Monthly Archives: May 2014

Gerrus a parnt

pot banks_fotorThe six towns of the Potteries don’t have a reputation for being the most picturesque place roundabouts. Ask outsiders their opinion and you tend to get the old, “…but they’re such friendly people” response, which, when it’s clear that you’re enquiring about the architectural merits of Blurton or Sneyd Green, is such an obvious distraction answer that it doesn’t wash. Saying that, Potteries’ folk are really friendly in my experience – the friendliness that is borne out of close friends and families working cheek by jowl for generation upon generation; the friendliness borne out of industrial disintegration; the friendliness borne out of, let’s be honest, poverty. Unlike many British towns and cities built round one industry, at least Stoke* has been spared ‘heritage town’ status. You can see more than the marks of its industrial legacy; there remains a major ceramics industry – not perhaps the scale of the past and certainly in a very different form – but there all the same. Most often, today’s potters are in new(er) factories, but not solely. And the old Potteries’ vista is still there too – the eponymous pot banks pushing up like young asparagus shoots, searching for the air above the skyline – a skyline they once filled with smoke. Or the enormous brick factories, as long as a road, or queuing up along the canal sides. Some of these brutally beautiful buildings still have potteries in them (take a trip to Emma Bridgewater just outside Hanley, as one example, to see the potter’s skills being practiced still http://www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk). It’s a setting, a culture, a way of life that has understandably defined the people of the area.

And where there was heavy industry, there was beer. It might not be the same open roaring fires of steel mills and hammer shops, but it was tiring, back breaking work all the same. Digging, heaping & milling the clay; lumping the wares; stacking the pot banks; making the saggars (and the saggar bottoms**) and the crucial job of firing the bank and judging its progress. Works up a thirst just recounting it.

I’m from the other side of the regional line, in the north west, with the Potteries being south from me, in the very north of the north midlands. It’s a city I’ve known all my life;   close enough to feel defensive about it when people have a go but distant enough to be distant when needs be; and too distant to support either Port Vale or Stoke City. Yet, when it came to beer, there was always an attraction to the traditional old Potteries pubs when I was growing up. Round my way, the pubs were either large, ‘developed’ town pubs or country pubs of a more idiosyncratic nature. And my locals were normally Robinson’s or Greenall Whitley (‘I wish I was in Greenall Whitley land’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzsL6uE1ypg). But Stoke: well it was the land of the big Midland brewers: Bass Worthington, Ansell’s, Marston’s and ‘Jolly’ pub names: The ‘Jolly Carter’, the ‘Jolly Collier’ and of course, ‘The Jolly Potter’. And many of the pubs were, well, just public…houses. Go in the front door, left for the public bar, right for the lounge; two rooms and two beer choices, maybe three if the lager was on, and perhaps a bottle of Mann’s Brown or Bass No.1 behind the bar. And not much else. My, it was exotic.

It seemed strange to me though that such a big city, such an industrialised city, didn’t have a brewery of it’s own. Perhaps being so well connected by canal to Burton on Trent and Birmingham was the reason, but it’s something that has righted itself today. There are a number of brewers in the Potteries with one in particular beginning to make a wider mark. That brewery is Titanic, named after that ship’s captain who was a Burslem man, and its stories and legends infuse the company’s beers without, it must be said, leaving you with that sinking feeling. Quite the opposite in fact: these are grand beers and in an ironic twist, Stoke’s beers are now regularly available on the shelves and bars of Burton on Trent. For research purposes, I drank three.

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Dunner be fooled: sinkingly drinkable

Not as green as cabbage looking is not the name of the beer, but Stokey dialect for not being easily fooled. And you won’t be with White Star, a deceptively drinkable classic pale ale (4.8%), with a bready-malt aroma, colour as bright as a new pound coin and a distinct hop bite. This is a beautifully structured beer, from a lovely head formation & retention to a well-hewn body. It drinks well with little assertive aftertaste. It’s a midlands-strength session beer – by that, it’s a session beer of full strength (like Pedigree or Bass – that are considered ‘premium’ or strong elsewhere.)

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Captain Smiths strong ale: ‘Gerrus parnt’

Goo dine th’ pub fer us and gerrus parnt; well you probably wouldn’t say that, as off-sales didn’t come until later, but gerrin’ a parnt of Captain Smith’s (5.2%) is well worth the finding. Again, a bold beer; this time with a red-brown colour; the maltiness and alcohol conducive to a lovely head and lacing. To taste, there’s a gentle natural carbonation from secondary conditioning and a mild, chewy toffee flavour with perhaps, a touch of liqourice in the background giving that slightly bitter moreishness. Well rounded, well brewed, fit for a captain.

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Dunner gab on… sup up.

Dunner rattle on duck; well I’ll try not to, but Titanic Stout (4.5%) is a cracking, secondary conditioned classic. You should tack yer tarme over it: enjoy the pitch black body, with a head the colour of chicken liver pate and just as compact and dense (albeit more pleasant in my view). The aroma wafts out: leafy hops first, followed by roastiness – a nice order, a great combination. To taste, this is a hop forward stout, but not assertively so and deceptively light in taste with a medium body: not heavy and cloying, not light and unsatisfying. As stouts go: it has the robust appearance of a proper old school stout with drinkability; flavour interest and no aggressive aftertaste. The best of the bunch I reckon.

The brewery has pubs too; in that curious thumb-nosing to the Beer Orders, more and more craft breweries are coming full circle and seeing that having a small, high quality pub estate is not a nice to have, but essential. Titanic’s pubs are worth seeking out (http://www.titanicbrewery.co.uk/c/our-pubs) and in particular, it’s worth heading to Burslem, where they’re based. Here, you can not only experience that Potteries’ friendliness but also go beyond the stereotypes and see a fine, stately town. Hidden a bit perhaps, but there all the same. And now they have beers of which the locals can be equally proud.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* ‘Stoke’, ‘The Potteries’ and ‘The Six Towns’ are used interchangeably throughout this post. What is meant is that area containing the conurbations of Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem, Tunstall, Hanley, Fenton, Longton and Newcastle under Lyme, although many would argue about the inclusion of the last one. It’s a bit posh after all.

** Considered a less skilled job than the saggarmaker, and hence the genesis of the lovely term: the saggarmaker’s bottom knocker.

 

To wit

The landscape of the most southerly part of the Netherlands is not what you would expect from a country where contour lines are collectors’ items. Limburg is a spur; in its northern part, it grips the rest of the country like a rock climber navigating a tricky overhang. South from there, flowing with the river Maas it nips in like a squeezed balloon; tightly constrained between Belgium to the west and Germany, east – it can be no more than 10 miles at its narrowest point before erupting out in a final burst of Dutchiness.   It is a beautiful part of the world; unexpected, rolling, hilly, with beautiful villages and towns, lime-lined lanes and the unsurprisingly cosmopolitan city of Maastricht sitting astride the river. In many respects Limburg feels British: verdantly green fields, half timbered houses, short, sharp hills, hedges, twisting, snaking lanes where you can easily get lost. Yet it is most definitely and perhaps defiantly Dutch: those narrow strings of brick, a greater sense of order and productivity – more neatly clipped than an English shire.

It was here I really discovered wit beer. For many years I have had a taste and interest in wheat beers, but very much in the Bavarian style, where the clovey, bananary chewiness and billowing, puthering head is imparted from the grist and yeast alone. The serve too is decidedly German; elegantly tall glasses yet with a teutonic robustness. ‘Belgian style’ wit beer, if that isn’t too blunt and broad a term, is something else entirely. There’s a playfulness about these beers, a fusion of rustic, agricultural roots from the ‘base’ beer, with the inventiveness that came from adding new world spices – and by new world, we’re talking Indonesia, the Spice Islands – far away; wherever the European merchants were trading. These were the original funky beers.

IMG_1614Most know this beer style through a Belgian beer – rather, through the Belgian beer in the style, Hoegaarden. But I got familiar through a hardly-known Limburg wit beer from a small producer in Gulpen, east of Maastricht. The whys and wherefores aren’t important here, but I was there on business and was taken aback by a lovely, traditional set up. The brewery, Gulpener, named from the village it is situated in, is barely more than a series of farmhouses stretched either side of the road. The offices are in the old family home. The brewery tap is a restaurant on the town square. That same road into Gulpen, the one you take as you head east out of Maastricht is an undulating affair. Butting it up to it are fields of barley and wheat earmarked for the brewery, carrying signs signifying the fact as you approach. The main beer is a fruity pilsner, very much in the east Dutch style – grassy, assertive, rewarding yet drinkable. Yet the wit beer – or waere witte in local dialect – is an altogether more quirky affair. Named after a local ground-dwelling hamster, that likes to nibble on local crops and which was, until recently, endangered, Gulpener Korenwolf is a lovely introduction to the style; with a luminescent hazy yellow glow, a bright white head and a pronounced banana ester aroma. Yet the taste is more surprising with a grist bill that contains not just the expected wheat but also some rye and spelt – both more primitive, simple grains that lend a nuttiness in the finished beer. The addition of elderflower too gives a wafty floral essence to the smell and taste. For a while, we sold a decent amount in the UK before my company at the time tired of selling profitable but small brands. And probably, ones with hamsters on the label. Shame that you can’t find it over here now.

IMG_1604But there are plenty of other lovely wit beers. It’s trite to say they make a lovely summer drink – true though it is – but actually there’s so much variation in the style that restricting them to easy generalisations and singular occasions is missing the point. Hoegaarden is the benchmark of the style and some bemoan that it has lost some of its character since ABInbev closed the original brewery and started brewing in their Leuven plant. Yet, this is still a great beer, at a drinkable strength (4.9% ABV) and with loads of interest too. To the eye it has that characteristic wit beer haziness, a browney-lemon colour with visible yeast. The copious white head is characteristic and inviting, but for me, it’s the aroma that draws you in: light cloves, a coriandery-allspice and a mild dash of lemon peel. It’s a ‘drink me’ smell, no doubt. And it’s beautifully presented – in possibly one of the most appealing beer bottles there is and that intriguing ‘Hoegaarden’ script. A lovely beer; a classic beer.

IMG_1610And where the classics tread others follow. Blue Moon Belgian-White is widely available in the UK now; it is the U.S. largest selling ‘craft’ brand at well over a million barrels a year – it sounds staggering but that’s small fry compared with the size of the market. Unsurprisingly, many bemoan this beer too as a result; criticizing it for masquerading as a ‘craft beer’ when it’s brewed by a ‘big brewer’. But it’s just missing the point – this is the largest brand for good reason: it’s tasty and interesting. Unlike Hoegaarden, it’s a sweeter beer, brewed not with the addition of curaçao orange peel (a bitter, inedible orange) but Valencia orange. And oats in the grist give it that smooth, coating mouthfeel that make it a fulfilling drink. It’s recommended to be served with an orange garnish, which I shall politely refuse as it kills the head and deadens the beer’s natural aroma, but that’s not to say it isn’t a good match. My only criticism, the amount of yeast in the bottle is off putting – it’s a sludgy brown colour and very clumpy – whereas normally, I swirl the yeast into the beer, here I was careful to avoid doing that as it made the beer sludgy brown in colour too. Despite this, you get the feeling that with the resources of Molson Coors behind it, this boutique brand is really a sleeping giant.

IMG_1273There’s home based competition though. Living in the Midlands, you don’t see Camden Town’s beers that regularly; so it was a pleasant surprise to find a bottle of Camden Wit up here where the air is thin. Camden is a brand savvy company, but they can clearly brew great beer. The Wit exemplifies this: it’s an enticing beer. Balanced and zesty with just the right touch of hop bitterness; the beer has a good ‘structure’ – forming and retaining a bright, white head with a nice texture and a lemon peel tang. There’s just a good enough slug of yeast in the bottle to give a snippy, lively carbonation and a zippy mouthfeel. Perhaps just a touch more alcoholic body is needed, but let’s not split hairs, it’s a grand beer nonetheless. It left me with the desire to take a trip underneath Camden’s arches to investigate more.

And yet, and yet. Whenever I drink this style, I am taken back. To those gentle, rolling hills; to the verdant fields and narrow bricks. To a farmhouse brewery. To Limburg: and to a hamster on the label.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

The Session #87: Local Beer History

the session beer blogging fridayThe Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is by Reuben Gray at The Tale Of Ale (http://www.taleofale.com) on the topic of Local Brewery History – Reuben wants us to give a history of a local brewery – one that’s more than 20 years old. It may be alive; it may be dead or it may be the living dead…

 “To me, beer is much more a liquid in a glass. It’s about people, places and increasingly, terroir”  Ben Keene, ‘The Great Northeast Brewery Tour’

I am a beer writer who has lived and worked in one of the world’s great brewing capitals for over 20 years. I am also a historian or, as a friend put it, a ‘socio-geographer’ looking for the connections between people and place. To me, just as for Ben Keene who wrote in the preface to his brewery guide to the Northeast of the U.S., beer is much more than a liquid in a glass. It is much more than a way of easy inebriation. It is a connection – particularly, that is, if it is a local beer, brewed with locally sourced ingredients, by people who know people you know. This month’s Session weaves these strands: of place; of people; of time.

This piece is also something of a personal crossing of the rubicon. I will write about a subject I have carefully avoided to date.  I will write about a brewery where I still have connections, having worked there for almost 20 years – and therefore risk upsetting people I know. It is not however a wistful or nostalgic piece about great times gone by (certainly, it is not intended to be) – but it is a tail of a tragedy. A tragedy hardly befitting not just any old brand, but arguably one of the greatest ever brands. Not just beer brands. All brands.

This is the story of Bass.   This is the story of the first and once, most recognisable, trademark in the world. This is the story of its shockingly recent, quick and preventable decline.

The history. Unlike other writers in this month’s session, there’s not a lot I can add to what has been written about the story of Burton and Bass – painstakingly researched and recorded by Roger Protz in his terrific ‘The Story of Brewing in Burton on Trent’ (The History Press, 2011). In a nutshell, the history of Bass is interwoven with the history of British Empire and industrialisation.  William Bass was a local brewer, but successive generations expanded the brewery riding on the coat tails of the rise of the empire in India and coinciding with leaps forward in brewing science and chemical understanding.  Just as the first pale lagers were catalysed by the industrial manufacture of crystal and clear glassware, so Burton ales stole a competitive march on other British brewers through the understanding of malting (new paler & crystals malts that both gave up their fermentable sugars more easily & delivered a paler colour), of new fermentation techniques (in particular, the Burton Union system which allowed for both clarity in presentation and whilst leaving sufficient yeast in cask to allow for secondary fermentation) and embracing steam power which allowed them to brew consistently on a mass scale for the first time and also deliver more quickly to wherever their markets were established.  Go to St Pancras station in London today: as you sip your Cappuccino in Benugos, or buy a Thomas Pink shirt, enjoy the magnificent cellars. They are beer cellars, with columns one Beer-Butt wide. They are in fact, Bass cellars.  And when the Indian trade declined, brewers such as Allsopp and Bass revolutionised domestic beer, using their international brand reputations to effectively exploit the trend for paler, lighter beer styles (pale ale and bitter in particular), coming up with new classics in their own right.

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Bass, of course, was only one of many Burton brewers. At the start of the twentieth century, there were 29 brewers in Burton on Trent. The architectural and logistical legacy still exists today – with some stately architecture and even, roads – Guild Street for example, one of the main routes connecting central Burton to Derby and the north, was built by Bass, and is leased by their successors to the local council today (plus it’s home to The Manzil curry house & The National Brewery Centre – a double whammy).  Elsewhere the former Everards Oast House still looks down goatily on the town, waiting for someone to raise the funds to restore it and appear on Grand Designs.

But Bass survived them all.  Commentators tend to agree that it did so because it diversified into lager earlier; it acquired public houses faster and was incrementally better-run that its competitors.  And it made good decisions along the way.  One in particular was fundamental – history will record Bass as owning the world’s first registered trademark – the red triangle – registered in 1876. Along with Allsopp, Bass moved quickly on the decline of the Baltic trade to establish trade with India and elsewhere in the British empire.  And where the liquid went so went the red triangle – growing the reputation of the company and brand.  The red triangle sold not only within the empire but across continental Europe and across North America. The red triangle got painted by impressionists.

Recent times. The troubles for Bass as a British brewers began with The Beer Orders.  The Orders demonstrated that the British Government was more than rationally interested in the structure of the British brewing and pub retailing industry – it believed that the price of a pint was a vote winner / loser and was desperate to retain a high level of competition in the UK.  Every brewery merger would be investigated – for Bass, when the first major attempt failed (a UK joint venture with Allied – now Carlsberg), the writing was on the wall.  Why would the Bass plc management stay in what they perceived as a low growth, low margin business with active government interest, when they could invest in higher growth, higher value businesses, like hotels?  History was cast aside. The brewing business was put up for sale and ultimately sold unconditionally to Interbrew of Belgium. Many executives ordered a new Aston Martin that day (I met one of the merchant bankers representing Bass plc and they could not believe that they received an unconditional offer). Yet, the government intervened again and ordered the new business to be split – in the end between Interbrew and Coors of the U.S.

And here were the seeds of demise of Bass, the brand.  Interbrew kept the name & red triangle trademark; but the breweries and brewing assets in Burton went to Coors. With Interbrew breweries throughout the UK and in Europe it was inevitable that Bass would have to cut ties with its home.  Perhaps a deal could have been struck between Coors and Interbrew to prevent this: but why would Coors help Interbrew protect one of the inherent strengths of a now-competitor brand? And why would Interbrew pay a premium to do so?

Bass & me. It was hard as someone who cares about these things to witness the company and the brand unfold as it did. From being someone who had worked on and sold the Bass brand to see it go was tough.  But my history stems from before I joined Bass. Indeed, I fought hard to join Bass Brewers because of draught Bass.  Me and my University mate Duncan, enjoyed a pint or three in ‘Ye Olde Shippe’ just off Exeter’s Cathedral Close, or in the Great Western near the station or best of all, at The Bridge in Topsham. Oh, there were good beers available from smaller brewers, but draught Bass was the daddy. Story goes that Bass was strong near the railway stations – being on a direct line from Burton the beer was always as fresh as it could be even with the distance covered.  It was a lovely quaffable ABV, 4.4%, with a bit of everything: a snappy, struck match, sulphurey aroma, an off-white creamy head and that lovely nutty flavour from the two strain Bass yeast. My brother always summarised it well: whereas Pedigree and Bass were both great beers, Pedigree is that bit agricultural – a bit farmyardy. Bass though, whilst also enjoying the Burton character, had better balance, a touch of sophistication.  If a beer could be this good, it must be a good company, I thought.

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**Fiddling: One bottle, three triangles.  Today, Bass can’t seem to make its mind up on even how to represent the red triangle – or indeed Bass’ signature – on its bottle.

Long term, there have been two big losers. The first were the people of Burton who had to endure seeing the Bass name, of which so many were proud, disappear (topping off a list of all the other great Burton beers – in particular, Draught Burton Ale (Pedigree is the exception, thankfully)).  Down came the red triangle. Off the brewery. Off the maltings. Off the trucks. Off the sheds. Even off the (Bass) Museum (it’s like Prince: ‘The Museum formally known as Bass’). Even off the wretched little brown signs that point to Burton’s brewing heritage*.  Second and tragically was the beer. Draught Bass and Bass Pale Ale have, to mis-coin a wartime expression, ‘Gone for a Burton’.  Sure, draught Bass is still brewed (ironically, by its long time competitor, Marstons). And cans and bottles are brewed by ABInbev up in Salmesbury. Bass Pale Ale for the U.S. is now brewed overseas (Belgium I believe, so it can still claim ‘imported’). But, unlike other Burton breweries – Thomas Salt, James Eadie, Allsopps, the list is long – which are properly dead, Bass has to endure a living dead status. Shorn of its home ties, brewed where convenient, unloved by its new parents (it has apparently been up for sale by ABInbev since 2010) it now stumbles along, all the while withering on the vine.  Commercially I understand that ABI has to prioritise, yet in the U.S., not so long ago Bass was the largest imported ale (800k U.S barrels a year); today it is less than a quarter of that – and on their watch. From being the U.K’s largest cask ale at the turn of this century (180k UK barrels) today, it gets lost in the rounding, with a parent who makes some noise about the brand but isn’t really doing anything other than fiddling** (Molson Coors, ironically, have now acquired Cornwall’s Doom Bar which is the UK’s largest cask brand – done, it must be said, for balance, on their watch).  Today seeing draught Bass in Burton is a rare sighting indeed – in fact, not so long ago, the new owners insulted Burton drinkers by insisting it came out of many pubs to be replaced with a keg version. Piss on my chips why don’t you?

Yet, it’s not nostalgia or wistfulness that makes me angry. What hacks me off is that today, premium UK brands are so exportable. Look at our car industry – a laughing stock 10 years ago, today Land Rover can’t keep up with demand – Jaguars, seemingly, are becoming as common as BMW 3 series. Or clothes brands – not just luxury brands, but ‘British look’ brands like FatFace or Boden are successfully building their businesses abroad. And over the last twenty years, ale’s time has not only come again at home, but in so many markets worldwide too.  This should be a new frontier for Bass. Indeed the beer is still great – a tad sweeter in the palate perhaps, but still the delightful aroma; still the restraint, the balance. But no new frontier. Rather, it languishes in a long tail; slighted and suffering due to the greed of Executives and the bodged intervention of government Civil Servants.

The tradition and memory of Burton, Pale Ale drinkers, brewing history and Bass deserves better.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

*One still persists, A38 northbound, just south of Branston.