Tuesday, 31 July 2012

CAMRA Membership

I've been avoiding my local 'spoons for a few weeks now as they have been concentrating on ciders and perrys making the beer choice somewhat lmited.  Last weekend my CAMRA membership renewal came through the letterbox and as is usual now it comes with forty 50p vouchers to be redeemed at Wetherspoons pubs for a pint of real ale.  With ten vouchers for each three month period I thought it was time I saved a bit of money for my holiday starting next week and there is no better way than getting a pint of beer for £1.49.  These vouchers effectively pays my annual CAMRA membership fee so I do always try and use them. 

Last night I had a pint from my new favourite micro-brewery, Sadlers.  The deliciously hoppy Hop Bomb was available and it is a potent brew.  Tonight I settled for a delicious IPA from the Warwickshire Brewing Company called Rugby Ball Stitcher.  At 5.0% it is a reasonable strength for an IPA although I do usually like them to be even stronger.  It had a lovely smooth finish and went down remarkably quickly.  Only the one pint again though as I have been hooked on the Olympic games and I prefer watching it from the comfort of my hotel room.

Tomorrow night I will be having a quick pint in one of my favourite pubs.  You will have to wait to find out where it is though.

Happy drinking.     

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Bad pubs

Last night I visited my brother who lives in Leicestershire.  He lives in Littlethorpe but we walked across the railway line into Narborough.  The Narborough Arms is a large imposing pub with a large outside drinking area.  Inside it has many nooks and crannies with a TV visible from most areas.  Being a darts fan I did not object to watching some of the Betfair World Matchplay Championships but I did object to the beer quality.  Firstly, I had a pint of Charles Wells Bombardier.  This was clearly off and the barman insisted it was fresh on yesterday.  He sampled it and grudgingly agreed it wasn't very nice but still insisted it was fresh on whilst pouring me an alternative choice (Sharp's Doom Bar).  This was OK but far from a perfect pint.  The whole pub was scruffy though and unwlecoming.  It had the Cask Marque sign which is usually an encouraging sign but with the poor beer quality I wonder how recently this was awarded to them.  Altogether, not a very nice pub.

CAMRA constantly quote how the pub industry is suffering and cite the number of closures to back up their case.  I always wonder how many of the closures are pubs such as the Narborough Arms.  Badly run businesses will always struggle to survive and clearly this is one such example.  Pubs are closed for a number of reasons but in most cases it will be because they are deemed to be economically unviable.  Why is this though?  Some pubs can be revived simply by a change of ownership.  Pub companies are often to blame though.  They increase rents on a regular basis until it becomes impossible for anyone to make a decent living from it.  What is important is to campaign against people or companies who apply for a change of use.  A pub is bought as a pub and if someone cannot make a profit from it then they should sell it as a pub and let someone else try.  Eventually we will hopefully have a few less pubs like the Narborough Arms and a country full of pubs where it is a pleasure to visit and enjoy a pint in.  Let's all drink to that.

Happy drinking.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Byatts Coventry Bitter

Last night I went to The Bear at the Swan's Nest.  The sun was finally shining and Stratford upon Avon was full of tourists enjoying the fantastic weather.  Before my walk in the sun though I settled down for an early evening pint.  Byatts is a very new brewery in nearby Coventry and Coventry Bitter is their standard bitter offering coming in at 3.8% ABV.  It has the classic bitter look.  Light brown in colour, very clear through the glass and a small head.  Served in a Byatts Brewery straight glass this was liquid heaven.  So very smooth with such a clean aftertaste.  Beer does not get any better than this. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Timothy Taylor's Landlord

Tonight I went back to the excellent West End pub in Stratford-upon-Avon.  As previously mentioned, this is a pub you must find time to visit if you are ever in this lovely town.  Tonight I had a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord.  At 4.3% this is probably one of the most famous pale golden bitters in England.  Winner of numerous awards it made the national press a few years ago when pop diva Madonna announced a liking for it.  It is a truly classic beer and it never disappoints. 

Happy drinking.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Old Chestnut Tree, Lower Moor

Last night I started the week with another pint of Sadlers JPA at The Bear in the Swan's Nest in Stratford.  Tonight I gave my new car a spin and ventured into Worcestershire.  The Old Chestnut Tree in Lower Moor between Evesham and Pershore is situated just off the A44.  It is actually a 16th century farmhouse and it wasn't until the 1980s that it became a pub.  At the back of the pub adjacent to the car park there is a shop and post office serving the local community.  Where villages are losing a whole host of traditional businesses it is good to see the pub doubling up and filling the gap.

The pub itself has beautiful exposed beams and brickwork.  It has very friendly owners and a fine array of handpumps from which to choose.  I chose a beer from the Malvern Hills brewery, Black Pear.  At 4.4% it was described as a premium bitter.  It is very pale though with a citrus hoppiness which I can only describe as a very modern day bitter.  These pale ales are becoming increasingly more common and I do find some of them too high on the citrus side.  However, as with Sadlers JPA, this particular beer was very pleasant and it had a nice long aftertaste too.  I can certainly see why they are popular in the Summer months (although when the Summer will start this year I do not know). 

To summarise my drive then.  A refreshing pint of hoppiness in a lovely village local.  If you are ever in the area I recommend you pop in for a pint or two.

Happy drinking.    

Sadlers JPA

Continuing on the same theme as last time, last Thursday (12th July) I went to The Bear at the Swan's Nest and I was delighted to see Sadlers JPA available.  This was the beer I helped to brew at the brewery and my first taste of it since that day.  It is very citrussy and very hoppy.  I enjoyed it so much I had a second. 

I forgot to mention the history behind Sadlers Ales last time.  Thomas Alexander Sadler founded the original brewery in 1900 near to the current location.  Brewing stopped in 1927.  The founder's son, John Caleb Nathaniel, was brought up in the brew house and passed on his passion to his son (John) and grandson (Chris).  These third and fourth generations of the Sadler family re-opened the brewery in 2004.  The brewery tap, The Windsor Castle Inn, was built next to the brewery and opened up in 2006.   This bears the same name as the original brewery tap in nearby Oldbury.  The pub is run by Emily, another member of the Sadler family, and it was quick to win the local CAMRA pub of the year in 2007.  It's a superb story of superb ales within a superb pub. 

JPA (Jack's Pale Ale) is named after the original founder, John Caleb Nathaniel, who was more commonly known as Jack.  He may not have left a working brewery to his ancestors but he did leave them with a passion for brewing and they have grasped the opportunity and deserve the plaudits that they receive for their fine ales and welcoming pub.   

Monday, 9 July 2012

Sadlers Ales Brewing Experience

It's Monday evening and once again I start the week with a quiet drink at the Golden Bee in Stratford-on-Avon.  Tonight though I had a pint which brought back very happy recent memories.  Last year I reached the half century and for my 50th birthday my brothers and sister bought me a one day brewing experience at Sadlers Ales near Stourbridge in the West Midlands.  The perfect gift for me!!  A chance to live my dream for a day.  I knew very little about Sadlers Ales but I had managed to sample a pint of Hop Bomb in Stratford-on-Avon a couple of weeks before my experience was scheduled and I was suitably impressed with the explosion of hops on the palate from the pale 5.0% ABV Brew.    

The first Friday in May was requested and the brewery quickly responded to confirm the date.  I booked two nights accommodation at the Lamp Tavern in Dudley, an excellent traditional Bathams pub, so I did not have far to travel in the morning and I had somewhere to recuperate after a hard day brewing.  After a comfortable night I arrived at the Windsor Castle Inn (home of Sadlers Ales) for 9.00.am where I met the brewer, Sam, and a fellow 'trainee', John, from Portsmouth.  Immediately I was offered a drink (good start) but having had a 25 minute walk from Stourbridge I opted for a glass of water.  I figured I'd get plenty of opportunities later on to sample their fine looking array of beers.  

As I write this it is now three months since my experience so memories may not be totally accurate.  However, the day was so memorable it has stuck in my mind fairly well I think.  After a brief 'getting to know each other' chat we left the bar and went into the brewery at the back of the pub.  Sam gave us an informative and concise explanation of the brewing process and we were soon ready to brew. 

The beer being brewed was JPA, a 3.8% ABV hoppy bitter.  To start things off we had nine sacks of malt to chuck into the hopper where it mixed with the water flowing into the mash tun.  The water was heated to 78 degrees I think.  Sam insisted we shared the workload so it was three sacks for each of us.  Climbing the step ladder with a bag of malt on my shoulder was not as easy as I imagined but while the water was streaming into the mash tun we managed to get all nine sacks in without a problem.  Added to the malt was also a small amount of a fine white powder to 'burtonise' the water.  The water was eventually shut off when the texture resembled a thick porridge.  It was then left to sit there for about 75 minutes and during that time the sugars in the malt get extracted.

After all that hard work it was time for breakfast.  A delicious sausage sandwich was washed down with a pint of JPA, the beer we were brewing.  It certainly had a beautiful hoppy taste.  After this wholesome breakfast it was back to the brewery where we were shown how to clean the casks.  This was a mainly mechanical process but there was plenty of lifting the casks into position.  The opening was lowered onto a pole which spewed out jets of water to wash out the inside and a power washer cleaned off the outside.  During this process I chose a half pint of Magic Miles to quench my thirst, their monthly special for May, a strong ruby mild that turned out to be my favourite beer of the day.

The cleaning was interrupted by the next stage of the brewing process.  The wort (the name given to the sweet sugary liquid we had created from the first stage) had to be transferred to the next vessel where it would be boiled.  We had a taste of it at this stage and it was just a very sweet sugary drink.  Not unpleasant but not something to drink by choice either!!     

With the wort boiling away it was back to the cask cleaning.  We were also shown how to break up the hops ready for the hopping process later on.  With JPA being a hoppy beer we had to get a vast amount of hops broken up (about 8kg I think) and ready to mix into the wort.  The hops came vacuum packed (American Citra hops for this particular beer) and we had to break it all up by hand.  John began this arduous task and I carried on cask cleaning. 

The time quickly passed and it was soon lunch.  We had a table reserved in the bar where we had a delicious hop pickers platter along with beer-battered chicken and a bowl of chunky chips.  Much more than we could manage and it was all washed down with some Thin Ice (an extremely pale ale of 4.5% ABV).  I found this beer a little too harsh for my palate.  A citrus bitterness with an acidic aftertaste.   

Before the hard work began for the afternoon there was time to grab another half.  This time I tried the Red House, a traditional black country mild.  At 4% ABV it did not have the same magic as the Magic Miles but it made an interesting comparison between what was essentially the traditional mild I was used to growing up and a more modern and stronger mild bursting with flavour.

To begin the afternoon I swapped tasks with John and eventually the hops were ready and the casks were clean.  By now my hands and jeans were covered with the green oily resin from the hops and the aromas were quite powerful.  For me, it was back onto the step ladder to complete the final hopping.  Sam had been adding hops to the wort at various intervals and I added the last lot for a final 15 minutes of boiling.  For this, you have to imagine holding your hands over a boiling kettle while stirring in the hops with a large metal paddle.  The rubber gloves offered little protection from the heat so my hands were as warm as toast afterwards. 

While the brew was boiling away for the last few minutes we had to clean out the spent malt from the mash tun.  This involved shovelling the (still warm) malt into the plastic sacks they arrived in.  These were later collected by a very grateful local pig farmer who paid for the 'feed' with some trays of eggs.  Bartering at its best!!

The boiling was now complete and the liquid had to be transferred to the fermenting vessel where the yeast would be added and the liquid would slowly become the beer that would be drunk in 3-4 weeks times.  For this process to work the liquid had to be cooled as it transferred and it had to enter the fermenters at a temperature of about 20-22 degrees.  The original gravity was measured at this stage too and thankfully it was about 4.0, slightly higher than the finished beer was due to be.  Water can be added to reduce it but if it had been too low this could not be rectified so easily.  After a bit of trial and error (it's too warm, now it's too cold, now it's too warm again) it flowed nicely into the fermenter at a steady 21.5 degrees and Sam the brewer was a happy chappy.

The final process was to fill some casks.  One of the fermenting vessels was full of Worcester Sorcerer which was ready to go.  This is a traditional golden English best bitter at 4.3% ABV and coincidentally it was also the next beer I sampled.  It was not quite as bitter as I like my Best Bitters to be but it had a nice creamy texture and a well-rounded aftertaste.  John and I both commented on the amount of wastage at this stage as the casks overflowed to ensure they went out full.  We were probably just thinking how we could have put the wastage to good use!!

So that was the end of the brewing for the day.  Me and John were both exhausted and we retired to the bar to sample three more beers.  A pint of Red IPA (an amazing 5.7% ABV IPA with a deep red colour) was followed by a pint of Mud City Stout (a fabulous chewy stout at an impressive 6.6% ABV).  Finally, Dr Hardwickes Double IPA (an even more impressive 8.5% ABV) completed the day. 

It was only 6.00.pm but I was ready to collapse.  Sam was a very entertaining and knowledgeable young host who had only been brewing for a few months.  He clearly loved the job and was extremely conscientious and detailed in ensuring everything was done right.  As I was quick to tell him, he's a lucky man to be doing a job that some people (like myself) pay good money to experience!!   

If you love beer this a day you will never ever forget.  Everyone at Sadlers Ales was very very friendly and this added to the experience.  The Windsor Castle Inn is a fantastic pub and the Sadlers range of beers has something for everyone.  I have always had a dream of running a brewery.  I now know it is something I could do and enjoy.  The process it not difficult to learn.  It is physically demanding though and at my age I would probably need a 'young helper' like Sam!!  If I had the cash to invest I would seriously consider it.  My dream has certainly not gone away.  A three day Brewlab course is next on my list at some point and I will be sure to let you know when I have it booked. 

Back to the present and tonight I had a pint of Sadlers Sundown.  I don't usually take too much notice of beer tasting notes when it starts to go into details of the different fruits lingering on the palate and such like.  However, the description of a bronzed ale with a grapefuit taste was extremely accurate.  You could close your eyes and the aroma of grapefruit was very strong.  It looked lovely and there was a delightful bitter finish.  It was only 3.8% ABV but it tasted stronger.  Perhaps I'm slightly biased towards Sadlers now after my brewing day but I did find this to be a very pleasant beer.   
Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Local CAMRA publications

It's Wednesday evening (June 27th) and straight after work I went straight to the small village of Hampton Lucy.  A picturesque village between Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick it has a delightful pub called the Boar's Head.  It is close to Charlecote Park, a National Trust property and is also popular with cyclists due to the proximity of a Sustrans route.  The pub was the local CAMRA's pub of the year in both 2009 and 2010 and is a Good Beer Guide regular.  I've been here a few times before and I always look forward to visiting such a fine drinking establishment.  It has a friendly welcome which is not always guaranteed in rural areas. 

One of the reasons for enjoying a visit to the Boar's Head is to pick up a copy of the local CAMRA publication (Shakesbeer).  Many local CAMRA branches produce excellent publications and I haven't found one yet which wasn't worth spending time reading whilst enjoying my pint.  I always make a note of which pubs distribute them and they will therefore get my custom more than other pubs.  Another reason for this is obviously due to the fact that pubs that do carry them are CAMRA favourites and therefore have a good beer choice.  The Boar's Head is no different in this respect.  It was in this pub that I first sampled a beer from the excellent Church End Brewery I visited last week but tonight I tried a pint of Ferris Wheel (4.0% ABV) brewed by the Grafton Brewing Co. of Worksop, Nottinghamshire.  They began brewing in 2007 and it is a brewery I've never heard of before.  The beer had a pleasant citrus aroma and had a pale straw colour.  Sadly, the taste was slightly bland but you can't win them all.  It was drinkable and I was in a favourite pub so it wasn't a waste of time.  I also had the latest copy of Shakesbeer to read.  Have a look for a CAMRA publication next time you visit a pub from CAMRA's Good Beer Guide.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, 2 July 2012


For the past week I have had no internet access so I've been making careful notes during my forced absence from my blog and I will catch up during the coming week. 

Last week I was back in Stratford-on-Avon and on Monday night it was a quiet pint of Holden's Special at the Golden Bee.  I mentioned last week that I do have strong views on the proliferation of Wetherspoons that has taken place in virtually every town centre over the past 20 years.  In the 1980s I lived in South-East London and I always enjoyed going to my local 'Spoons.  The beer selection was good, the prices were good and they were quiet.  Has familiarity bred contempt now?  You cannot go to any town or city without seeing at least one Wetherspoons pub.  Some cities and large towns now have two or more.  I am convinced this has put other town centre pubs out of business.  The question I always wonder is whether it has put any good pubs out of business though. 

Pubs are like all other businesses in that they have to be well managed and offer a good customer experience.  I love going to pubs and I have been to a few that were absolutely dreadful, many that have been poor, many that I have enjoyed visiting and finally a few that I actively seek out to go to often.  So where do Wetherspoons pubs fit in?  I cannot say I have been to any that fit into the very bottom or the very top categories and that is probably my main gripe.  If you've been to one Wetherspoons pub you've been to many.  That has the advantage of knowing what you will get if you are in a strange town for a night.  You know you are unlikely to be stared at by a bunch of locals which can happen in some pubs.  You know you will have a reasonable beer selection.  You know what food will be on the menu.  However, you are inside a Wetherspoons.  End of story.  No friendly landlord happy to chat while he serves you.  No homely feel.  Very little character at all really. 

I have worked in Stratford-on-Avon on and off for quite a few years now.  A couple of years ago I avoided the Golden Bee.  It was bordering on dreadful.  It summed up everything that was bad about the chain.  A large open bar area often with unsavoury characters.  Low prices will always attract such  types.  This year I tried it again and there has been a big improvement.  It must have a new management team because the bar staff are generally pleasant and a few of them are even happy to chat about the beers available.  The large bar area is obviously the same but the whole atmosphere has improved markedly.  Is it my pub of choice in Stratford?  Far from it.  However, I usually pop in there once or twice a week for a pint and I always get to try something new.

So to sum up in one word my feelings towards what is now a massive chain I'd say acceptance.  For better or for worse they are here to stay.  If you don't like them go elsewhere and I am sure there are better pubs in every single town and city where they reside.  On the flip side you will also find plenty that are worse.  I would be depressed if my local was a Wetherspoons but I would miss them if they disappeared for they do run excellent beer festivals and they do serve a good pint.  They actively support CAMRA and they do support micro breweries.  For that, let's all raise a glass to them.    

Happy drinking.