Wednesday, 19 December 2012

2012 Review

2011 was an awful year.  Most of it was spent expecting redundancy but it never quite happened.  I approached 2012 in a positive frame of mind determined to change things myself.  The year began promisingly as one person in our company did prove he could organise a piss-up in a brewery.  The Hogs Back Brewery tour was organised for late January and it was an excellent evening spent sampling their delightful ales.  The tour guide kept our glasses full as we walked around this small brewery nestled at the foot of the North Downs in Surrey.  Also on the site is an excellent beer shop where you can buy the Hogs Back beers alongside a great selection of bottled beers from all round the world. 

In February life took a massive turn for the better.  My services were required by a client in Stratford-on-Avon for three months and having previously spent many enjoyable work assignments with this company it provided me with the opportunity to revisit some favourite pubs as well as temporarily removing the threat of redundancy.  It also enabled me to book my brewing experience at nearby Sadlers Ales, a 50th birthday present that I was looking forward to immensely.  This was definitely my highlight of the year.

Since March I have explored Warwickshire and the surrounding counties quite extensively as my three month assignment got extended again and again.  I managed several visits to my old local in Loughborough, The Swan In The Rushes, alongside the re-opening of The Old Pack Horse under a new name (The Organ Grinder) owned by Nottingham's micro Blue Monkey

At the end of March I attended the CAMRA AGM in Torquay.  This was my first AGM since 1992 (I was living in Norwich when it was last held there) and along with my friend Martin, we sampled some lovely beers from this region.  My favourite was the delightful Topsail (4.0% ABV) from Bays Brewery.  This beer was my first Gold Medal beer of the year.  As for the pubs of Torquay, the Hole In The Wall was a gem, hidden away but very close to the bustling seafront.                

In Warwickshire I discovered several wonderful breweries for the first time.  The Weatheroak Brewery (Studley) and their wonderful brewery tap, The Victoria Works.  The Slaughterhouse Brewery (Warwick) and their micro brewpub, The Wild BoarChurch End Brewery (Ridge Lane) and Wood Farm Brewery (Willey) and their superb brewery taps with panoramic views of their brewery from the bar.  Then there are the beers from the Warwickshire Beer Co and Byatts Brewery in addition to an old favourite UBU from Purity Ales

In Stratford-on-Avon itself The Bear at the Swan's Nest and The Golden Bee have kept me happy with their ever-changing guest ales all of which have been served in perfect condition without exception.  The West End was a pub I discovered with a good range of beers too.  Warwick has also given me a good selection of pubs with the Old Fourpenny Shop Hotel, The Oak Tavern and the previously mentioned Wild Boar standing out for their excellence.  Between these two towns the Boars Head in Hampton Lucy has maintained its appeal from previous visits.  Further afield I discovered the excellent Clarendon Arms in Kenilworth.

In addition to pubs, I always get excited when I discover a specialist beer shop and Cotteridge Wines in the suburbs of Birmingham, was a fantastic find.  The choice of bottled beers that they have available is simply staggering and it has given me a lovely beer selection to be enjoyed over Christmas.  In addition to that the guys running this business are brimming with enthusiasm and extremely friendly.       

In May a friend suggested I begin a blog to write about my passion for beer.  What an excellent idea I thought and with one eye on the future I also decided to acquaint myself with Twitter and I began to write.  I never expected more than a handful of people to read my reviews and opinions but with nearly a thousand views it has certainly exceeded my expectations and I thank everyone who has read an article for their interest.  Likewise, I never thought I would get more than a few Twitter followers so to exceed a hundred has been fantastic.  So now I'm hooked on these new mediums for expressing my love of beer and pubs and this will surely continue.

Autumn began with my very first 'Meet The Brewer' event.  The local Shakespeare CAMRA branch, in conjunction with The Golden Bee in Stratford-on-Avon, arranged for the fabulous brewers from Sadlers Ales to come and talk about the brewing process and their wonderful beers.  They gave an interesting presentation and the pub put on an excellent evening.  The local CAMRA members welcomed me and I hope to meet up with them for a social event in the new year if it is at all possible.
I fully expect beer to take a massive leap into my working life once redundancy hits (as I fully expect it to) so this assignment and free time in the evenings has given me the opportunity to make new contacts and make plans.  Starting my own microbrewery would certainly be an adventure and next year I would love to attend a 3 day Brewlab course if I can fit it in.  A specialist beer shop has been something I have thought about for a few years and the south coast certainly has room for one.  Then there is the micropub revolution.  Next year I aim to study a mix of  businesses and continue my planning.  All ideas welcome !!

So yes it has been a great year.  I am determined to keep my positivity high in 2013 despite my current work assignment only taking me to the end of January.  I will continue to drink as many different ales as I can find in a variety of pubs both old and new.  I will continue to write about my love of beer and in particular my love of cask conditioned ale served in a pint glass in a pub.  I hope to finally get more involved with CAMRA and my local branch when I leave Warwickshire and I hope to work at a CAMRA beer festival for the first time.  Then there is the CAMRA AGM at Norwich which I really hope I can get to.  So goodbye 2012 and a big hello to 2013.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Gold Medal Beers

The announcement of CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival is always exciting.  The choice has often surprised me and I often wonder how meaningful it really is.  It's obviously a very prestigious award as the winner will see their sales soar.  At the end of the day though it is the opinion of a few distinguished panelists and personal taste must play a large part.  In the early days I felt the award was often 'political'.  How else can you explain Batemans XXXB winning in 1986 during their battle for independence.  This beer is quite magnificent and deserves all accolades but amazingly it has never won since.   Some of the stranger victors have been Caledonian Deuchars IPA (2002), a very ordinary beer, and Ind Coope Burton Ale (1990), a decent pint but nothing to compare with many beers available at that time. 

So what is the current process for choosing a winner?  I received an email last week to join in the voting process.  Looking at the first category, Milds, I was presented with a list of 26 milds.  I have sampled 82 different beers in pubs since September 1st and quite a few of these were milds but I have not tried any of those listed.  So how do they get on this list?  I am probably an anomaly in that I am presented with a list of beers for my region but I do most of my drinking elsewhere due to my work.   Church End Gravediggers is a superb mild and it would get my vote but it was not one of the choices available to me.  Do people vote for beers they have never tasted?  I couldn't do that.  It was a similar story for most of the other categories so my voice will not be heard this year.

So the Champion Beer of Britain is obviously a difficult competition to win and it must be biased towards the more commonly available beers as these will be tried by more members over the year.  So can the huge number of beers now available ever be compared against one another?  Local festivals often have a beer of the festival and this is an award that is probably fairer as all beers will be often sell out and therefore be tried by an equal number of paying customers.  Beers with a strong local following may have an advantage but this is not guaranteed as many drinkers will steer clear of their favourites and try something new.     

So how do I judge my beers?  As I've said before, I always try and sample something new and some of these will turn out to be disappointing but others will turn out to be excellent.  Some beers can be disappointing due to the way it has been kept but once I sample something that is exceptional it will be awarded a Gold Medal.  Perhaps this is what should be adopted by the GBBF.  Choosing one champion ale seems arbitrary but to award medals for all those available depending on the quality will make the award more meaningful.  If there are 10 amazing beers then give 10 gold medals.  Simple.

So to conclude, out of the 82 different pints of beer I have tried in the past 3 months here is my list of Gold Medal winners.  To be awarded a Gold Medal the beer must be exceptional and must have been served in perfect condition.  I have tried some beers in the past 3 months that have been awarded Gold Medal status previously but on the occasion I tried them this time it did not live up to previous standards.

Byatts Coventry Bitter (3.8% ABV)
Church End Gravediggers Ale (3.8% ABV)
Dorset Brewing Company Durdle Door (5.0% ABV)
Hawkshead Brewery Cumbrian Five Hop (5.0% ABV)
Hobsons Best Bitter (3.8% ABV)
Lees Moonraker (6.5% ABV)
Oakham Ales JHB (3.8% ABV)
Ossett Hop Monster (5.0% ABV)
Otter Brewery Otter Ale (4.5% ABV)
Sadlers JPA (3.8% ABV)
Sadlers Mud City Stout (6.6% ABV)
Slaughterhouse Starboard Porter (4.8% ABV)
Weatheroak Brewery Victoria Works (4.3% ABV)
This is the start of a regular feature and every three months I will be listing my latest winners.  Obviously, I highly recommend you trying any of the above if you get the chance.

Happy drinking.  

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Atomic Brewery, Rugby

Tonight I decided to take a drive out to Rugby, home of the Atomic Brewery.  I had a choice of two pubs.  The first is the Alexandra Arms with the brewery to the rear and the second is the Victoria Inn, described as the brewery tap.  I chose the latter as I wanted to choose from the full range of Atomic's beers.  That plan was thwarted because the pub was holding a Champion Beers of Britain Festival and the fantastic range of handpumps, well in excess of ten, only had one Atomic beer.  It was certainly a mouth-watering selection but I was here to try something from Atomic so I chose the Atomic Strike (3.7% ABV).  The beer is reasonably well balanced with a nice light brown colour and it has an immediate bitter taste before giving way to a subtle malty aftertaste.

The pub itself is a traditional backstreet Victorian local on the outskirts of town.  It was awarded the local CAMRA Pub of the Year 2011 and it is easy to see why it has won this award.  The traditional bar is spartan with a pool table and is entered from the street by a separate door.  The other entrance led into a comfortable lounge.  This room has high ceilings with a traditional decor.  There is an excellent display of CAMRA Good Beer Guides to browse and there are two large TV screens to watch a wide variety of sport no doubt. 

In summary, the Victoria Inn is a fine traditional pub bustling with locals enjoying the tremendous range of cask ales.  It has a couple of bars to suit all types of customer along with a snug containing a real fire and dartboard.

With a couple of excellent pubs being supplied with their own beers to complement the superb range of guest ales, the Atomic Brewery is worth checking out.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Minimum pricing

I don't often get political but minimum pricing is now officially on the government's agenda and a price of 45p per unit has been suggested.  I'm not sure of the exact figures but this will probably mean a can of standard strength lager priced at £1 will probably be unchanged or go up very slightly.  A bottle of wine will cost no less than about £4.00.  I have absolutely no idea what it will do to the price of spirits but it will probably put the cost of some cheap makes up quite a  bit .  However, what I am sure about is that the price of alcohol in pubs will be unaffected.  A friend of mine told me he was against minimum pricing because he did not want to pay more when he went to the pub.  I put him right of course but this is where the government needs to go on the offensive.  All I have heard today is how the sensible moderate drinker will be paying more for their alcohol.  Really?  I buy wine, I buy bottled beers.  The prices I pay on everything I buy in supermarkets or off-licenses costs me more than 50p per unit.  If something costs less it is not worth drinking or it will simply get you pissed very quickly at a lower price.  Is this what we want to encourage? 

A large proportion of 18-34 year olds now pre-load before going out for the evening.  This is something I never did when I was younger so I fail to understand this mentality.  I have always liked avoiding hangovers so I always try to stick within my limits.  My parents helped by allowing me to drink at Christmas from the age of 14 and by the time I was 16 I was drinking in pubs.  This actually helped me to learn about the danger of over drinking and I learned to respect it.  Nowadays we are obsessed with stopping under 18s drinking in pubs and they therefore drink at home and the low cost of doing this means this is what they grow accustomed to.  I also do not remember alcohol being substantially cheaper in supermarkets than it was in pubs.  That is no longer the case.  How can supermarkets justify selling alcohol at cost price?  It is grossly irresponsible.  It should also be illegal because they are distorting the market.   Pubs cannot do the same and so an uneven playing field has been created.  Also, if they are making a loss on the alcohol they sell then they are making up for it by selling food at higher prices to make up for it.  Pubs cannot compete on alcohol price when these tactics are employed.

I am against government telling us how to behave and it is said that minimum pricing is doing just that.  Again I have to disagee.  Minimum pricing is a direct result of the irresponsibility of supermarkets.  I am a moderate drinker and I am deeply saddened when I see pubs either closing down or struggling to survive.  Pubs are massive contributors to the economy.  The price disparity between alcohol in pubs and supermarkets has to be addressed and this is the first small step and it is something I will raise a glass to.

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Organ Grinder, Loughborough

Last night I was back in my home town of Loughborough and I checked out a recently re-opened pub.  It is over twenty years since I visited The Old Pack Horse, a small street-corner town centre pub tied to local Nottingham brewer Hardy & Hansons.  Since then, Hardy & Hansons has been swallowed up by Greene King (2006) and The Old Pack Horse was sold and it re-opened eleven weeks ago by new Nottingham brewer Blue Monkey.  The new name, the Organ Grinder, is the same as their brewery tap, their one other pub, in Nottingham.

Finding a genuine town centre pub dedicated to having a fine selection of real ale is getting harder.  It is therefore always a delight to find one that has recently opened up, albeit one that is replacing an existing pub.  Loughborough still has a good selection of excellent pubs and the Organ Grinder certainly adds to this list. 

Entering the pub you immediately notice the bare floorboards, sparse decor and the sound of many locals chattering away.  No other noises and distractions here.  Off to the left there was a small seating area with bookshelves offering excellent reading material for the solo drinker.  To the right was a similar seating area with the bar at the back serving the entire pub.  It is not a large pub at all although it does have an upstairs function room.  The array of handpumps is certainly impressive.  The full range of Blue Monkey beers are here including the imaginatively named BG Sips, 99 Red Baboons, Ape Ale and Guerilla.  The guest beer was Batemans Vintage, a 7.5% ABV seasonal beer I would love to have tried.  However, as I was driving, I had to sample something that wasn't going to render me unconscious and I did want to sample my first Blue Monkey beer so I chose the 99 Red Baboons (4.2% ABV).  Described as being either a porter or a mild I found it to be definitely leaning on the porter side of the beer spectrum.  Dark, malty, slightly sweet but with a subtle bitterness I found it to be a delightful beer. 

Blue Monkey have opened up an excellent pub and it is one I will be coming back to when visiting my home town.  My sister's boyfriend did point out that the animal adorning the logo and the large central picture in the bar is a chimpanzee but the name actually comes from a nickname for the blue flames that used to rise from the chimneys of the nearby Stanton Ironworks.  The chimp is probably more photogenic than the monkey so I can forgive them this.  Hopefully, others will too and the pub will become a great success.  It will certainly educate the local students as to what a real pub is all about.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


I have been lucky to have travelled far and wide with my job.  Everywhere I go I try and check out as many pubs as possible and I have compiled my own list of VIPs (Very Important Pubs).  These are pubs I will always return to when I am in the area.  They do not have one common factor that makes them special except that they are all very special to me.  It may be well over a decade since I have visited some of them but quality lasts and I believe that the majority of them continue unchanged. 

1)  The Royal Oak, Great Glen

This pub is special for the simple reason it is where my dad grew up.  His father, Alfred, ran the pub during the second world war when it was tied to NBC (Northampton Brewing Company).  I imagine that running a pub during the second world war was neither easy nor healthy and my dad lost his parents when he was in his early teens.  Many times when I was growing up me and my brothers and sister would sit outside this pub in the car while our parents went for a drink meeting old friends.  I last visited the pub about a year ago and I was delighted to see that the pub had been lovingly refurbished.  It is situated in the heart of the old village of Great Glen just off the A6 south of Leicester.  It is a tiny pub with comfortable red leather sofas at the front (with resident dog stretched out on one of them) and a roaring fire at the back.  The beer selection was Fullers London Pride, Greene King IPA and the local Steamin' Billy.  I chose the latter and it was served in lovely condition.  I would love to see this pub in the Good Beer Guide.

2)  Fat Cat, Norwich

I've worked in Norwich for a number of years and my last stint there was in 1998.  Norwich was once renowned as the city with a pub for every day of the year.  The number had fallen to about 240 when I first worked there but I managed to visit more than half of them.  It isn't just quantity here either.  There are many quality pubs in the city and this is my favourite.  Located outside the inner ring road it is a traditional street corner local that has an amazing array of beers available.  Every evening I would have about 20 ales to choose from and the selection was constantly changing.  The pub has won CAMRA's National Pub of the Year competition twice and it is easy to see why.  This is a pub you must visit if you ever visit Norwich.

3)  The Guildford Arms, Edinburgh

This pub would be worthy of inclusion for the original Victorian architecture complete with revolving door entrance.  It has a large standing area around the bar but there is plenty of seating too where you can spend hours supping one or two of the ten real ales including many from small Scottish microbreweries whilst admiring the spectacular high ceiling, ornate cornices and wooden screens.  It's now ten years since I visited Edinburgh but this pub is timeless.       

4)  The Glue Pot, Swindon

Swindon gets a lot of bad press and most of my colleagues thought they had lucked out when they were sent to Swindon.  Staying at the central Holiday Inn Express for 3 months I discovered this gem a short walk from the hotel.  Located in the centre of Brunel's Railway Village, built in the 1840s, this street corner local, like the surrounding area, is a step back into the past.  The full range of Hop Back Brewery beers are available along with local guest beers.  It may be a small pub but it packs a big punch.  Very friendly, fairly quiet during the week when I was there and always an excellent pint.  If you are ever in Swindon and feeling exasperated by the awful 1960s architecture take a short walk to The Glue Pot.

5)  The Bow Bar, Edinburgh

I make no excuse for including a second Edinburgh bar in my top ten.  The city is awash with fine pubs but I spent many evenings walking between this pub and the Guildford Arms.  The Bow Bar is situated near the Scottish Parliament building and it is a tiny one-roomed bar with a fine selection of beers to choose from.  If you like whiskey (I don't) then you can choose from around 200 malts here too.  It often got busy but by choosing the right times I usually found a seat to relax in.  I could then sit and watch as the place filled up with a lively crowd of enthusiastic drinkers.         

6)  Porterhouse, Dublin

I spent 18 months in Dublin and within the first month one of my colleagues had taken me to 17 different pubs for lunch within a mile of the office alongside the canal.  The lunchtime food was always excellent and after a while I opted for Murphys ahead of Guiness to accompany the meal.  That was it though.  Every pub had the same choice and however delightful most of them were it was not exactly overflowing with choice.  Then I discovered the Porterhouse on the outskirts of Temple Bar.  It was a good two mile walk for me but for the best part of a year I made the four mile round trip to this excellent brewpub three or four times a week.  The beers may have been targeted towards the locals with a stout and a porter and a tradtional Irish Red but they did also produce a couple of fine cask-conditioned bitters. 

7)  Swan in the Rushes, Loughborough

This pub is situated in the town of my birth and the town where I spent the first 18 years of my life and where I began going into pubs.  In the late 1970s Loughborough had plenty of town centre pubs where you could get served if you were under 18.  This pub was not one of my locals though.  It was a rather depressing pub called The Charnwood and I had left home for the big wide world when it was rescued and reopened under a new name and a new ethos.  It immediately became my pub of choice when going home and it serves the full range of Castle Rock beers alongside a large selection of guest ales.  It has a traditional bar to the right and a slightly more comfortable lounge to the left with a third room to the rear.  It is always busy and it is always a pleasure to visit.      

8)  Wild Boar,Warwick

This is a recent addition to my top ten.  It really is a fantastic pub and towards the end of my stint at Stratford-upon-Avon I began to make the train journey to Warwick in preference to visiting one of the few decent pubs in Statford.  The close proximity to the station certainly helped and it was the pub I chose to have some leaving drinks at when my time in Stratford came to an end.  It is a  friendly locals pub showcasing the excellent beers from the Slaughterhouse Brewery.  It also has its own microbrewery which is used to produce house specials.  The pub consists of a main front bar with a small wood-panelled snug behind.  Further back there is a function room that has regular music nights.  The microbrewery can be seen from the snug.  In addition to the Slaughterhouse beers they have four or five ever changing guest beers which are always served in perfect condition.

9)  Tom Browns, Dorchester

My best friend lives in Dorchester and it was he who educated me into drinking real ale as much as anyone.  We met in the final year of university and since then we have met up regularly for the GBBF and Saints games as well as numerous other occasions.  When I visit him in his home town, Tom Browns is always a regular stop.  It opened up as a brewpub in the late 1980s if my memory serves me right and although it has gone through a change of ownership in recent years following the sad death of the founder, it is now once again my friends local and a pub well worth visiting with an excellent selection of beers and it is largely unchanged from when I first visited twenty or so years ago.  It has a strong local following but it is very welcoming too.  It is now managed by Dorset Brewing Co and the beers are brewed off-site just outside Dorchester.              

10)  Maypole, Yapton

I moved to Yapton in 1997 and this quickly became my local.  It is also the current venue for the Western Sussex CAMRA meetings every two months so I am now regularly going back to this excellent pub and it is therefore a recent entry to my top ten.  It is hard to find down a road that leads to nowhere but it is well worth searching for.  Their range of beers is constantly changing so you will always find something new to try.  There is a basic public bar with darts and pool and a smaller lounge which has a cosier feel to it.  There is a traditional skittle alley that can be hired out and which is also used for our CAMRA meetings.  In the Summer months you can enjoy the recently constructed large decked garden area too.  It is a totally unpretentious pub and I love it.  Read my review of this pub here.       

Bubbling under the top ten are the following pubs.  Some of these I have visited more recently and could become long-term VIPs once I get to know them more and could even replace some of the current top ten in time.  Some of them are favourites from the past that could not quite match the current incumbents.  They are all worth visiting though if you find yourselves near one of them.

11)  The Windsor Castle, Lye

The Sadlers Ales brewery tap is a tremendous pub with the full range of Sadlers Ales fantastic beers.  Even without the brewery it makes a perfect pub with welcoming staff, excellent food and comfortable modern decor.

12)  The Victoria Works, Studley

Another excellent brewery tap.  Brewery taps are always worth visiting and the Weatheroak Brewery tap is one I am constantly raving about.   

After a short spell working in Bristol last year this pub moves straight into my top twenty.  This pub is perfect and you can click here to read my review of it.

Stratford-on-Avon is sparse when it comes to good pubs so I was delighted to discover this excellent pub within the Swan's Nest Hotel.  Enter through the revolving door and the door to your immediate left takes you into the pub.  The bar has fine array of 8 handpumps, 4 of which showcase local microbreweries.  

A rural brewery tap and I never tire of walking in and seeing the complete range of Woodforde's magnificent beers.  Situated in the tiny village of Woodbastwick in the Norfolk Broads this beautiful thatched pub is well worth seeking out.    

16)  The Sole Bay Inn, Southwold

More upmarket than when I first visited this fine Adnams pub, it is still worth locating and it is probably the most photographed pub in the UK as it is dwarfed by the towering lighthouse across the road.

17)  The Rockstone, Southampton

For many years The Alexandra was my chosen destination for a pint or two before a Saints game.  This has now been replaced by the Rockstone and so this is a new entry in my top twenty.  A city pub with the feel of a village local serving an excellent range of beers from local microbreweries as well as a house beer brewed by Sadlers Ales.  A superb pub reviewed here.      

Micropubs are opening up all over the place and this is my favourite one of those I have visited so far.  It is the perfect place to enjoy a quiet pint of one of their constantly changing beers.  Every town should have a micropub.  Read my review of it here.    

19)  BB Rovers, Austin, Texas

A home from home when I worked there in 1989.  Over 300 bottled beers from all around the world as well as many beers from American micros on tap.  My name still appears on the board listing the members of their '101 Club'.    

20)  The Griffin, Loughborough

My first local when I was 'under 18'.  It was an excellent town centre Marstons pub and it probably still is although it has been smartened up.

I have been to many more wonderful pubs but the ones listed are special and always will be.  If you ever visit one of them I hope you have a good time and enjoy an excellent pint.

Happy drinking.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Pubs of Stratford-on-Avon

I constantly praise three pubs in Stratford-on-Avon but there are quite a few I have not even visited yet.  I thought I would right those wrongs tonight and see what they have to offer.  My first stop was to be the Lamplighter Inn.  I have visited this pub a couple of times many years ago and at the time they sold Jennings Cumberland Ale and Banks's Mild.  So what could they offer me tonight?  Nothing.  That was a quick visit then.

My second port of call was the recently refurbished White Swan Hotel.  This Fullers pub is somewhere I have never visited so I was looking forward to seeing what it was like.  It was lovely.  Both to the left and right were comfortable drinking areas with leather sofas and chairs with plenty of privacy for many of the tables.  The dining areas were hidden away and one of these to the far right was within a room with gorgeous wood panels.  As a pub to visit for a quiet relaxing pint it was perfect.  Could the beer match the surroundings?  The choice was the usual Fullers selection.  ESB, Gales Seafarers and London Pride were all available and Bengal Lancer was 'coming soon'.  I chose the ESB, one of my favourite beers over the past 30 years.  I was delighted to see it served in the ESB glass but the quality was not brilliant.  It wasn't off but it was not what I would expect either.  At £3.75 a pint it was reasonably expensive too.  Despite this, I will probably give the pub another chance at some point to see if the beer quality improves.

The next stop was going to be No.7 Windsor Street.  However, the sign outside said the pub was 'To Let' and the signs inside told me why.  The place was empty.  Onwards we go.

Next stop was The One Elm.  This pub was always popular with my work colleagues when I originally worked in Stratford-on-Avon many years ago.  It is quite a trendy bar which isn't normally my kind of establishment but I was pleasantly surprised by it.  To the right was a colourful lounge and on the bar there was a choice of Doom Bar, Greene King Abbot, Purity Pure Gold and Purity UBU.  I chose the Pure Gold (3.8% ABV) as I had never tried it before and it was served in the correct glass and in perfect condition.  It was a delightfully refreshing hoppy session bitter.  No complaints then about the beer or the pub.

Three pints was going to be my limit tonight so my next stop, The Pen and Parchment, would be my final port of call.  This former GBG pub had a reasonable beer selection in the past but now it is limited to Greene King.  I am assuming that the beer labelled Poet's Ink was from this brewery.  They are becoming pretty good at hiding the origin of some of their beers and my past experience kept me away from it.  The pub itself is nothing special anyway.  The food has always been good when I've eaten there but it is not a pub for relaxing in.  I did not wish to try anything on offer so I left.

I crossed the road to go in The Encore.  The large corner pub (a former Beefeater if my memory is correct) had Purity UBU and Pure Gold available.  I was looking for something a little different as I could find a decent pint of this back at the hotel so I moved on.  The pub itself though had much more appeal than the Pen and Parchment and it is Cask Marque accredited so I will go back there at some point.

My final stop was The Garrick Inn.  Reputedly the oldest pub in Stratford-on-Avon it is owned by the same pub company as The Pen and Parchment and the  beers avalable were also from the Greene King stable.  The pub was small, cosy and welcoming but, once again, I am on a downer where Greene King are concerned so I did not stay for a drink. 
Will any of these pubs become regular haunts for me?  The Bear remains my top choice as it has everything.  Comfortable surroundings, friendly staff and a fantastic rotating beer selection from local micro breweries.  For me this is the perfect ingredient for a regular pub.  However, The One Elm turned out to be an excellent bar with well-kept beer including two from the local Purity Brewing Company.  What I did find disappointing though is in a county full of thriving micro breweries I did not find any other local ales available, and in the case of one pub, no ales at all. 

Happy drinking.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

In praise of beer shops

Where I live in West Sussex it is difficult to find unusual bottled beers.  There was a specialist beer shop in Chichester a few years ago and it really was awful.  This was extremely disappointing because I love browsing in shops dedicated to beer.  I do not like to buy beer online.  I'd much rather go to a specialist shop and spend time reading the labels and picking out new beers to try.  It's like my 7 yr old boy and his love of Lego.  He gets little pleasure from receiving a parcel from Amazon but every month his eyes light up when we take him to the Lego Shop in Brighton.   

To find a good beer shop I have to travel quite a distance.  The Southwick Brewhouse near Fareham has a decent selection of UK bottled beers as well as draught beers.  The shop is sited in a former brewhouse (brewing ceased in 1956) and it is worth visiting as it also serves as a museum as the brewhouse remains intact.  Even further afield, there is the Good Beer Guide listed Bitter Virtue in Southampton.  This shop has a good selection of draught ales as well as a varied selection of beers from all around the world. 

Travelling north, close to where I normally work, is the beer shop attached to the Hogs Back Brewery in Surrey.  As well as their own beers on draught, in bottles and within gift packs, they have a good selection of bottled beers from all over the UK as well as others from around the world.  This is my usual port of call when I'm looking to stock up for Christmas and at other times. 

Moving back into Sussex there is Beer Essentials in Horsham.  In 2000 I was working and living in Horsham and to me, Hall and Woodhouse took on the role of the devil when they took over and closed down this much loved brewery.  Former King and Barnes retail sales manager Gareth Jones found himself out of work and the following year he started up this excellent business filling the beer glasses of many of his former customers.  They usually sell four draught ales from local brewers as well as a fine selection of bottled beers from around the UK. 

When travelling around England I have always found there to be many more beer shops to choose from than there are in the south.  Last week I ventured into the suburbs of Birmingham to visit Cotteridge Wines.  The owner has been running what was essentially a local off-license for 18 years before deciding to specialise in bottled beers from all around the world.  He has a genuine passion for what he is trying to do and it was like walking into beer heaven.  A long aisle was dedicated to beer and many of them were from breweries I had never even heard of.  I had no idea where to start so he helped me out before letting me browse on my own.  He has a massive selection of craft beers from America as well as many from Scandinavia, Belgium and Germany.    He is constantly looking for new products and he is already stocking over 700 different bottles.  In terms of choice this is by far the best shop I have visited and the friendliness and enthusiasm of the owner made it even more pleasurable. 

So what did I choose to put in my basket?  I began in Burlington, Vermont with some Magic Hat No.9 (5.1% ABV).  I visited this brewery in the late 1990s and this beer will bring back happy memories.  More memories come flooding back with my second choice, a Celis White (5.0% ABV) from Austin, Texas.  In 1989 I was lucky enough to work in Austin and I made myself very popular with my American colleagues by organising a trip around this brewery (so popular they forced me to organise a second trip before I left).  I could write a whole article on Pierre Celis, one of the great names in Belgian brewing, who sadly passed away last year and perhaps I will one day.  However, for now I will move on to my next choice, a Sierra Nevada Stout (5.8% ABV), another great name in American craft brewing.  My last American choice was Black Jack Porter, a 6.8% ABV beer from Colorado, another great American state for craft brewing.

For my next choice I moved to Norway.  When I worked in Copenhagen a few years ago I was delighted to find some wonderful stouts and porters and one of these was Nogne O.  There was no hesitation in adding this to my basket of goodies.

For the remaining choices I stuck to the UK.  Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout (5.0% ABV) has long been a favourite and frustratingly hard to find in my part of the world.  Brodies Smoked Rye Porter (7.3% ABV) from London is totally new to me as is Celebration Ale 60 (4.5% ABV) from the Red Rock Brewery, Devon, Winter Dunkel (4.6% ABV) from the Allendale Brewery, Northumberland and Bearskinful (4.2% ABV) from Beartown Brewery, Cheshire. 

My last two bottles I picked out came from the Durham Brewery.  I was able to purchase their beers some years back at the Hogs Back Brewery and they instantly became a favourite.  Redemption (10.0% ABV) and Bede's Chalice (9.0% ABV) are both fantastic and were both enjoyed over Christmas a few years ago.  I have not found their beers available anywhere since so I was delighted to find them here.  I chose Redemption, my earlier favourite, and a new one to me, Bombay 106, a 7.6% IPA. 

So a tasty dozen to enjoy over the next few weeks when I am home at weekends.  I thought the prices were excellent and Cotteridge Wines will be my port of call when stocking up for Christmas.

Finally, may I urge all you beer lovers out there to visit your local beer shop.  If they are like the shops I have mentioned here then the owners all love their product and will provide you with great service and knowledge about what you are buying.  It really is the adult equivalent of the Lego Shop.  You will always find something new.

Happy drinking. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Warwick Pub Crawl

Last night I decided to catch a train from Stratford-on-Avon and make the short journey to Warwick.  I had no particular plan or list of pubs to visit except for the first two stops.  The first stop was always going to be The Wild Boar which is very close to the station.  The Wild Boar is a magnificent pub that houses a microbrewery which can be viewed through a window at the back.  It is a collaboration between local brewer, Slaughterhouse, and the large regional brewer Everards of Leicester.  From the latter, Tiger Best (4.1% ABV) and Sunchaser (4.0% ABV) were available.  From the former I could choose from Saddleback (3.8% ABV), Rare Breed (4.2% ABV), Wild Boar (5.2% ABV) and Alt Bier Extra (5.5% ABV).  If that wasn't enough there were three guest beers from Arkells, Box Steam Brewery and Weatheroak.  I figured I'd find a Slaughterhouse beer elsewhere tonight on my travels so I chose Arkells Wiltshire Gold (4.0% ABV).  This pale golden bitter was quite hoppy with a pleasant bitter aftertaste.  It was served in perfect condition and it made a good start to the evening.

Leaving the Wild Boar I turned right towards the town.  After passing underneath the trainline I veered off to the left passing a pub called The Railway on the corner.  I came to The Coten and turned left where I came across the Millwright Arms.  It is a lovely looking building and reputedly one of the oldest buildings in Warwick.  The bar was quiet and central.  To the right was a small room lavishly decorated and to the far left was a more formal area.  Apparently there is a fabulous large garden to the rear and there is also outside seating at the front of the pub but you will have traffic fumes to contend with here.  The beers available were St Austell Tribute (4.2% ABV), Sharps Doom Bar (4.0% ABV) and Wye Valley HPA (4.0% ABV).  I love the latter but amazingly I have never tried Tribute before so I decided to put that beer to bed.  As for Doom Bar, I have never understood the popularity of this very ordinary beer and I am always dismayed to see it with such regularity.  The Tribute surprised me.  It was a pleasantly smooth golden bitter with citrus notes but quite a sweet finish that wasn't to my particular taste.  It certainly does not compare to the magnificent Hicks Special Draught which has always been one of my favourite beers but frustratingly difficult to find outside the South West.

I headed back towards town and it wasn't far to my next stop, The Oak.  This tiny pub had an excellent beer selection which is good because it is a real drinkers pub with limited seating, a pool table and dartboard to the rear and a function room at the back.  I could choose from Oakham JHB (3.8% ABV), Brains Rev James (4.5% ABV), two beers from Lincolnshire micro Newby Wyke,  Banquo (3.8% ABV) and White Squall (4.8% ABV) and the house beer Oak Ale (4.0% ABV).  The barmaid could not tell me where the house beer was brewed but she did offer me a sample of White Squall.  It had a powerful hoppy taste but I opted for the weaker Banquo.  This was also a pale, floral hoppy beer with a pleasant bitter aftertaste.  I liked this pub.  It was great to see that not only did the pub have a dartboard but it was also being used.

It was now time to head into the centre of this beautiful historic town.  I passed a couple of lovely looking hotels and a few upmarket bars before finding myself in the old market square.  I had a choice of the local Wetherspoons or a similarly large establishment called The Tilted Wig.  I had no desire to see another Spoons so I chose the latter.  Bad choice!!  It started off well when I chose a pint of Jewellery Porter from Birmingham micro Two Towers for just £1.99.  It was then downhill all the way.  The pub had large comfortable seating areas to both sides.  It was busy with plenty of people eating.  I wanted a packet of salted peanuts and I was informed they served them in small pots.  This is something I have become used to at a number of pubs in Stratford-on-Avon where they serve a variety of snacks in small dishes.  These can cost up to a pound so how much was it going to be here?  £2.50.  Sorry did you say £2.50?  That's more than the cost of the pint.  The ridiculousness of this pub did not stop there.  At both ends of the pub was wallpaper resembling bookshelves.  I had just come from The Oak which had real books on real bookshelves for the benefit of customers.  This was just hideous.  Special mention must go to the barmaid who was last seen ignoring all and sundry whilst studying her mobile phone with intense concentration.  This was in stark contrast to the friendly host in the Millwright Arms who was chatting to one and all.  Finally, the beer was very poor quality.  The slight sweetness hinted it was well passed its best which was very disappointing.  I hope to find this beer served in peak condition in the near future at a proper pub so I can find out what it really tastes like.

After finding a drinking establishment of such poor quality the simple solution is to stick with what you know.  I had time for one more beer so I headed back to the station and revisited the Wild Boar.  I wanted a beer brewed in Warwick and two new beers had arrived on the menu which were missing earlier.  Both were from Slaughterhouse - Space Trotter (4.3% ABV) and Starboard Porter (4.8% ABV).  After my disappointing porter at The Tilted Wig I thought I'd try my luck again.  This was totally different and was everything I look for in a porter.  Very smooth with a chocolate malt bitterness it was absolutely divine.  An excellent beer to end the evening with.  Whilst enjoying this I picked up a copy of The Beer and Ragged Staff, the local CAMRA newsletter from the Heart of Warwickshire branch.  An excellent read that gave me plenty of ideas for pubs to visit next time I come to Warwick.  It was such an easy journey it is certainly a place I will come back to before Christmas and next time I would like to find more pubs serving local beers.  As for The Tilted Wig.  That's one pub I will never set foot in again!!

Happy drinking.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Winter warmers

It was really damp, dark and depressing yesterday.  The sort of evening when you want to curl up in front of a roaring fire with a glass of something warming.  When it comes to beer I love dark winter warmers but are they a dying breed?  It is certainly harder to find stronger barley wines in pubs and even harder to find a pub that will serve it to you in a pint glass.  I will split up my favourite dark winters brews into three categories.  The first can often be found all year round but I prefer to drink them on nights like last night.

Stouts and Porters

Stouts are very black beers.  To use a Michael Palin line from TVs Ripping Yarns out of context, these beers are so black even the white bits are black.  Using heavily-roasted malts they can be quite harsh with coffee flavours giving some bitterness but my favourite stouts have a sweeter taste.  They normally have a strength of about 4.5% ABV and the one that fits my palate to perfection is Hop Back's Entire Stout.  The Wiltshire brewer should be commended for such a fine beer.  A more recent favourite is the much stronger Mud City Stout from Sadlers Ales in the West Midlands.  At 6.6% ABV this potent stout is very rich, has a long sweet finish but with quite a complex mix on the palate with chocolate and raisin flavours to the fore.  Tonight I tried a Black Widow Stout from Bird's Brewery of Worcestershire.  At 4.5% ABV this was again quite a traditional stout with subtle sweetness and hints of coffee and a little bitterness in the aftertaste. 

I include porters with stouts as they are often linked together and the flavours can be very similar but I find them to be more mild than stouts although technically there is probably very little difference.  However, I have had porters that are lighter in colour to stouts with a dark dark brown tinge to them.  An example of this is the magnificent Wickwar Station Porter (6.1% ABV) which I have not seen for quite a few years.  Fullers used to do a very nice London Porter and it is still available in bottles.  London is where the name originated from as it was a popular ale with porters working in the capital in the 18th century. 

Last night I tried a very splendid Celtic Smoked Porter brewed by Isle of Man brewer Okells.  This beer had a subtle bitterness and was a very smooth pint. I am told this beer has just been voted best European Smoked Beer in the 2012 World Beer Awards.  I was dubious about trying it as the last smoked beer I tried was awful.  It is amazing how you can be put off a particular beer style by trying something unpleasant.  I will no longer avoid smoked beers though.

Old Ales

Old ales are my favourite winter beer style.  As with porters, the style originated a few hundred years ago.  They are stored for months or even years (hence the name).  Some old ales are strong but they do not have to be.  I'm not sure if my two favourites are still available.  King and Barnes Old Ale (4.1% ABV) certainly isn't but Bill King continued to brew it when he resumed brewing with his new micro and the taste was remarkably similar.  Following his retirement W.J.King still advertise an Old Ale (4.5% ABV) so I will have to check it out this Winter.  The King and Barnes connection is maintained by the other Horsham micro, Hepworths.  Andy Hepworth was the former head brewer of King and Barnes and he began his micro in 2000 and they produce a lovely bottled Old Ale (4.8% ABV).

My other favourite was Adnams Old Ale which had a similar strength to the King and Barnes beer.  I do not think they brew it any more but I'd like to think I am wrong.  Perhaps it still appears as a winter special.  It  had more bitterness than the King and Barnes version but it was still a fantastic beer for those winter months.

Stronger old ales worth checking out are Robinson's Old Tom (8.5% AB) and Lees Moonraker (7.5% ABV).  Also falling into this category is the amazing Norfolk Nog brewed by Woodforde's.  At 4.7% ABV this beer is truly fantastic and one I must endeavour to find on the bar this winter.    

Finally, it may be wise to be wary of beers prefixed by the word 'Old' though as they may not be genuine 'Old Ales'.  However, that does not mean they will not be worth drinking.  Check things out with the brewer via their website or the retailer if you want to know about a particular beer.

Barley wines

Another beer style a couple of hundred years old, barley wines are always a favourite of mine.  They often had a strength in excess of 10% ABV but nowadays this is not necessarily so.  Woodforde's Headcracker (7.0% ABV) has always been a particular favourite of mine.  As with old ales, they could be stored for up to two years and some of the stronger old ales could also be classed as barley wines perhaps.  It is often difficult to categorise some beers and classification can be further obscured by what the brewer says about a particular beer.  Barley wines hit the headlines earlier this year with Coniston Brewery winning the Champion Beer of Britain at the 2012 GBBF with their beer No 9 Barley Wine (8.5% ABV).  I was lucky enough to sample this at the festival and it was a delightful beer.

A perfect place to sample an excellent range of the very best in stouts, porters, old ales and barley wines is the annual winter ales festival at the White Horse, Parsons Green in SW London.  When I lived in London in the mid 1980s this was a regular event for me every year.  It is still going strong.  It is usually held over the last weekend in November which is a perfect time to sample such beers. 

So the onset of winter is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are plenty of beers to enjoy around a nice warm fireside.  I would like to hear from anyone who can recommend some nice winter beers I have not mentioned that are worth trying.  With so many new breweries in the UK there must be many many winter beers waiting to be discovered.  A word of warning though.  I do NOT like beers flavoured with winter spices or laced with other additions.  In the past I have bought a number of bottled winter ales where I have been unaware of such ingredients.  They have always been poured straight down the sink.  I'm sure some people enjoy them but they are definitely not to my taste. 

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Sperrin Brewery

This weeks trip was to the Warwickshire CAMRA pub of the year for 2011.  The Lord Nelson Inn is in the northern tip of the county situated in the village of Ansley about 10 miles north of Coventry.  Last week I went to the far south of the county to visit the Warwickshire CAMRA pub of the year for 2012, the home of Patriot Ales as described in an earlier blog.  If you read that article you will remember I was not impressed by the pub or the beer.  So how does the Lord Nelson compare?  Well, you could not find two pubs that are more different.  From the outside you would probably not choose to enter the Lord Nelson whereas The Norman Knight appeared to be the perfect village pub.  However, the warm welcome was totally missing last week.  The Lord Nelson may look like a scruffy roadside pub with a door handle that was probably a toilet roll holder in a past life but it was a genuine friendly local selling beer brewed on the premises and an excellent family friendly menu.  I do wonder though how the same group of people could choose such vastly different pubs as their favourite from one year to the next!!         

Ansley has two breweries apparently and the Sperrin Brewery (also known as Victoria Beers) began brewing this year at the back of the Lord Nelson Inn.  This evening the pub had two of the Sperrin beers available (Head Hunters at 3.8% ABV and Band of Brothers at 4.2% ABV).  Also available was a beer from the nearby Church End Brewery, Wychwood's Hobgoblin and Hopnotch, a 3.6% ABV brew from the Hopping Mad brewery of Buckinghamshire.  Sadly, nothing was available from the Tunnel Brewery, the second brewery in Ansley.  I decided to sample the Head Hunters and it turned out to be a good choice.  It was a classic traditional bitter.  This very smooth session bitter had a lovely bitter finish.

To sum up, The Lord Nelson Inn is a pub I would visit again and the beers are worth seeking out too.  It has a comfortable front bar with a noticeable nautical theme and the bar also serves the back dining area.  It is a large pub and I'm sure it has more rooms hidden away.  I may not return for the advertised 80s night (well actually I can guarantee I won't) but it is a pub serving a local close-knit community that is also welcoming to outsiders.  Let's hope that the people who chose it as the Warkwickshire CAMRA pub of the year for 2011 get to choose the winner for 2013.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Cask Ale Week in Stratford-on-Avon

Cask Ale Week is a great reason to indulge.  I always try and sample new beers so this week I decided to also try and visit new pubs.  During the week I stay at the Legacy Falcon Hotel in Stratford-on-Avon.  This is a delightful hotel.  I've stayed in most of the hotels in Stratford-on-Avon over the past six years and this is the best.  Room 308 is a room to avoid and there's always something missing from the breakfast tray but the friendly staff make it far superior to the rest.  In the bar they serve an excellent pint of UBU (4.5% ABV) and Mad Goose (4.2% ABV) from the local Purity Ales

However, I digress.  This was not the week to drink in the hotel bar.  The Sunday Telegraph issued a free pint of cask ale voucher for Cask Ale Week so on Monday I had to seek out a pub that accepted this.  The Old Tramway is a pub on the outskirts of town so after visiting The Bear at the Swan's Nest, my Stratford favourite, where I sampled the Wye Valley Butty Bach (4.5% ABV), I walked on and discovered a delighful pub.  The elegant building houses a single open-plan bar serving Fullers London Pride and a guest ale from the Rudgate Brewery of York, Viking Bitter (3.8% ABV).  The barman knew nothing about the latter and it was not a name I recognised but I decided to give it a try (it was free after all).  It turned out to be a delicious beer.  A subtle malty taste with a delightful bitter finish.

Last night I drove out to one of my favourite pubs, The Victoria Works at Studley.  The Weatheroak Brewery tap is a delightful drinking establishment that is well worth a visit.  I chose a pint of their brilliantly named St Udley (3.4% ABV), a very tasty traditional mild.  They were serving the full range of the Weatheroak Brewery beers in addition to a guest ale from the Slaughterhouse Brewery (Wild Boar 5.2% ABV).  I find it disappointing that the last bus back form Studley to Straford-on-Avon leaves ridiculously early so driving is the only option and a single pint was my limit.  Arriving back in Stratford-on-Avon I found time for a pint of Byatt's Coventry Bitter at the Golden Bee.  A lovely session bitter that is incredibly smooth and has a lovely bitter finish.

Tonight I decided to visit three Stratford-on-Avon pubs that I had previously avoided.  The first of these was The Windmill.  The Flowers and Son sign on the outside wall brought back memories.  Flowers Original was a decent beer when I was in my twenties.  Tonight the beers available were Greene King Abbot (5.0% ABV), Morlands Old Speckled Hen (4.5% ABV) and Purity Ales UBU (4.5% ABV).  All three are fairly strong.  Where's the session bitter?  I chose the latter.  UBU is easy to find in Stratford-on-Avon so I rarely drink it but it is a delightful pint.  Malty, full-bodied and very drinkable.  I will be drinking more of it in the future.  It reminds me of one of my favourite long lost beers, King & Barnes Festive.  The pub is very pleasant too.  An old beamed building with comfortable spacious seating areas and a separate dining area.

Next stop was The Queen's Head.  The only available beer worth drinking was Adnams Southwold Bitter (3.7% ABV).  The pub is one to avoid.  I have stayed in Southwold many times.  I have visited every Adnams pub when I completed the Adnams Ale Trail in the 1990s and I have been given a tour of their wonderful brewery by the head brewer as a reward for completing the aforementioned trail.  Adnams Broadside is my favourite beer and all their beers are delightful.  Tonight it was not such a pleasant beer.  I was the only person in the pub.  Now I know why.

Finally I visited The Rose and Crown.  The pub is opposite the Wetherspoons pub, the Golden Bee.  This Taylor Walkers pub brought back memories from when I lived in London in the 1980s.  Taylor Walker did not brew any decent beer from what I remember but they had a large number of pubs in the London area.  This pub was a very pleasant suprise.  It is a vast cavernous building with a long bar running from front to back.  It has numerous TV screens but they do not intrude due to the large number of seating areas.  At the very back there was a pool table.  The first suprise was the beer selection.  This was enhanced by a two week Cask Ale Festival featuring 14 cask ales.  Three were available tonight, Oakham Ales JHB (3.8% ABV), Beartown Brewery Ginger Beer (4.0% ABV) and Inveralmond's Lia Fail (4.7% ABV).  I chose the latter.  A malty concoction full of coffee and toffee flavours it was a lovely beer.  In addition to the festival beers, Youngs Bitter (3.7% ABV) and Doom Bar (4.0% ABV) were also available.  With a festival loyalty card and a 10% discount for CAMRA members I will be visiting the pub again next week.  It is good to see that what is essentially a pub company is now committed to delivering fine ales and I read somewhere in their literature that all 114 of their pubs are Cask Marque accredited. 

That brings me to the end of my Cask Ale Week adventures.  Tomorrow I will be drinking again of course but that will result in a totally new blog post.  The week so far has been a reason to discover new beers in new environments.  I have my favourite pubs whilst in Stratford-on-Avon and during the week I have discovered a couple more that I will definitely visit again so it was a worthwhile exercise .

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Patriot Ales

Another week, another brewery.  The West Midlands is awash with them.  Tonight I ventured out to the southern tip of Warwickshire and the village of Whichford.  Voted County Pub of the Year 2012 by CAMRA Warwickshire my hopes were high.

Firstly, before I begin on the pub and the beer, those of you who have read my previous posts will note that I have been full of praise for nearly every place I have visited and every beer I have consumed.  Tonight I have a few gripes. 

The Norman Knight has an idyllic location.  Sat opposite the village green it is a lovely building.  A Norman knight (!!??) sits on his horse outside and a suit of armour stands up on your left as you enter the pub.  Inside the pub is full of lovely wooden benches, nooks and crannies and a lovely rustic atmosphere.  So what's my problem you may well ask.  Firstly, one of my pet hates.  The pub was fairly quiet and nobody was waiting to be served but it took me a full five minutes to order a pint.  The reasons were numerous.  In order to be seen by the barman I had to gatecrash a group of people standing at the bar with no intention of moving from their spot so someone could reach the bar and ask for a pint.  Aaarrgh.  Secondly, when I did give up and just barge in the barman disappeared to try and locate some missing menus along with two other members of staff leaving the bar unattended.  After returning from his fruitless search he preceded to stand around doing nothing for a further minute before looking to see if anyone was waiting.

Needless to say, my mood was not good when I ordered my pint. Patriot began brewing in 2010 with a small four barrel plant and it is located next to the pub.  Tonight they only had two of their beers available,  the Kiwi (4.1%ABV) and the Settle For Bronze (4.0%ABV).  No indication from the pump clips as to the style of each beer so I settled for the bronze.  It looked quite pleasant with a small head and a lovely bronzed appearance (the clue is in the name).  By the time I sat down the head had disappeared and it had rather a flat taste.  I'd heard beers referred to as dishwater before but not often come across them.  I won't be quite so harsh on this beer but it did nothing for me.  The taste was slightly sweet with a little bitterness coming through but it was decidedly flat and lifeless.

Upon leaving the pub I was very disappointed.  The outside garden is beautiful and the village is lovely.  I was expecting the pub and the beer to match the surroundings but sadly it didn't.  Perhaps I just caught it on a bad day.  However, I will not be returning to find out.
Upon my return to Stratford-on-Avon my mood improved considerably with a pint of Sadler's Thin Ice at the Golden Bee.  This was my least favourite beer when I did my brewing experience at this lovely brewery near Stourbridge, West Midlands.  However, I have had it a couple of times since and it is beautiful.  Hoppy with citrus flavours bursting through it is both refreshing and tasty and the opposite of my earlier beer of the evening. 

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Clarendon Arms, Kenilworth

Tonight I  visited a pub I found out about on Twitter.  For those of you not into the amazing world of Twitter, it is a fabulous marketing tool for all businesses.  Any business not using it needs their head testing.  The Clarendon Arms obviously uses it to good effect and any pub that actively promote themselves must surely be a pub worth visiting.

Kenilworth is situated between Coventry and Warwick just off the A46.  I have visited the excellent castle many, many years ago and as the address of the pub is Castle Hill I was expecting it to be located nearby.  I was not wrong.  I drove through the centre of Kenilworth, a pleasant enough looking town, and headed left up towards the castle.  Following a sharp right turn, the castle looms on the left and a large pub called The Queen & Castle is on the right.  Turning right at this pub you will notice The Clarendon Arms as a tiny narrow pub next to the large car park of the pub next door.  What an idyllic setting this pub has.  With a collection of thatched cottages opposite and the castle across the main road you would think you were in a very English village rather than being on the outskirts of a town.

The front of the pub has a lovely stained glass window.  Entering the door to the left there is a quiet front room off to the right and walking straight on you come to the bar.  It has a modern look but with a traditional feel to it.  Comfortable seating around solid wooden tables on a wooden floor is a common theme throughout.  The pub may look small and it is narrow but it goes back a fair distance.  Beyond the bar there is a further bar/dining area and it also has an upstairs function room.  The available beers tonight were Hook Norton (Hooky Gold), Sharps (Doom Bar), Wye Valley (Butty Bach) and Purity (Mad Goose).  I chose the latter, a pale hoppy brer (4.2%ABV) with a bitter finish. 

I have sampled Purity beers a number of times.  I find them to be quite traditional beers.  All are well-balanced with a bitter finish and very drinkable.  The brewery is situated in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside.  It appears to be a very ethical company with an environmentally-friendly water treatment system.  Their website can give you more information about this.  This USP has probably been a key reason behind their rapid growth as they now supply hundreds of outlets.  You certainly won't have difficulty finding their beers within the pubs of Warwickshire and beyond.

Overall, a pleasant drink in an excellent pub.  The Clarendon Arms is a pub you should visit if you are in the area.  I was not eating tonight but next time I visit I will ensure I am hungry because the menu is very tempting with classic pub fayre.  Tonight was 'pie night' which is a good reason alone for going back.  I'm glad I made the journey out here and you will not be disappointed either.

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Wood Farm Brewery

Tonight brought back memories of trips to New England.  I decided to drive out to the Wood Farm Brewery near Rugby close to the Leicestershire/Warwickshire border.  Less than a mile from the Old Fosse Way it appears to be situated in the middle of nowhere.  In reality it is very close to the village of Frolesworth where my mum was born and which I know very well.  The nearest place to the brewery though is the village of Willey but being set in 35 acres of farmland and approaching from the Old Fosse Way you do not see any signs of this or any other village.  Immediately upon seeing the modern barn conversion that houses the pub and brewery my memories of a number of micro breweries in New England came flooding back.  In particular, the place reminded me of the Long Trail Brewing Co of Vermont.

Upon entering, the smell of brewing attacks your senses.  I absolutely love the smell of hops.  The very spacious area in front of you leads to the bar and a window at the back gives fine views of the 16 barrel plant that creates the seven different ales.  To the left the stairs lead you up to a seating area which overlooks the downstairs bar.  I had already decided a carry out pack of three bottles would provide ample opportunity to sample their beers at a more leisurely pace so a single pint would keep me going before driving back to Stratford-on-Avon.  I chose their premium bitter Union (4.6% ABV).  It was a pale coloured beer with citrus notes but it also had a very pleasant bitter aftertaste.

More about the beer over the weekend when I enjoy the three bottles I purchased.  What you might want to know now is whether the pub is worth visiting?  The answer is a resounding yes.  Food is to the fore.  The plates of food coming out of the kitchen looked particularly appetising.  With the pub's location it is impossible to rely on drinkers to bring in the required profits.  Brewery tours (with food) are advertised and the Christmas menus were already out and looked to be excellent value.  Outside the pub has a large garden with plenty of wooden tables so a Summer visit would be a good idea too.  Once again, the locals and staff were friendly.  I am still not used to these friendly greetings from both sides of the bar.  I was offered free samples before choosing which bottles to purchase which was a nice gesture. 

Overall, this is an operation definitely worth a visit.  They have obviously made a large investment in both the pub and the brewery and it you won't be disappointed when making the drive out there.  It may not be a pub you would have as your local due to the location but when you want a good meal with a fine ale to wash it down it is worth checking out.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Old Thatched Tavern

For me, pubs are a sanctuary.  A place to go for a quiet pint or, if I am with family or friends, a place to have a good conversation without being distracted.  The Old Thatched Tavern in Stratford-on-Avon is a lovely pub.  When I first visited it was owned by Enterprise Inns but earlier this year it was bought by Fullers, the Chiswick brewer.  For me, this should have been a reason to jump for joy.  Gales HSB is the first beer I fell in love with.  I was concerned when Gales were bought by Fullers and the brewery was closed but I still think it is a lovely beer.  The opportunity to drink it in one of my favourite pubs in Stratford-on-Avon is surely too good to be true?

Yes, the Old Thatched Tavern is a lovely pub.  However, it does have one irritating problem.  The pub bore!  I am a very chilled out person and not easily annoyed.  Life is too short to get stressed out about minor irritations.  However, there is one person in this pub who makes it such an unenjoyable place to pop in for a quiet drink.  I used to go in for a pint on a weekly basis.  However, he is always in there when I visit.  Tonight was my first visit for well over a month but he was in there again with his group of friends.  The bar is very small and his group sit in the centre.  However, his voice is the one that dominates and carries to all corners of the pub.  His volume control is distinctly lacking.  In a large pub I may not find it such an issue.  However, he is a loud man in a small pub and it puts me off going in there.  Sad but that's the way it is.

Tonight I gave the HSB a miss to try my first taste of the Seafarers Ale (3.6% ABV).  Well it is International Talk Like A Pirate Day!  It's a very pleasant pale coloured bitter.  Citrus undertones but with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste combine to produce a good session beer.  HSB, Red Fox and London Pride were the other available beers tonight but I had to give my ears a rest so I departed for the Bear at the Swan's Nest where I was delighted to see Citra (4.2% ABV) was still available.  Brewed by Oakham Ales the beer is named after the very distinctive hop that goes into it.  I got to know about this hop during my brewing experience at Sadlers Ales as I spent ages breaking it up to go into their lovely JPA.  A sharp grapefruit tang to it makes it a very hoppy beer with a very refreshing clean taste.

Could the loveliness of these hoppy beers render a man speechless?  There is one man I would like to try it out on.

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Old Fourpenny Shop Hotel, Warwick

Today the Good Beer Guide 2013 was officially launched so I decided to visit a pub that is not in it (but was in the 2012 edition).  My copy of the new guide arrived two weeks ago so I have already done plenty of exploring with it.  Besides, I have been meaning to visit this particular pub for the past few months. 

Approaching Warwick from junction 15 of the M40 you pass three pubs on the left-hand side.  The Racehorse has a gigantic horse perched outside so the close proximity of Warwick racecourse isn't too surprising.  As you near the town with the castle on the right you turn left into Crompton Street and immediately you see the racecourse in front of you.  The Old Fourpenny Shop Hotel is on the left-hand side in a residential street. 

The pub has a totally different feel to The Wild Boar I visited last night.  A large split-level bar had plenty of room and it was very comfortable, traditional and quiet.  It is also a hotel offering eleven rooms which I am sure are full when race meetings are on.  Think of racing and you immediately think of the Irish.  The landlord is a jovial Irish fellow and he informed me about the beer and the Old Pie Factory brewery.  Both himself and another pub in nearby Five Ways, The Case Is Altered, were wanting to start a brewing operation so they established the brewery in an old Fleur-de-lys pie factory three miles away. 

Two beers from the Old Pie Factory Brewery (Pale and Bitter) were available.  The other beers were from the West Country.  RCH Pitchfork sat alongside two beers from the Cottage Brewing Company of Somerset.  I opted for the house Bitter (3.9% ABV) which was a very pleasant traditional bitter and I am sure it would make a good session beer.  It had a delightful colour and aroma and it went down smoothly.  A room for the night would have meant sampling all five ales but not tonight.

Back in Stratford-on-Avon there was time for a pint of Sadlers JPA (the beer I know how to brew!!) at the local Wetherspoons.  However, I have now made two visits to Warwick on consecutive evenings and there is still plenty to explore so there will be a few more visits before the end of the year.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Wild Boar Cask Ale House and Brewery, Warwick

I have been meaning to go to Warwick for a few months.  The only Good Beer Guide 2013 entry for Warwick is The Wild Boar.  It is described as being the Slaughterhouse Brewery Tap but it also has its own 2 barrel plant which they use for special brews.  The brewery began production in 2003 in a former slaughterhouse so it isn't difficult to imagine where the name comes from.  They say that 95% of their deliveries are within a 5 mile radius of Warwick which is probably why I've not found their beers anywhere I've been before as this is the first pub I've visited within that small area.   

The pub is easy to find and it is very close to Warwick railway station.  It is in a residential area so it has a friendly local feel but it is also very welcoming to others.  I have really struck lucky with my trips recently.  Last week I discovered The Weatheroak Brewery tap, The Victoria Works, in Studley.  Tonight I found another gem of a pub.  It has a real community feel to it similar to The West End in Stratford-on-Avon.  It was early in the evening on a Wednesday but both the front and back bars were busy which is always a good sign.  The pub is certainly an excellent discovery and if you are ever in Warwick then pay it a visit.

The first dilemma was which beer to choose.  The full array of beers from the Slaughterhouse Brewery were available along with a few specials which I assumed were brewed in-house.  I like trying something new and the Space Trotter (4.3% ABV) was described as being made with organic oats.  It is dark brown in colour and has a slightly sweetish taste.  It was pleasant but I would not make it a regular.  I will definitely revisit Warwick soon though to try one of their regular beers.  The Wild Boar, at 5.2% ABV, sounds particularly inviting.

I have been to quite a few pubs now in and around Stratford-on-Avon and the difference in friendliness between here and home is enormous.  The young lady who served me tonight in The Wild Boar was no exception.  Very friendly and welcoming.  I have lived down South too long where indifferent service is the norm.  The difference extends though to the pub regulars.  It is not unusual to feel uneasy walking into a new pub back home where the locals will 'check you out' with a long glare.  There is absolutely none of that in the West Midlands.  It has taken some getting used to but I'm beginning to like it.

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Weatheroak Brewery

Last week I went to the Coach and Horses at Weatheroak Hill.  That pub was the original home of the Weatheroak Brewery when it began in 1997.  In 2007 the brewery required new premises due to expansion and in 2008 it ended up in the village of Studley, a few miles to the south of the original home.  This year it acquired the Nags Head, a pub very close to the industrial unit that houses the brewery and thereby serving as the brewery tap.  The Coach and Horses still had the space to house a brewery and this gave birth to the Weatheroak Hill Brewery.

Tonight I ventured out to Studley to visit the Weatheroak Brewery tap, now renamed The Victoria Works (, to make a comparison with the Coach and Horses.  To be fair, the pubs seem to be catering for a different crowd.  The Coach and Horses had a modern dining area and comfortable bar.  The Victoria Works is a real drinkers pub but it still has plenty of comfort.  Entering from the car park the lounge area to the left had comfortable leather sofas and solid wooden tables.  The bar was arrived at by stepping down a few steps and it had plenty of reading material.  A rack of newspapers, a shelf of CAMRA Good Beer Guides and plenty of CAMRA lealfets as well as the latest copy of Pint Taken, the Worcestershire County CAMRA newsletter.  This is my kind of pub.  The full range of Weatheroak beers was available along with a guest ale (tonight it was Lager It Ain't from the Cannon Royall Brewery).

The pub beat the Coach and Horses by a fraction then but what about the beer?  I had 5 to choose from and the Victoria Works (4.3% ABV) was advertising itself as a champion beer at a local beer festival in 2010 so that's what I chose.  It was pale coloured but packed with hops giving it a delightful bitter taste.  It had a very clear appearance and a lovely smooth finish.  Same strength as the WHB I tried at the Weatheroak Hill brewery but a totally different beer.

Last week I was more than happy with the Coach and Horses.  A delightful pub with good beer.  Tonight I went to a pub I would love as my local.  Excellent beer, comfortable surroundings and totally unpretentious.  If I had to choose to revisit only one of them, then the Victoria Works would win on all counts.  Very highly recommended.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Woodforde's Brewery

I fell in love with Woodforde's beers from a relatively young age.  I began working in Norwich in 1989 when the brewery moved to their present site in the beautiful Broadland village of Woodbastwick.  The brewery was therefore very new when a work colleague of mine organised a brewery trip.  A minibus took the 15 of us to this delightful village for a start.  These were the days when brewery trips were free!!  Brewery founder, Ray Ashworth, began by filling our glasses and then gave us a short trip around what was then a very small brewery.  Back in the sampling room he brought out plates of food to soak up many more beer samples.  We stayed there until and I have no idea how many pints we consumed.  I fell in love with Wherry, Baldrick (no longer available), Norfolk Nog and Headcracker.  The latter is an amazingly complex barley wine (7.0% ABV).  I have not managed to find it for a few years but my memories of it will never fade.

Alongside the brewery is the Fur and Feather Inn, the brewery tap.  The beautiful thatched building was converted from a row of three cottages and provides excellent food alongside the full range of Woodforde's beers.  I have not visited Norfolk for nearly four years but every time I go to the area I ensure that I visit the pub and the adjoining brewery visitor centre.  Norfolk is a beautiful county and Norwich is a fantastic city for real ale.  CAMRA's AGM is visiting Norwich next year and hopefully I will be there too. 

This preamble leads me to the trip I made tonight.  Last week, Shakespeare CAMRA recommended visiting the Horseshoe Inn, Shipston-on_stour, where Woodforde's Wherry was available at £2.60 a pint.  I've rarely found Woodforde's available outside of East Anglia so how could I turn this down?  I was just hoping that it would still be available as it was nearly a week since I was given the news.  I was not disappointed.  Wye Valley HPA and Sharp's Doom Bar Bitter were also available but for me there was only one option.  Wherry comes in at only 3.8% ABV but it has a great flavour.  Like the Headcracker, I find it quite complex with a great mix of flavours.  The pub itself is near the centre of a very picturesque market town.  The old building houses a central bar area.  To the left there is an area set aside for dining and to the right was a further bar area with a large fireplace and a back room with a large TV screen.  Very welcoming and very comfortable and well worth the short drive from Stratford-on-Avon.  Well worth a visit.

When I returned to Stratford-on-Avon I was still thirsty so I visited my local Wetherspoons and I was delighted to see my favourite Sadlers Ales beer Red IPA (5.7% ABV) available.  A perfect pint to follow on from the Woodforde's Wherry.

Happy drinking.


Monday, 3 September 2012

Good Beer Guide 2013

One of the best things I signed up to with CAMRA was the Good Beer Guide subscription.  With so many new breweries springing up every year it is now an essential purchase.  The 2013 edition was launched last week and my copy was waiting for me when I got home last Friday. 

The only advantage of working away from home is the freedom to do as I please in the evenings.  I have been working in Stratford-on-Avon for a number of months now and I have already managed to find many new beers and pubs.  I still haven't been to all the places I want to and now I notice there are three new breweries in Warwickshire to discover.  Added to that there are two new breweries in the West Midlands and three in Worcestershire.  With family in Leicestershire there is one more new brewery I could possibly check out there too. 

This constant expansion of the number of independent breweries has got me thinking.  Is it possible to sample a pint from every UK independent brewery?  I haven't counted how many there are but I'm guessing it is in excess of a thousand so assuming I have a pint from a different brewery every day it would take me 3-4 years.  During that time there could be at least a hundred new breweries started up too.  Is it therefore an impossible task?  We'll find out.  As from September 1st I will make a conscious effort to track what I drink.  To force myself out into pubs and beer festivals I will not count bottled beers I drink at home.  I will allow myself to only drink halves though when at a beer festival as that is my norm. 

Tonight I went to my favourite Stratford-on-Avon pub, The Bear (at the Swan's Nest) and consumed pint number one.  A delicious traditional bitter from the Hobsons Brewery of Shropshire (3.8% ABV).  It had a classic bitter taste and it was most enjoyable.  A great start to the week.

I won't mention my challenge again until this time next year except to say I predict that I will never complete it.  However, it will be fun trying.

Happy drinking.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Weatheroak Hill Brewery

Tonight I decided it was time for a little trip again so once I finished work I got out my Good Beer Guide.  The Coach and Horses at Weatheroak was my chosen destination and after plugging the post code into my satnav I was on my way.  A mere 16 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon  by avoiding the motorways and it wasn't long before I found myself pulling up into their large car park.  The pub had a somewhat strange appearance.  The modern attachment housing the restaurant looked a little out of place but I skirted around that to enter into the older part where I had a choice of bars to the left or right.  Choosing the door to my right I found myself in a split level bar.  The busy lower level area around the bar had no vacant stools so after choosing my pint (the mid-strength WHB at 4.2% ABV) I stepped into a larger lounge area with very comfortable seats around quite a number of tables.  To be busy so early in the evening means they are obviously doing things right.  The bar menu was tempting and the beer selection was excellent with a couple of guest beers (Holdens Special and Wood Shropshire Lad) in addition to the Weatheroak Hill  brews. 

WHB was a lovely chestnut coloured best bitter and it had a distinctive nutty tang to it.  As I was driving I stuck to my usual single pint but with a collection of books available to read I could happily have stayed there all evening and sampled a pint of everything on tap.  The pub was welcoming and had a lovely friendly atmosphere.  If you are ever in the area (the pub is within touching distance of the M42 south of Birmingham) then do pay a visit.  You will not be disappointed.

Happy drinking.