Quick thoughts: Birmingham's "dire" beer scene

On Monday I decided to take advantage of the bank holiday by switching my phone off and heading to the pub to watch Day 4 of what turned out to be an utterly absorbing test match. I sat in the sun for six hours with a good friend, had lunch and a few beers and tried to switch off for half a a day. It was lovely. So, after Root had declared and the West Indies had batted out the last few overs of the evening, I took the train home to have a sit down before it was time for Game of Thrones (or, as it turned out, another trip to the pub followed by a bit of videogaming and then Game of Thrones).

What a day I chose to turn my phone off. I was greeted, when I got home and switched it back on, with what is, for me, a huge number of twitter notifications. It all started with this tweet, from David Shipman (late of Otherton Brewery and the Birmingham Beer Bash, both of which I liked a lot):

An afternoon / evening drinking in Birmingham only serves to remind what a dire place it is for beer... At least the company is good :)

The was followed by an uncountable number of people talking about how offensive this is to those of us who are working so hard to improve the scene.

First I have to admit something about my weekend. What with the test match and a few evenings out with friends, I’ve drunk an awful lot of bad beer this weekend. I’ve had a ludicrously expensive pint of badly kept (cask) beer, a few even more expensive pints of drinkable but seriously boring (keg) beer and a fair amount of moderately expensive, decently kept but not that good (cask/keg) beer, which I drank because, unfortunately, it was the best thing available at the time. I’ve had two pints that I probably should have sent back, but they were just about OK enough that it didn’t seem worth it. I haven't had anything really good, or even quite good. All of this in a single weekend. And, although these weren’t serious beer venues, they weren’t particularly grim places – they were pubs which make enough of a deal about their beer to suggest that they’re at least moderately proud of it. So Birmingham, this weekend, for me, was a dire place for beer. There’s no other word for it.

But I know my stuff (it’s my job), and had I wanted to drink fantastic beer in the area, rather than watch cricket or spend time with my friends, I’d have had more options. The usual suspects (Clink, Tilt, Cherry Reds, the Wellington, Burning Soul etc) in the city centre will have been as good as ever and, a short train or bus ride away, there were terrific looking festivals at Fixed Wheel, Twisted Barrel, and Kings Heath Cherry Reds. If none of those had appealed then I don’t think there’s anywhere in the country that’s as reliable for great pubs as the Black Country. It’s quicker to get to a pub crawl in Blackheath from the city centre than it is to get to Kings Heath – anywhere else in the world it would be considered part of the same city.

For various reasons, many of them historical, if you were to choose a pub in Birmingham randomly and wander in, it would be highly likely that the beer would be somewhere between passable and awful. This is a big problem, and it does make the city look bad for those people – most of them – for whom the primary concern when deciding where to go is not quality of beer. But there are also places in the city which serve reliably fantastic beer – up with the very best places to drink in the country, in my opinion – and they’ve been set up by people who, as far as I can see, have had to work much harder than people in other cities to do so. There’s been a very good beer scene in Birmingham for a long time, instigated and supported by a few venerable locations, but there hasn't been a scene of the scale which makes these kinds of venues reliably successful as startups, as there is in other cities. And I’m still not sure there is, yet – it remains a huge risk in this city to open somewhere that doesn’t sell “normal beer”, we still don’t have anywhere really big, and on a smaller scale we’re confined to a limited number of places, even if they are fantastic venues run by very passionate people. And that’s why I think that beer in Birmingham does need a huge amount of work, but also that the original post was needlessly inflammatory. This is especially the case because it’s from somebody who has personal experience in how difficult it is to get things started here and has, for this region, a fair amount of influence (as demonstrated by the - admittedly harsh, in my opinion - reaction). At the moment, I don't think people are setting up venues in Birmingham to make a quick fortune. I reckon that most of them could make a hell of a lot more by emulating what’s already there, selling the cheapest nonsense they can get their hands on and charging upwards of four quid a pint. Lots of places do this. The few that don’t have gone in the other direction because they love beer, they want to bring it into the city and, in my opinion, it’s completely understandable that they would react defensively to such a dismissive comment.

A huge amount of work still needs to be done in Birmingham to bring it up to the level of Bristol, Manchester, London or even the likes of Sheffield. But the strides that have been taken since I moved here 10 years ago are remarkable. Calling the beer in the city ‘dire’ is disrespectful to people who spend all day bringing good beer here, even if it’s just a throwaway twitter comment. I’d say, personally, that it’s not great in general, despite having great parts, but it’s an awful lot better than it was even two years ago. And there’s some seriously interesting stuff in the pipeline.

There are still plenty of hurdles to be overcome, of course. We need more bars, we need more breweries, and it’s interesting to think about why we don’t already have them, Now that I’ve got a taste for blogging, I might even talk it in a future post. What I will say is that, although the beer scene in Birmingham is currently great, it’s not huge – it’s nowhere near as big as it could be. The city could sustain at least twice as many events, and more than ten times as many bars and breweries. Under these circumstances there’s absolutely no sense in anybody who currently runs anything, or wants beer in Birmingham to keep on getting better, falling out. The more we work together, the quicker we can get things moving.

As the cider delivery man said to me, “You've got to make money before you can spend it”

Today marks exactly six months since I opened the doors of the Wildcat for the very first time. I don't seem to have had a moment to stop since that evening but I've met a huge number of people, tried hundreds of different beers and learnt a colossal amount about pretty much everything. Overall it's all going really well, and I'm hugely grateful to the large number of customers and friends who have visited – I hope that you've all enjoyed it as much as I have.

The pub was opened on a shoestring, and the majority of the money that I did have was spent on equipment to keep the beer in as good a condition as possible. I hope you'll agree that it was money well spent! But it did mean that certain areas had to be neglected out of necessity, and worked on over time. Over the next month or so I'm going to try to do quite a lot more work, which might mean closing for a few extra days here and there, so I hope that you'll be able to bear with me!

Don't worry, I'm not going to change too much that the ambience of the place is affected negatively, and it's not going to be an earth-shattering overhaul. Just a few things here and there which should make it a more comfortable place to come and drink beer! I might even put up a proper sign...

So, thanks again to the people of Stirchley (and further afield) who have supported the Wildcat so far. I hope to see you all many more times over the months to come.