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Into The Blast of January....

Starting the new year with a cold has not been the best introduction to 2017, but it doesn't take away from the fact that I had a good Christmas and New Year, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying some excellent beers in some wonderful pubs.

I visited most of the usual haunts, but I also tried a few different places too. On Boxing Day, our Tom and I had a local walk to visit the Red Rooster at Brookfoot for the first time in a while. This was a regular port of call for me for many years, originally when it was under the auspices of Jim Wright's TFC Group, when John and Maureen Tillotson were landlord and landlady, probably 30 years ago now. Over the years I continued visiting, when Tom and Brenda had it, then Elaine, but we had decided to visit following the return of another previous landlord, Eddie Geater, who had been there for a couple of years back in the noughties. There was a reasonable afternoon crowd in, a good atmosphere, and the beer was on top form. I will be going back again soon.

I also met up with some of my old walking friends from Elland later in the week, and we had a really good day having a very pleasant wander up the canal to Todmorden and sampling some beers when we got there. It was good to catch up, back in the '90's we used to go up to the Lakes or the Dales most months, and but as we are all getting older this walk was a lot less challenging than what we used to tackle!

One of the places we visited in Todmorden was the Barearts Studio. Now this place is different to say the least. For one thing it is bright pink! Originally opened by Trevor Cook and his wife Kathy as an art gallery with cafe and as a place to sell beer from his brewery just down the road, it plodded on for years as a quirky and unique venue. The large range of beers were all bottles - and bottle-conditioned - and available to take away, or to drink in the cafe, when the bottle would be opened and part poured into a little jug before you headed off to grab a seat, where you would be surrounded by boxes and boxes of beer, with large paintings, generally abstract, often nudes, on the wall. With its limited opening hours, snacks available, sometimes live acoustic music, and with the friendly and flamboyant Trevor always wandering around to talk to all his customers, it had many of the characteristics of what we would now call a micropub! 

Sadly, Trevor died a couple of years, but the venue lives on, and when we called in, it was good to see things pretty as much as they were, and we were well looked after by Jasmine. The beers though are now contract brewed to the original recipes by Little Valley, the brewery is up for sale, with an asking price £100,000, if you're interested. If you're in Tod, the Barearts Studio is definitely worth a visit. Look for the pink building opposite Morrisons out on Rochdale Road, but do check the website first for opening times. 

We also stopped off at Hebden Bridge, in fact it was my second visit of the week. It was good to see The White Swan and Railway both open again, meaning that finally all the pubs affected by the 2015 floods are now back in business. The White Swan is an updated version of what it always was, a homely, friendly pub, whilst The Railway has been opened out, with exposed stone walls, and a bigger range of cask ales than I remember, 5 hand pumps are now on the bar (I think). I paid my second visit of the week to Calan's, as some of the group hadn't been there before. The beer and the pork pies went down extremely well! Just to mention that Calan's will be closing for a couple of weeks from January 10th as Alan, Alyson, and their loyal team members, Stacey and Janet, are on holiday.

Moving on to wider matters, there has been much debate in the past few days about the decision of Manchester brewers Cloudwater to stop brewing cask beer, citing the cost, limited financial return, and concern over how it is presented to the customer, and will therefore from now on focus on craft/keg instead.

This is an interesting one. I also read some analysis this week that had been put together by another brewer - who I won't name - which showed that the actual cost of brewing cask versus keg is not much different. What is different though is that whilst the keg of these days still has some life in it, unlike the horrors like Whitbread Tankard, Watneys, and Youngers Tartan from years ago, it still exists in a more cocooned environment and it is easier to ensure that what the customer actually drinks is just as the brewer intended, provided that the necessary outlay on the right equipment has been made by the outlet concerned. Cask, meanwhile, as a living entity, demands nurturing and care from the landlord to ensure it reaches the customer in tip-top condition. But that is the art of good cellarmanship, what the best landlords do naturally.

The conundrum is that some of the most innovative beers around today are brewed as keg by some really creative and pioneering brewers. Some of these beers need to be slightly petillant and chilled in order to bring the best out in the flavours and alcohol, which demands more investment from the outlet in equipment to serve it properly. Which means the cost to customer goes up compared to cask. Now don't get me wrong, I can quite happily drink some of these beers, some are excellent, but the decision by Cloudwater, and before them, Buxton and others, does raise questions. 

Putting the beer into a keg means that the customer gets near enough what the beer was like when it was brewed. It lives in a sealed container, like bag-in-the-box wine. It is easier for the pub or bar to keep, and for longer. It is therefore suitable for outlets that don't normally sell cask. Putting into cask demands care and attention at all stages in the process before it gets to the customer, it requires skill from the cellarman, and is more prone to outside factors affecting its quality - temperature, disturbing the barrel, cleaning of lines,etc.

So the fear is that if a pub has got used to beer on keg, it is easier to keep, and the customer likes the product, why persist with cask which demands much more effort? And if the brewery, seeing that keg is the best way to ensure good quality, the pub and customer is happy, and thus their reputation is enhanced, why not just brew keg only, like Brewdog have done very successfully? 

Now I accept that this is a very simplistic view and it isn't a case of either/or, or good/bad. Choice to drink what you want is essential, and for so many people cask is the only way to drink beer, many of the craft beers tend to be high ABV and therefore not to everyone's taste. But, beware, we may see a situation at some point in the future where less and less places sell cask. Just saying....

And finally, if you are at a loose end at any point this month, why not pop down to the pub? Even though it is January the pub is still at the heart of the community, just as it was over Christmas, and even if its only for a soft drink, although a couple of pints here and there won't ruin the diet! Whether its cask ale or key keg, you'll be most welcome, and it is essential that we support our local communities and businesses at what is always a very quiet time of the year....

Barearts Studio and Bar, Todmorden


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