.

"Oh, those are just the hops they used. Want to give it a go?"

Is this it?

Four cask pulls and two draft pumps looks like nothing when you compare it to the number of taps in a Wetherspoons, for example. I learned quickly that people are too hard-pressed to want to spend time looking in the fridges for something that takes their fancy, particularly if they don't know what they're looking for. One person wasn't interested in the cans because they didn't want anything "fruity." None of that mango shit. Again, totally understandable, the fridges at our place are home to a lot of weird and wonderful things but I didn't realise how offputting a wall of unfamiliar products is. They're just a customer, standing in front of a bar, asking for something delicious to enjoy on their night off. I think the key here is to be as approachable and helpful as possible, and not go into too much detail. I lost someone once I started talking about hop profiles. Down girl.

I'd be interested in hearing from you on this subject. It's hard to balance knowledge and passion with genuine helpfulness. There's a lot to be said for complete immersion in something you care about and trying to get other people to care just as much is only natural. But what if most people just aren't that into it?

Friday, 2 February 2018

Pubs of Dublin

Visiting Dublin was a revelation to me. The city breaks I normally take are in places where the sun shines and impromptu fiestas block roads and rouse plaza drinkers to take their tiny saucers of cubed snacks into the streets. To visit somewhere less than 200 miles away midwinter seems counter-productive - what for? Why not just stay in Manchester? - but it was my 30th birthday and I'd been told it was a special place.

It turns out that Dublin is the only place I can stand the drizzling rain. For two days I walked down sandstone and cobbled streets encased in hanging droplets of Atlantic Ocean with the worst hair I've ever had, without a care in the world. And it isn't that Dublin has some sort of whimsical charm about it - that's a myth. Dublin is a modern and vibrant city, bursting at the seams with independent retailers and exciting artistic diversions, as well as street after street of some of the most perfect shopping you've ever seen. If you're into that sort of thing. It's not so much a clash of old and new as a total reassessment of what a proud, old, historic city can be and it works. It just does.

Of course, in two days there's only so much you can do, and as a burgeoning beer blogger, it seems befitting to centre this post on pubs. You don't need me to tell you anything about Dublin's drinking scene, except perhaps the re-affirmation that it's very much alive and kicking, and far less staggy than you'd expect. Against the Grain, the first place on my list and the first place I visited, was a complete delight, offering craft enough to excite us even after a day of diazepam (bad flyers) and amazing quantities of Lebanese food. Dark, friendly and yes, okay, expensive - I'll happily pay it if I'm on holiday though - I blazed through my first-night birthday cash with abandon.

Before you visit, people talk about the Guinness as though it has miraculous properties. Their eyes mist over as they try to grasp the fading memory of it, before taking your hand to make you promise, hand on heart, that you'll have a pint for them. I thought it was all melodrama but the Stag's Head showed me that yes, Dublin Guinness is a joy, and yes, I can drink more than five in an afternoon and still be fit for a decent tea. A Victorian bolthole in Temple Bar, The Stag boasts aged brass chandeliers, stained glass and floor-length mirrors aged cosily with pipe-smoke-and-wear patina. I spent a long time in the snug looking at reflections bouncing around the room, thinking about the smartly-dressed men who would have checked their sideburns for accuracy in them more than a hundred years ago. It's that sort of place. I went back twice more during my stay.

Apologies for the wonky photo, I had had 16,000 pints of Guinness

During my stay, walking past pubs in Dublin became a hobby of mine, and I hope I return soon to continue the series of photos I started. I take photos of pubs in England too, but there's something about the places I saw there - including the The Temple Bar itself, even - that make even a late person sure they've got time enough in them to have a swift one. Because who hasn't got ten minutes for a short conversation?

I did commit one cardinal sin though, and it was that I didn't visit one single brewery or distillery. We just didn't have time. We walked to Jameson's because there was a church with crypts I wanted to see nearby, but instead of touring, we sat in the bar opposite and had a beer. Mine was a zingy dry-hopped lemon sour by The White Hag, based out of Ballymote, Sligo.

Maybe we'll try harder next time.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Fear Beers

For avid travellers, both Tom and I are massive scaredy cats. You'd think an aeroplane engineer would be fine in the sky, but he's not a fan of aviation once it leaves the ground. I'm much worse - arriving at Manchester Airport train station fills me with dread and things don't get much better until I arrive at my destination. If you ever have the misfortune of finding yourself sat beside me on a flight, just ignore me. I'll be crying silently for the most part but essentially, I'm fine.

The one and only thing you can do to make yourself a pro plane user is to do it more often, and with alcohol, so we were brave and for a joint birthday present caught a cheap Ryanair to Dublin. To ease our nerves, the owner of The Ale House in Clitheroe gave us three fortifying beers on the proviso that I review them for him. So that's exactly what I'm doing.

Birthday beers are the best beers (there are also some excellent Cissy Green pies in the white bag. I get the best birthday presents!)

Beavertown x Verdant - Shut Up and Play the Hits Double IPA 8.8%

The first thing I said after taking a sip was "Ooh, it feels silky." And I wasn't making it up, it really does have a smooth and silky mouthfeel, like good red wine. I'm understanding that this is because of the oats involved in the brewing process, please correct me if I'm wrong.

A fresh, green (Tom says not to use the word green as it's a beer insult? But I am using it in a purely artistic fashion to denote young shoots and unfurling leaves, touched by light droplets of rain. So please don't take offence,) slightly resinous and sappy beer, mossy and fragrant. I'm taking a liberty here but I'm guessing all of these naturalistic, earthy plant-based flavours and aromas are Verdant's influence since all of their beers have a whiff of the outdoors to me. It also kindof reminded me of Dobber by Marble Brewery, which can only be a good thing. It also holds its ABV really well, with sweetness that was definite but not overpowering.

Can I just say as well, what an excellent can this has. Skeletons playing beach ball and having loads of fun, which for me is a perennial mood. Don't ever change, Beavertown!

Roosters - Scrambler Watermelon Pale Ale 4%

This is, as any self-respecting 1970s northern darts player would say, a bobby dazzler. Before I cracked it open I half-expected it to be a thick and oozy juicer, but it turned out to be an almost sarcastically refined, light and delicately fruity helles-style pale lagery delight. My bad, I know, it says "pale ale" not "dank af westcoast IPA," but it was still like seeing Dimebag Darrel sitting down to a baby grand to play mellifluous cocktail jazz. We kept passing it back and forth on the train for tiny sips, doing equally tiny laughs at this magic drink we'd discovered.

It's not all watermelon though. There's a fun level of hoppy complexity, with a crisp, dry aftertaste. No doubt it'll be in the running for my favourite beer of the summer. (Would it make a good michelada? Now that's a good and valid question.) 

Roosters x Magic Rock  - Northern Powerhouse 4.5%

Tom, not scared, outside Manchester Airport T3

Of course having these two breweries clubbing together is an obvious marker for success, so there's not much to say except this is really nice. It's a lovely easy drinker with a good level of bitterness that nips at your tongue and perceived sweetness from the hops that makes it all-round a very good egg indeed. Tom said I had to put "perceived sweetness" because he vehemently disagreed with me. He said it's not sweet. I say it isIt's quite a lot like Neck Oil, which is by no means a criticism on my part. Neck Oil is one of the best craft beers of our time imo; any recipe coming close to it deserves a pat on the back.

By the time we'd finished it, it was time to check our bags in and head to the frankly awful bar in Terminal 3, so its lingering memory tasted all the sweeter. Our final drink before heading over the top, to no-man's-land. Goodbye world.

(We arrived safely and on time in Dublin three hours later. I can be quite dramatic about airports.)