Friday, November 16, 2012

A Celebration of Prevarication

I know some who plan their vacations down to the last detail. All the major tourist highlights and media-flogged points of interest must be taken in in the most efficient manner as possible; a jamb-packed orgy of stress-inducing sights and sounds and diesel tour busses. Not fun, really. I prefer a richer experience that can be experienced by sailing the gentle, wayward breeze of organic encounter in the pubs and footpaths of England.

Last night this errant breeze had unexpectedly washed me ashore at the Bridge Inn in Santon Bridge, Holmrook, for the World's Biggest Liar Competition. This is an event that originated in the 19th century, and still runs strong on an annual basis. I had first read about it while staying for a couple of nights in Wasdale Head back in September of 2004 on a random walking jaunt across Cumbria. I never expected that I'd see the day I might witness this noble and solemn spectacle.

Be it known that I'm not trained in journalism, and I somewhat reluctantly blog. However, uncertainty reigned supreme as I found myself charged by the Hardknott Brewery in Millom to be their blogger representative at the pub. The choices were to (A) tell a five minute equivocation under the bright lights of the stage before a crowd of over a hundred crammed into the function room of a rural public house, or (B) write about the event over t'Interweb.

On the five mile walk over to the inn from the train station I thought up a handful of less-than-true figments of my holiday-corrupted imagination. The illusion of a large, hirsute American taking the stage was taking on a cloudy, misshapen and ambitious form. To my ultimate benefit, over my first pint at the bar, the barkeep formed me that tall tales that don't connect well with the Cumbrian locals, their folklore, their history and their local color might not be well-received. Good enough for me. Plan B goes into effect, and I'm merely left with enjoying the show stress-free and scratching together some sentences for the 7 people who actually read my blog. Perfect.

Through connections that I don't completely understand I was put at the press table at the side of the stage, notebook in hand, pondering the sense that I didn't really deserve this. That didn't stop me from attempting to take notes and liberating an assortment of Cumbrian ales. The Jennings Brewery, who sponsored the event, had on a special Biggest Liar ale that was brown and biscuity and reminded me of my own "Quid Hoc Sibi Vult" Special Bitter which I hope is still on the pumps back at the home office. I felt at home, as I most often do in this part of the globe.

There were 12 contestants this year. Having been to Cumbria many times in the past, indeed spending a splendid tour learning English brewing techniques and pub operations over the years, I had not a whit of trouble sorting through the regional accents and local references. Around the third contestant I began to see the structure of the storytelling, for that's what it came to be in my mind. This is the weaving of tall tales; a celebration of prevarication. Part of me wanted to compare the act and delivery with stand-up comedy, but, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on, there was something special going on here. You can't bottle this and stick it on a shelf at the local tricky-tacky shop. Selfishly, I wanted all the cameras and media and promotion to just go away and bring me back to a lost era when tales would be spun at a local around a coal fire with a pint of the usual.

Ah, the stories. It is not my intention to write reviews here. I'll leave that to the local media. But, ah, the stories. I was particularly amused by the true account of a journey to Whitehaven trying to sell a box of four kittens. There were stories about badger ancestry, web-footed cats, the origins of the word haggis, the rhyming meter of the tale of Ruby Tuesday's sister. This is an art that sadly persists in its absence. There were three winners, but they all won.

Altogether it was a splendid and unique evening, and I am thankful to all who made it possible.

Speaking of unique, it quickly became well-known that an American publican and brewer was on the premises, observing and writing. I was asked more than once whether I would consider putting on an event of a similar nature at my own pub. No, I replied. Not going to happen. Full stop. I understood the event to be unique; it belongs here and only here, and only gets lost in translation. To commercialize it and exploit it would be tragic. This is not something that should be interfered with by a large American, or anyone for that matter, and that is not a lie.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Notes From Cornwall

Cornwall was fantastic. However, I have had to leave it a bit earlier than I expected. There are rumblings and goings-on up north, of the beery variety, that have put me on a train back to familiar Oxford. Then tomorrow I head up to the Lake District. I don't totally know what awaits me up there, but that's the way I like it. I do know that there is an event planned in Leeds on my last night, and I would also like to spend a couple of days pottering about the pubs and fells of Coniston.

Sadly, I'm seeing more pubs going corporate. By this I'm not talking about design, layout and atmosphere (that's a different matter), but rather staffing and management. It is harder to run across the publican-led pub, especially in urban areas. And the smiling, friendly staff that engages you in a conversation is the exception rather than the norm. Kudos to the Tinner's Arms in Zennor near St. Ives. The barkeep warned me that the 5.2% ABV pint that I was in the process of acquiring was " a bit strong", and the landlady gave me advice for the walk over the neck of Cornwall to Penzance. I give high ratings there to the Admiral Benbow and the Turks Head.

Cornwall is definitely dominated by the St. Austell's brewery. A large percentage of the pubs I visited were tied. Last night I was in Fowey on the southern coast, a beautiful little harbor town. Out of the five pubs, four were tied, and the fifth sported Sharps Doom Bar, Wadworth 6X and, you guessed it, St Austell's Tribute. While there, staring out over the harbor, I got to witness a young, cocky Diageo boy replace a shiny ice-cold Guinness font with a newer and shinier ice-cold Guinness font. Yuck.

I'm supposed to be in the land of the unsparkled pint, but an Austell's pub in St. Ives was dispensing "northern". Nothing wrong with that in my book, unless the sparkler was used to prop up a fading cask, which was the case on more than one occasion. I ran across another in Fowey.

The business plan for the satellite pub is coming along slowly. Thoughts and images need time to soak in. I finish this entry from my new favorite pub in Oxford, the Rose and Crown off Woodstock Road, which I discovered off the Good Pub Guide. A free house with a well-kept cellar, lots of little rooms, and a covered patio overgrown with vines. It's also bereft of students. Cheers!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Don't Look For Me at Work - I'm Not There

[Bloggers note: I couldn't figure out how to upload pictures from an iPad, so edited accordingly. Any insights out there?]

It's Saturday already. It was Wednesday morning when I landed in Manchester. After a lovely two nights in Oxford revisiting some of my favorite pubs like the Bear, the Old Bookbinders and the Turf, I'm now enjoying my first full day in St. Ives way down the tippy end of Cornwall.

I had hoped to make a blog entry earlier, but finding reliable WiFi has been a chore. It is showing up more in the pubs than I recall in years past, but there seems to be something odd and persistently unreliable about it. It reminds me of a rotating lighthouse beacon that smiles on you for 10 seconds once every four minutes. Many things are opposite of the way they are back in the States, such as light switch positions, traffic lanes, and the inability of hot water taps to decide whether they are on the right or the left, so perhaps zeros are ones and ones are zeros and my portable American electronic device is caught in a state of bewilderment.

Ah, the pubs. Pubs to the left of me. Pubs to the right. Good pubs. City pubs. Rural pubs. Locals pubs. Tourist pubs. Student pubs. Cozy pubs. Wetherspoons pubs (yes, for the sake of research I need to go in then and have a look around, and to have a £1.49 pint to stay in budget). I'm here to research pubs, to study them (in a purely academic fashion, of course), to scrutinize their design and atmosphere and architecture. There is a business plan in the works and I'm sorting that out.

Another reason to be here is to have a cracking good time off, and to ensure that any work I perform whilst on this Island is something that I do in my spare time and when I'm in the proper mood. So, as such, I'm off for a pint.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Little Green Men

I was just going through my blog roll while brewing today and read Bill's report on the fresh hop season. This caused me to think that I never did finish that post about our own fresh hop beer. Now I feel I have to rewrite the thing, as it is no longer relevant in the face of the fact that, to be blunt, we drank it all. Here's one of the last pints coming over the bar and soon to be in my possession.

Bill also posted about terminology back in September. "Wet Hops", "Fresh Hops", "Green Hops", "Moist Hops". I don't know that there is universal agreement. I called mine "Green Hopped" as the hops were very shiny and green. Yes, I know, whole cones and pellets are also green, but not green-green, if you know what I mean. Not one to remain caught up endlessly in terminology, I thought I'd just run with it. We've been growing hops up our porch at home for several years now and I never managed to pick them. This year I got up early on a brew day and picked a quarter-kilo of the little green guys.

I have to admit that I don't know what strain they are. My wife thinks they are either Willamette or Cascade, and I'm guessing Cascade based on the shape of the cone and the aroma. I took one of my recipes that works really well on cask for a 5.5% ABV very pale IPA. I used Cascade and Centennial for bittering and Cascade and Simcoe for the finish. The poor little fresh guys got chucked in right at flameout. I didn't really have a name for it until a couple of days later when, while I wasn't even thinking about it, "Little Green Men" popped into some unfashionable outlying region of my cortex.

It came out beautiful. After two weeks sitting in the cask I tapped the first firkin and put it on the bar. It was gone in a day, although it is possible to do that in September when trade is still fairly brisk (as opposed to the dismal season we are heading into now). The effect of the fresh hops is subtle, but I believe it expresses itself better at cellar temperature and without the surfeit of bubbles you might encounter in a kegged or bottled version. I can't help but wonder, though, if a similar effect could be achieved with lawn clippings or dandelion greens, or whether this whole fresh hop thing is simply a marketing gimmick or cry for attention.

Now it's the season to get cracking on the alternatively-bittered November beers, such as my chanterelle, peat moss and wet-big-leaf-maple brown ale, brewed with Belgian Ardennes, cucumber seads and a dash of mace.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

No Time Like the Present

I've been waiting for the perfect moment to open my bottle of Colonial Mayhem, brewed in Cumbria last November and hand-delivered to me by some other visiting brewers back in May. That time never came, and so there it sat, until yesterday when I decided that for the sheer joy of still being alive I would celebrate by opening the blasted thing and having a snort. Since my plane ticket to England in November was booked last week, and my Britrail pass arrived on Friday, I suppose I could celebrate that as well.

I know of a number of beery sites that like to give complicated beer reviews. I'm not into that. All I'm going to say is that it poured a bit fizzy, tasted delicious (probably due to pure Millom spring water) and made my barkeep smile (yes, I shared). I understand that a pin of the stuff from a second batch might be stashed away at the brewery for my visit.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Pub With No Beer

Thanks to heaving crowds the last two weekends, we are almost out of beer. Our proud collection of six hand pulls are still there, but only two of them are burdened by the responsibility of dispensing ale. So, until tomorrow (Wednesday) there is a Best Bitter and a Stout, both sessionable and chock full of yum. On Wednesday there will be a new one-off, six-hopped IPA, and then on Friday the new tweaked recipe of Bridleway, a 3.5% Session Bitter, will be eager to be unleashed on the thirsty masses. See you at the pub.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fourth Superannuation

In May of 2006, on the West Cumbrian Line from Ravenglass to Carlisle, a silly germ of an idea of opening an English Real Ale Pub and Brewery in a depressed logging town in the Oregon Cascades was born. On August 13, 2008, the Brewers Union Local 180 opened its door. It's now four years later and we're still here. Amazing.

I'm sitting here in the brewery knocking out a batch of stout and trying to let that fact sink in. Who woulda thunk that the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of 1929 would strike a few months after opening. There were many plot points in the last four years where I considered closing or moving. It was bleak. There was scarce trade at first. There was that late and lame winter and that wet spring that kept the mountain bikes off the trails until June. There's still that IRS lien that I've almost worked off. Long hours. No pay. The occasional negative review.

A line from an old Bruce Cockburn song just popped into my head, from "Fascist Architecture":

Bloody nose and burning eyes
Raised in laughter to the skies

Hah! They say it takes three to five years for a new business to become successful. I don't know what measure of success is referred to there, but in the worst of times and a tough town with an unknown product all I can say is we're still kicking. Even better, it looks like we're finally crossing a threshold. Production and consumption is up enough that we had, and were able to, buy more casks and complete a new cask cellar. New problems are arising, such as how to find time to brew and where to find staff as traffic increases in the pub. I've been thinking it might be time to hire a part time house manager. That sort of thing. And better yet, there are rumblings and murmurs along the lines of building another pub or two, maybe even in your small town. I think we are about 40,000 short in this state alone.

So, for today we are offering a special ale called "4th Superannuation Ale", and it will be a $3 Imperial Pint all day long. It's called an Oakridge Red Ale, since we invented the concept of adding a lot of hops to a strong red ale (Millennium, Chinook, Glacier and Armadillo). I think it might even be called a Red IPA or a Cascadian Red Ale now in the BJCP guidelines. Go figure.


Friday, August 3, 2012

Massive Brewery Expansion

Catchy, isn't it? Mayhap you were thinking big chunks of stainless or a new automated casking system or something. Nope - we're talking here about new casks and a new proper cellar.

Truth is, for me it's massive because I've been trying for three years to purchase more casks and have a better place to store them. Yes, that's all I'm talking about: more casks and a better place to store them. So, a shipment of shiny plastic firkins arrived last week, 16 in all, which is enough for two batches. My current inventory of 46 wasn't enough, as it created a limitation for when I could brew. There's no point in brewing a batch of beer and then finding nothing to put it in. I can also now have a larger inventory of ale in the cellar, allow them to mature longer, and do a bit more oak aging. It's also an indicator that trade is up this summer and all you lovely punters are latching on to real ale.

The other problem of storage space is being addressed at the moment as well. Currently our casks share the walk-in cooler (behind the giant wooden door) with the kitchen supplies, kegged beer, soft drinks, wine and my hop shelf. It's been cramped in there. The space next to it if full of junk interspersed with useful things that could likely find a new home in some other part of the building. That space is now being converted into a room tied to the walk-in via a temperature controlled fan system to keep the temperature at a cool 50° instead of the 40° required for the food storage.

The whole deal should be finished in a few days and ready for receiving it's cargo. Meanwhile I've got some brewing to do.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Oh, The Humanities!

I'm going to take a quick break from my ramblings on pubs to announce the availability of the strongest ale ever brewed at the Brewers Union. Not that I am set on this modern West Coast notion that stronger and hoppier beers are cool, as they are (hush, hush, top secret) easy to make and even easier to hide defects in. It's just that one of our local regulars requested a big malty ale and I decided to oblige. And, it has that feel of a momentous occassion like the record-setting going on at the Olympic Track & Field Trials down in Eugene. 7.1% ABV. Plenty of malt. A generous dose of Simcoe at flameout. We're working here with something like a Scottish Ale but without any smoke or peat, and it goes down way too easy.

I had originally decided to bluntly label it "David's Big Malty Ale", being that David is the name of the aforementioned local regular, but as he teaches Humanities down at the University of Oregon it ended up being called, "Oh, the Humanities!". We felt jolly clever about it, and I chuckled all the way to the Adobe Illustrator file that contains the pump clip artwork.

Tapping took place on Thursday. In our case we really do tap them, bona fide, with a rubber mallet and a cask tap. I am frequently amused by the flood of notices on the various beer sites about beer tappings, when all they do is twist down a Sankey tap and open the valve on a tank of CO2. Out comes dead beer. This, on the contrary, is living stuff, where we get to fiddle with it each morning and make knowing comments about how it is changing from day to day and from cask to cask. It is. It really is. Come down today and try a pint, and then return enthusiastically in a couple of weeks and see what I'm talking about.

Tomorrow I'll be brewing small beer again, just like old times. I'm shooting for 3.8% or thereabouts. Then I'll be back to rambling about pubs. There is a juicy comment in the last post that I want to tackle.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

RE: Pubs, Part the Second

The first comment from my previous post came from a noted Portland beer blogger who had visited England for the first time back in November, and got to experience his first pubs. Or, was that first visit to the Raleigh Hills McMenamins the first? That's the question; do we have pubs here in America? What is a pub? Is it OK to use it as a familiar synonym for a bar or tavern or a restaurant that brews beer (brewpub)?

I grew up near, in and around Ithaca, NY. When I graduated from college (1985) I moved back, bought a house, and got a job working as a software engineer for Cornell University. On the edge of campus is "Collegetown", a few blocks of streets on a steep hill leading down to the city. It contains all the necessities of off-campus life: markets, apartments, a great bagel shop, coffee shops, restaurants and bars. I quickly took a liking to a pizza joint called The Nines. The best deep-dish pizza I've ever had, cooked in a square pan in an upstairs kitchen and dropped to the bar below in a dumbwaiter. There was a great beer selection for the time, live music periodically, and rough tables scattered around for slouching in for a pint and a good book. I felt comfortable there.

Shortly afterward a couple of lawyers from New York City renovated the old Chapter House and installed a small brewery. It was fantastic, just as I pictured a British pub to be. I could order a slice of pizza from a tiny back kitchen and a pint from the bar and meet my friends, or just sit in a corner over a book with a bowl of the free popcorn from the constantly humming machine. My old jazz band, the Spam Fisted Butchers of Jazz, managed to convince the owners to let us play there a few times. Sadly, the brewery is no longer there, but the last time I was back it still had a pub-like character and I enjoyed my brief stay.

I thought of those places as pubs, but what was it about that first pub outside Victoria Station in London in 1991 that changed my perspective? I'm still trying to figure that out. Having been back and forth to the U.K. numerous times, I still feel like I'm chasing the greased pig as I attempt to define, let alone articulate, the differences. Fragments of "Pubs, Part the Third" are starting to form in my Slowly Decaying Cortex (tm).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

RE: Pubs, Part the First

It was May of 1991 when I stepped into my first pub. I was in the process of moving from Upstate New York (NOT the CITY, for those not in the know) to Oregon, in which we had picked a little town in the Cascades off the Rand McNally called Oakridge. My wife and I took a month off to wander around a small island off the coast of France by train, thumb, bus, coach and foot. To this day I distinctly remember stepping into my first pub after disembarking the train at Victoria Station in a sizable village called London. My first pint of "Bitter". My first mushy peas. My first taste of British hospitality in its continuum of indifference to sheer joy.

Now I own a pub. But can I say this: What is a pub? As I spend anywhere from 0 to 20 hours a week behind my own bar, also known as running the front of the house, I have encountered the occasional customer that didn't realize that pub was short for public house. As a barkeep, an important part of the job is the disbursement of knowledge and entertainment, so the punter can leave a little better off than they came. And also serve them a proper pint and make them feel at home. Shouldn't a public house be a home? I hope so.

I'm now off my non-blogging binge, and am as unsure as to the grammar of that as the next guy who finds language a right kick in the pants. Thus begins a discourse on pubs. I hope both of you readers will take the time to comment and heckle as deemed appropriate.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Queue up the Music

I used to stare at these things for a living. Sometimes I would push rectangular buttons with letters and numbers on them, creating non-conversational verbiage that computers found highly suggestive and were compelled to obey. Then I quit that life and built a real ale pub. Around the middle of April, when business here at the pub was wallowing around in its nadir, I just couldn't bring myself to stare at a screen and write down what was zipping around in my Slowly Decaying Cortex (tm). The notion of curling up on a rock down on the river with a good book and a jar of ale took precedence. Consequently, the blog has suffered. I've decided I'm back now, and am going to make a nuisance of myself on t'Interweb.

I'll begin tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Colonial Mayhem Redux

I shouldn't be using this blog to repost someone else's blog, right? After all, shouldn't I be coming up with witty and informative material? Naw, it's Spring and trade jumps of a steep cliff into the rocky surf below. Then I get moody until the rain stops and the sun comes out and mountain bikers, campers, anglers, hikers and boaty types start clamoring for ale. So I'm just going to pop a link up here to a video of MY BEER being consumed eight time zones away and then go back to washing casks.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One-Off's are a Hoot

I had the honor of being invited up to Portland to Belmont Station's 15th anniversary on the 15th of March. I thought to myself, as I often do, of how much fun it would be to knock off a special beer for the occasion made out of stuff lying around the brewery. As a result, "15-15-15" was born, also known as "The Ides of Belmont Station". It contains 15 grains and the remaining bits of my small cache of special hops. It's not bad, either, and am heading up to the bar to see if I can sample another pint. Hope to see you all in Portland in a couple of days. John Foyston posted a goofy picture of me on his blog, so I now know that I need to stay away from cameras.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Colonial Mayhem

As I've mentioned here on this blog, I spent a couple weeks back in England last November. I have friends in the Lake District who have a brewery and are patient with me and drive me around on "cultural tours". They also, after demonstrating my usefulness painting walls and floors and installing fermenters without denting them too much, permitted me to design and brew a beer. It is now apparently available to the unwary public and is being (or already has been) dispensed at a meet the brewer event. I hope some lingers in a bottle until I hopefully can return there in November. Ideally there would be a pin or maybe a firkin sitting around as well (hint, hint, hint).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Now THIS is a Festival

I had decided this year to change my routine of beer festivals. No more KLCC Microbrew Festival this year. Let's do Sasquatch instead. No Firkin Fest at the Green Dragon (and I won't go into why here). How about meeting some new brewers and brewery staff and plying the trade outside of the usual Portland area. Portland gets too much attention these days anyway.

On a whim I decided to go to the Fort George Brewery in Astoria for a festival of stouts. We had done a cask swap once before with them, and so I wanted to be there to handle the casks and to schmooze - that sort of thing. I had my portable cask pub kit with me, so, in addition to the new beer engine that they had mounted in the new Lovell Tasting Room, we were able to pull an additional two casks. As usual I had to show up the day before the festival and set up in the lonely new space which used to be a car showroom.

The new brewery addition is immense. I was particularly impressed with the enormous beams, the smell of old carpentry and the piggy hot liquor tank.

Now a lot of these American beer festivals are all the same. It's just a big room with volunteers pouring products that they have no knowledge of into pitifully small bits of glassware. While this festival did employ the ticket-for-a-taste template, there was more going on here than just, well, a big room with volunteers pouring products that they have no knowledge of into pitifully small bits of glassware. For starters, how about this wonderful female voice wielding a banjo? And when was the last time you were regaled by singing pirates sporting leather tankards and what looked like disemboweling cutlasses? How often do you go to a festival that employs a live blacksmith? And belly dancing?

Needless to say, I had a good time. I got to work my own taps for a while, and found it unusual to not have to figure out what style of beer the customer wanted. 100% chance it was going to be a stout. We were serving our 8-grain winter stout called "Frost on the Bumpkin". I was only asked three times whether it had pumpkin in it.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not a Grumpy Publican Post

Well, I suppose I should plunge back into this. I've been in a state of blog silence for a bit, related to that depressing time of year that we call the off-season. I was trying to avoid the possibility of "grumpy publican" posts that sometimes surface during this time of year.

We had hopes of another killer Winter like last year, which brings us a thing called "Ski Season". Willamette Pass Resort is just 25 miles up the road. It brings us the Winter trade that small businesses up the HWY 58 corridor depend upon. Winter's good. We need Winter. Without it we lose money, get grumpy, and write grumpy publican posts.

Winter came 8 weeks late. This is a Bad Thing™. I started and deleted a couple of grumpy publican posts and then thought better of it. But happy happy joy joy it snowed a bit and the Pass opened and some wallets trickled through the door. So what did I do? I bought some grain.

We needed grain. Can't brew without it. Trouble is, the local brewery supply warehouses require me to buy it. Can you imagine? So I scraped together some boring green paper that passes for currency and drove to Vancouver, Washington in order to secure a couple sacks of the good stuff. Enough for a brew or three. I just considered the drive to be a shipping cost, as well as a break from being at the pub every day which carries a value all its own. Nine sacks makes up almost 500 lbs. of burden. I think I could cram in a few more next time. As I was driving home, I was wondering how many other breweries in this country have to snag a few bags by personal transport.

We have now brewed three batches of scrummy cask ales, including an Ordinary and a Best Bitter that were high on my wish list. I think that with the slightly elevated trade I can maybe sneak back up for another grain run.