Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Craven Arms and the power of Twitter or Things to do in Birmingham when you aren't dead.

Hello again, nice to see you.  Here's some advice, which you can apply generally in life and more specifically in Birmingham (UK).

While I'm out and about doing stuff for my day job, I occasionally get the odd evening to myself in a strange place.  There aren't many stranger places than Birmingham, and I found myself there this week attending a conference at Aston University.  Technically, Birmingham is the UK's second city, but arguably there are others ahead of it in the queue - but I had to go, so what did I do?

It did require an overnight stay, so that left me with a few options.

Option 1 - The Conference Dinner

Frankly, any invitation that says 'dress to impress' gets short shrift from me, so that was right out.  Plus who wants to see a whole bunch of people getting tipsy on 'champagne' (poor quality sparkling white) and then getting leathered on whatever rubbish, overpriced booze is in the hotel bar before shuffling off to each others rooms for some kind of tragic, and largely ugly, nasty shag-fest.

Option 2 - Try and meet up with old chums

Whilst you are younger, there is a strong possibility you might get to do this, in fact I managed to do this last time I went to Manchester (I'll write about that another time), but the sad fact is that when it's 15 years since you left Uni, trying to get your diary to fit with your chums is almost impossible, especially when stuff like finding babysitters comes into play.  No chums available in Birmingham.  Not an option really.

Option 3 - Sit in my hotel room and watch telly

Come on, you don't seriously think I was going to do this did you?  Shame on you.

Option 4 - *This is the option to choose*

So, if you find yourself in the same boat (and this applies to any city), make use of social media.  I'm lucky that I've got quite a few other bloggers who subscribe to my twitter feed (and I to theirs).  One quick tweet just asking "Decent pubs in Birmingham?  Or a decent bottle shop?  Going this afternooon to our third(?) city" was all it took.

Within minutes, I had recommendations from two excellent (and more prolific) bloggers (Matthew Curtis and Andy Parker , they were swiftly backed up by some other people with whom I am less familiar - and then by the actual pub that was leading the recommendation list. (and they flashed a few indicative beers at me by the way of temptation - Evil Twin and Brodies)  The pub was The Craven Arms in Birmingham.


This, this my friends, is what a boozer should look like.

So, after actually attending the conference, I made my way into central Birmingham.  It's slightly off the beaten track, but only about half a mile from New Street Station, Upper Gough Street B1 1JG if you need to set your navigation tool.  If you are visiting Birmingham, even if it isn't for a conference, I can highly recommend this place.

It's not a huge pub inside, but the place is set up so that it sort of feels bigger than it is.  There are shielded areas with tables so you can pop yourself into a corner if need be.  There's even a nice little section for the solo traveller with a selection of books, left there on a take one/leave one basis.  I opted for the bar, I wanted to scout out what beer they did have on...and boy did they have some beer on.

Salopian Sentinel for starters on cask!  8.4% of superbly conditioned beer.  I had a half of one of these poured before I even clocked the abv or indeed anything else in the bar.  It was totally worth it.

This is tasting notes done right

Whilst sipping on my first drink, I took the liberty of writing down (actually, tapping into my phone so that I didn't look too much like the anorak I clearly am) some of the fancier beers I could see behind the bar, here is a non-exhaustive list:

Buxton, Summer Wine, Brew by Numbers, Siren, Hopped Duvel, Orvel, Schneider Weisse, De Molen, Weird Beard, Magic Rock, Le Chouffe, St Bernardus...the list could go on.  Sadly I'd already eaten, but they also had some locally sourced pork pie that looked so good it made my mouth start watering.

What a joy it was to see was that this pub is clearly celebrating good beer in whatever form it comes. Bottle, keg, cask, there were even some cans in the mix.  The brewery that owns the place deserves some of the kudos for this, so well done Black Country Ales for having the confidence to allow their pub to be expertly managed by Chris and Sharron Sherratt.

The owning brewery - pumps front and centre and keeping the more traditional crowd happy

I was lucky enough to spend an hour or so with Chris and Sharron who explained to me some of their background and how they came to be running a pub in central Birmingham.   Making the shift from being a pair of teachers, they have clearly turned to drink (I can't imagine a profession that would make me more likely to do the same) in a positive way, turning a love for good beer into creating the kind of pub that any discerning drinker would be pleased to have on their doorstep.  Their enthusiasm is the infectious sort - and they are creating something special.

They've only had the place 18 months and they've already starting winning awards...they'll probably never win round the die hard CAMRA people, but I think their philosophy of the beer having to be good, rather than being tied to a method of storing beer is the one that will eventually win the game.  Although, I would note that Chris personally does an expert job looking after the beer that needs looking after - I didn't have a single off note all evening.  The population of the pub was a healthy mix of old and new, seasoned and unseasoned, unkempt beards did not abound.

Whilst we were talking, I got my gums around the Stardust by Tigertops Brewery, the Not Too Robust Bob by the 4T's brewery, the Mosaic Plus by Hopcraft and the Pale Ale by The Kernel.  Every drop was delicious, I didn't dare tackle the 13% IIPA from Evil Twin brewing although I wanted to - I had stuff to do the next day.

Chris and Sharron are very friendly and even consented to a photo!  Thanks guys for the warm welcome.

Chris and Sharron - Landlord and Landlady extraordinaire

So - in conclusion, if you are at a loose end in Birmingham, you should dash in here.  If you are at a works conference, option 4 is the only way.

As a post-script, I should note what I observed on my way back to the hotel.  The last of the conference dwellers were in the bar, and I spotted what could only be described as a beast of a swamp donkey dragging an incoherent bloke towards her room.  I shuddered, chuckled, and silently congratulated myself on making a great decision then went upstairs to sleep the sleep of the slightly tipsy yet righteous.  

Thanks for reading - and remember, harness social media for your pub recommendations.  You know it makes sense.

Until next time.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Judge not, lest thee be (beer) judged.


I'm writing this whilst I've got an experience fresh in my memory, although not so fresh that I am still refreshed (although I reserve the right to refresh myself either during or immediately after I have finished this writing activity).   As is the fashion, I'm not going to write about process, it's more of a reflection, or maybe a musing.  Frankly I can't be arsed to do a Google: define thing.  This should not diminish any enjoyment you may draw from this post.

Yesterday, I went along to the Ludlow Beer and Food Festival in Ludlow Castle.  It's the third year that I've been invited to judge at this wonderful event run by the Society of Independent Brewers Association (SIBA) - for those who weren't paying attention to YouTube at the relevant moment, here is a link to my first appearance there in 2012 with the ever lovely Charlie and Cheryl who work with SIBA and Quantock Brewery respectively Ludlow 2012 ).

Clearly I was a bit tipsy that first go around, but judging was very new territory at that point for me. Having the discipline to get through thirty odd beers and retaining your wits as well as your palate is bloody hard going.

So anyway, back to the action.

It's 2014 and @realalein140 is making his way to Ludlow solo, no Real Ale Craft Beer to hold his hand this year (he was in Poland, brewing with a Pole), just a book, a camera and some diaoralite (for dealing with any potential hangover on the train home) - and it's this experience of flying solo that's given me inspiration for today's drivel.  You see, the SIBA events are great in terms of the panel of judges they assemble (as well as the beer they have).


Who did I meet?  I'm not going to name names (mostly because I'm awful at remembering names), but I am going to consider some of the 'types' that I have met in my three years of attending.

Type 1:  The Happy Brewer

These guys are the best.  They know their beer, they are enthusiastic about their beer, they also know their science and their sanitary conditions.  As long as you demonstrate some knowledge of what they do and an interest in how they do it, they'll be happy to talk malts and hops, yeasts, off-flavours and mash temperatures - for me, having taken up a little bit of wholegrain brewing as a hobby, this is brilliant.  These guys are a wealth of interesting stuff, they'll also generally make the best recommendations as to what is behind the bar in that happy window of an hour or so when the beer is still gratis (before the public enter).   They will be happy to get a little bit tipsy with you once the results are out.

Type 2:  The Miserable Brewer

Despite the title, I like these guys.  Often northern for some reason, maybe I'm mistaking northern-ness for miserableness.  I don't think so though - I did live in the north for some time, so I've got a handle on the difference.  Think Fred Dibnah, but interested in brewing rather than industrial history.  Once you've got the twinkle in their eye going, and not shown yourself up by being loud (in a southern way), or flashy (again in a southern way) and again shown some knowledge and interest, these guys are pretty good value.  There are some that I've found to be impenetrable though, and that's down to either me or them being an unsociable arse.  I couldn't possibly prejudice your thoughts on this.

Type 3:  Young-ish CAMRA bloke

The 'young' is slightly misleading, but I hesitate to use the word 'new' because it isn't quite right.  These are the CAMRA people that understand that maybe the CAMRA acknowledged definition of what is real ale was probably a reaction to a particular kind of culture and set of circumstances some time in the mid '70s. These are the people that will happily accept that a good beer is a good beer, regardless of the journey it has undertaken to get in their belly.  These are good people to drink and natter with, they'll have an open mind and understand what you are doing as a blogger, hell, they might even appreciate it - or even be doing it themselves.

Type 4:  Old-ish CAMRA bloke

The 'old' again is misleading, it relates to attitude.  I have undoubtedly cheesed off a number of these guys. When you enter into conversation with them, woe betide if you are a blogger or a 'product of the modern age' as I was referred to as once.  It's like you can't possibly compete with them unless you had a flat cap and remember Watney's Red Barrel when it was still nice (I don't know if it was ever nice - in a sense I don't care either - it's not been sold in my drinking lifetime).  These guys don't want you in their special club, no matter how big your beard.  If anyone can think of any sensible reasons for this, answers on a postcard (or in the comments box).  Maybe they just don't like anyone, maybe their prostate is playing them up, you can never tell.

Type 5:  Other bloggers

Pleasingly, I've yet to meet another blogger at a festival with whom I felt anything other than an immediate camaraderie.  These guys understand the struggle.  We have reputations to try and maintain, so doing these events is a serious business for us.  You've also got immediate common ground and probably some recommendations for each other.  A quick hello here to the Ormskirk Baron and Christopher R (whose excellent work can be found here .

Type 6:  Industry people

These people are sometimes very interesting.  They'll be selling scientific aids or peculiar widgets or things that go pop or bang (or stop things from going pop or bang), or an app or some-such.  Often they are in attendance as their company has sponsored an award.  Whatever they do, they'll probably have some insider information about who is buying what or who is doing things a particular way - information that will be recycled after an appropriate amount of time as knowledge - and bloggers like their knowledge.

Type 7:  General public

Only one minor difference between them and the bloggers really, these people are in this for the pure pleasure and hedonism of trying a dozen ales before lunchtime.  I've been to festivals in this guise - it's bloody great.


So there, a quick round-up of attendee categories.  I'd be interested if you've got any others to suggest.

Until next time.