Classic Ale at the Centurion

by Steve Renshaw

It was exactly two weeks since the start of the Beer Festival and I had just about recovered – from my exertions, not the drinking. But I was beginning to panic because I couldn’t think of what to write about for this column.

And then I picked up the Echo (June 7, 2012) and I found my inspiration. It was only a small piece but it struck a number of chords. The Centurion in North Hykeham was serving an ale that is based on a recipe more than a hundred years old.

Firstly, it confirmed what we saw at the Festival – that today’s brewers are producing a fantastic variety of beers. Not only are they experimenting with different malts and hops to produce new brews, but they are also reviving old beer styles and long-forgotten recipes.

Mild is one of the traditional beer styles that is enjoying a revival in today’s real ale market. Usually dark brown in colour, it is less hopped than bitters and often has a chocolatey character with nutty and burnt flavours. Once sold in every pub, Mild experienced a catastrophic fall in popularity after the 1960s and was in danger of completely disappearing. However, in recent years the explosion of microbreweries has led to a renaissance, and an increasing number of Milds are now being brewed.

Porter was a London style that turned the brewing industry upside down early in the 18th century. It was a dark brown beer that was originally a blend of brown ale, pale ale and ‘stale’ or well-matured ale. The strongest versions of Porter were known as Stout Porter, reduced over the years to simply Stout. Restrictions on making roasted malts in Britain during World War One led to the demise of Porter and Stout. In recent years, smaller craft brewers in Britain have rekindled an interest in the style.

But it’s not just beer styles being revived, but also individual beers. The one in question is Archer’s Old Glory, which is based on a recently-discovered recipe dating back to 1895. Archers Brewery was a familiar landmark in Swindon but the company went into administration in 2009. The Archers brands were bought by Welsh brewery, Evan-Evans, which has produced Old Glory.

The other thing that struck me about this story is that it’s further evidence that real ale is now part of the mainstream within the pub trade. The Centurion isn’t what many would consider to be a typical real ale pub. It’s fairly modern, with contemporary furniture and a broad clientele. But one of the first things that strikes you when you walk in is the eight handpumps on the bar.

The Centurion is part of the Ember Inns group of family-friendly pub/restaurants. A quick look at their website reveals their commitment to real ale, with prominence given to their seasonal cask collections. Under their ‘Sip before you Sup’ scheme, they will let you try a beer before you buy it, to make sure you’ll enjoy it. And all their pubs are Cask Marque certified, so you can be confident about the quality of the beers.

The businessmen who run national chains such as Ember Inns wouldn’t put so much effort into promoting real ale if it wasn’t profitable. In fact, according to industry reports, it is the only part of the trade that isn’t currently in decline.

And what about the beer? Archer’s Old Glory (4.5% ABV) is marketed as a classic, premium English ale. It was a lovely chestnut colour and I found it quite sweet and spicy, with some bitterness. I have to say that I prefer the hoppiness of many of the modern-day recipes.

Pick up a free copy of the latest edition of our branch magazine, ImpAle, in your local pub.

Sixty Years of Brewing in Lincolnshire

by Steve Renshaw

As we’ve approached the Diamond Jubilee, the newspapers have been full of articles celebrating the sixty years of Her Majesty’s reign. So I thought it might be interesting to take a look at brewing in Lincolnshire since 1952.

At the time of the Queens’ accession, there were seven breweries left in Lincolnshire. Located in Alford, Brigg, Grantham, Grimsby, Stamford (two) and Wainfleet, they had all been established in the 19th century. As well as brewing, they each owned a string of pubs to sell their beer. Mowbrays of Grantham, for example, had 200 tied houses.

These small-town operations were being swallowed up by larger breweries. Mowbrays was acquired by J. W. Green, a Bedfordshire brewer, in March 1952. Two years later, J. W. Green merged with Flowers Breweries. In 1962, Flowers was taken over by the huge national brewer, Whitbread. The Grantham brewery closed in 1964.

Another example of the acquisition and closure cycle is Hewitt’s of Grimsby. In 1962, Hewitt’s was taken over by Charrington United Breweries. The latter company merged with Bass in 1967 to create Bass Charrington and, only a year later, Hewitt’s Tower Brewery was closed.

In 1974, when Melbourn’s All Saints Brewery in Stamford closed, Batemans was the sole remaining Lincolnshire brewer. During the 70s, traditional brewers were hit by the market saturation of pasteurised keg bitter and lager produced by the large, national brewers. However, cask beer managed to survive and, gradually, began to claw back market share. Some of the credit for this revival must go to four journalists who, in 1971, formed the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale (later to become CAMRA).

From the late 1970s, we saw the birth of a new generation of small breweries, which became known as microbreweries. In the 80s and early 90s a handful of micros opened in Lincolnshire, although only Willy’s in Cleethorpes has survived from that era.

The turning point came in 2002 when, after years of campaigning by CAMRA and the Society of Independent Brewers, the Government introduced a reduced rate of excise duty for small brewers. This measure was a major boost to hundreds of microbreweries which had been established in the late 90s.

Between 1995 and 2012, twenty-nine microbreweries were established in Lincolnshire. Of those, eighteen are still in business. A number have remained as small-scale operations but a few, such as Brewsters, Newby Wyke, Oldershaws and Fulstow, have moved into larger premises in order to increase production. So from seven breweries in 1952, we now have twenty, nineteen of which are micros.

And has cask ale changed during that time? Back in 1952, some breweries would have produced just a mild and a bitter. I’m guessing that they would not have tasted very different from some of the ales available today. However, the microbrewery revolution has sparked experimentation and innovation in the brewing industry.

The result is a much wider range of beer styles and flavours than would have been available sixty years ago. I’m sure this variety will be evident in the many beers being produced to mark the Diamond Jubilee. But for my taste test, I’m sticking with the one Lincolnshire brewery that has operated throughout the Queen’s reign. Batemans have produced Jewel in the Crown, and I managed to find it in The Cross Roads at East Barkwith.

And what about the beer? I’m guessing many of the Jubilee specials will be light, summer ales, but Jewel in the Crown is a lovely ruby colour. It’s fruity, and the roasted malts give it a hint of toffee. Cheers, Your Majesty.

For information about the Campaign for Real Ale, check our website www.lincolncamra.org.uk

Festival Fringe

by Steve Renshaw

It’s May and, for local CAMRA members, that means only one thing – the Lincoln Beer Festival. We’ve been planning the annual celebration of traditional British drinks for six months, and in just a couple of weeks’ time we’ll transform the Drill Hall into the biggest pub in the county.

The aim of the Festival is to increase the appreciation of real ale, cider and perry. We’re particularly keen to encourage people who don’t usually drink beer to explore the different styles and flavours of real ales.

Planning and running the Festival involves a huge amount of work by lots of volunteers. But there is a selfish motive behind it. If people enjoy themselves at the Festival, they’re likely to go into pubs looking for good real ale. Which means that the pubs that CAMRA members frequent have a better chance of surviving in these difficult times.

The Festival attracts thousands of local drinkers, plus many CAMRA members from across the UK. Lots of visitors stay in Lincoln for the weekend and also visit the CAMRA festival in Newark. In the last couple of years, a few of our city-centre pubs have taken the opportunity to put on events around the time of the Festival in order to tap into the raised awareness.

This year we’re encouraging our local pubs to get involved in what we’re calling the Festival Fringe by putting on events during May to attract more customers and encourage them to drink real ale, cider and perry. In the city, the usual suspects – the Strugglers, the Jolly Brewer and the Wig and Mitre – were quick to sign up, but I’m off to Scampton to find out what’s planned at the Dambusters Inn.

Now here’s an interesting pub. The building is over 200 years old and you can imagine wartime bomber crews driving down from the base to relax between sorties. Prepare for a surprise – it turns out that it’s only been a pub since 1999.

The conversion is impressive, with the interior having all the trappings of a traditional village pub, including bar billiards and Northamptonshire table skittles. And there’s a fascinating collection of memorabilia and information about the famous bombing raid.

Landlord, Greg Algar, has been in charge since 2009. During that time, he has increased the number of handpumps from two to five, dispensing a changing selection of ales from breweries in the local area and further afield. Greg explains, “When I took over, real ale was only 40% of the beer sales but now it’s over 70%. My customers like to try beers from different breweries across the country.”

Over the weekend of 18th-20th May, Greg is holding a Dambusters Raid anniversary beer festival. With the help of George Batterbee of Poachers Brewery, he’s putting in extra handpumps so that twelve ales can be served from the bar. So whatever the weather, you’re guaranteed a good time.

And what about the beer? Once a month, Greg gets a cask of the multi-award-winning Thornbridge Jaipur. Thornbridge beers were first brewed in early 2005 in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire. A new, state-of-the-art brewery and bottling line was built at Bakewell in 2009. At 5.9% ABV, Jaipur is a bit stronger than I usually drink but, as we don’t see it round here very often, I had to try it. It’s a flavoursome India Pale Ale packed with citrus hoppiness nicely balanced by malty sweetness. I’ll be checking with Greg to find out when he has it on again.

For information about the Lincoln Beer Festival and the Festival Fringe, check our website www.lincolncamra.org.uk

Subbuteo

by Steve Renshaw

It’s years since I last played Subbuteo. You know – that table football game where you flick plastic men at an oversized ball on a rolled-out felt pitch. When I was a boy, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me the proper version. So I had to make do with a down-market copy with flat men instead of Subboteo’s 3-D players in club colours. Despite this, I played with it for hours.

When my son was old enough, I got him the proper version and we both made good use of it. But over the years, it came out less and less and, eventually, he sold it at a car-boot sale.

In these days of Xboxes and PlayStations, I’d imagined that the game had disappeared. So I was delighted to receive an e-mail recently from the Lincoln Flickers, a group of Subbuteo enthusiasts who meet regularly in the Morning Star. They suggested that we hold a joint Flickers/CAMRA Subbuteo evening.

Of course, there’s a synergy between the two groups. CAMRA promotes real ale and supports well-run, community pubs, and it’s these pubs that provide a base for groups such as the Flickers. It’s not just the standard activities such as pool, darts, dominoes and Sunday league football that are based in pubs. In addition to the Flickers in the Morning Star, lots of other groups meet in local pubs. Mountaineers meet in the Golden Eagle, the Dog & Bone hosts a classical music listening group and the Jolly Brewer has its own theatre company, to name just three.

Well-run pubs are not just a controlled environment in which to drink – they are invaluable community assets. Where else can groups meet for no charge? Unfortunately, CAMRA’s latest figures show that twelve pubs close across Britain every week, and half of these are in suburban areas. And despite words of support from politicians, pubs were hit again in the Budget when beer duty was increased by 5.4%. In order to highlight the importance of local pubs, CAMRA has designated April as Community Pubs Month.

The aim of this national initiative is to encourage licensees to organise and promote events to increase footfall in local pubs. It’s all about giving community pubs as much publicity as possible during these tough times. A Subbuteo evening seemed an ideal event for Community Pubs Month, so off I went to the Morning Star to meet one of the Flickers and agree the format.

Tucked away on Greetwell Gate, the Morning Star is reputed to have been an inn since the 18th century. It’s a traditional, no-nonsense pub with tiled floors and an open fire in the winter. There’s a really good mix of drinkers and you’re guaranteed some lively and stimulating conversation. It’s a regular in the Good Beer Guide and has six real ales on offer. Unusually, they are all regulars – no guest beers here.

And what about the beer? Keighley’s Timothy Taylor Brewery is most famous for brewing Landlord, Madonna’s favourite beer. Less well known is Golden Best (3.5% ABV), described as the last of the true Pennine light milds. Most milds are dark, and I’m sure many drinkers will be unaware that this amber-coloured beer falls into this category. As usual in the Morning Star, my pint was in tip-top condition. The aroma was fruity and the taste malty, with light hoppiness characteristic of milds.

The inaugural competition for the Lincoln Flickers/CAMRA Subbuteo Beer Tankard takes place in the Morning Star on Wednesday, 25th April. It promises to be a fun evening. For details of events during Community Pubs Month, visit www.lincolncamra.org.uk

Local Ale for Local people (& visitors)

by Steve Renshaw

As a native-born yellowbelly, it’s been a real delight to be an increasingly frequent visitor to Lincoln. In London, where I live, we’ve had an explosion of interest in craft brewing and local beers. A joy for me is the wonderful diversity of beers we can now find all around the UK, especially in and around Lincolnshire.

There are 20 breweries within 25 miles of Lincoln. Some cracking beers they brew too. The likes of Grafters – Darker Side of the Moon (4.2% ABV) dark, with a smokey, chocolate after-taste; Poachers – Shy Talk (3.7% ABV) golden and refreshing; Brewsters – Stilton Porter (5% ABV) dark, rich and hoppy, to name just three favourites. The sad thing is only a small number of pubs in Lincoln regularly stock local beers.

CAMRA “LocAle” accreditation comes if a pub agrees to set aside one hand-pump for locally-brewed beers. This reduces beer miles and supports local brewing and related jobs. It’s like the Echo’s Love Local campaign, but for beer. The Lincoln LocAle scheme was launched in 2009 but, to date, we have just a dozen accredited pubs, with only five in the city.

So why is it that we have so few pubs selling local beer? It’s complicated but I’ll try to keep it brief.

Back in 1900, the UK had over 2,000 commercial breweries plus around 4,000 pubs brewing their own beer. When I joined CAMRA in 1977, we were down to 160 breweries, 50 of which were owned by the infamous “Big 6”.

The expanding closed shop of the big brewers’ tied-house system, and aggressive mergers, were throttling the life out of local brewing well into the 1980’s. In 1989, the Government passed Beer Order legislation that was intended to break up the big brewers’ monopolies. The modest aim was to release some pubs from the tie, and allow others to stock a guest beer. The impact was dramatic, but not as intended.

Rather than let other brewers’ beer into their tied pubs, the big breweries sold them off. Most were snapped up by what became known as pubcos (pub companies). The big, national pubcos had no connection with local brewers. Their focus was making profits and they were able to use their buying power to negotiate substantial discounts from large brewers. The landlords who leased or managed these pubs had no option but to buy their beer from their parent company, at a significant mark-up.

CAMRA has long campaigned for a competitive and diverse brewing industry, responsive to the needs of the consumer. We don’t want to scrap the tied-house system but believe that the large pubcos should provide their landlords with free-of-tie and guest beer options. Recently MP’s overwhelmingly supported calls to reverse the Government’s decision to let pubcos continue to regulate themselves.

So, if your regular pub doesn’t serve a local ale, ask them why not. The big pubcos are beginning to get the message that beer drinkers want choice. In the end, it’s down to us as consumers.

The Jolly Brewer is one of Lincoln’s LocAle pubs, and a freehouse. When I was in recently, landlady Emma Chapman told me, “Our regular LocAle, Black Abbot from the Idle Brewery in West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire, is very popular with customers.” Emma is now planning to dedicate a second handpump to local brews.

And what about the beer? Black Abbot is a 4.5% ABV stout. As the name suggests, it’s very black, with a creamy head. Full-bodied, fruity, with a malty edge. My kind of beer.

Don’t forget to make a date in your diary for the Lincoln Beer Festival (May 24th to 26th, the Drill Hall).

Cornhill Vaults

by Steve Renshaw

The Cornhill Vaults – a name that still sends shivers down the spine of Lincoln drinkers, even though it’s now ten years since it closed. When I moved to Lincoln in 2007, people talked about the Vaults so much that it took some time for me to realise that it no longer existed.

A quick web search reveals the depth of feeling for the old place. There are Facebook groups dedicated to the pub and plenty of comments on message boards, such as “a belter of a place”, “One of the best meeting places in Lincoln” and “The Vaults rocked!” Add to that, reports of occasional hauntings, and you begin to understand the iconic status.

The subterranean tunnels that made up the Vaults were constructed as a grain store beneath the Corn Exchange, which was opened in 1848. In 1976, they were converted into a pub by Ruddles Brewery. The tenants were Valerie and the late Michael Hope, who went on to own the Wig & Mitre on Steep Hill. In 1977, Ruddles decided to off-load their tied estate and sold the lease of the Vaults to Samuel Smith’s Brewery. In November 1979, Anna – now landlady at the Strugglers Inn – was installed as co-manager of the Vaults and stayed until it closed. In addition to the beers from Ruddles and, subsequently, Sam Smith’s, many ex-regulars will remember the Merrydown cider.

A major feature of the Vaults was the live music – in the ‘80s, there were bands playing every night. Cornhill Vaults Live 86 was an all-day charity event with bands playing in the pub and in City Square. Although it was a great success, it was never repeated. Anna explains, “Even though there was no trouble, the police were very edgy throughout the day and wouldn’t let us do it again.”

When the Lincolnshire Co-op, the freehold owner, decided to redevelop the Corn Exchange site and close the Vaults, regulars campaigned hard to reverse the decision. However, there was no going back, and the doors finally closed in January 2002.

Although I can’t have a drink in the Vaults, I can try one of the beers they served, as we do have a Sam Smith’s pub in the city. Sam Smith’s is Yorkshire’s oldest brewery – their Old Brewery in Tadcaster was established in 1758. The unique business model means that their pubs only stock Samuel Smith’s products – this and the absence of TV and music keeps prices very low.

Many of their pubs have historic architectural features or interiors, for example the gas-lit White Horse (Nellies) in Beverley, while others have been sympathetically renovated. Widow Cullen’s Well on Steep Hill falls into the latter category. Traditional structural and finishing materials were used in the excellent restoration of the 16th Century, in-filled timber-framed building.

And what about the beer? Old Brewery Bitter (4.0% ABV) is now Sam Smith’s only cask ale, and it is still distributed in traditional wooden casks. My pint had a thick, creamy head, typical of a traditional Yorkshire bitter. As soon as I picked it up, I could tell it was too cold and I wasn’t surprised that my first mouthful was disappointing. Very little flavour came through and it seemed rather watery. However, having left it for some time to warm up to a reasonable cellar temperature, I was pleasantly surprised. The initial taste is quite sweet with malt coming through and an edge of bitterness to finish. Not a classic but a perfectly quaffable, session ale.

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