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The Victoria Inn, Durham

My recent trip round the northeast of England took me to many fine pubs. When arriving in a new region, I always like to pick up a copy of the local CAMRA magazine. I find that the articles and adverts give me a good feel for the local beer scene, and some excellent ideas for pubs to visit during my stay. When I arrived in the Durham branch’s region, I quickly found a copy of the Durham Drinker, their publication. I was delighted to see that it was their Awards Issue in which they listed the winners and runners-up of the various awards given by the branch, including the Durham Pub of the Year.

This year, the POTY was won (not for the first time) by the Victoria Inn on Hallgarth Street in Durham itself. Hallgarth Street is a residential street running out of the town towards the south. The Victoria itself is a somewhat unusually shaped brick-built Victorian pub. It’s a grade-2 listed building, and the fact that its interior is virtually unchanged since its construction in 1899 has earned it a place on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors.

All of the above meant that the Victoria hit the top of my ‘must visit’ list for Durham. On arrival, I found the Victoria to be busy and full of animated conversation. Lady A and I found a bench to sit on and we sat for a few moments taking in the atmosphere. The internal fittings retain a real 19th century look and feel, and I felt that I was but a whisper from that time. The clientele was very varied; I saw a gentleman who must have been 80 years old having a conversation with an attractive young woman, a man in a business suit, a small group of matronly ladies and a gathering of what looked like post-graduate students – from their accents clearly gathered from all corners of the world.

All were enjoying beer from the many handpumps that lined the bar. I started with Durham White Velvet, a 4.2% golden ale. To be honest, the flavours here are all rather muted. There are slight hints of cream and a bit of citrus pith. It’s far from unpleasant, but there’s not a lot to make this beer stand out.

My second was Hambleton Nightmare, a 5.0% dark ale that is coloured a very deep red. This beer packs a great deal of flavour. There is a smooth mouthfeel with creamy notes of coffee and a mild chocolate finish. Along with the chocolate, the finish also packs a nice hoppy kick. Great stuff.

Third up was Wylam Gold Tankard, a 4.0% golden ale. Frankly, by this stage on my tour of the northeast, I was getting seriously tired with dull golden ales. This will be the subject of a future blog, but for now, suffice it to say that I found little to get my teeth into in this beer. It’s a little bit hoppy. Big deal.

Finally, I had a Big Lamp Bitter, at 3.9%, more properly a best. It’s a fairly standard best, probably with wide appeal. There’s a malty start and a hoppy finish. Perfectly drinkable and most likely would not have been out of place if served here in 1899.

Towards the end of the evening, the landlord came over to chat with us. I always like it when that happens. I started by congratulating him on his POTY win, but with the number of awards on the wall, this clearly wasn’t a new experience for him. He’d been running the pub for over thirty years, he explained. ‘I always like talking to customers, and for them to talk to one another. You see there’s no telly and no music, so people have to talk to one another.’

I found myself agreeing with him. I hate televisions in pubs. A big ‘Sky Sports’ banner is one of the best ways to repel me from a pub. I handed the landlord one of my cards and told him that I’d be writing about his pub in my blog. ‘Oh good,’ he said. ‘Don’t forget to mention me. My name’s Michael.’

Michael Webster clearly takes his pub and his beers very seriously. He’s a big supporter of local microbreweries and his list of ever-changing beers is impressive indeed. His insistence on having nothing in the pub to distract from conversation is refreshing and very welcome. In all, this is a great little pub, well deserving of its Durham Pub of the Year accolade.

http://www.victoriainn-durhamcity.co.uk/

Words and images are my copyright, please respect that. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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Posted by on 8 October, 2012 in Cask Ale, Pubs, Scooping

 

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Beer Festivals and Music

I’m sure you’re familiar with the moment. You’re sitting (or standing, depending on the venue). You have a nearly finished pint in your hand and you’re having a really interesting conversation with someone you’ve just met who shares your love of beer. Or maybe it’s a nice person of the appropriate gender, and chemistry is just starting to develop. You’re settling in nicely for the evening.

Then there’s an ear-splitting squeal from the speakers (which look like a scale model of Manhattan) and the band begins to play. For some reason, the band (one you’ve never heard of and will never come across again) thinks that you’re there to listen to them, so they’ve turned their Dixon’s budget amp to maximum.

The result is an instant shock to the system. You glance at your beer, and see that it is bouncing like the cup of water in Jurassic Park as the Tyrannosaur approaches. As conversation is now impossible, you indicate by sign language to your new friend that you’re going to the bar for a top up.

Once at the bar, a member of the bar staff approaches and indicates  non-verbally that he’s ready to take your order.

‘Half a Crudgie please’ you scream at him.

He looks puzzled. ‘HALF A CRUDGIE PLEASE!’ That hurt – you think you’ve loosened your tonsils.

‘Pint of what?’ he bellows back.

You indicate with your finger and thumb. ‘HALF – HALF – HALF A CRUDGIE PLEASE!’

‘WHAT DID YOU SAY?’

‘WHAT?’

‘I SAID, WHAT DID YOU SAY?’

‘WHAT?’

Eventually you walk back from the bar with a drink you didn’t ask for. You don’t even know what it is. The band is so loud that you can’t really hear it. It’s just a sharp pain in your ears. Your new friend has gone.

As you can tell, I have a bit of an issue with bands at beer festivals; and I’m not alone. I, and I believe the huge majority of attendees at beer festivals, do not go there to ‘listen to’ (i.e. be deafened by) a band that believes (as they all seem to) that louder is better, loudest is best. Their ears may be useless wreckage, but I have no desire for mine to be.

The problem is that the noise completely inhibits conversation. It is unpleasant, and frequently injurious to the hearing.

I’ve held these opinions for many years, and am very sorry to see that bands are now becoming a fixture at nearly all festivals. The worst festival for this, in my experience, is the Wigan Beer Festival. It is held in a huge gymnasium, three or four badminton courts in area. The acoustics are the worst it is possible to imagine. There is nowhere else for the ‘entertainment’ to go, so they’re in the gym with the rest of us. Maximum volume. The sound bounces mercilessly around the space, making talking quite impossible. It’s a really horrible experience. Wigan CAMRA generously provides what they call a ‘quiet session’ on one afternoon of the festival. Note – one afternoon. If you don’t want your ears to bleed you have to start drinking at lunchtime. I don’t like drinking at lunchtime, I like drinking in the evening.

I wasn’t at the National Winter Ales Festival this year, but my spies there informed me that they had the same problem. The band was in the same room as the bar. Apparently, when the band started, a large proportion of the punters drank up and left, and during the performance, takings at the bar dropped considerably. One of my sources said the noise eventually gave him a headache, and he left the festival an hour and a half before he had planned to. He says he’s not going again.

So what is the point of a live band at a beer festival?

Do they draw in more punters? – most likely no, but the people who are attracted by a live band when they are not attracted by the beer festival itself, are not the sort of custom we’re looking for at a festival. They are the wrong sort of punter.

Do they add value to the festival? – this depends on the band. If they are poor (and let’s face it – the bands that a beer festival can afford are going to be trending that way) then no. If they are good but too loud then no. If they play reasonably well at a reasonable volume, then probably yes.

Are they value for money? No.

Do they provide more takings for the charities supported by the festivals? – no, quite the reverse.

Do they increase takings at the bar? – Demonstrably not. Again, quite the reverse.

The answer is quite straightforward to my way of thinking. If a band has to be hired, the following areas should be addressed:

1. Is there a separate room for the band to perform in?

2. If not, will the band undertake to play their music at a level that will permit non-shouted conversations?

3. Is the band truly worth the price that’s being paid for them?

4. Would the money spent on the band be better going to the charity supported by the festival?

5. Do you really want to depress your beer sales?

6. Do you really want to lose a portion of your attendees early?

7. Do you really want people to stay away for fear of aural assault?

I think the majority of festival attendees would be happy with a little gentle piped background music. Really, nothing else is necessary. Less is more.

Those of us who think this way should be prepared to speak to the organizers of festivals and make these feelings very clearly understood. The simple and plain fact is that overloud bands are ruining our beer festivals. Please stand up and be counted.

Words are my copyright, please respect that. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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Posted by on 24 February, 2012 in Beer Festivals

 

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National Cask Ale Week 2011

National Cask Ale Week 2011 runs from the 1st to the 9th of October. The event is run as a joint venture by CAMRA and Cask Marque. This year, the event is themed, and the theme is ‘Try Before You Buy’.

In a good pub, you will always be able to try before you buy. The idea is that if you are unfamiliar with a beer on the bar, you can ask for a free sample to taste before you hand over any money. It doesn’t have to be a big sample, a mouthful is quite enough for you to decide whether you find a beer palatable or not. It’s not much to ask of a publican, and it can only enhance the reputation of the pub. If you are ever refused a taste before you buy, you should ask why, and if a satisfactory answer is not forthcoming (and let’s face it – it won’t be) you should just walk away.

The purpose of theming the Cask Ale Week is twofold – firstly to make those publicans who don’t know, aware of the fact that they should be running Try Before You Buy, and secondly to let drinkers know that this is available. This second point is particularly targeted at non-real ale drinkers who may just think that real ale is horrible and they’ll stick to their overpriced horsepiss, sorry, commercially brewed lager, thank you very much. If, however  the opportunity actually to try a beer before buying it is available, then it is hoped that more non-real ale drinkers will be tempted to have a taste, and hopefully realize what they’ve been missing.

The Try Before You Buy theme’s objectives are to:

  • Encourage new drinkers to try real ale.
  • Allow customers to experiment with the many different styles of beer available, some they may not have tried before.
  • To educate barstaff in the different styles and flavours of the many different kinds of real ale available.
  • Advise bar staff how to operate Try Before You Buy.

Cask Marque have committed their 7,500 pubs to promote Try Before You Buy. If you find a Cask Marque pub that refuses, you should report it to Cask Marque. They’re not playing.

To find a participating Cask Marque pub near you, click this link.

So what should we do during CAW? Well CAMRA’s aims for the week are as follows:

  • To encourage non-real ale drinkers to try real ale for the first time
  • To encourage experienced real-ale drinkers to visit real ale pubs
  • To encourage those pubs that do not stock real ale to start doing so.
  • To encourage pubs to organise real ale events to encourage drinkers to drink real ale and to improve their own trade.

Here’s what you can do, then.

  • Take a non-real ale drinking mate to the pub and buy him or her a pint of a really good real ale – s/he should be able to try it first, of course.
  • If you’re a real ale drinker yourself, you won’t find this too difficult – go to the pub and down a couple of pints of the real stuff.
  • If you’re feeling brave, go to the lager bar and ask them for some real ale!
  • Actively support any local events related to real ale in pubs in your locality. To find events near you, click on this link.

Most of all, just enjoy yourself this week with a few jars of real ale. It’s Britain’s national drink. Cheers!

Visit the National Cask Ale Week website here.

Visit CAMRA’s National Cask Ale Week page here.

Words are my copyright, please respect that. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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Posted by on 30 September, 2011 in Cask Ale, Pubs

 

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