An artisanally crafted blog curated by Cooking Lager for discerning readers of beer bloggery

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Verschränkung & The CAMRA Pub Crawl & Quantum Mechanics

Slagging off CAMRA is in my view one of the most entertaining aspects of beer bloggery. It tends to elicit plenty of comments from those inclined to defend the venerable organisation from every slight, as well as those that have what is usually a justified beef with what the organisation is up to either locally to them, or nationally.

It’s been a while since I’ve bearded it, and will unfortunately not be bearding it for a while yet. See, I miss it and want to return to it. My current world of German industrial lager may no longer be enough for me. It once was. I actually want brown pongy bitter in my life. Oh how times change. One recent criticism I heard thoroughly entertained me as an example of both sides of an argument being correct, both points of view entirely valid and both diametrically opposed. That of a CAMRA pub crawl being structured so that one pack leader tastes and approves the beer before all others pile into the bar. True or false? Going back a bit I recall a rather robust discussion on this on someone’s blog, if you have that to hand please post it in the comments.

Here I examine my own experience and consider it to fall into the realms of quantum mechanics and akin to the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat which while the box remains unopened and unobserved is simultaneously dead and alive at the same time. Like the cat, each perspective is true and false at the same time. First the usual preamble before I laboriously get to the point.

Over the past couple of years I have encountered CAMRA branches within the counties of Merseyside to Yorkshire and taking in Cheshire and Lancashire and joined them for an evening of whatever they happened to be up to whilst I happened to be in the town on a work assignment. My intention is not to put you off socially engaging with your local CAMRA branch. I have found the exercise to be largely an enjoyably worthwhile endeavour and a nice change from watching the TV darts in my hotel room. I commend CAMRA activities to you if you are in an unfamiliar town, seeking drinking companions.

Not really the sort of people you can expect to meet.

Many of these evenings have been the CAMRA pub crawl. A CAMRA pub crawl is a peculiar beast. Some can be a fun traipse along a series of pubs. Some can be quite a joyless march of military timing and precision that manage to actually strip the fun and enjoyment entirely from going out and having a drink. Both open your eyes, so give in to it and try one. The difference between these two is rarely the quality of pubs involved, more the mentality of those doing it. When a pub crawl is approached as a social event, a good time is more often than not had. It’s a nice drink in nice company. Decent blokes and it is all blokes. If you want to pull, try a smile and mild flirtation with the office receptionist on your client site and go from there if reciprocated. Though that will involve Italian restaurants, wine and the hopeful purchasing of prophylactics and not a drop of pongy bitter.

The sort of people you can expect to meet. Though usually there is no cake.

When a pub crawl is approached as a mission to survey a defined set of pubs over the course of an evening, the participants are those doing their campaigning duty and duty comes before the frivolity of pleasure. Lots of sniffing and holding beer up to the light. Connoisseurs at work. It is to my eyes the joyless swift necking of indifferent halves of bitter, but heh ho. You are better off excusing yourself and returning to the hotel via the fridge section of a nearby off licence. Though this is not the matter at hand.

So are CAMRA pub crawls structured so that one pack leader tastes the beer, declares it fit for human consumption or not and then the rest of the party either avail themselves of the pubs wares or spin a 180 and march to the next pub to do that again?

One truth is to say No. This has not been the official policy on any CAMRA pub crawl I have been on. Therefore those that would dispute this notion and declare it false are technically from their own perspective correct. So it doesn’t happen right?

Human behaviour is a funny thing, especially when you place it in group dynamics. The group on a CAMRA pub crawl tends to be a loose collection of individuals. Within this group some consider each other friends and others consider each other acquaintances and some are strangers. The basis of any given relationship in this group is mutual interest, common purpose and common world view. This often denotes the closeness or otherwise of people within it, regardless of how long they may have been acquainted. What is important to every individual in the group however is fitting in and being respected by one’s peers. Hence any surveying occurring is largely poorly done. The desire for consensus will see you witness someone taste a beer, claim to like it, but survey it poorly if that is the group consensus. Or the opposite. The desire to fit in and not be seen as ignorant and accept a group view supplanting their own direct experience. Also and of more relevance to the subject, some pubs on this crawl are better than others. In some pubs the group may linger over a pint, and in others a swift half and off is all the pub warrants, job done as quickly and painlessly as possible.

If the pub is a crap pub, you know that is a pub the group will only stop in for a half. A crap pub is one with one pump of Greene King IPA and sod all people in the pub drinking it. A pub where you know by first glance, the lager is your safest bet. We have all been in such a gaff. You cannot have a lager, not in this company. In this pub would you stride to the bar and be the first to buy your half? We are all aware of the technique of the round shy tight wad to hang back when entering a pub or stride forward to buy a round if the pub is known to be cheap, but in this group buying rounds are not the norm. What is your best strategy?

If you stride forward you get your beer first but so what? If the beer is undrinkable it must be returned. You may when not in this company merely leave it undrunk and leave. But you are in the company of campaigners. It must be returned. Leave it to someone with a more forthright personality to complain, and they will of that you are assured, you will have been the one that accepted a poor drink or didn’t notice or care it was off. This, therefore, is a poor gambit without an upside.

If you hang back you leave it to the poor sap at the front and then the hassle is on his shoulders. Rest assured many in the group are thinking along similar lines. In this scenario you only have to buy your half after others are already drinking theirs. If the beer is vinegary piss, you don’t even have to bother, you 180 and off to the next gaff with those that like you have played it right. It is up to the poor sap at the front of the queue to get their money back and follow.

Therefore what is happening is that one person is effectively tasting the ale, others are hanging back, including me, and only buying a beer once the guy at the front has declared it fit for human consumption.

So the truth is also Yes. The truth is that one guy is tasting the beer before the rest of the group chance it. The guy sat at the table drinking a pint of lager and seeing 10-15 blokes pile in and go through this rigmarole before all individually buying halves of bitter is pretty sure of what he has seen before his very eyes. He has seen the local CAMRA posse pile into the pub and one test it before the others buy it.

So both opposing positions are true, at the same time. Your opinion will be down entirely to your point of view. If you are in the group, it is false. If you are observing from the outside it is true. Even better than this, there are no cats locked in boxes and no cats dying under any circumstance, unlike that bastard Schrödinger who clearly does not consider animal welfare in his thought experiments.

Unless of course one of the fatter CAMRA posse sit on the pub cat by mistake, then you hear a squeal followed by “Jesus Christ, he’s killed the cat” then the most sincere profuse middle class apology you will ever in your life hear. You will witness horror and dismay and chaos. There will be cat blood. You will hear the precise squelch of dead cat under millets trousered fat arse. You may even buy a second half of indifferent bitter and a bag of crisps and settle in to watch it all unfold. You will be glad you didn’t stay in the hotel. You would not have missed this for the world.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Pub Sheds

Britain is a fascinating place of eccentricity and sub cultures. One aspect fascinated me for a while and appeared vaguely related to beer geekery but quite detached. That of the Pub Shed. Yep, you got that right. Turning your garden shed into a mini private pub themed bar you can sit in and have a drink. Or even building a shed for that purpose if you don’t have one. I like to study beer geekery, comment and occasionally mock its idiosyncrasies, its occasional lack of self-awareness, and it’s detachment from the “normal” but in truth there is no such thing as “normal”.

I am increasingly convinced that Britain is a place where there is no such thing as “normal”. Everything is in some ways not normal. The best classification may be “harmless” or “dangerous” rather than “normal” and “not normal”. Having an interest in pubs, beer and drinking may not be normal but by and large I guess for most it is harmless. Unless you start on it every day at 8am, lose your job and your wife and end up in the gutter covered in piss, then it’s dangerous. Keeping ladies locked up in a cellar you have converted into a sex dungeon like Joseph Fritzl is dangerous. Traveling on buses and trains to visit obscure grotty pubs is harmless. Flashing at old ladies at bus stops is dangerous. Collecting beer mats or any pub tat is harmless. Having a folder full of the names of all the beers you have tried is harmless. Wearing an anorak, standing on a platform and writing down the numbers of trains in a book is harmless. Wearing your girlfriends’ knickers is harmless (as I keep telling her). Turning your garden shed into a faux pub then sitting in it and having a can of lager is harmless.

Reading the book, The Pub Shed Guide UK A-Z, I delved into the world of people that sit in their sheds drinking cans of lager, rather than sit in their living rooms, hoping to discover why? I didn’t discover why, the book isn’t the anthropological study I had hoped for. Though I did get the occasional glimpse and read a series of tales, some dull and some charming, regarding the sheds that sit in the back gardens of Britain.

The book is a list. A list of people’s pub sheds. In a book. Yes, someone has written a book with a list of sheds in it. That’s not the oddest part. The oddest part is I bought that book and read it. That is odd. Though I like to think, harmless. The photo quality is a bit of a let-down and doesn’t really do the sheds justice. Some of the written descriptions are quite nice. I liked the reasons often given for the pub names. The chap that named his pub shed after his deceased mother in law because she was a nice lady that liked a drink. I liked the pride taken in their construction. The collections of pub tat that decorated the sheds to make them look like pubs was something I found appealing. The fetishization of pub paraphernalia shows that the commercial art of pub and beer branding is arguably a genuine art form that people enjoy, wish to display and like to look at. A Guinness mirror has an artistic merit on a par with “proper art in galleries”. I liked that the sheds were a reflection of their owners, telling a story about their lives, their travels and represented an ideal. A dream, in shed form.

The book has a Facebook group here, and a twitter feed here. Both of these are better than the book as the picture quality of the sheds shows them in far more glory than the book. There is even a pub shed of the year, here.

Pub shed of the year 2015

Some of the nicer pictures were not just pub tat fetishism but of friends and families having parties in these sheds. Nice times being had. Whether that is a typical night in the pub shed or just one of the better evenings I would suspect the latter. Surely every night is not party night for the pub shed owner? I would guess most evenings are not spent in the shed. They are places to have a party when friends and family come round.

Much of the iconography would not be appealing to your common or garden middle class beer and pub geek. There are a lot of Union Flags being displayed and a lot of people wearing football replica shirts. It is the world of the British working class, a world often derided by the educated middle class. This is worth comment as it reveals to a degree my own middle class snobbery and prejudice.

A pub draped in the national flag is somewhere I would avoid entering. I’d make assumptions about the place being a bit rough. I’d make assumptions about the far right and politics I find abhorrent. I like down to earth working class boozers. I prefer them to the more gentrified middle class pubs that seem to dominate CAMRA type awards and appeal to beer enthusiasts. I quite like watching the football on Sky sports. A lot of national flags, though, puts me off. I associate it with nationalism rather than patriotism, I guess, and in that case I am likely the one in the wrong. I got no indication that people that liked to put up the union flag in there pub shed were anything other than decent patriotic working class people sticking up a flag they considered a source of pride. Part of the iconography of the tribe they belong to. A flag I should no doubt take more pride in and when it is reclaimed by decent people like these I should applaud.

A feature that fascinated me was the appearance of beer fonts and hand pulls in many of the sheds. I could understand wiring up the shed to power light fittings, a glass fronted fridge but draught beer? I gathered most were there for show rather than operational but some had them operational for special occasions if not all the time. A cask or keg of beer is a lot to get through, costly and not practical unless enough use is made of it. Further, many of the pubs are replete with TV’s and pub gaming machines. EBay is a source of paraphernalia as are many of the actual pubs that are shutting across the land. I gathered many pub shed owners had acquired some of the more impressive stuff off the landlords of recently closed pubs, getting rid of the pin ball machine and such like.

There is an element of the "man cave" about such outbuildings. The idea that the family home is the preserve of the wife and children and the man of the house likes pottering in his shed. What is a man to do if he does not want to make things in his shed, but just sit and have a drink? Invite his mates over but leave the living room to the family. Though most of the pictures do show that whilst the man of the house has decided upon building the pub shed, it is a place he shares with his wife. They do not appear the sole preserve of men. The absence of children and presence of spare rooms in my own home afford a home office full of computer related tat and possibly negate my need for a man shed. What would I do if kids filled all the rooms? Then, maybe I would feel the need for my own shed. A place to pretend to fix the lawnmower whilst drinking cans of lager.

A while back, me old cocker Mudgie was prone to bang on about the pub smoking ban and mention a concept called “smoky drinky” where people congregated to smoke whilst they had a drink. Not an unlicensed pub, but more I thought a series of on-going house parties among social groups of people, former pub customers that had abandoned their local pubs. There was no indication that this was a factor for most of the owners. Maybe for some, but not the overriding reason to build a pub shed. After all, you can just have a fag in your living room if so inclined.

Nope, I think the reasoning is more pedestrian than that. Like beer geekery has strong parallels with train spotting, this has parallels with caravanning.

I’ve never understood caravanning. Why buy a costly pokey box to drag around with you so you can have substandard holidays? Isn’t the money better spent on nice holidays in nice hotels where people cook for you and bring you stuff? Who on earth would spend that sort of money to sit on a camping chair or cook from a small camping stove and shit in a chemical toilet?

Life may very well be just a short series of experiences. The time between birth and death. Acquiring property may very well be futile as it’s all just stuff you cannot take with you. The universe may very well be one of entropy and decay and constant inevitable change. That doesn’t stop people wanting things. People wanting their own caravan or their own mini back garden pub. People valuing things more than experiences.

I don’t think I’m ready yet to sit in my own shed pub and only invite people I know to sit in it with me. To be a sheddie. For now I’ll continue to neck lager in my living room or go out to a pub containing people I don’t know. Most recently that was a grotty Irish pub in Hamburg where I talked to 2 retired prostitutes who told me their only ever visit to England was to film a bukkake scene for an English pornographic movie. I apologized for not having seen it as only an Englishman would do. They liked England, fish and chips and English tea. I liked the ice cold glass of Astra lager I was necking and pleased to be practicing my German language skills on people. Pubs are strange places with strange people in them. I like that. So long as you don’t get knifed, they are not dangerous. Harmless, even. You don’t get to hear the word bukkake in the middle of a German sentence often and learn the same word is used in German and English for the same thing. You don’t get that in a shed in the back of your garden. I might visit a nicer pub, next, mind.

p.s. don't google the word bukkake if on your work computer, or google it at all, for that matter. If it is not a term you are familiar with, then consider that to the good and leave it that way

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Beer Tax

One of the more interesting beer stories of the week was a chap called Tim Dewey (nope, me neither) of Timothy Taylor Landord bitter (Oh yeh, now I’ve heard of it, that’s that overpriced bitter you see in posh pubs that jenga the chips and charge £20 for a burger) saying “craft” had made beer prices “dangerously low”. Now this appeared to get much derision on Twitter because as we all know, craft is proper expensive innit? Its pricey grog drank by fools and snobs. That and the only “danger” in low beer prices is that you might end up behind the bins of a Wetherspoons with a lady larger than you usually consider attractive. Not me, though, I’m a good boy; I don’t do that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, behind the bins at Wetherpoons........

I made the mistake of reading the article, however, and you know what? I think the fella has a point. His point isn’t about retail prices, it’s about wholesale prices and specifically it’s about small brewery relief (SBR), the mechanism by which smaller breweries pay less duty on their produce.

SBR is something most beery geeks like. It’s a tax break on small producers which they tend to prefer. A lot of beer geekery is about preferring the small producer over the big producer and they tend to get upset when big brewers make things they like, are quality products, and encapsulate the history and tradition of a beer style more effectively than a bearded middle class man under a railway arch. Much of beer geekery is the middle class preference for “small”, from beer to the cheese in a farmers market. Big bad. Small good.

The ostensible reason for SBR, as far as I can make out, is that smaller brewers have fixed costs and barriers to market entry that make competing with large oligopoly brewing difficult. Or at least that was the reason when it started. Now there are more breweries than ever and from the retail prices round my way it’s clear that a micro-brewery can produce a cask of indifferent bitter cheaper than the local regional brewery can produce a cask of indifferent bitter, and the reason for that is tax. I can think of 2 northern regional brewers, Hydes and Robinsons that have reduced capacity. The former specifically to qualify for SBR. I know that because I heard a man from the brewery say so at a beard club talk.

So let’s get this straight, a tax system that encourages firms not to grow beyond a certain size and encourages firms above that size to shrink down?

In what other industry would we do this? What else do we manufacture that we would want the industry to be structured as thousands of cottage industry sized businesses? What industry would we actively discourage businesses to grow to a size where they export their produce? If British beer is a world beater why is the import beer of most countries likely to be a Dutch or German lager, and not a bottle of British Ale? Maybe a really big British brewer exporting beer isn’t a bad thing? Maybe that’s good for us? I quite like a bottle of Becks or Heineken, myself and I’ve never encountered a German complaining they have large corporations exporting to the world. They appear quite proud of it.

It seems to me there are currently 2 purposes of the tax system. The original being to raise money for the crown to spend on things. Your personal politics will make judgements on the relative importance of the defence of the realm, the NHS or even £300 trainers for poor London kids but revenue to do that was the original point. Of more recent times, “creating desirable outcomes” has become a function. Stopping you smoking, drinking or even restructuring a brewing industry that was uncompetitive & oligopolistic and forced Watneys Red Barrel down your unwilling throat. You may not like that, but tax can and does determine behaviour because we want to pay less of it. Does this tax break result in more or less revenue? I would guess at less as the costs of collection are higher over a distributed base, the duty is lower and beer volumes are declining even if number of producers are increasing.

Taxing a product like micro brewed beer, enjoyed by a primarily middle class consumer base, less than beers enjoyed by primarily working class consumers is even applying a regressive tax. Should the middle class pay less tax on their beer? Should the middle class pay less tax on the 4x4 they take little Toby and Clarissa to school in than the small car the old retired lady is going down the shops in? Should the middle class get a tax break on the artisanal crafted handmade bit of carpentry they put in their kitchen, whilst all those that go to IKEA for mass produced stuff pay full whack?

The idea of SBR, a tax break on small producers, looks ludicrous when applied to other industries.

I know you like SBR; it’s one of the reasons I would guess why the multi beer free houses charge 50p a pint less than the regional brewery tied houses for the indiscriminate brown bitter they all flog. I know beer geeks like their brown bitter to have a different name for each pint, despite it all tasting and smelling the same. I know you like having lots of small producers and think they deserve a tax break.

But what if a more efficient brewing industry with fewer cottage industry shed and railways arch producers resulted in more tax in treasury coffers and that resulted in less personal tax on you or a few more schools and hospitals? Maybe beardy shed man should be asked to cough up more by way of tax? Just saying.