Craft keg beer – what’s that all about?

by Steve Renshaw

Earlier this year, we were in Norwich for CAMRA’s national annual general meeting. What a lovely city and so many great pubs!

In a newish-looking place called the Norwich Tap House, there were no pumps on the bar. Instead, there was a row of twenty taps protruding from the wall. On a blackboard to the side was a list of the beers.

I recognised some brewery names but, being a Yorkshireman, the main thing that struck me was the price. The cheapest pint was £3.70 and Thornbridge Jaipur was £4.90. I ordered a half at the lower end of the price range.

When I studied the beer list in more depth I noticed, towards the bottom, Guinness and Becks. It was only then that it struck me. This was all keg beer. Horror of horrors!

CAMRA was formed in 1971 by four journalists who were disillusioned by the domination of the UK beer market by a handful of companies producing bland keg beers. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the big brewers had moved away from producing traditional, flavoursome beers which continued to ferment in the cask from which they were served.

Instead, they were pushing beers that were chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast, pasteurised to make them sterile and then put in a sealed keg. The problem is that this removes a great deal of the taste and aroma. And, because there is no secondary fermentation occurring in a keg, there is no natural carbonation of the beer. So carbon dioxide has to be added to make the beer fizzy.

CAMRA has been so successful that the term “real ale” it coined forty years ago is now in the Oxford English Dictionary, and there are over 1,000 breweries producing cask-conditioned beer.

Until fairly recently, keg beer was the province of the global mega-brewers. However, there are now some small brewers producing “craft keg” beers. Some, like Brew Dog and Meantime, only produce keg and bottled/canned versions of their beers. Others, such as Thornbridge and Blue Monkey, have cask and keg versions of the same beers.

The new-style keg beers are fermented under pressure so the carbon dioxide occurs naturally from the initial fermentation. The beer is then filtered lightly, without any pasteurisation, before shipping. However, gas is still required to get the beer into the glass, unless you go for a bottled version.

Craft keg brewers claim that their beers need to be served cold. Certainly, many young people like drinking cold, fizzy beer, and craft keg has become trendy, particularly in London. That probably explains why they are charging so much for it.

There was lots of discussion about craft keg beer at our AGM. Many members see it as the beginning of the (next) end for real ale, while others feel that CAMRA should embrace it.

In the end, it was decided that we would continue as the Campaign FOR Real Ale, and not a campaign against any other type of beer. We’re in favour of choice and, if craft keg brings more drinkers into pubs, then that’s fine. And if it’s a good, real ale pub, we hope they’ll learn to appreciate the subtleties of flavour that you can only get from traditional, cask-conditioned beers.

And what about the beer? I chose London Fields Black Path Porter (4.2% ABV). Porter is a traditional, dark brew that often has hints of coffee or chocolate. The low temperature of my expensive half didn’t allow the flavours of the beer to come through. It seemed quite watery and I didn’t like the unnatural carbonation.

We hope you enjoyed the traditional real ales at the Lincoln Beer Festival.

Saracen’s Head Hotel

by Steve Richardson

As I read about the build-up to the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, I remembered seeing a plaque on a wall in the High Street. It commemorates the Saracen’s Head Hotel, “a favourite watering hole for thousands of RAF and allied airmen and women who served on Lincolnshire airfields in World War II”.

During the War, pubs played an important role in maintaining the morale of the civilian population and military personnel. Demand for beer was very high and, even though it was never rationed, there were shortages and reports of landlords holding back supplies for regulars.

The original Saracen’s Head dated back to the Middle Ages. In Tudor times, it was a rambling, timber-framed building and, at the start of the 19th century, a new facade was added. Behind the compact frontage on the High Street were stores, yards and stables. Part of the rear of the building and another entrance were on Saltergate, but the hotel site stretched behind other High Street buildings, down to a related pub, the Saracens Head Tap, on Waterside North.

Until the arrival of the railways, the Saracen’s Head was a main stop for coaches to and from London, Peterborough, Hull, Manchester, Leeds and York.

For many years, the hotel was the headquarters of the local Tory party. On the opposite side of the street was the Whig party stronghold at another inn, The Reindeer (long ago demolished to make way for a bank). On election nights, this area could often become the scene of drunken riots.

Around 1850, the American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, stayed at the Saracens Head and recorded his impressions. “It received us hospitably, and looked comfortable enough, though like the hotels of most old English towns, it has a musty fragrance of antiquity.”

In December 1924, the old coaching inn was transformed into a “Hotel de Luxe” by new owner Mr H. H. Leven. The improvements were said to have cost between £15,000 and £20,000, a huge sum for the day. His intention was to give Lincoln “a hotel worthy of the city”.

In 1946, the Saracen’s Head Hotel is listed as being owned by Lincoln Hotels Ltd. Perhaps it had not been the pre-war success Mr Leven intended. The financial depression of the early 1930s, and then the disruption of the war years would have been very difficult.

It finally closed in 1959. Part of the building is now occupied by Waterstone’s, and if you study old images of the Saracen’s Head Hotel, it is remarkable how little has changed on the upper exterior of the building. Even the old balcony railing seems to have survived pretty much intact.

And what about the beer? Mild accounted for 70% of all beer sold until well after WW2. It was the cheapest draught beer available, the drink of the public bar and the working man. Delivered to the pub “bright”, it was intended for rapid sale within 2 or 3 days. Well-hopped, pale ales (bitter) had been around since the 1840s, and were the staple of the saloon bar. Such beer required cellar conditioning, and was more expensive. Bitter was associated with a wealthier class of drinker, and remained a minority drink until the 1950s. Bottled beers were commonly sold in all pubs at this time, whether drunk alone, or mixed

The premium beer style was “Burton”, a strong, dark, sweet ale, like a modern winter warmer. It’s said that “Gone for a burton”, the poignant euphemism used by aircrew to refer to fallen comrades, implied that they had just stepped out for a beer.

Read about Dambusters pubs in the new edition of the Lincoln CAMRA magazine, ImpAle.

Community Pubs Month

by Steve Renshaw

A few weeks ago, I took part in a radio discussion. Apparently, there are now almost as many coffee shops in the city centre as pubs. The question was whether a coffee shop was now the place of choice to meet up with friends for a chinwag.

It was a fairly light-hearted exchange, but it did start me thinking. CAMRA is always banging on about the number of pubs closing but, actually, why do we bother going to pubs at all?

The price of a pint in many Lincoln pubs is now well over £3. So why don’t we all just sit at home with our cheap supermarket beer and let pubs go the way of high street record shops?

Well, for real ale drinkers, the answer is simple. We can’t get our favourite tipple anywhere else. However, not everyone who goes to the pub is a real ale enthusiast, so there must be other reasons.

Food – there’s one. Lots of pubs do excellent meals, and eating out remains popular, despite the recession. But there’s more to it than that. There are all the intangibles that contribute to the local community. There are the games’ teams hosted, the football teams sponsored, the meeting places provided for special interest groups, the charities benefitting from money raised, the village services provided, the local musicians showcased. And, of course, there’s the controlled environment in which to enjoy alcohol and, on occasions, a barmaid’s shoulder on which to cry.

That’s why, this April, CAMRA is celebrating Community Pubs Month again. We want to raise the profile of pub-going and increase the number of people using pubs regularly. It’s all about reaffirming the vital importance of local pubs, and the essential role they play in many people’s lives.

There are lots of locals I could have visited to illustrate my points, but I decided on the Dog and Bone on John Street. This little gem was voted Best Community Pub in Great Britain in 2009. That was under the previous landlady, so I went along to see how Sarah and Chris Sorrel are settling in.

As soon as I walked through the door, I could tell that the changeover had been seamless. The gentle background music was almost drowned out by the conversations of groups of drinkers at the tables clustered round the real fire. And it was clear that this traditional back-street pub has something to offer to all age groups.

Sarah and Chris had fallen in love with the pub as customers and were desperate to take it on when the tenancy came up. There are no major changes planned – why change a winning formula? But they’re not resting on their laurels. They have music events booked and a summer beer festival planned.

Sarah summed up their initial feelings, “On Sundays we look round to see groups of friends playing board games by the fire, enjoying the simple pleasures of good ale and good company. There really is a place for a traditional community pub where people can meet to form friendships and enjoy companionship.”

I’ll drink to that!

And what about the beer? Batemans introduced Yella Belly Gold (3.9% ABV) last year to tap into the popularity of golden ales and try to win over lager drinkers. I find XB and XXXB a bit too sweet, but Yella Belly Gold is much more to my taste. The Chinook hops give it a dry, citrus flavour initially, with the typical Batemans maltiness coming through.

Let’s all celebrate the great British pub this April.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em

by Steve Renshaw

Here’s a good way to start an argument amongst a group of CAMRA members. Ask them what they think of Wetherspoon’s pubs. Then sit back and watch the sparks fly.

JD Wetherspoon is known for cask ale, low prices, long opening hours, and no music. The chain is also famous for converting large premises such as cinemas, post offices and banks, into pubs. Tim Martin, founder and chairman, opened his first pub, Martin’s, in Muswell Hill in 1979. The company is now the UK’s largest managed pub chain, with over 860 pubs and bars.

Mr Martin is well known for his outspoken views on a wide range of topics. The JD Wetherspoon name comes from one of his teachers in New Zealand who said that Martin would never make it as a businessman.

The company plans to open 30 new pubs across the UK in 2013. In the early days, it was difficult to acquire ready-made, licensed premises. Hence, the classic ‘Spoons is a large pub in a converted bank or cinema. However, now that cash-strapped pubcos are looking to offload real estate, Wetherspoons are taking some of these sites on. One such is the New Angel Hotel on the harbour at Whitby, which is due to open at the end of March.

The price of a pint in a Wetherspoons is significantly less than that in most other pubs. This is the result of high-volume sales and tight margins. For most breweries, the company is a good customer. Whilst they do not pay the best prices, brewers’ invoices are paid on time. However, some breweries, for example Castle Rock in Nottingham, will not deal with Wetherspoons on principle.

So if they’re opening new pubs, serving cheap real ale and giving CAMRA members discount vouchers, why don’t we all love Wetherspoons? Well, some people are concerned about the market dominance of the company. They liken their impact on town centre pubs to that of supermarkets on local shops.

We have three Wetherspoons outlets in the city: the Forum, the Ritz and the Square Sail. Clearly, these impact on nearby pubs, but this need not be terminal. The competition has to work hard to provide the things that a Wetherspoons doesn’t, such as a homely atmosphere or live music. The Treaty of Commerce and the Jolly Brewer are examples of what can be done.

Of course, Wetherspoons are not just in competition with pubs. I’m guessing that some of the cafés in Whitby are very concerned about the cheap meals and coffee that the New Angel will be serving.

My personal view is that Wetherspoons has a very successful formula and a large and loyal customer base. Although their pubs inevitably impact on nearby businesses, good pubs can still prosper if they can offer an alternative. Having such a major chain supporting real ale and local microbreweries certainly keeps our traditional British tipple in the public eye.

So off I went to the Ritz for my beer tasting. This iconic city landmark is a good example of the company’s use of an unwanted building, with the interior celebrating its former glories.

And what about the beer? It was a cold day, so I chose Winter Warmth (4.6% ABV) from the Great Newsome Brewery in East Yorkshire. This ruby-coloured ale is a classic, seasonal brew with raisin and spice flavours and a bitter finish. Well, if my mum could drink a cup of tea in the summer to cool her down, I can have a beer to warm me up.

To find out more about the Campaign for Real Ale in Lincoln, visit www.lincolncamra.org.uk

Are Lincoln drinkers losing out?

by Steve Renshaw

Pubs in Lincoln are expensive and don’t support local microbreweries. These are common observations by visitors to the city. Clearly, they are generalisations and there are notable exceptions. But, based on my travels, I find it difficult to disagree. The reasons are complicated, but one of the major factors is the ownership of our pubs.

In the good old days, most pubs belonged to the local breweries. They were tied houses – they only sold their brewery’s beer. Independent pubs became known as free houses, and could buy their beer from any brewer,

Things changed after the second world war, when brewery mergers began. By the 1980s, the Big Six brewers owned more than half of the country’s pubs and produced 75% of its beer. Mrs Thatcher’s government was concerned about the lack of competition and, in 1989, issued the Beer Orders. Brewers were not allowed to own more than 2,000 pubs, and had to give landlords the option of selling at least one guest beer produced by a rival.

Because the big brewers weren’t prepared to open up their pubs to other brewers’ beers, they came up with something new – pub companies – to which they sold all their pubs. As these “pubcos” didn’t brew beer themselves, they were exempt from the legislation.

So, today, we have a situation where around half of pubs in the UK are owned by pubcos. These pubs have to buy their beer only from the pubco, at a price up to 50% more than a free-of-tie publican pays. Alongside this, pubco licensees often find themselves paying rents that are above the market rate.

Around Lincoln, we have very few free houses, so there isn’t the same level of competition as in many other towns. Hence the higher prices in our pubs. And, as the pubcos broker deals with the bigger brewers, microbreweries have found it difficult to get beer into their pubs.

For some years, CAMRA has campaigned against the unfair practices of pubcos. This came to fruition last month, when the government announced a new, statutory code to ensure fair practices for a number of issues, including rents and the prices publicans pay for beer. It will enshrine the fundamental principle that “a tied licensee should be no worse off than a free-of-tie licensee”.

The Code is expected to apply to all companies owning more than 500 tied leases. Regional family brewers, such as Batemans, who have used the beer tie for over a century to guarantee a market for their beer, will be exempt.

One development that has benefitted microbreweries is the Society of Independent Brewers’ Direct Delivery Scheme. A number of pubcos, including big boys Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns, allow some of their licensees to source beer brewed within 30 miles of the pub, via the scheme.

I visited The Strugglers Inn, a Punch pub on Westgate, to find out what can be achieved within the constraints of a pubco lease. Apart from snacks, there is no food on offer, so the pub stands or falls on the quality and diversity of its beers.

There are eight handpumps on the bar. By using Punch’s core and guest beer lists and direct delivery to the best advantage, landlady, Anna, managed to serve 386 different real ales during 2012. And the quality has been recognised with the award of CAMRA’s Lincolnshire Pub of the Year in 2010 and 2012.

And what about the beer? 8 Sail Brewery’s Victorian Porter (5% ABV) is produced in the shadow of Heckington’s famous windmill. It’s a full-bodied, beer dominated by dark malt flavours, but with hints of berry fruits and some bitterness at the end. Perfect after a winter’s walk.

Find out more about CAMRA’s campaigns at www.camra.org.uk/campaigns.

Football and Beer

by Steve Renshaw

Do football and beer go together? Well, not if you’re playing. However, there’s certainly a very close relationship between them.

Football sells beer. That’s why the global brewers spend millions sponsoring clubs and tournaments. The Champions League is sponsored by Heineken, and we’ve now got the FA Cup with Budweiser. (Does anyone else feel uneasy about our oldest cup competition being linked to an American brand?) And pub landlords pay thousands to Sky so they can screen live matches to attract drinkers.

However, the relationship between beer and the beautiful game has not always been so straightforward. In Victorian times, churches and, in particular, the influential temperance movement, saw football as a way of attracting young men away from the demon drink. When the factory hooters sounded at noon on a Saturday, the workers would go to play or watch a match instead of spending all afternoon in the nearest pub.

William McGregor, who founded the Football League in 1888, was a committed Christian. Of the twelve original clubs, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers had started out as church teams.

But pub landlords also recognised the business potential of the increasingly popular game. Pubs had rooms for club meetings and, in many cases, adjacent land that could be used for pitches. Pubs soon developed close relationships with local teams.

When the game turned professional and clubs became businesses, wealthy local brewers were often on the management boards. In 1892, John Houlding, a prominent Liverpudlian brewer, fell out with fellow board members at Everton. As a result, Everton moved from their Anfield ground and Holding established Liverpool FC. Closer to home, Lincoln City played on the John O’Gaunt’s ground provided by brewer Robert Dawber, prior to moving to Sincil Bank in 1895.

Although church involvement in professional football diminished, it continued at local level well into the 20th century. As a boy growing up in Sheffield, I would go to the rec on Saturday afternoon to watch the local chapel team playing in the Bible Class League.

But, from the 1960s, Sunday league football began to take hold. Pub leagues, as they were called, sprang up across the country. As church-going declined and licensing hours changed, young men could play a game on Sunday morning and then retire to the local for a reviving ale or two. Today, Sunday leagues are ubiquitous, while bible class leagues have long since folded.

Looking at the tables of the Lincoln Sunday League, it’s clear that the links with pubs are still strong. As I was doing my research, one result caught my eye. In a top-of-the-table Division One clash, Anglers FC had beaten Metheringham to maintain their 100% record.

The Anglers in Saxilby is a regular in the Good Beer Guide and landlord, Mike Brown, has recently won a long-service award from the pub company, Star Pubs & Bars (formerly the Scottish & Newcastle Pub Company).

The pub is at the heart of the village in all senses. The football club is one of many groups based there. On the evening we visited, they were getting ready for a poker session. And, as with all good community pubs, raising money for charity is a big feature. Over the years, Mike has helped raise thousands of pounds for St Barnabas Hospice.

And what about the beer? Good Elf (4.3% ABV) is a seasonal special from Thwaites Brewery in Blackburn. It’s a dark brown ale with hints of cloves and cinnamon, and just a suggestion of apple in the aftertaste.

Look out for the new edition of our magazine, ImpAle, coming to a pub near you soon.