The BeerStash Chronicles 2: Fresh thinking

A blog by John Porter from www.apieandapint.com

Beer is best drunk when it’s freshly brewed*. There, I’ve said it. It may not be the most sensible contention to make at the outset of an article which sets out to assess the merits of a beer that’s been knocking around for years, but it’s probably worth setting out my stall.

It is, I’d suggest, fundamental to the success of homo sapiens as a species that we’ve found ways to eke out the nutritional benefits of food and drink beyond the point where it would naturally go off, in order to see us through the lean times.

Fat, sugar and, yes, alcohol have all played their part as effective means of preservation, and so it’s worth noting the irony that, as medical science explores the limits of human longevity, they’ve also been identified as contributing to our inevitable decline. Back in the day when outrunning a dire wolf or sabre toothed tiger was more of a consideration, the longer term implications, compared to the advantage of being able to eat preserved grain or fruit whatever the season, were less important.

The human capacity for self-delusion, as well as our willingness to fall for a well-targeted PR campaign, means that over the course of time we’ve come to believe that the mouldy blue veins in an aged stilton or the cloying, musty flavours of an old wine are a badge of quality rather than a by-product of preservation. And let’s not even get started on the implications of aging meat and game to the point of putrefaction, then charging a premium for it.

Focusing on beer, at some point quite soon after our ancestors discovered the joys of beer, possibly even the next morning as they surveyed the empty crude stone vessels that had until recently held the unexpected elixir of the harvest, they decided it would be a good idea to try and make the next batch last a bit longer.

Knock it on a few dozen millennia, and there’s no shortage of people ready to tell you that beer that’s been barrel aged, bottle conditioned, cellar stored, highly hopped or any of the many other methods that human ingenuity has come up with to keep beer drinkable, is better than a cool, fresh pint straight out of the brewing vessel. It’s not*. Aged beer has its joys, of course, but the compromises of preservation have contributed to the myths, I’d suggest.

Imperial Russian Stout is a case in point. Surely it’s the emperor’s new clothes in a bottle? Even the most cursory examination of the various wars, pogroms, sieges and massacres undertaken by the imperial Russian family, never mind their laissez-faire attitude to intimate relations with livestock and mad monks, would suggest that their opinion on what constitutes a decent pint shouldn’t carry much credibility.

Having said all that, we are where we are, and I’m certainly not saying aged beers don’t have their charm. So, in my stash is a bottle of Courage Imperial Russian Stout dating back to 2012. At that point, Bedford brewer Charles Wells had recently acquired the rights to the Courage brand and beers, and revived this famous strong beer.

Avoiding any tasting notes or information other than what’s on the label, the beer was bottled at 10% ABV and “enjoys a rich, espresso body with pear overtones and an intriguing fresh, smokey, fruity finish.” The best before date is 16/08/25, suggesting that eight years could actually be a bit young for this one, but, hey ho:

Appearance: There’s a reassuring puff of carbon dioxide as the bottle opens. The beer pours clear, but its dense, ebony colour means no light gets through. The head lingers on the side of the glass, showing a rich, oily viscosity as it slips back into the beer. It shouts “luxury”, and the appearance alone helps to explain why this beer was a valued commodity seen as worth the cost of a 1700 mile journey from Britain to Moscow.

Aroma: The aroma is dominated by bitter coffee and dry sherry, with a mature sweetness underneath – for me, it’s the richness of dates and toffee apples rather than the freshness of pear mentioned on the label.

Taste: The beer is noticeably bitter, but it’s the rich coffee bitterness of roasted malt that dominates, rather than any strong hop character. In the mouth, my tastebuds keep searching for the sweet notes that the aroma promised. They’re there, but it takes the third or fourth sip to find them behind the dominant bitterness.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

verall, it’s easy to understand why Imperial Russian Stout was a valued commodity. I still believe there’s plenty of smoke and mirrors around the myths of aged beer, just as there are with whisky, smoked salmon, strong cheese, iberico ham and many other products that prize preservation over freshness. However, the sheer class of Courage Imperial Russian Stout is unarguable.

So, that’s two beers from the stash and two winners. I’m still expecting to find a stinker or two, but not so far. The Courage brand and the Eagle Brewery in Bedford are now owned by Marston’s, although it’s unclear whether any further brews of Courage Imperial Russian are planned.

For a detailed look at the history of both Imperial Stout in general and the Courage version in particular, there are links below to articles by my good friend Martyn Cornell, whose attention to detail and historical accuracy when it comes to beer history more than makes up for my ramblings and conjecture:

*As always, all views expressed are those of the author and other, equally valid opinions are available. Just not here.

More of John’s BeerStash Chronicles from lockdown can be found at www.apieandapint.com/blog

Guest blog: Andrew Whiteley, chief experience officer, Airship

Hospitality at home: the key to a successful lockdown

Andrew Whiteley, Toggle

If innovation and ingenuity are what it takes to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, there are plenty of hospitality operators who deserve to come through the other side of lockdown with a thriving business and a band of loyal customers who they’ve continued to engage with, despite their doors being shut.

Once lockdown was announced, smart operators were quick off the blocks to find new ways of keeping themselves relevant to their customers and bring in much-needed cash during closure.  Many have sold gift cards, which allow customers to buy a round of drinks for themselves or a friend, redeemable on that happy day when the pub’s doors reopen. The success of these schemes is testament to the customer loyalty inspired by some pubs; The Devonshire Arms in Yorkshire, for example, has sold £25,000-worth of vouchers, using the Toggle platform that allows pubs to create gift cards for free.

However, as the closure carried on, it became clear that customers couldn’t be expected to keep buying what was effectively a goodwill gesture with no immediate benefit to them. Operators realised that, to keep their customers engaged while their doors remained closed, they needed to offer them a ‘lockdown version’ of the food, drink and, most importantly, experience which they’d enjoyed in their pub, bar or restaurant before closure.

At Toggle, we’ve seen many great examples of how operators have turned their in-venue offer into an in-home one, and been involved in bringing several of them to life. The secret to success lies, we believe, in a number of factors, demonstrated by some of the best lockdown marketing:

Understand the core of your offer. At first glance, The Beer House in Sheffield wouldn’t appear to be well placed for the lockdown: a small micropub, it had never sold beer for takeout or delivery before closure. However, owner John Harrison realised that the reason customers visited The Beer House – to explore a wide range of craft beers, guided by the pub’s expert staff, could be recreated.  The Beer Box, a weekly-changing selection of beers as 9-litre ‘bag in box’ from the likes of Beatnikz Republic, Marble, Roosters and Arbor Ales, was born.

Create a virtual community.  The Beer House created a WhatsApp group for its customers, which gives them an exclusive six-hour window when they can access the weekly Beer Box, before it goes live on the website. The first time they did this, they sold £500 of Beer Boxes in an hour.  They’ve developed that online Beer Box community since, with hints and tips about enjoying the beers.  John even researched the thorny issue of how to put a head on the ales at home, testing a whisk, cafetiere and even a child’s Calpol syringe!  Now, group members wish each other a ‘Happy Beer Box Day’ and post videos of themselves with their home-poured pints.

Recreate the complete experience. If cask ale is challenging to recreate at home, then so too are cocktails.  According to CGA data, only 4% of people have enjoyed cocktails since lockdown, compared to 22% before.  Revolution Bars has created two Cocktail Kits, sold through Toggle – Pornstar Martini and Espresso Martini, containing all the ingredients needed to make them at home.  Just as importantly, they realised that what customers crave as much as their favourite cocktail is the atmosphere of a Revolution bar, so they’ve populated their social media channels with a steady stream of engaging content, from charismatic bartender Dimitri conducting cocktail tutorials to a DJ set or a ‘hangover HIIT’ session on Facebook Live.  A competition inviting people to tag a friend at #RevsDate and win a DIY cocktail kit attracted hundreds of entries from customers, reminiscing about their times enjoyed in a Revolution bar and looking forward to the fun ahead after lockdown.

Stay true to your brand. Restaurant brand Côte is all about high-quality authentic French food, which it has continued with its Côte at Home offer, promising ‘freshly-prepared, restaurant quality meals; effortless cooking with no skill or washing up required!’. As well as ready prepared meals, they also have a Butchery section with steaks, sausages and prestige burgers, and a selection of unusual French cheeses. It’s a perfect translation of the in-restaurant experience to the at home environment and has allowed thousands of Côte customers to enjoy a genuine taste of France. 

With a reopening date as early as 22 June now being mooted for some venues with outdoor spaces, it will be interesting to see to what extent consumer behaviours may have changed during more than 100 days of closure.  Let’s hope that those operators who adapted their offer and kept their customers engaged through social media, are rewarded with returning guests who appreciated the ‘lockdown version’ of their favourite pub, bar or restaurant, and can’t wait to experience the real thing again!

Airship’s Toggle platform allows operators to create online gift cards, and was made free to users during lockdown. www.usetoggle.com This column first appeared in Propel’s Friday Opinion on 12 June 2020.

Guest blog: Rupert Thompson, managing director and owner, Hogs Back Brewery

At the time of writing, we have no firm idea of when the Covid-19 lockdown might be lifted, for the nation in general or for pubs – though it looks as though hospitality will be one of the last industries to reopen.

Planning for reopening is therefore challenging to say the least. We will need to make a number of fundamental changes to the way we run pubs, at least in the short term, and the sooner we can come up with some creative solutions, the better prepared we’ll be when we can finally reopen the doors to crowds of thirsty customers.

And I think we can be confident of an early rush back to the pub; according to a recent Kantar poll, 56% of people are looking forward to visiting a pub or restaurant, putting it third after seeing family and friends again. The real question is what happens after that post-pandemic euphoria, and I think we have to be prepared for a significant drop in pub trade.

People’s drinking habits have changed already and will change further as we remain in lockdown. Everyone’s enjoying Friday night drinks with friends via Zoom, or pub quizzes on Facebook Live, and who’s to say they’ll replace all these virtual activities with real ones the minute pubs reopen? New habits develop, and some may stick.

Partly, it’s about money: many people have experienced drops in income, or are feeling nervous about their financial future, so discretionary spending like pub trips will be under pressure. There’s also going to be nervousness about going out, particularly among older people or those with health problems. Will they really fancy a pint enough to put their health on the line? 

Put these factors together, and I think we are looking at a much-reduced pub market in the short term.  Every year, the on-trade cedes a percentage or two to the off-trade and the pandemic will accelerate this. A 5% shift towards off-sales wouldn’t be surprising – and once lost, it won’t be recovered.

Of course, some pubs will be impacted more than others. Large, city centre pubs who rely on crowds of drinkers will suffer, and some small pubs who were barely viable will have been tipped over the edge.  However, some pubs in tourist destinations could do well as people choose to ‘staycation’ rather than risk travel abroad.

Changes in working patterns will also affect pub visits. With more homeworking, pubs in city centres will lose their after-work drinkers, but suburban or rural pubs should gain custom from stir-crazy homeworkers enjoying a pint or a pie in their local. Pubs who have geared up to offer takeaways or home deliveries should be able to continue this in the long term, as a percentage of customers will have discovered they prefer their Sunday pub roast at home. 

Despite silver linings for some, there’s no doubt that pubs are going to have a hard time and to survive, they’ll need to push down on their overheads – particularly rent and rates. The Government’s Covid-19 rates holiday is a tacit admission that rates are a heavy burden, and will hopefully lead to an overhaul of the current unfair system.  At the same time, commercial landlords will have to accept much lower yields – possibly as much as 50% of what they have been receiving – for the next 2-3 years.  

If social distancing measures are imposed, it will change the very nature of the pub, as a place where people gather to socialise with friends, family, or fellow sports fans.  Whether British pubgoers will adapt to drinking at in their own marked-out area at the bar or an isolated table remains to be seen.

Food service in pubs is likely to change from table service to collection at a counter, to remove the interaction – and cost – of a waiter. Table ordering apps will become more widely used, along with booking systems with tight windows, while simplified menus could be introduced to allow kitchen teams to keep within defined work areas. Pub gardens will be very popular and licensees should make the most of these assets with more seating – subject to social distancing – lighting and weather-proofing for year-round use.

Like everyone who works in, and loves, the pub industry, I will of course be hoping that much of my more pessimistic crystal ball gazing proves to be just that, and that the great British pub does what it’s done for centuries and evolves to stay firmly at the heart of people’s lives, while providing a rewarding livelihood for thousands of licensees and their teams.  We should all raise a pint to that!

Rupert Thompson is managing director and owner of Hogs Back Brewery in Surrey, brewers of TEA, or Traditional English Ale, one of the leading cask ales in the south east. He previously worked for Bass and Morland, and set up Refresh which brewed Ushers, Lowenbrau, Wychwood, Brakspear and Duchy Original beers. A CAMRA member for more than 20 years, Rupert was one of the original founders of both Cask Marque and the Beer Academy.  This column first appeared in the June 2020 issue of What’s Brewing.

Pubs in the pandemic: community heroes


The team at Cwmbran Fire Station receive food from Brains pub The Blinkin Owl

Working with PubAid is always a wonderful reminder of the great work that pubs do at the heart of their communities, and never more so than during this time of national emergency. Despite the catastrophic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on our industry, countless licensees and their teams across the country are putting people before profit and turning their pubs into invaluable hubs of community support.

Des O’Flanagan, PubAid co-founder, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic may have closed pubs for now, but their support for their local communities remains undiminished as licensees up and down the country adapt to offer local people practical, social and emotional support to help them weather this unprecedented crisis.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

Many have adapted their menus to takeaway or delivery, with a number providing free meals to local pensioners, others setting up village shops to serve those unable to travel, and generally acting as a hub to co-ordinate community efforts to support vulnerable residents. There’s plenty of support for NHS and other key workers – turning over car parks and in some cases pub rooms for their use.

Just as importantly, many pubs have found ways to give their regulars some of the social and emotional benefits they gain from a visit to the pub. A number have set up helplines to offer local housebound people a much-needed social interaction, others have organised on-line pub quizzes.

We’ve published a selection of stories about inspiring community pub heroes below – but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg.  If ever there were proof that pubs are a force for good in their communities, this is surely it!

When Mother’s Day became an early Covid-19 casualty, Brawns Den in Durham donated all the food they’d planned to serve families to local food banks. 

In similar vein, The Cross Keys in Coleorton in Leicestershire delivered 50 lunches from pizzas to Sunday roasts to the community on Mother’s Day.

The Old White Bear in Keighley had taken 129 bookings for Mother’s Day but rather than let down their customers, they made all the meals available for takeway instead, and are continuing to operate a take-out service.

Pub operator Brains had food worth £100,000 sitting in their 106 managed pubs as the lockdown started. So they decided to give it all away to local NHS and key workers, care homes, food banks and other worthy causes.  Their donations helped more than 40 groups across south and west Wales, including Cwmbran Fire Station, who took some of the food given away by local Brains pub The Blinkin Owl.  Brains chief executive Alistair Darby said: “We gave away everything that was going to go out of date while our pubs were closed – much better to have it used by those in need than let it go to waste.”

The Myrtle Tavern in Leeds has stepped up to support the vulnerable in their local community, dropping off care packages to people self-isolating or unable to shop for themselves. Packages contain vital supplies – tea, milk, biscuits, toilet roll and a bottle of Guinness!

The Plough & Harrow in Leytonstone has donated soft drinks to the local hospital for staff to enjoy on shift, and alcoholic drinks for those who want to take them home. They have also donated to other key workers such as post workers and refuse collectors, and have set up a Facebook page encouraging other pubs to offer the same support for the NHS

Lesters in Margate has made its car park available only to NHS workers at the nearby hospital, who are also benefiting from the pub’s takeaway food service.  Licensee Barry is doing all he can to support the community, despite being himself in his 70s.

Food deliveries from the Swan in Addingham

Pedal power is delivering pub meals to residents in Addingham, Ilkley. Jon and Amy, licensees at The Swan in the village, have invested in a bike to bring their tasty pub meals, cooked from fresh, to local people.

Licensee Carole at The Clifton Arms in Blackburn raised more than £400 from the pub’s community in just half an hour and bought fruit boxes from a local producer to be delivered to the NHS staff at the local hospital. In the last week, the pub also delivered over 40 essential boxes to those who were in isolation or unable to leave home.

The White Hart in Nettlebed near Henley has set up a shop in the pub, offering vital supplies to local residents, and are cooking a daily hot meal, ready for collection if ordered the day before. A poll on the Nettlebed Facebook asking residents if they wanted the shop to continue got 127 votes in favour – and none against! Good work by licensee Ted Docherty and his team of live-in staff who are working on a voluntary basis to serve the local community.

The aptly-named Who’d Have Thought It in St Dominick in Cornwall is offering takeway and home delivery to the local community, and donating £1 for every order to a newly- established food bank offering vital supplies to the vulnerable. Great community support from licensee Tracey Fleming and her team.

The team at the Blue Ball, Rutland

The Blue Ball in Braunston, Rutland, has been making up food boxes for the local community. Licensees Dom and Pip also set up a fund so that people can make a donation to purchase a box for those in financial hardship.

The Chestnut Group of 11 pubs in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex has adapted its offer with freshly-cooked meals available for collection and delivery, live pub quizzes, Q+A sessions with the pub chefs on social media and online breadmaking demos.  They’ve also opened shops at the Three Blackbirds near Newmarket and Globe Inn at Wells.

To help keep customers socially connected through the lockdown, The Fleece Inn, Skipton, has moved its weekly Tuesday Pub Quiz online, with quizzers able to see licensee Tim read out the questions.  And The Portsmouth Arms in Basingstoke is running two quizzes a day – one for children at 5.00 pm and one for adults at 8.00pm. Around 4,500 people tuned in on the first day!

At The Bull & Bush in Shepshed, Essex, licensees Laura and Nez have set up a Facebook group for their regulars to share quizzes, music and more.