The paralysis of choice

Earlier this month, I returned to my university city, Nottingham, for an afternoon and evening of wandering between the local watering holes and reminiscing the good ol’ student days.

Anyone who has been to Nottingham will know that what the city lacks in sprawl, it makes up for in sheer pub density. It’s hard to walk for five minutes without happening upon several different places which would be lovely spots to spend an afternoon with a pint and a newspaper. For this reason, planning my Nottingham pub crawl required forward thinking and commitment to a plan. I narrowed the shortlist of my favourite pubs down to just eight. Drinking half pints would become necessary closer to the end of the evening.

We began the afternoon at Canal House, a pub operated by the Castle Rock brewery, set in a charming grade II industrial building next to the canal, complete with two resident narrowboats. As I stepped inside, many happy memories from my student days immediately flooded back. I headed to the bar, and my eyes were drawn immediately to the hand pull ale choices. I scoured the pumps for my old favourite, Castle Rock’s Screech Owl. I couldn’t find it, but I settled on a different pale ale from the same brewery instead.

As the bartender poured our drinks, I took a closer look at the various options on offer. The once small-but-perfectly-formed keg choice of stylish European lagers had exploded into a choice of more than 10 craft beers. Behind these, a tall fridge was well stocked with Belgian beers. Beside this, another fridge was filled to the brim with cans. I started to feel relieved that I’d made a snap decision on what to order, or else I might have been reading the menu for most of the afternoon.

“Is it like you remember?” my husband asked me.
My brow furrowed. I struggled to articulate how it felt to me like something had been lost from the place, even though all that had really happened was that more options had been added. I’d loved the pub for precisely its niche; the reliability of excellently kept Castle Rock ales, the chance to try the brewery’s seasonal ranges, and guest ales from other small local breweries, such as the fantastic Springhead. But now there was a smorgasbord of choice that was almost dizzying. I quickly realised the problem; were it not for the recognisable brick walls and beams lovingly decorated with pump labels, I could be anywhere. The pub had retained its charm, but the bar choice had lost its accent.

Afterwards, we walked to Canning Circus (via an obligatory photo opportunity with the Robin Hood statue) to the Hand and Heart. It’s easily the best cave pub in the city; wonderful ambiance and music, plus far less touristy than Ye Olde Trip. Here, there was a much smaller selection than back at Canal House, and I felt more relaxed for it. Although we’d already eaten, I glanced at the menu out of curiosity. It was short and perfectly formed, just like the cask and keg range.

As we sipped our beers, we talked about how we felt that choice paralysis can be detrimental to a great pub. The places I like best are curators as well as distributors. Changing taps and rotating bottles are great, but I really don’t need a year’s worth of drinking possibilities thrown at me all in one pub visit.

Next, we decided to visit a couple of the places that had sprung up since I last lived in the city – lest I allow my yearning for the past to get the better of me. We stopped for a fantastic oatmeal stout at The Overdraught, a taproom for Totally Brewed. Wittily named too, since the bar occupies a former bank. We also loved The Barrel Drop, a Magpie Brewery micropub nestled in an alleyway. We were lucky enough to catch the opening session of an open mic night, and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming.

We ended the night at the Lincolnshire Poacher, another Castle Rock pub a short stumble away up Mansfield Road, to the north of the city centre. Despite the pouring rain, it was bustling. In the corner, musicians were setting up for a session. The cask range offered a fantastic choice from both long-standing and new local breweries. Lining the walls behind the bar, the whisk(e)y selection was as great as ever. We sat in the back room, where the wooden tables and leather armchairs looked as battered and as loved and as lived in as I recalled.

“This place is just how I remember it” I told my husband, beaming with fuzzy, nostalgic joy. Finally, I felt like I was home.

 

The Gastropub Machine

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in Fulham for an early evening midweek drinks date. Despite being born in southwest London, this corner of the west has eluded me until now. London is often like that. Its sprawl and the sheer scale of paralyzing choice makes it surprisingly easy to leave entire areas untouched for years – even parts that are relatively close to home. I met with my friend at a charming corner pub which has maintained the brass rail around the bar in the style of a proper old boozer, whilst adding chic and modern touches.

Bottles of water and glasses sat on each table. It’s great to see more British gastropubs cottoning on to this trend. One of my favorite things about the casual dining scene in the US is the fact that water is brought almost the second one sits down, before any alcoholic drinks are even ordered. This takes the pressure off; many a time have I tried in vain to catch the attention of waiting staff to chase up my forgotten order of a water jug. Since this gastropub was an order-at-the-bar affair, having the water already placed out was perfect.

As I glanced over the menu out of curiosity, it struck me that the gap between pub grub and fine dining – both in terms of quality and cost – is gradually narrowing. Nowadays, the price of a couple of courses in a gastropub scarcely comes in any cheaper than a meal with wine at an intimate and dimly-lit bistro, but to Gen X and Gen Y, that has never been the point. The casual, low-stress dining experience with minimal table service is beloved by many who find the white tablecloth stereotype stuffy and unnecessary. The same millennials that devoured piled-up Sunday lunches in eclectic pubs, sat at chipped wooden tables, now earn tidy city salaries – but their tastes haven’t really changed all that much. Gastropub quality in the UK has therefore dutifully grown with its audience, and it goes without saying that the prices have too.

It got me wondering how far the gastropub machine can go. There’s a uniformity to the model, and whilst each establishment might have a signature dish, sometimes reading menus can feel like déjà vu. The rate at which drinking holes receive swanky refurbs in conjunction with new menus has become quite prolific.

Sometimes, I like to remember a time when triple cooked chips weren’t so frequently found with a parmesan and truffle sprinkling. And every time a place I love edges towards the hot-smoked-salmon-brunch end of the spectrum, I worry that the charm which I first fell in love with could eventually end up vanishing for good. It happens more and more; I stumble into a favorite Victorian pub to find that their simple and affordable bar snacks menu has been replaced by a three course extravaganza, and not one single main on the menu will pair quite so well with my pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best as that scotch egg would have done.

The whole thing sometimes makes me want a packet of Scampi Fries, enjoyed at a slightly sticky table adjacent to a fruit machine. I suspect that there are no such places left in West London, but I’d be very happy to be proved wrong.

How a bad cask pint can lead to love

If you seek out the greatest beer lovers in any nation, they tend to be inquisitive and hungry for new experiences, especially tasty ones. Prominent beer industry figures frequently note that UK conventions which attract a global audience offer chances to overhear the conversations of American brewers and publicans excitedly discussing cask ale; where to drink it and what to drink. This eagerness to explore new things is to be expected of those with an established passion for great beer and the discovery of such. But are the US folks who are less entrenched in the world of beer as eager to get stuck in?

Sometimes the answer is still yes, but the possibility of a bad experience is higher for tourists than for anyone. When I first met my American husband, I winced as he reported having stumbled into a Nicholson’s pub and ordered a pint of London Glory in the West End on his first night in London. I could make a reasonable guess that it had been served flat, at the wrong temperature, and tasted of brown nothingness. Immediately my mind was racing with ideas of pubs that I could take him to for better cask ale experiences that would hopefully erase that newbie error of ill-fortune for good. Fortunately, he was willing to give cask another try, and loved it by the night’s end (it’s just as well; I’m not sure our relationship would have gotten off the ground had he not appreciated a good hand-pulled pint).

But what about the visitors to the UK who turn their backs on cask after a shoddy and lukewarm experience? How can we convince them to give cask another shot? The upcoming Cask 2019 event run by Affinity Brew Co could help. The participants will be breweries who don’t usually serve their beer in cask, and with trendy names like Beavertown and Pressure Drop already confirmed, it could be just the thing to convince skeptics that cask need not be bland and boring.

Maintaining the good parts of cask’s reputation whilst improving upon the bad parts is a tough PR gig, and is certainly not an overnight job. But together, we can keep the buzz going for this great British institution. And next time you overhear a bad pint ordered in an American accent, why not step in to humbly suggest an alternative? Your advice could even lead to the love of cask spreading a little further.

Is the CAMRA discount killing cask ale?

From my first foray into drinking real ale, I always had a soft spot for CAMRA. Sure, their meet-ups of beardy straight white middle-aged men could do with a bit of diversity, but they always seemed a friendly enough, if decidedly ‘uncool’ bunch.

Over time, sneers in CAMRA’s direction became more common, and inspired in me a somewhat protective knee-jerk response. It seemed to start around the time that the first BrewDog pubs displayed signs reading ‘No CAMRAs’ upon the walls of their hip joints; no doubt tongue-in-cheek, but with an underlying acidic aftertaste. There was a school yard bully vibe about it that struck me as unpleasant. And of course, we all know that what starts as a series of playful jibes at the bespectacled dorky kid eventually amounts to something much bigger.

My CAMRA card was last in the front of my wallet around the same time that I last carried a student card. Like all cash-strapped youngsters, I was a bargain hunter when it came to going out and having a good time, and I took my real ale habit the most seriously of all. It brought me fresh joy each time I found myself receiving 20p off a pint, and I admit that at the time I never thought too deeply about exactly who was discounting me – was it CAMRA themselves, the pubs, the suppliers, or the breweries?

For a while I imagined that it might be the pubs. The Bree Louise in Euston sent a drinking buddy of mine into shock upon demanding about £5.50 for a pint of Guinness several years ago. This seemed so steep given their usual prices that I couldn’t help wondering if this was some sort of ‘bad taste tax’. People who want to drink Guinness when there’s three stouts and two porters on the ale pumps will drink Guinness no matter what it costs. Could it be that the pricing up of the beers which enjoy an absurdly loyal and almost cult-like following was helping to keep the indie selections cheaper for the rest of us?

But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see that the CAMRA discounts are not doing wonders for everyone – especially the breweries. Ben Duckworth, Director and Co-Founder of Affinity Brew Co spoke to me about how breweries can often suffer due to the discounts offered to CAMRA card holders. In turn, the pubs want to pay less for the casks in order to preserve their profit margins. This echoed the sentiment from Matthew Curtis’ recent ‘Cask Confidential’ article for Ferment Magazine; cask is often the “lowest common denominator… treated without the care and attention that a premium product both requires and deserves.”

Ben highlighted the two main threats to cask ale today – pricing and presentation.
“For too long, people have only been willing to spend under £4 for a warm pint of flat ale. Which is probably all it’s been worth!”
Ben explained that this led to an effective ‘race to the bottom’, with pubs looking to pay as little as possible. He said he has heard of casks going for as low as £40 each.
“That’s £1 a litre, and is an absolute insult.”

As we talked, I felt dismayed and a little embarrassed to have celebrated the low cost of cask over keg throughout my student days and early twenties. But then I immediately saw the problem; as craft keg offerings have been getting better and better, cask quality has plateaued and demand has stagnated. It’s tough to feel ok about paying an extra quid for something that isn’t constantly upping its game. Looked at this way, the demise of cask under discounts seems like a sad self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone loves value for money, but could it be that the CAMRA discount could eventually help to kill off the great quality cask ale that it has worked so hard to promote?

This Catch-22 definitely demands a new approach. Ben told me that Affinity’s Cask 2019 festival aims at exactly that.
“We thought, let’s get some of the best breweries in the country, some of whom don’t normally put their beers into cask, to put their beers into cask. We encase all the casks in a cooled container, and serve them on gravity.”
The festival will be offering beers at £5 a pint (halves are also available) and will feature beers from breweries such as Beavertown and Pressure Drop.

Ben’s dedication to reviving the demand for cask gives me hope, and it definitely sounds like it’s time to snap out of my nostalgia. As such, I promise that I will try my very best not to be appalled and whinge about the good ol’ days the next time a pint of cask costs me a fiver. And maybe at the Cask 2019 event, I’ll finally get to see what Smog Rocket tastes like on cask. Now there’s something to look forward to.

You can’t stop progress

As Thomas Wolfe’s novel so wisely observed, you can’t go home again.

I spent my student years in Nottingham. It was here that one lunchtime during my first semester, a fellow philosophy student convinced me to try a pint of cask ale rather than my usual lager. The beer was Harvest Pale from Castle Rock brewery, a Nottingham institution. Shortly after, I graduated to the slightly more toothsome Screech Owl by the same brewery. The damage was done; I was hooked for life.

In the coming years, my passion for cask ale would evolve and my tastes would turn darker. I’d sample my first autumnal ambers, plum porters, spicy ruby ales and oyster stouts. But of course, the first cask ale I had ever tasted would continue to hold a special place in my heart.

The Castle Rock pubs were some of my favourites in the city. In particular the Keanes Head, squirreled away on an alley overlooking a beautiful church, and Canal House, with its quaint wood-panelled interior and outdoor terrace perfect for the summer months. Pints of Harvest Pale cost £2.50 usually, £2.30 with a Castle Rock loyalty card, and £2.00 on a Monday. I will remember these prices until I die. Fortunately, it was entirely possible to drink great beer on a student budget in Nottingham, and it remains one of the many reasons that I’m relieved to have gotten out of London to study.

I landed back in the Big Smoke eventually, and of course the prices were a bit of a punch in the stomach. But there was a silver lining; my beer obsession was dividing and multiplying fast, and with hundreds of new drinking spots to tap into, it was impossible to be bored.

I returned to Nottingham every year or so in an attempt to rekindle the special connection I felt with my university city. Each time, I felt that we had grown apart a little more. The changes to the place I had loved so dearly became increasingly apparent. Taps offering trendy keg beers had appeared in my favourite boozers. Charming ‘spit-n-sawdust’ pubs had gotten modernising face-lifts.

Of course, it’s wrong to expect things to stay the same for ever. But before, there was something nice about the fact that in a fairly compact city which boasted a huge amount of pubs, local was the focus in nearly every one. You could spend an entire afternoon wandering between watering holes, drinking a different pint in each, and never drink a beer that was brewed outside of Nottingham. Maybe if you were out for long enough, you could get a beer brewed in Derbyshire. Just to get really exotic, y’know.

Whilst these beers are of course still available, they now share so much more of the spotlight with many others from down south and from across the seas. It’s just not quite the same community drinking experience that it used to be, from my perspective.

Back in London, I decided to embrace the changing tides fully, heading to The Rake with an old drinking buddy. It’s a tiny little bar nestled in Borough Market, and it was an after-work favourite of mine when I worked in London Bridge. This place is the opposite end of the spectrum from my old Nottingham haunts; I’m fairly certain that I have never had the same beer there twice.

I arrived hoping to beat the after-work rush. But alas, gone are the days when I could nip in at 5pm and catch a table. At 4.50pm, it was already crowded. Their beer board was as diverse as ever, but what had changed quite a bit was the prices. A few of the pints on offer cost an eye-watering £8.00. My friend and I exchanged exasperated glances. This wasn’t our little secret anymore; we would have to keep moving with the times and find a new one.

 

Beer naming trends – how far is too far?

The last decade or so has seen increased stylistic explosions in the brewing industry. They say that variety is the spice of life – but is there any substance behind the labels for these newly minted brew categories?

Some of these creations clearly pay homage to traditional brewing styles of countries like Germany and Belgium, whilst adding a modern, hipster-pleasing twist. Other concepts seem so harebrained that they appear to be borne out of an ill-advised brainstorm session in a hotbox.

Here’s my take on three craft brews that the barman would have given you a very funny look for ordering 20 years ago.

1. Black IPA

Once you get past the annoying contradictory name (and I humbly suggest that we all unite in refusing to do so, and adopt ‘Cascadian Dark Ale’ instead), this style isn’t all that bad an idea. It’s a beer ideal for the chilly winter nights, when you want something rich, smooth and dark, with a touch of the bitter bite that one is used to finding in a stout, combined with the late hop additions of your more refreshing summer beer choices for that full-flavoured finish.

Beers were cropping up on shelves and taps under this name as early as 2009, but seemed to reach a new peak of popularity around the 2016 mark. The thing is, it’s not new; many records suggest that beer fitting this description has been around for well over a century. Whilst traditional British darker ale styles have gone easy on hop flavour, German Schwarzbier has long allowed malts and hops to express themselves in unison as part of a dark beer. So perhaps this dark and hoppy craft offering could be said to be a top-fermented take on this German classic?

So I’m all for the revival, but why the name? Why did ‘Black IPA’ take off in popularity precisely how and when it did? Simple; it’s a gimmick. Black IPA rides on the coat tails of the IPA-centric craft beer revolution of the last couple of decades, and could be easily marketed to plaid-clad youngsters who know their Stone from their Sierra Nevada, but wouldn’t know a plum porter or breakfast stout if it smacked them in the face. Cynical? Perhaps.

2. Double IPA (DIPA)

I have a confession: the fuzziness of the definition of a DIPA annoys the hell out of me.

The concept of a DIPA is that the malt and hops are each scaled up to leave the bill and balance more or less unchanged, but to create a stronger, more punch-packing beer. All sounds great, right? But here’s the thing – one brewer’s IPA, is another’s DIPA, is another’s TIPA… and so on. Somehow, I find it a little discomforting that there appears to be no particular floor or ceiling which a DIPA must satisfy.

True, they tend to be higher ABV. But I have had DIPAs at 7% and IPAs at 7.5%. I’ve had West-Coast style IPAs with such a fierce hop flavour that they resembled medicine more closely than beer, and then I’ve braced for the DIPA from the same brewery, and been pleasantly surprised by a well-rounded, lengthy and full-flavoured finish.

Maybe it’s my issue – I’m just too keen to put beers in boxes, and sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. But mostly I think it’s just that I’m a little tired of West-Coast style IPAs. The hop explosion has its place, but the innovation on the New England side is much more interesting to me right now; the creamier mouthfeel just makes the hops sing.

3. White Stout

I’ve saved the most ludicrous until last.

I visited an incredibly trendy craft beer bar in Berlin earlier this year which boasted this style on tap, and I felt immediately confused. So what the fuck is it?

White Stout is a golden coloured ale which exhibits some rich chocolate and vanilla notes that one would usually expect to find in a darker beer. It might also have a thick and creamy mouthfeel that is characteristic of stouts.

Call me a purist, but I really struggle to get my head around this one. As a homebrewer, ‘stout’ conjures to mind selections of grain varieties that only a magician could extract a pale colour from. I love making pales with creamy mouthfeels, and flaked oats and wheat are my go-to grain additions to create this, yet I have never dreamed of labeling any such concoction a ‘white stout’ rather than a ‘white ale’.

So once again, I’m all for this beer style in principle, but it’s misnamed. Or perhaps there are already enough new style names, and this experiment does not actually need a name at all. If it has lactose, it’s a milkshake IPA or milkshake pale. Or if it has specialty toasted malts, what’s wrong with just calling it a Toasted Pale Ale?

 

I hope that in years to come, the innovation in the brewing industry continues apace – but maybe we could ease off on the new names for every single experiment. Our conversations with publicans will be more honest and straightforward for it.

A weekend in Beer City USA

Fall is a great time for visiting the Midwest. With the humid summer over, a gentle cool breeze whips through the air. My day out exploring the beer scene of Grand Rapids started with clouded skies, but luckily these cleared by lunchtime, and the bright sun took the chill off – just as well given that I didn’t have a warm jacket.

Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Michigan. The metro area seemed sprawling but the downtown area felt quite small and walkable. So what made Grand Rapids earn the title Beer City USA?

Arguably, it all started with Founders in 1997. In the last couple of decades, Founders has become one of the best known breweries in the country, and their tasty beers have reached further shores; Byron burger restaurants in the UK have been serving up bottles of the crowd-pleasing All Day IPA for several years now. The Founders taproom was majestic. A lengthy beer list, speedy service and a killer food menu, all with a great view of the shiny brewery through floor to ceiling windows.

Recent years have seen aggressive expansion of the brewing scene in GR. The city was first recognised as ‘Beer City’ when it had fewer than 20 breweries, and as of now the city’s Ale Trail boasts 80+ breweries. So, it’s easy to see how 40,000 beer tourists flock here every year.

We finished the afternoon in town at Grand Rapids Beer Company. Sat at the counter, I enjoyed a lovely Hefeweizen. Then it was time to head home to sample some rich bottled stouts. My favorite was The Poet from New Holland Brewing; beautiful creamy mouthfeel and rich roasted flavours. Richer still was the slightly higher ABV Dragon’s Milk, which is aged in oak barrels for 120 days.

Any lover of great beer of all varieties would enjoy a weekend in Grand Rapids. And, although it’s not quite a GR brew, I highly recommend getting hold of the Two Hearted Ale, brewed at Bells in Kalamazoo, MI. It’s one of the cleanest and most well-rounded IPAs I’ve ever had.