Keeping to the Strait and Narrow

by Steve Renshaw

At the beginning of last month, CAMRA announced the latest pub closure statistics. And the bad news was that pubs across the country are now closing at the rate of 18 per week, compared with 12 a week six months ago.

But, in the same week that these figures were released, we in Lincoln had a very unusual occurrence – a brand new pub opened. But the Strait and Narrow, in what used to be a catalogue shop at the bottom of Steep Hill, isn’t an ordinary pub. It describes itself as a continental-style beer bar. If you’ve been to the Pivni Bar in York, you’ll be familiar with the concept.

Yes, I know that CAMRA champions traditional British beer, but we’re very happy to celebrate the brewing traditions of other countries. That’s why we have an international bottled beer bar at the Lincoln Beer Festival.

“Wait a minute,” I hear someone saying, “most pubs have a selection of international beers. There’s draught beer from Belgium, Holland, Australia and Ireland, plus bottles from Mexico, Italy and the USA.”

Not so! Most of the familiar beer brands belong to the huge, multinational brewers. For example, AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, owns Budweiser, Corona, Stella Artois and Becks, to name but a few. Even Draught Bass, a favourite of many real-ale drinkers, has been brewed under contract by Marston’s for AB InBev since 2005. And as for Guinness, there’s enough for a full column on that subject.

Most of the global-brand beer drunk here is produced in large, UK brew-factories. And, despite what the PR men try to tell you, they may not have remained true to their original recipes. Because of the British penchant for gulping beer from pint pots, rather than the more delicate glasses used in European bars, a number of popular draught lagers are lower in alcohol than the original versions.

So, on a rainy Monday evening, we went to the Strait and Narrow to try an authentic, continental beer. The well-designed interior is open plan, with drinking areas on different levels. There’s standing room near the bar and plenty of comfortable seating. The exposed brick walls and wooden floor give a minimalist feel which contrasts with the chandelier light fittings.

The choice of beers is extensive, with five real ales (including two from Lincolnshire microbreweries) and a selection of UK and continental keg beers. But it was the bottled beer menu, with its 100-plus entries, that I was interested in.

I was looking for something from Belgium, the beer centre of the universe. As the menu didn’t specify the countries of origin, I had to rely on my hazy memories of a long weekend in Brussels. The terms Trappist and gueuze were familiar, but then I picked out a brand you wouldn’t forget.

Kwak is produced by Bosteels Brewery in Buggenhout, Belgium. The brewery was founded in 1791 and is still owned and operated by the same family. In Belgium, it’s served in a round-bottomed glass which comes with a wooden stand. So many of these glasses are stolen that some bars ask you to leave one of your shoes as a deposit. Sensibly, the Strait and Narrow has not invested in these receptacles.

And what about the beer? Kwak is deep amber in colour and tastes of buttery caramel and malt, with almost no hoppiness. At 8.4% ABV, it’s a beer to be savoured at a very leisurely pace. Which is just what I did, while watching pedestrians trudge along the rain-lashed Strait.

To find out what’s happening in pubs in and around Lincoln, follow us on Twitter @Lincoln_CAMRA.

Music in pubs

by Steve Renshaw

The number of young people regularly drinking in pubs has slumped over the last few years. A recent study of the drinking habits of 18 to 24-year-olds carried out by CAMRA shows the number visiting pubs at least once a week has fallen from 38% to 16% in the past seven years. This is particularly bad news for the future viability of pubs.

One of the things that enterprising publicans are doing to attract a younger clientele is to put on live music, whether it’s karaoke, open mic nights or paid performers. But, of course, musical entertainment in pubs is nothing new. From their early days, beer houses had provided entertainment of some sort, be it singing, gaming or sport.

Music hall evolved from sing-songs in pub. In the 1830s, landlords set aside back rooms in their pubs for ‘saloon concerts’. By the 1850s many inns had their own halls for simple theatre and concerts. Indeed, some public houses were demolished and music hall theatres were built in their place.

In the 1880s, George Palmer, landlord of the Brown Cow Inn on Broadgate, used a room on the first floor of his premises as an entertainment hall. For some time, variety artists, some of whom became top-of-the-bill stars, visited the city and appeared there. Among them was Dan Leeson, the big-booted dancer, who performed in footwear measuring 30 inches in length.

A few years later, the Brown Cow changed its name to the Unity Arms and, later, the Unity Hotel. The most recent name change came in 1982, when the Jolly Brewer came into existence.

And the story comes full circle in 2004 when landlady, Emma Chapman, took over. Part of her original business plan was to have occasional live music in the pub. This proved to be so popular that it has become a major feature. When the beer garden was developed in 2005, a stage was built to accommodate bigger gigs.

So, to complete my research, I joined a group of young CAMRA members in the Brewer for a Friday evening session. The first thing you notice is the colourful, Art-Deco-style décor. But the other striking feature was the number of young people enjoying the lively atmosphere. And this isn’t a nightclub-style venue with nowhere to sit down! In fact, it was CAMRA’s Lincolnshire Pub of the Year in 2011.

After a couple of pints, we drifted outside to check out the headline act. Despite the rain, the sizeable crowd was rocking along with Knock Out Kaine, described in the flyer as ‘the Kings of Cock Rock’. Winner of KERRANG!’s Best Unsigned Live Act 2007/08, the band has just released a debut album.

I managed to last a couple of numbers before retiring inside with ears bleeding. One more pint and I was off in search of a taxi, happy in the knowledge that plenty of young people in Lincoln are enjoying what a good pub has to offer. Just a pity there wasn’t a big-booted dancer on the bill!

And what about the beer? Emma is a great supporter of local breweries. In fact, three of the six real ales on offer that evening were brewed within 25 miles of Lincoln. I chose Mowbray’s Mash from the Oldershaw Brewery in Grantham which, at 3.7% ABV, is an ideal session ale. When I put my pint on one of the sparkly tables, reflected light danced in the clear, amber liquid. As always at the Brewer, the beer was in tip-top condition, and I found the balance of biscuity malt and hoppy bitterness really refreshing.

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

Small is beautiful

by Steve Renshaw

This month, I’m off to Newark to visit the pub that has beaten our own Strugglers Inn to be named CAMRA’s East Midlands Pub of the Year. And Just Beer isn’t an ordinary pub – it’s a micropub!

Most beer drinkers are familiar with the idea of a microbrewery. The term has been used since the late 1970s to describe the new generation of small breweries which focus on producing traditional cask ale. But a micropub?

At CAMRA’s 2009 AGM in Eastbourne, we heard how the Licensing Act 2003 had made it easier to set up a new pub. Martyn Hillier had turned a former butcher’s shop in the Kent village of Herne into a tiny pub. The micropub formula that he developed involved converting an existing (small) premises, selling real ale with no lager whatsoever, and promoting lively chat with no music.

Former chairman of Newark CAMRA, Phil Ayling, who was in the audience that day, was inspired to have a go himself. He got together with three other enthusiasts to work on the project.

The search for suitable premises took them to the Swan and Salmon Yard, close to Newark Castle. The unit had originally been part of the stables of a nearby coaching inn. Following extensive building work, Just Beer opened its doors in August 2010. At 8.5 metres by 3.5 metres and with a limit of 57 customers at any one time, it’s one of the biggest of the micropubs that have sprung up across the country.

The aim of the four “tapsters” was to provide the best features of a traditional pub. They seek out beers from microbreweries across the country that are not normally found in the town, and also support local brewers. The beer is served in oversize glasses so you can be sure of getting a full pint. Tasting notes are provided and, if you’re not sure what to choose, they’ll give you a sample. There’s no TV or gaming machine so, in the confined space, lively conversations can develop.

On weekdays, four ales are available, with five or six at the weekend. There are no regular beers and there’s always a dark ale available. A board over the bar gives the number of different beers served since they opened; on the day I visited, the total stood at 1,310.

If you can’t find a beer you like, there’s traditional cider and a perry. The only other drinks are red or white wine, cola or water. You certainly won’t find any keg beers or trendy bottles.

When they first started, there was no food on offer, but they now have crisps and snacks for drinkers with the munchies. The platter of local cheese and biscuits looked very tempting.

Since Just Beer opened, business has built steadily. They’re now selling around 1,000 pints each week plus cider and perry, with relatively low overheads. And being voted one of the top sixteen pubs in the country can’t harm trade, can it?

And what about the beer? I couldn’t resist trying the latest brew from Project Venus, the occasional collaboration of brewsters (women brewers) from across the country. Sugar & Spice (4.6% ABV) was produced at Brentwood Brewing Company in Essex. It’s a pale gold colour and was fermented with honey and root ginger. I’m not usually a fan of beer with added ingredients, but this mix was very subtle. There was some early sweetness, and the hops and ginger combined to produce a wonderful aftertaste that stayed with me for most of the journey back to Lincoln.

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

Still serving after all these years

by Steve Renshaw

Last week, the 2013 edition of CAMRA’s best-selling “Good Beer Guide” was published. It features the 4,500 best real ale pubs in the UK, as selected and reviewed by CAMRA members. It also contains a unique Breweries Section that lists all the breweries – micro, regional and national – that produce real ale in the UK.

This edition is the 40th, and it’s interesting to look back at the first commercially-produced Guide that was published in 1974. Flicking through its pages, you get a real sense of the changes that have taken place in the pub and brewing industry.

The introduction highlighted two major developments that were threatening to kill off good ale once and for all. These were the large-scale promotion of characterless keg beers, and the transfer from traditional methods of serving draught beer to pumps using carbon dioxide pressure, which makes ale gassy and sickly. Concern was also expressed that six companies owned more than 60% of our pubs and that they had started to standardise beer. Large brewing factories were supplying beer for whole regions of the country, where once there were dozens of little breweries each producing ales of different strengths and flavours.

The list of brewers in the 1974 Guide has just over one hundred entries, with accompanying comments ranging from ‘Recommended’ to ‘Avoid at all costs’. Contrast that situation with the 2013 edition, with over 1,000 breweries and a bigger range of styles and flavours of ale than we have ever seen.

But, of course, everything in the current beer-drinker’s garden isn’t rosy. In 1974, there was no mention of pubs closing, whereas now, because of the triple squeeze of tax, the big pub companies and the supermarkets, we are now losing twelve a week across the UK.

Of the twenty-nine Lincolnshire pubs listed in the ’74 Guide, five were in Lincoln. But only one remains as a real-ale pub. The others are now a snack bar, a ladies’ clothes shop, a (closed) bar and an Indian restaurant. I wonder how many readers can name those four pubs. See below for the answers.

And the one that remains? The ’74 Guide describes The Still on Saltergate as an ‘authentic Victorian pub owned by local wine merchants, C.Pratt & Sons’. The real ale on offer was from Younger’s Brewery which, at the time, was part of the Scottish & Newcastle group. So how has The Still changed?

As I’m a newcomer to Lincoln, I didn’t know the pub in its heyday. It’s clear that the interior has been changed quite a lot. But there are some features that I’m guessing are original. In particular, when you enter you’re immediately confronted by the magnificent, curved bar that separates the two drinking areas. On the walls are photos, dating back to around 1900, showing the wine merchant’s premises stretching all along Saltergate to what is now Ann Summers.

The Still is now one of a number of Marston’s pubs in the area. Based in Wolverhampton, Marston’s is now one of the national real-ale producers; the group also includes Banks’s, Brakspear, Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood Breweries.

And what about the beer? I chose a pint of Marston’s Burton Bitter (3.8% ABV). You find Pedigree in lots of places, but Burton Bitter is less common. In fact, it was a first for me. The temperature was just right and the beer was crystal-clear amber with a creamy head. The first taste was a bit watery but a really refreshing bitterness quickly came through. Certainly a beer I shall seek out again.

Here are the other 1974 pubs: British Rail Buffet; Roebuck; Crown & Anchor; Hare & Hounds.

Going for Gold

by Wendy Margetts

At the same time as Olympic medals were being awarded, Britain’s best brewers were receiving gold, silver and bronze at another London venue. The Great British Beer Festival in Olympia saw the culmination of CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain competition for 2012.

Coniston Brewery’s ‘No.9 Barley Wine’ was crowned the Supreme Champion

Having previously been judged Champion Winter Beer of Britain, No.9 Barley Wine was placed ahead of the gold medal winners from the Bitters, Best Bitters, Strong Bitters, Golden Ales, Milds and Speciality categories. The 8.5% ABV ale was described by the judges as ‘having fantastic finesse, reminiscent of a fine cognac.’

Being a democratic organisation, CAMRA’s search for the best beers starts with a vote by individual members. From the ales produced in their region, they nominate their favourite in each category. These nominations are ranked and the top selections go forward to the regional competitions.

Regional winners in each category are selected by tasting panels at local CAMRA beer festivals. Category winners from each region go forward to the judging rounds at the Great British Beer Festival. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded in each category, and the winners go forward to the final round to decide the Supreme Champion.

At this year’s Lincoln Beer Festival, I was invited to join the panel of CAMRA members, local business owners and brewers who judged the beers entered in the East Midlands’ Mild category. The panel chairman briefed us on what we should be looking for, and we gathered round a table, pens and paper at the ready and jugs of water and wafer biscuits nearby to cleanse our palates between beers.

The beers were brought in one by one in unmarked jugs and we assessed the aroma, appearance and, most importantly, taste. As each jug was brought in, we filled our glasses, swirled the beer around and took a breath. Does the smell make us want to take a sip? Does it have an unfortunate chemical smell (One did!)? We made our notes and moved on.

Then we held our glasses to the light to check the clarity of our beer. Is it hazy? Does the beer meet our expectations as to how a mild should look? We scribbled more notes. Then came the most important part, as we savoured the flavour of the beer. Human taste is decided on the tongue, different areas deciding whether the taste is sweet or sour, salty or bitter. We needed a good taste of this beer! Again, notes were made and scores noted for each element we were judging the beers on.

The process was repeated for each mild, until we had a line of glasses in front of us all sampled and marked. Discussion followed to reach a decision. We all agreed on the beers we didn’t like and these were eliminated. Now the process got tricky. We tasted the three remaining beers again and compared them side by side. Finally, we came to a unanimous decision.

And what about the beer? The winning East Midlands’ Mild was Castle Rock Black Gold (3.8% ABV). This beer is attractive in the glass, dark and almost stout-like. It is a perfect example of a Dark Mild, with a lovely sweet caramel smell and taste which is soft and smooth, not too sweet and not too bitter. It was a clear favourite with the entire judging panel who kept coming back for more!

If you want to see the full list of gold medal winners in the 2012 Champion Beer of Britain competition, look out for the next edition of ImpAle, due out in September.

Don’t lose your local

by Steve Renshaw

In the current edition of our magazine, ImpAle, the chairman of the Louth CAMRA branch reports that the Heneage Arms – you’ll have seen the imposing building on the sharp double bend at Hainton, on the road between Wragby and Louth – has been saved from closure by the locals. The pub currently opens on Friday and Saturday evenings, and is run entirely by volunteers from the Heanage Arms Community Group.

With the pub trade under greater pressure than ever before, more and more communities are realising how important their local is to village life, and are taking action to keep it open. This reminded me that we have a pub in our area that has been taken over by the local community.

The Cherry Tree, in the village of Cherry Willingham, is owned by Punch Taverns. In common with many pubs, it went through a period where different landlords failed to make a go of the business. Locals became frustrated by the lack of consistency so decided to do something about it.

In 2010, the community were given an opportunity to take over the running of The Tree as a village concern. There were two conditions that needed to be met: someone was needed to run the pub, and funds were required in order to take over the lease.

The community had to raise approximately £15,000 for the initial set up. A total of 43 people put their hands in their pockets to become “shareholders” in The Tree.

Two years on and I decided it was time to pay the pub another visit to see how the venture was progressing. The Tree is an archetypal 1960s estate pub which backs on to the village sports ground. There are two large rooms, one the main bar and the other a dining and function room.

Landlady, Barbara Mawer, worked behind the bar for over twenty years before agreeing to take on the role of licensee. She was keen to show me round the pub and it soon became clear that the shareholders had played a masterstroke when they asked her to take charge. She knows her customers and what they want – and she works hard to provide it.

The Tree has everything you’d expect from a community local. There are dominoes, darts and pools teams, support for sports clubs, meetings of various local groups, bingo nights, functions and private parties. Fund-raising events provide support for the local school and sports teams.

And it’s clear from the enthusiasm of Barbara and the locals I met that the pub is doing well. Profits are being ploughed back into the business, with new furniture and decoration. An indicator of the success is the Sunday carvery. When the cooperative took over, they had twenty to thirty customers but now they regularly cater for over fifty, and have had as many as ninety.

The Cherry Tree is a good example of how a standard pub leasing arrangement can provide a flexible and affordable solution for a community group to run a successful pub business. But the two factors that make it work are the locals who support the pub and a great landlady who is passionate about serving the community.

And what about the beer? Charles Wells Bombardier, a top-ten national cask ale brand, is the regular at The Tree. Last year, the ABV was reduced from 4.3% to 4.1%, making it a better prospect for a lunchtime. It’s burnished copper colour and has sultana fruit character with a gentle hop bitterness. Barbara clearly knows how to look after her beer as well as her customers.

Case studies of community-operated pubs can be found on the Pub is the Hub website.