Monday, 22 April 2013

Wetherspoons International Real Ale Festival 2013

I do find Wetherspoons Beer Festivals frustrating at times.  You get a list of 50 beers and usually there are only four or five available at any one time.  You look down the list and spot a dozen or so you would like to try and then wait and wait.  Sod's Law tells you the ones you really want to try will never appear when you are visiting.  On the positive side where else can you buy ten pints of interesting beer and still get change from £20?  I had ten 50p CAMRA vouchers to use and I managed to use them all in the past two weeks which brought the cost of each pint down to £1.99. 

Given the beer list at the beginning of the festival the ten pints I tried were a mix of ones I was hoping to see and ones I tried because the ones I really wanted were not available at the time.  Some you win and some you don't!  However, here is a run-down of the beers I tried along with scores and comments for each.  All of these beers were bought at the excellent Wetherspoons in Stratford-on-Avon, The Golden Bee.  This pub always serves beers in perfect condition and those below could not be faulted for their presentation.

1)  Elgood's Spring Gold (3.8% ABV)
This beer was very pale.  The flavour was floral and hoppy and quite complex.  The hops were dominating throughout and there was a lingering citrus taste.  Certainly a refreshing pint.  Score 7/10

2)  Brains Willy Nilly (4.0% ABV)
This was was fruity and complex with an underlying malty base.  Another complex beer with subtle hints of caramel and toffee too.  I wasn't sure about it initially but it turned out to be quite satisfying.  Score 7/10

3)  Robinsons Hoptimus (4.1% ABV)
This was a delightful fruity golden bitter bursting with hoppiness but well balanced with a distinct malty base. This beer was definitely one of the highlights for me.  Score 8/10 (Bronze award)

4)  RCH Wheat Beer (4.4% ABV)
This was a pale wheat beer with a citrussy hoppiness.  It had a bitter aftertaste but generally I found it to be lacking in flavour.  A little disappointing.  Score 6/10.

5)  Corfu Ionian Coffee Porter (4.5% ABV)
This was brewed at Everards by one of the international brewers.  It was a gorgeously smooth and well balanced porter.  I was expecting a distinct coffee bitterness but it was actually quite subtle.  It was jet black in colour and I loved it.  Score 9/10 (Silver award)          

6)  Thwaites Daniel's Hammer (5.0% ABV)
This was a particularly pleasant balanced golden bitter.  Plenty of sweet fruits on the palate leading to a dry bitter finish.  Quite a traditional golden premium ale.  Score 8/10 (Bronze award)   

7)  Wolf Tasmanian Wolf (5.0% ABV)
Another golden bitter described as a premium IPA.  Strong on flavour with a powerful bitter finish.  Quite a complex fruitiness to it too but the overriding characteristic was the strong bitterness.  Score 8/10 (Bronze award)      

8)  Orkney 1878 Strong Ale (5.5% ABV)
Rich heavy fruits clash with an underlying bitterness in this exceptional beer.  A little spiciness on the palate too creates a beer perfect for a cold winter evening.  Score 9/10 (Silver award) 

9)  Yasileostrovsky Siberian Red (6.0% ABV)
My second beer from an international brewer.  This Russian brewer visited Banks's Brewery in the West Midlands to brew this rich ruby coloured beer.  Full of flavour it was sweet and malty with plenty of roasted malts to balance the sweetness.  Score 9/10 (Silver award)   

10) Central City Red Racer IPA (6.5% ABV)
Another of the international brewers.  This Canadian brewer visited Shepherd Neame to brew this lovely IPA.  It was very hoppy with a heavy citrus fruitiness balanced with a rich malt base.  Score 8/10 (Bronze award)

It is unusual for me to drink ten beers and not give out top marks (a gold award).  However, there were numerous near misses and I was probably being a bit harsh with the Siberian Red to not award it top marks.  It was just about my beer of the festival though.  The Orkney 1878 or the Ionian Coffee Porter might have sneaked the top award if they had been tried on a cold dark evening so they came in a close second.

Happy drinking.



Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Wellington Arms, Birmingham

Last night I decided to visit Birmingham again.  Specifically I wanted to visit the Wellington Arms, a pub located just off New Street.  Black Country Ales have a number of pubs in and around the West Midlands and a few weeks ago I visited their latest acquisition, The Craven Arms.  I was very impressed with this pub but after reading about the Wellington Arms I had to visit and compare.

Whereas the Craven Arms is a little out of town and has the feel of a local backstreet pub, the Wellington Arms is a more typical city centre pub.  I arrived shortly after and it was very busy.  It was obvious the place was undergoing refurbishment with wires hanging down from the ceiling etc.  Screens listing the available beers showed up to 16 handpumps being available and there were 4 empty ones.  Three Black Country Ales beers were available (as with the Craven Arms) and in addition to these there were two beers from Oakham Ales (Citra and Hare and Hedgehog), Purity Mad Goose, Long Man Best, Long Itch Honey Trap, Wye Valley HPA, Derby Sharp as Ninepence, Titanic Mild and Nutbrook Mild Side.  With such a selection it was always going to be difficult to choose but I opted for a Nutbrook Mild Side (3.6% ABV). 

This beer was not your typical mild.  It had a lovely chestnut colour and a very complex flavour.  It was fruity with quite a distinct maltiness.  It took a little getting used to and the students who came and sat near me did not help as they absolutely stank so I could not determine much from the aroma.  Overall, it turned out to be a very satisfying pint though.

Finding a seat wasn't easy as the pub was busy with workers straight from the office (as well as smelly students).  The pub was quite narrow with the bar running lengthwise down the right-hand side of the building.  There was a seating area at the front of the pub.  There was a standing area as well as stools at a few tall tables along the length of the bar and a larger seating area at the back.  The refurbishments were ongoing and these will result in an upstairs bar as well as improved cellars to allow for more beers.  Three screens listed the beers on numbered handpumps so I did not have to walk along the length of the bar to look at each pump clip.  This was most welcome.  The bar staff were friendly and helpful.  With the reconstruction going on I was probably seeing the pub at its worst which speaks volumes for how good it will be once the work is done.  The overall impression therefore was extremely favourable.

For a second pint I chose Right as Ninepence from the Derby Brewing Company (4.0% ABV).  This had a lovely copper colour.  It was quite malty but it had a gentle bitter finish.  It was more to my taste than the first pint and it was a nice way to bring my visit to an end.

To round off the evening I paid a second visit to Post Office Vaults, a short walk from the Wellington Arms.  This pub I loved on my first visit and entering from New Street I was somehow expecting a second bar but after going down a narrow staircase I found myself in the bar I was in last time (and the only one).  I chose a pint of Plain Ales Inndulgence (5.2% ABV).  Described as a ruby porter this rich heavy beer would have been perfect in the cold nights recently departed.  It was far from disappointing last night.  Plenty of maltiness fought with chocolate and coffee notes as well as a toffee sweetness.  It was a lovely warming end to the evening.

The two pubs I visited last night, along with the Craven Arms, form a powerful trio of superb Birmingham pubs.  They are all very different but together they provide the beer drinker with every indulgence they are likely to desire.  I would not choose any of them ahead of the others.  They are all ideal destinations for the lover of beer (and ciders). 

Happy drinking.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Memories of Norwich

This year the CAMRA AGM is being held in Norwich.  For those of you who have never been to this 'fine city' you really need to make a point of going.  I was lucky to be living in Norwich when the CAMRA AGM was last there in 1990.  The venue is the magnificent St Andrews Hall, a venue that also houses the annual Norwich Beer Festival in late October.  I lived in Norwich between 1989 and 1992 and I have returned there quite a few times since.

The first thing I learned about Norwich was it had a lot of pubs and a lot of churches.  They say it once had a pub for every day of the year and a church for every Sunday of the year.  A large number of pubs had obviously closed down when I arrived as the number was down to about 240 and it is probably reduced further by now.  The churches largely remained intact but they had been put to many imaginative uses such as a magnificent puppet theatre.

One of my initial roles at work was to organise the Friday night pub crawl.  Each week myself and a number of my colleagues would visit 5 or 6 pubs.  We had our favourites during the week such as the Ribs of Beef, The Reindeer, St Andrews Tavern, The Jubilee and Micawbers to name a few.  On Friday we would always try somewhere new. 

When looking back at those days it is surprising to see so many of these pubs still mentioned as pubs to visit.  I try and compartmentalise the city.  Near the railway station there was The Jubilee, The Rosary Tavern, the Coach and Horses and Ketts Tavern.  Heading towards the cathedral from the Ketts you could head towards the Adam and Eve.  In Tombland, the other side side of the cathedral, you had Edith Cavell which was not far from St Andrews Hall with the St Andrews Tavern opposite.  The Ribs of Beef was a magnificent pub down from Elm Hill and across the river towards Anglia Square you came across the Plasterers Arms.  To the east of the city was the brewpub The Reindeer which wasn't far from the Micawbers or the Tap & Spile pub, The White Lion.  Back in the city centre there was the pub with two names, The Murderers / The Gardeners Arms.  Out towards the football ground were a couple of fine Adnams pubs,  the Horse and Dray and the Rose.  Round the corner from the Rose there was the Freemasons and the Kings Arms.  Down the hill to the river there was the Ferry Boat.  Over near the hospital was the superb Unthank Arms.  I've missed off lots of pubs here but you probably get the picture of a city brimming with great places to drink.

When I returned to work in Norwich in 1998 many of these pubs were still there along with a few new ones.  Wetherspoons had invaded with The Bell Hotel and out of town, past The Reindeer, was the magnificent Fat Cat.  This is my first port of call when I go back to Norwich now.  A small street corner pub with a beer list longer than any pub I have ever been in.  It was usually standing room only but everything about this pub I absolutely loved.

Sadly, I cannot make it to the CAMRA AGM this year, so I have booked to visit Norwich towards the end of May when the City of Ale festival takes place.  This is a 10-day celebration of local pubs and breweries.  Many of these breweries were not around when I last visited Norwich so, as well as visiting some old favourites, I will be looking to sample many new beers and pubs.  Three new breweries and pubs I am particularly looking forward to visiting are Bear Brewing (Ketts Tavern), Grain Brewery (The Plough) and Fat Cat (Fat Cat Brewery Tap).  If anyone reading this can recommend any places I have not mentioned then please do so.  I will try and fit it into what will be a busy couple of days.

Happy drinking.