Back From Paris & London: Guess Where I Drank More Beer?

I spent the better part of two weeks in Paris and London, ending yesterday, which explains the absence of posts here. It’s not that I didn’t have my computer with me or experience things worth blogging about; it’s just that I frankly couldn’t convince myself that sitting in my hotel room blogging was a better idea that being out and about it two of the world’s greatest cities.

Were I to have blogged during my trip, I might have written something along the lines of what Ron just posted over at his blog, entitled, simply enough, I Love Pubs.

Because, while I might not be as much of a purist as is Mr. Pattinson — hell, who is? — I am a great fan of the British pub. I’ve supped in literally hundreds of the places, written stories about them, and hardly ever found a (studiously selected) one I didn’t like. The pub is a great, great part of why I have such affection for the United Kingdom in general and London in particular, even as pointless idiots try to burn both to the ground this week.

The pub is why I often find myself frustrated drinking in my home city of Toronto, since almost every pub in these parts is part of some cookie cutter chain or another, all of which believe that I pub starts with old brewery bric-a-brac and ends with overly cheerful servers in girl’s school kilts. (And what is up with that, anyway!?) Although difficult to explain, a pub is something much more than fittings and fixtures, more, even, that centuries of history and experience. A pub is a social entity, not a physical one, and that is something most patrons and, sadly, customers around these parts just don’t get.

Best first-time pub for me on this trip? Although there were many contenders, most notably the Prince Albert and Draft House, both steps from Battersea Park — and both proof that chains can run decent public houses! — I’ll have to give the nod to north London’s excellent Jolly Butchers, a recently transformed pub which provides ample evidence that cask ale and craft beer, old neighbourhoods and new interiors, families and ordinary punters can all co-exist quite happily.

I miss it already.



Meantime Brewing Steps Up

London’s Meantime Brewing has always struck me as a forward thinking organization. Even before I met brewer-founder Alastair Hook at the company’s Old Brewery in Greenwich – which is not to say their old brewery, out of which they were in the process of moving, but their then-new Old Brewery brewpub-restaurant – last year, I could tell this wasn’t your average British brewery. For starters, there were the bottles, sleek and obviously designed with restaurant sales at least somewhat in mind, and then the fact they brewed – gasp! – lagers, as well as cask and filtered ales.

Once I met and had the opportunity to chat at length with Hook, I became even more convinced. Here was an English brewer who recognizes the value in cask-conditioned ale, but also – sorry CAMRA – understands that there is beer life beyond the cask, including keg and bottled brews. And now, according to this press release, Hook & company have decided that in addition to brewing fine ales and lagers, it might not be such a bad idea to sell them, too.

(If you’re too lazy to click through to the announcement, it’s about Meantime having hired as their new CEO an ex-SABMiller marketing guy named Nick Miller. Miller, as Martyn Cornell explains over here, is the man responsible for the incredible success experienced in the U.K. of late by the Italian lager, Peroni, which Cornell reports has grown 29% in the twelve month period ending in April, 2010.)

I fear this appointment will send many in England to the barricades, fearful of “big brewery creep” in the craft sector, but I can’t help but feel it is a fine and intelligent move on Meantime’s part. Hook has never wanted his beers to languish as niche brands, and frankly most of them are far too good to be consigned to such a fate. Miller knows how to sell beer, even unremarkable, image-driven beer like Peroni, and seems to believe in the brand. The fit would appear ideal.

“I Only Eat Grilled Food…”

Ludicrous statement, that headline, isn’t it? I mean, why on earth would someone eschew boiled, fried, broiled, braised, roasted or raw food of any sort in deference to grilled fare? That would imply that the form of preparation is more important than the flavour of the food, wouldn’t it?

Welcome to the world of cask ale enthusiasts. Or at least some of them.

On the heels of the latest Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) controversy detailed in the story below, many, many bloggers and commentators have waded in with their views, from Martyn and his close to 100 comments (!) to Young Dredge to Tandleman to the Reluctant Scooper and even Mr. McL. By far to my mind the most extraordinary comment, however, is the following from a self-described “Prize winning brewer and beer blogger” named Ed:

And as a beer blogger that loves cask beer above all else I happen to think that good beer and form of beer are inextricably linked.

Which led to the headline above. As I have stated previously ad nauseum, I enjoy good cask-conditioned ale as much as the next guy, but I’ve also tasted my fair share of both good and bad cask ale, and good and bad bottled beer, keg beer, canned beer, kellerbier, bottle-conditioned beer, etc. For me, it’s all about how it tastes in my glass, not how it came to be there. To think otherwise would be, well, akin to only eating grilled food.

Goings On Across the Pond

If you’re not a regular reader of some of the best British beer blogs – and you SHOULD be, for the information and entertainment value of writers like Pete Brown, Mark “Young” Dredge and Martyn Cornell – you might not be aware of the controversy brewing in the UK. Over, of all things, the notion of “craft beer.”

CAMRA, that champion of cask-conditioned, so-called “Real” ale – I’ve always despised that term and its implication that non-cask-conditioned ale (and all lager) is somehow not “real” – has taken craft beer to task as, wait for it, something that is bad! Yes, you read that right, what we in North America (and Italy and Denmark and Japan and Brazil and most other beer markets around the globe) take as something wonderful and worthy of promotion, CAMRA apparently views as a dire threat to its convictions, prosperity and, indeed, very existence.

The source of the above contention is better explained by Martyn and Pete than I could possible do here, so why not pay one or both of those gents a visit and read up on it? I’ll wait here.

There, got it? CAMRA, which everyone should know arose in response to the rise of execrable keg beers like Watney’s Red Barrel is, forty years on, still toeing the party line, even in face of such wonderful developments as the globalization of craft beer and the emergence of a new breed of breweries in the UK, some of which, yes, produce characterful and tasty keg or filtered bottled beer in place of or in addition to cask versions of same.

As someone who visits the United Kingdom frequently – I’m on my way back in a couple of months, in fact – I am as big a fan as anyone of well-kept cask-conditioned ale. It’s pretty much all I drink when I’m over there. But come on, CAMRA, it’s no longer the be-all and end-all! There is a lot of good bottled and kegged beer available in London and beyond today, much of it far better than some of the crap cask ale I’ve been served during my visits. No one is suggesting you change the organization’s name or completely rewrite your mandate, but sticking to method of dispense as the sole defining factor of your existence is myopic at best and sheer lunacy at worst.

Two trips ago in London, Jay Brooks and I went on a tear of tasting during which every single cask-conditioned brew we tasted for about ten or more in a row was badly affected by diacetyl. I’m talking serious butter bombs! After which a glass of clean, good quality, keg-dispensed pilsner would have gone down a treat. And CAMRA, that occurred at your flagship event, the Great British Beer Festival!

Bottom line, for this CAMRA member: It’s what is in my glass that counts, not how it got there.