Harvest Pale – the gateway beer

About a week ago I scanned the beer engines in a local and decided to have a pint of Harvest Pale from Castle Rock Brewery. This beer was awarded the Champion Beer of Britain by CAMRA in 2010 – roughly the time I started nurturing a serious interest in beer.

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It’s been a long time since I’ve had a pint of Harvest Pale. Like Landlord, Doom Bar and Tribute, it’s on permanently in pubs far from its home town – in HP’s case Nottingham. In my hunt for the new, I often neglect it simply to endlessly chart the rotating guests on offer.

It’s completely clear, golden and glowing with a glossy white head. There’s a grassy aroma as we’ve now come to expect from ales of this hue. Citrussy notes tantalise the lips before it’s even been transported across the gullet. These observations could be describing any number of modern pales.

It’s only after this initial introduction that an old school sweat returns; the humulone spritz segues into the warm greasy pastry from beers I moulded my palate on in the 1990s. This malty depth used to be hidden in plain sip as it haunted every pint of amber or golden cask ale.

The malt bringing up the rear – as dominant as the hops at the front – only registers now. It’s a character in itself and yet it’s been displaced during a time frame of little over six years. Taste and smell are hardwired to memory which otherwise fades. This is what makes this beer so special – it’s a sudden flashback to how things always were – suffixed onto the bouquet and palate of how things have become.

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There are other culprits that have had similar associations footnoted to them like Summer Lightening and Exmoor Gold, but this one is for the beer connoisseurs of my vintage. I don’t go back far enough for those beers to be game changers to me.

History gets faster and faster meaning the rate of change keeps accelerating. Culture turns. Social media pushes things forward. We strike out at the constantly new. Everything is in flux and few people are keeping tabs.

It seems that more has happened to beer in Britain in the six years since Harvest Pale won Champion Beer of Britain in 2010 than in the decades before it. For example, I don’t bat an eyelid when I see a DIPA on cask now. They’re being made by rural breweries who up until recently were trading on kitsch farming nostalgia on their pump clips. However, this time last year I’d never even had a DIPA via any dispense!

In 2010, CAMRA couldn’t have realised quite what a chimera this beer was. We talk of gateway beers but this made me think more of a bridge linking new beer with the old. For that reason, I now believe Harvest Pale is one of the most significant cask ales ever produced. I just never appreciated it up until now.

 

should you help save pubs you don’t know?

A few days ago, I got a message in my inbox. Here is an edited version (SADC stands for St Albans District Council):

URGENT – WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!

“to all our members in St Albans and Harpenden
(….) over a year ago we successfully obtained an Asset of Community Value designation (….) on the Red Cow pub in Harpenden which was under threat. Unfortunately the owner has appealed against this decision (….)
The council have asked us to provide the names and addresses of at least 21 of our members who are resident in SADC to support our opposition to the appeal (….)
The Council have assured us that nobody listed will be contacted by the council or by the appellant.
So all I need is your permission to give them your name, address and postcode. No emails or telephone numbers are needed (.…)”

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Should I lend my weight to help save a pub I’ve never been in? Or am I unwittingly colluding in a practice that will blow a major hole in saving pubs or granting them ACV status in the future?

As evidenced in the email, the council currently takes no steps in contacting anyone putting their name to an appeal like this. But could this change? Will the time come when the local council has to actually question each signatory on a petition? I get the feeling it might.

Over the past few years, the number of petitions has soared. This is mainly for two reasons: the popularity of e-petitions that can be signed from the comfort of the sofa, and umbilically, 2010 government legislation whereby petitions of 100,000 signatories automatically get debated in the Commons. Without any discussion on the issue, 100,000 names can easily be gathered in a few minutes

Following on from the June EU referendum, the government was swamped by petitions calling for a second referendum. This in turn provoked internet petitions for the football match between Iceland and England to be replayed, the Battle of Hastings to be refought and the National Lottery draw to be recast as the participants didn’t like the result. There are even online petitions calling to ban online petitions.

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I wouldn’t fight to save this hideous pub sign though. Is that the Dairylea cow?!

Fun and mischief was being had with those latter examples, but they do illustrate the ease, whimsy and apathy that petitions – especially online – can potentially nurture.

I’ve often suspected that if the signatories were contacted after a campaign, many of those who added their name might have forgotten they ever signed it, did it just to get the canvasser to go away, because the rest of the students signed, because their friend or partner got them to et cetera. This is part of the reason petitions are often ignored or given a token debate in Parliament at around 4am.

Now admittedly this is very different to the case being fought by South Herts CAMRA. For a start, unlike many e-petitions, it won’t be cancelled out by a rival e-petition trying to push matters the other way. Also, the people signing this will be local (as it’s addressed to the South Herts branch), will have an interest as dedicated pub-goers and genuinely want to see pubs stay open.

I decided to give my permission to send SADC my name and address as it stipulates nothing else is required. A knowledge of the threatened pub isn’t essential but I’ve given my details with a feeling of hypocrisy. Not only have I never been into the Red Cow, but up until this point I’d never even heard of it.

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the doomed battle for the Camp. Photo source: South Herts Advertiser

Something else decided me too: there was recently a petition in St Albans to save a pub called the Camp which I didn’t get involved in because I thought it couldn’t survive as a public house. I now regret this as other pubs I wrote off at the time have successfully turned themselves around. The Camp closed.

In my opinion, petitioning to save pubs has been a huge success so far (though obviously this doesn’t mean all of the pubs have been saved). But my fear is that very soon, the owner who wishes to sell or develop the pub will have lawyers to cite evidence based on the shortcomings of petitioning itself. If it can be proven that very few of the signatories had any historical connection to the campaign, it could undermine appeals like the one for the Red Cow.

The humble shoehorn

The humble shoehorn

The post I had envisaged writing has been ruined by research. This often happens. I was planning to chart the change in cask ale at a CAMRA beer festival over the last five years. I suspected – and it’s hardly controversial – that tastes were drifting away from the bitters and golden ales to the IPAs, porters, black IPAs, rye ales and fruit sours. In a way, that assumption has been borne out but not in the way I’d anticipated; the results are wearing camouflage.

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The only beer festival I’ve been to each time in the past five years is the St Albans Beer and Cider Festival thrown each summer in the Alban Arena. Not only have I visited and volunteered, but retained each year’s brochure with the beer lists. Over the course of the lustrum (five years to you and me), this literature is what I’m basing my findings on. It won’t be 100% accurate because as each festival’s set up, some beers never arrive, some don’t get drunk because of cask or ale defects whilst others are substituted at the last minute. Notwithstanding all that, I’m taking the lists at face value.

First I counted the overall cask tally and then the amount of each style within it.

The amount of golden ales has increased and then dropped. The peak was 140 in 2014 (out of a total of 348) and has come down to a low of 75 out of a list of 337 in 2016. Other traditional styles – the stouts, porters, milds and barley wines have stayed within similar margins each summer.

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From 2012, the bitters make up just under half but that proportion obviously dropped right? Except it didn’t. It went up. This year, over 50% (180 out of 337) of the beers on offer were bitters. This didn’t seem right.

I then scrutinised the bitters a bit more carefully. Unlike the GBBF, the festival at St Albans hasn’t included the increasingly popular IPA in its categories. By extension, it hasn’t confirmed black IPAs , American IPAs or DIPAs in its flock either. Amazingly, all these developing styles have instead been shoe horned into the bitter or golden ale category.

Here’s a small sample of some of the “bitters”: Dark Star Green Hop IPA, Red Squirrel Double American IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur and Siren Craft Brew Liquid Mistress.

dscf4868And a similar taster of some of the golden ales: William Brothers Joker IPA, Deuchars IPA, JO C’s Knot Just Another IPA and Oakham Ales Green Devil. Granted they’re all golden in colour but beer isn’t a paint chart but a sensory experience.

Stout, porter and mild all get their own colour tag yet they’re often difficult to distinguish. It’s hard to get a Rizla rolling paper between the first two.

There were just twelve milds at this year’s festival (including Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best – this, I think, was just an honest publishing error). There were in the region of 27 beers that self-identify as IPAs or could be included in the broad definition. There were also a number of self-proclaimed black IPAs or black india ales including the beer advertised on the staff festival T shirt – Farr Brew’s Blacklisted India Black Ale. Yet they’re all bitters or golden ales according to South Herts CAMRA!

This year even saw the entry of some barrel-aged beers, Saison and fruit sours – all on cask. Each was duly baptised as a bitter or golden ale. A locally brewed bottle beer – AleCraft’s Sonoma Double IPA weighing in at 8% – has during the course of the lustrum been both bitter and golden ale. It’s never been able to “come out” as what it really is to the family.

The problem is twofold:

Firstly, this categorisation reflects beer styles as they used to be to the point that the monikers mean absolutely nothing if they encompass all of the above under the same umbrella. Bitter and golden ale have basically come to mean anything that can’t be lumped under other headings.

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Secondly, punters coming to the festival to learn a bit about beer styles might end up leaving more confused than they arrived. A golden ale could’ve been the sweet honeysuckle of Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebb’s Summer Ale or alternatively it could be Oakham Ale’s aggressive Green Devil – a visceral grapefruit flesh nectar on steroids. Sampling bitters might have thrown up Dark Star’s Green Hop IPA or Windsor & Eton’s Conqueror – their black IPA. These are nothing like the more textbook Boltmaker or Sussex Best.

It’s time to revise the evolving topography in the field of beer categories. The GBBF does list IPA (how can it not?) but this is only one category more than its smaller cousin in South Hertfordshire. In reality, the craft of brewing, the technology used and the wider range of ingredients are shaping beer’s future. The old chalk-scrawled categories on the casks are becoming obsolete.

Contortionism & Diplomacy

Contortionism & Diplomacy

I move we celebrate a public holiday in honour of our bar staff whereby they get to keep all the day’s takings regardless of pub owner. All punters would need to present the exact change each time, anything over stays in the till. Each customer, even the regulars to show support, would also be required to sport a trademark prop to be immediately recognisable like a Mexican sombrero or a red carnation. Each empty glass would be returned to the bar along with a packaged food offering or bottle of fine wine or beer for the staff’s consumption and the following day would – of course – be a day off for them.

But how did I come to this conclusion?

I just volunteered at the 21st St Albans Beer and Cider Festival. I staffed one of the main bars during the busy times – Friday and Saturday evening. Though I’m proud to offer up my time, the hours didn’t so much feel like shifts as tours of duty.

From my temples, Diamante beads of sweat dropped silently onto the rubber matting which became more and more adhesive from the spillage of pints on mass migration. I played stillage twister with my colleagues. At one point I think I successfully dislocated my pelvis and shoulders just to crab walk through someone’s legs to get a half of imperial stout from the casks on the bottom row.

With live music causing my atoms to vibrate, I was confronted with a face I had to try and lip read from. I pressed my head sideways on the bar to hear what it was saying using a cupped hand to deepen my lughole’s parabola. The order just perceptible, I then scurried away, found the label, poured the beer and started my return shuttle. I forgot what the face looked like and couldn’t pick it out. A quick profile from memory: male, thirties, bearded, blonde. I headed towards that fit like it were a stadium version of Guess Who? The man looked perplexed as I handed him a beer he hadn’t ordered. His own glass was still in his hand. I looked back along the living Brueghel canvas and the guy I’d actually taken the order from was waving. The thirsty soul looked quite hurt. I lost count how many times I did this to attendees.

Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls but a sheer wall of casks. For the first time this year, there was also no handling of money either as we moved onto a token system. There isn’t the pub intimacy and each customer approaches the bar with their own glass.

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But with regards to the workers that keep the nation’s pubs alive, consider the following:

Whilst in constant motion they need to clock every new face at the bar, the place it gets in serving order and the fact that it might pop up somewhere else than where they first marked it.

As they do that, they need to be able to add up prices in multiples, get asked to change some of that order half way through and even have several punters in the same group trying to pay at once and want the change to be split three ways.

Whilst these calculations are going on in their brains, they need to develop a sense of psychokinesis with their co-workers behind the bar and always sense where they are so their bodies arch around each other – the art of contortion is essential.

In the midst of that advanced Yoga, their skills of diplomacy will carry them through as casks run dry one after the other – something the customer starts to believe was set up especially to torment them.

With those apologies, unsure of who was there first, customers start to inflate and stand on their toes to avoid being overlooked bearing expressions of both dejection and anger. They’ll need to be reassured with a mouthed “you’re next” – an incantation as soothing as a dummy/teat hoving into view is for a baby.

I haven’t developed these talents. I’ll probably only ever be the barman once a year. I give it my best shot but I’m very conscious of my weaknesses. I also recall the times I’ve been the customer perched in a corner and witnessed a phalanx of young men or women irrupt into a quiet pub – glad I’m not the one that has to serve them. I’m sure I don’t even need to bring up the always potential face to face confrontation of the drunk and lairy – something the many patrolling stewards and bouncers in a festival offset.

After the toil was over and the crowds were herded out through the arena doors by security, it was the perfect time to reflect on the service that thousands of good publicans and bar staff provide across this country. Working behind a bar is far more than the simple dispensing of beer.

Dear publicans and bar staff – never in the field of human society was so much owed by so many to so few.