Monday, 25 March 2013

Durham Brewery - four classic beer styles.

The Durham Brewery began brewing nearly twenty years ago.  Despite this long history it was not until about 7 years ago that I discovered their beers when I puchased a couple of their bottles at the Hogs Back Brewery bottle shop.  I think the first two beers I bought at the time were St Cuthbert and Benedictus.  They were both strong and full of flavour.  More recent visits to the same shop were not so productive though and I had to wait until last year when I visited Cotteridge Wines in Birmingham to try more of their beers. 

During my last visit to Cotteridge Wines I selected four of their beers to try over a single weekend.  This is no easy task as the beers I chose were all very strong and my doctor may have been horrified at the 18 units of alcohol I consumed over the three nights.  It was only four bottles of beer doc honestly!!

The Friday night beer, Bombay 106 (7.0% ABV), had the lowest strength. I really should have left this one for drinking with my Saturday night curry but next time I'll get it right.  It was very lively when I poured it due to taking it straight from my cold garage when I should have let it warm up a little first.  Despite these two errors I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a strong and full-flavoured traditional golden IPA made with traditional English hops.  It was quite bitter with a subtle citrussy hoppiness.  There was also a little spiciness to it initially before progressing to a lovely clean finish.  All Indian restaurants should stock a beer like this.  It would be a perfect accompaniment. 

I was now left with three beers over two nights which I brought out of the garage on Saturday morning giving them time to warm up a little.  I began my Saturday evening with Redemption (10.0% ABV), described as a ruby old ale.  This is a classic old ale.  Plenty of dark roasted malts with a nice thick hoppiness provided by the Fuggles hop.  It is like a liquid Christmas cake.  Plenty of rich fruits and it has a lovely smooth finish.  This has to be one of my favourite winter beers ever.  It is stunning.

It was my intention to just have the one beer and finish off the last two bottles on Sunday.  However, after drinking the Redemption rather quickly (it goes down so easily) I decided to open the Bede's Chalice (9.0% ABV).  Not a good idea really as they should probably not be consumed in the same session but hey ho.  Bede's Chalice is described as a Belgian Tripel.  It has that slight sourness common with the finest of Belgian beers and infused with coriander.  It has plenty of sweet fruit flavours such as peach and it has a complex malt character.  It is a magnificent example of this style of beer. 

Sunday evening and a single bottle remains to be consumed.  Temptation (10.0% ABV) is a classic Russian stout.  It is jet black with a full aroma of roasted barley.  It has a full thick sweet flavour once you get past the initial bitterness.  It is a sensational beer and I took my time with it and savoured it for well over a hour.  The aftertaste lingers forever and it complemented the strong cheddar cheese I was eating at the same time to perfection. 

So four very different beers from a single brewery.  Each beer is a stunning example of a classic beer style.  Each beer comes highly recommended.  My next task is to find a Durham Brewery beer in a pub.  Something I am yet to do despite the brewery being around for nearly two decades.  Perhaps a visit to Durham is in order. 

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A celebratory pint

The hideous beer tax escalator is no more.  Introduced in 2008 it has since killed off many pubs and has resulted in a massive loss of revenue to the government.  This calls for a celebration.

Not one to change my plans I headed for the pub I intended to visit this evening, the Griffin Inn near Shustoke, a small village between Birmingham and Coventry.  Approaching from the north you pass through the village of Shustoke and out the other side.  When you go round a very sharp bend to the left the pub is on the immediate left.

Entering from the car park I had to bend down to get through the door and I immediately felt the warm glow from the ancient fireplace in front of me.  The bar to the right has three handpumps but the beer board has an incredibly long list so there are plenty more handpumps along the remainder of the bar that stretches across the central heart of the pub.  I was hoping for a beer from the Griffin Brewery next door but none were available.  Such an occasion required a special beer though and I was delighted to see Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby (6.0% ABV) on their list. 

The beer list included Jennings Dark Mild, Marstons Pedigree, RCH Pitchfork, Theakston Old Peculiar, Greene King Old Reserve, Everards Sunchaser and Dark Star Six Hop.  Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby is a classic though.  I rarely see it on the bar so there was no hesitation in selecting it and at just £3.40 for a pint it was very well priced too.  It is a lovely dark ruby colour (as the name suggests).  It is low hopped as you would expect from a mild and plenty of dark chocolate malt.  It is incredibly smooth and absolutely delicious.     

I headed into the other half of the pub where I found another lovely old fireplace.  The low beams had old beermats affixed to them, some of which were ancient (Double Diamond and Eldridge Pope Royal Oak to name a couple).  There were lots of nooks and crannies and a healthy crowd of locals chatting away.  There were no noisy distractions from TVs or machines.  It is an idyllic pub.  Fresh local eggs were sitting on the bar for purchase, there was a conservatory at the back for children and the garden appeared to be a good size that would be popular in Summer.  It is deservedly a GBG regular.

A lovely pint in an excellent pub.  No better way to celebrate the death of a ridiculous tax.  Let's hope we now see a decline in the number of pub closures.  So, switch off the TV and get out there and find a local pub you are happy with and use it.   

Happy drinking.

Monday, 18 March 2013

IPA - insipid no more

When I was younger an IPA (India Pale Ale) was something I usually avoided.  The only IPAs available that I was aware of were Charrington IPA and Greene King IPA so I can be excused for thinking the 'I' meant insipid.  They were quite low in both alcohol and taste.  I remember that the Charrington IPA particularly had very little hoppiness or bitterness.

When I started to travel to the USA I began to enjoy their versions of the IPA.  It is probably fair to say that many US brewers now produce at least one IPA in their range.  One of the first I remember is Shipyard Fuggles IPA.  At 5.8% ABV and using the English fuggles hop it is an excellent attempt at producing an authentic IPA.  Of course, many US micros have americanised the IPA by using American hops.  These hops are becoming more widely used by UK micros too and are proving exceptionally popular.

UK micros are now catching up with their American counterparts and there are now a large number of IPAs to choose from.  Last week I managed to try a number of these in various formats so here is my appraisal of, what I can only assume, are some of the best available.  The reason I say this is that they were all superb.

Brewdog Punk IPA (5.6% ABV) - Fraserburgh, Scotland

I tried a pint of this beer at the Brewdog bar in Birmingham.  It is only available as a keg beer or in bottles.  I found it to be too cold and too fizzy but the delicious hoppy aroma and taste still found a way through.  Tonight I bought a bottle to try it at a proper temperature and I am drinking it as I type.  It is described as a trans-atlantic fusion although the New Zeland hops are not as powerful as some of the American versions.  It has a full fruity taste which did not appear in the keg version.  The finish is bitter and crisp.       

Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (5.9% ABV) - Bakewell, Derbyshire

I tried a pint of the cask version of this classic IPA at the Shakespeare Inn, Birmingham.  A more subtle fruitiness is finely balanced with a full hop aroma.  It is very smooth and the sweetness gives way to a superb hoppy, bitter finish.  This beer has quite rightly won many awards including the gold medal in the strong ales category at the GBBF of 2010.  It is truly a modern classic.

Ilkley Lotus IPA (5.6% ABV) - Ilkley, West Yorkshire

I tried the bottled version of this beer.  It is brewed using both New Zealand and American cascade hops and it has a classic golden colour.  It has a gentle hoppy aroma and packs plenty of intense fruit flavours particularly mango.  It is very smooth and this finely balanced IPA gives way to a gentle bitter finish.

Ilkley Mary Jane IPA (6.0% ABV) - Ilkley, West Yorkshire
I tried this bottled version on the same evening as the Lotus IPA to compare the two.  Described as a trans-atlantic IPA with both English and American hops these two varieties combine to great effect.  I found this beer to be paler in colour than the Lotus with more citrus and grapefruit notes and a more intense bitter finish.  It is probably more to my taste than the Lotus but they are both delightful.

Art Brew Monkey IPA (6.4% ABV) - North Chideock, Dorset

My final bottled IPA is the strongest of the five.  It has a perfect golden colour, a gentle hoppy aroma and, as with the Lotus and Brewdog beers, an intense robust fruitiness with both mango and citrus flavours combining.  It is beautifully balanced and, as with the others, there is a pleasant bitter finish.

I strongly recommend all five of the IPAs described here.  If I had to choose a winner I would select the Mary Jane but it is probably the least authentic due to the intensity of the American hops which give it plenty of grapefruit and citrus flavours. 

One thing is for sure - none of these beers could be described as insipid.  I will never drink Greene King IPA again.

Happy drinking.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Out In Brum

OK I confess I stole the title of this post from the excellent Birmingham CAMRA branch newsletter I picked up on my way round the centre of Birmingham last night.  I certainly didn't pick it up from my first stop though.  Brewdog (Birmingham) is located close to New Street Station in John Bright Street.  It was opened late last year and it has a very industrial look.  It has a full glass frontage and inside there's lots of steel and bare brick.  Very trendy.  The music blaring out was too loud if you were looking for a quiet drink but at least it was decent.

What to drink was my first problem.  I was fully aware that cask ale would not be on the menu as Brewdog only produce keg beer.  The menu listed their beers with eye-watering prices alongside.  I fancied a strong IPA but at £7.00 for a pint of 6.9% ABV beer I decided I would probably rather have a lower strength one.  Punk IPA (5.4% ABV) was quite cheap in comparison at only £4.25.  You can't fault Brewdog for what they have achieved through clever marketing or even for their beers which are full of flavour.  I probably don't fit the profile of their target market though and for that I am probably thankful.       

Now would  be a good time to give my thoughts on the craft (keg) beer revolution.  I have spent time living in the USA as well as travelling around on numerous holidays.  Drinking a cold but hoppy IPA in Boston or Austin when the temperature outside is in the 80s or more is wonderfully refreshing and there are many brewpubs and micro breweries offering excellent beers.  When the alternative is a  Budweiser or a Michelob or something similar it is easy to see why craft beers have taken off in such a big way in the US.  In the UK it is a totally different ballgame.  Punk IPA compares very favourably to anything I have tried in the US (and I have tried lots of American craft beers) but in Birmingham when the temperature outside is near to freezing it wasn't what I wanted.  It was too cold and too fizzy and this was the overriding character of what was actually a very pleasant taste.  So why would I drink this by choice when the country is awash with fabulous cask ales?  The answer is quite simply I wouldn't.

After leaving the Brewdog bar I headed back towards New Street station, burping every few yards, and it wasn't very far to my next stop, the Post Office Vaults.  I was still feeling full of gas and quite cold but I quickly revived upon seeing the fantastic array of handpumps at the bar.  The pub only opened towards the end of 2011.  It is small and cosy with hops hanging from the ceiling.  Just past the bar there was a bar billiards table.  I haven't seen one of these for years although I loved the game in my younger days.  The pub was busy with a surprisingly young clientele and it had a lovely friendly feel to it.  I instantly liked it.  It was traditional with a modern twist. 

I forgot to note the full list of beers available but I think there was a Salopian and Hobsons beer alongside five or six others.  In addition to the ever changing cask beers the pub has a massive bottled beer selection from all around the world.  A superb choice.  I was drawn to a beer from the Fernandes Brewery.  The description was a bit bizarre so I asked for a taste before ordering a pint.  It wasn't for me.  It tasted like Terrys chocolate orange.  I fancied a dark beer though so I chose Dark Raven (4.5% ABV) from the Beowulf Brewing Co of Staffordshire.  It was an extremely smooth jet black beer.  It was slightly sweet with a gentle burnt caramel flavour ending with a little bitterness.  It was a magnificent beer.

My final stop was the Shakespeare Inn on Lower Temple Street.  This is a Nicholsons freehouse.  My only prior experience of a Nicholsons pub was visiting The Falcon near Clapham Junction station twice in the past couple of years.  I was very impressed with both the quality of food as well as the beer selection so I was looking forward to visiting this pub.  I wasn't disappointed by the beer.  The pub itself is fairly small and it had live music when I visited which you couldn't really get away from.  There was a nice cosy room at the back where people were eating but it wouldn't have been my choice of venue for a quiet meal.  However, it was a lovely grand building and without the live music it would be an excellent city centre pub.  Oxfordshire Ales Finest was available but I was drawn to the Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (5.9% ABV).  I have only tried the bottled version of this lovely beer so I was delighted to see it available.  Thornbridge is a modern craft brewery that produces both cask and keg beers which should keep everyone happy.  The beer has a lovely citrussy hoppy aroma and taste but it is not overpowering and it has a delicious bittersweet aftertaste.  A superb pint to bring my journey to a close.

So an interesting evening.  I ventured into the Brewdog experience, visited a modern freehouse and finished up at a traditional city centre pub.  All three beers were good in their own way but I will continue to only choose keg craft beers when I venture across the Atlantic.  Cask beers will always be my choice and no country can compete with the UK for the diversity and quality of this amazing beverage.  I'll keep drinking to that.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Craven Arms, Birmingham

In this age of pub closures it is always good to hear of one opening.  Trains to Birmingham from Stratford-on-Avon are not exactly convenient for a night out but I managed to work it out so I had a couple of hours in England's second city.  Despite being brought up in the East Midlands, Birmingham is totally unkonwn to me.  I've ventured into the city for the occasional football match and I remember visiting the Bull Ring once.  When it comes to where to drink I am totally clueless. 

Thanks to Twitter I was aware of the imminent opening of The Craven Arms a couple of months ago.  It isn't far from any of the three city centre railway stations although it is a little bit off the main drag.  Once you find the towering Radisson Hotel you are are just a short hop away.  The pub looks imposing from the outside, a beacon of light in a street devoid of life.  Upon entering you immediately feel at home.  It has a single central bar with seating areas surrounding it on three sides with wooden partitions sectioning off some areas.  Newspapers are available to read as well as the latest What's Brewing.   

The barman was friendly and welcoming and he gave me time to survey the dazzling array of handpumps.  There were three house beers from Black Country Ales along with six constantly changing guest ales.  When I visited those available included Coach House Cheshire Gold (4.1% ABV), Muirhouse Magnum Mild (4.5% ABV), Dukeries Baronet (3.8% ABV), Slaters Retro Red (5.7% ABV) and Great Heck Porter (4.5% ABV).  In addition to the beers there is a draught cider and perry available too.  I decided to start with the Muirhouse Magnum Mild.  It was a strong, smooth, black mild with lovely roast malt flavours and it was served in perfect condition.  I sat at a vacant table near the fire and settled down for a relaxing evening. 

It was quiet when I visited which may have been due to the big Champions League game on elsewhere but for those wanting an escape from that, this place was perfect.  With no distractions from loud machines or TVs it was nice to just relax and enjoy the background music that was at just the right level.  It was a mix of Beatles classics when I visited. 

For my second pint I chose one from Black Country Ales.  Pig on the Wall (4.3% ABV) is a traditional black country mild.  I'm used to my milds being black but this beer was very similar to the black country classic Bathams Mild which I tried last year.  It is lightly hopped with a subtle sweetness and it was extremely pleasant.

Before leaving I had time for one more beer.  Dukeries is a very new Nottinghamshire brewery which I was yet to try anything from so I went for their Baronet.  It is a chestnut coloured traditional session bitter.  It had a floral, fruity taste with a gentle bitter finish.  A pleasing pint.

The Craven Arms has only been open for a few weeks but they seem to have done everything right.  An ever changing beer selection served in perfect condition within a traditional pub setting.  They have already introduced a 100 club for customers wanting to take up the challenge of sampling 100 different pints with, thankfully, no set time limit.  I'm sure they will get plenty of people through the door and I, for one, will be back whenever I am in Birmingham.  This pub is highly recommended.

Happy drinking.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Doctor's Orders Micropub

Last Thursday I visited my second micropub.  Doctor's Orders opened on December 23rd last year and, as the name suggests, it was transformed from a pharmacy.  It is similar in many ways to the Little Chester Ale House in Derby I visited last month but there are notable differences too. 

Doctor's Orders is located in a busy street of shops (Mansfield Road) on the outskirts of Nottingham.  As with Little Chesters, there is no traditional pub sign.  The name is engraved into the glass either side of the central entrance.  A similar sized interior with five or six tables, basic wooden chairs and some comfortable benches make good use of the limited space.  There is no bar and there is a viewing window to the room containing the barrels of beer and above this window there is the word 'Prescriptions'.  Very nicely done.

With no bar to focus on I studied the blackboard listing the available beers and whilst studying this, the co-owner Prakash (one of three) came to ask if it was my first visit and what it was I would like to try.  I chose a pint of Lincoln Green Tuck Porter (4.7% ABV).  The pint was perfection.  Prakash invited me to see the room where the beer is kept.  It is kept at a constant 12 degrees and from what I tasted this was spot on.  There was a a two-level rack for a total of ten firkins, five of which were settling.  The springs tilted the barrels as they emptied ensuring a minimum amount of wastage.  The whole system was very impressive.
Nottinghamshire and the immediately surrounding counties are awash with micro breweries so it is not difficult for Doctor's Orders to serve a constantly changing selection of interesting ales.  With the pump clips on view they have probably served close to a hundred different ales in the 9 weeks they have been open which is extremely impressive.  No lager or spirits are available although there is a quality red or white wine and a choice of soft drinks.  If you wish to eat there is selection of traditional bar snacks.  Keeping it simple is what I love about the micropub.

After visiting the Little Chester Ale House in Derby I was impressed and excited at the thought that these micropubs are the start of a new revolution in pubs.  After visiting Doctor's Orders I am even more convinced that we will be seeing many more opening up over the coming years.  Given the right set of circumstances I will be opening my own.  I was delighted to get some friendly advice from Prakash and the offer to chat more if I wish.  From a personal perspective they are offering what very few pubs currently do which is to cater for a generation who have become alienated by modern bars.  I do find it increasingly more difficult to find pubs which combine quality ales, a relaxed friendly environment and a lack of noisy distractions.  It really is just what the doctor ordered as far as I am concerned.

Happy drinking.