Monday, 29 September 2014

Pubs of Manchester's Northern Quarter

I was going to call this post 'Drinking with Tweeters' as everybody I had the pleasure of drinking with on Saturday I only knew from Twitter prior to the weekend.  If you are into beer and you tweet then you will never be short of someone to drink with wherever you may roam.  This weekend was originally planned for May but due to illness I had to cancel it and my mate could not make the new date so I set out alone to meet up with Jim (@BeersManchester) with the expectation that one or two more of Manchester's beer lovers would also be joining us.  The Marble Arch was the agreed start point and I was really looking forward to frequenting the original home of Marble beers.  

The magnificent Marble Arch

The pub has an amazing interior.  There is some lovely wood panelling around the bar and a mosaic tiled floor that slopes down all the way from the front door to the bar at the far end.  The ceiling mosaics are equally impressive and it is amazing to think that these were only discovered after renovations in the 1980s.  The interior is so important now that there would be a national outcry if a second cover-up was ever attempted but as it is a listed building that is never likely to happen.  The walls are also tiled and there are some impressive mirrors and interesting artefacts all around.  The pub no longer houses the Marble brewery which began brewing here in 1997 before moving to larger premises nearby but there was a full range of their lovely beers along with a couple of guests.

Jim arrived shortly after I got there and introduced me to Pint (3.9% ABV), a session bitter packed full of citrussy hops which I much preferred to the more traditional Manchester Bitter (4.2% ABV) which I had ordered first.  Dobber, my favourite IPA, was not available but it was an ideal opportunity to try the Earl Grey IPA (6.8% ABV) for the first time.  I am not a tea drinker but I found this beer to be very smooth with plenty of citrussy hops which dominated the character of the beer although there were hints of another flavour which was probably the tea!  Not as nice as Dobber (what is?) but it is still an excellent beer.

While we were on our second beer of the day we were joined by Al (@hopsinjoor) and Emma (@EmmaJCole) who are both about to begin new ventures in the world of beer via Cloudwater Brewing Co and Brewdog respectively.  I was wearing my Downlands Brewery T-Shirt and it is no lie that every time I have worn this outside of Sussex someone comes up to me and says do you know Widdi (the Downlands head brewer).  Sure enough Emma knows him well and the question was put to me once more.

The main bar at the Marble Arch

We couldn't sit around drinking Marble beers all day (however enjoyable it would have been) so we headed for the home of Blackjack Beers, a short stroll from the Marble Arch.  By now we had been joined by craft beer lover Jeff (@m28Jeff), Belgian beer lover Des (@DeDolleDes) and Jim's arch nemesis Jaz (@CJJazwinski).  Blackjack is located under a railway arch and they throw open their doors once a month where they serve a selection of cask beers (including their own of course) as well as a wide range of kegs and bottles from breweries far and wide.     

Underneath the arches

I stuck to halves here as there was so much to try and I began with the superb Blackjack Stout (5.0% ABV).  Roast and chocolate malts were very much to the fore and it is a perfect stout.  I followed this up with a keg from new Manchester micro Runaway.  The American Brown (5.7% ABV) was lacking in flavour for me but the same could not be said for the final beer here which was Fifteen Minutes of Flame from Welsh micro Hopcraft (4.5% ABV) which was heavily hopped and quite delicious.
An excellent cask selection
In London there are quite a few of the newer micros opening their doors in this way and it is something that should be supported.  The only disappointment for me was drinking out of plastic glasses.  The beer choice though was quite extensive and of the very highest quality with beer from some of my current favourite micros available such as Weird Beard, Moor, Burning Sky, Arbor, Siren, etc as can be seen in the picture below.

This list could have kept me happy all day.
From the Blackjack Brewery we began the crawl around the Northern Quarter pubs in earnest.  First stop was the Angel, described as a dining pub, where we were able to enjoy our pint in the sunny garden with fine views of the Crowne Plaza and the Rochdale Road!  From the outside the pub seems quite basic but inside it is very elegant and it even has a grand piano.  I was trying to stick to local beers for most of the day and here I chose a Dainty Blonde (4.2% ABV) from Privateer, a local micro using only American hops.  This particular beer was a little too floral for my liking and had a bready malt character too which clashed a bit.  Probably my least favourite beer of the day.   

Those two people entering the Angel look like the two at Blackjack.  I must be stalking them!
After the Angel it was left to just me, Jim and Jaz to battle on alone and we headed for the Smithfield Hotel.  This pub is one of the oldest bars in Manchester and I think it has recently been closed for refurbishment.  The interior is a bit garish and quite modern now but there was a good selection of ales and I opted for a pint of Odin (3.9% ABV) from the local Brightside Brewery.  This beer was ok with a slight floral edge to it with sweet, fruity notes coming though in a refreshing finish.        

Smithfield Hotel & Bar
There really wasn't much walking required on this crawl and indeed it was another short walk to the next stop, Bar Fringe.  For some reason I tried a second beer here from Brightside.  B-Side (4.2% ABV) is a fruity golden bitter with a refreshing dry finish but again not as bitter as I like but I did prefer it over the Odin.   

Bar Fringe

Bar Fringe is really a quite fantastic Belgian-style bar with a range of continental draught and bottled beers in addition to a good range of cask ales.  The long narrow bar has quite an eccentric decor including a well parked motorbike which was pointed out to me as we departed.  There were some excellent posters in here too and one in particular is my new calling card - 'Beer - Everybody Needs a Hobby'.           

Eccentric decor.
We were cracking on at a rapid rate now and after leaving Bar Fringe it was a short walk to the Crown & Kettle.  I was attracted to the low strength Table IPA (2.8% ABV) here by Ticketybrew.  I have enjoyed Ticketybrew beers in bottles so I was delighted to find one of their cask beers.  This is a full flavoured low ABV beer with a massive hoppy taste and it was a hit with Jim too.  This was my favourite beer since leaving the Blackjack brewery.       

The pub itself is a fabulous Grade II-Listed building.  It has three rooms served from a central bar which has five or six handpumps.  We retired to a quiet room with an interior well worth checking out with the most amazing ceiling and chandelier.         

Ceiling and chandelier at the Crown & Kettle
From here on things begin to get a bit hazy!  I have no idea where we went to eat but it was superb and more than welcome.  This gave us a break from drinking though which was not a bad idea.  The evening drinkers were out now and our next stop was the popular Port Street Beer House, located in former shop premises.  I headed to the other side of the Pennines for my beer though with a Kirkstall Pale Ale (4.0% ABV), a delightful hoppy pint with good zingy citrussy notes.  In addition to a fine range of cask ales (the pump clips of past beers adorned a good amount of the walls in the bar) there is a solid stock of bottled beers from the US and Belgium particularly.          

Port Street Beer House
The Soup Kitchen turned out to be our penultimate stop and it is a pub/bar like no other I have been in.  There were long communal tables laid out canteen-style.  The food being served focuses on soups unsurprisingly but the range of beers is always interesting Jim informs me.  The staff here were particularly friendly and welcoming and I can't really remember what beers were available but Jim had a particularly good Hopcraft and I headed to Oxfordshire with a Bandwagon (4.2% ABV) from Loose Cannon.  This was a copper coloured beer with quite a full malty flavour.

Soup Kitchen
There was still time for one more pub and we headed for what I gather is a fairly new venture called Pie & Ale.  There was probably time for several more bars actually ** but I was quite happy to end the day here as I was full up with beer.  It has a couple of bars with an excellent range of cask beers as well as 50 different craft beers from around the world.  The range of pies would have been worth trying too I'm sure.  I happily ended the day with a Lime Blossom (3.7% ABV) from local micro Hornbeam.  A very good citrussy beer to finish with.  

Jim was a perfect host for my first visit to the pubs of Manchester and I am delighted he could take time off from his busy schedule as he is in the middle of a big project organising the first Independent Salford Beer Festival to be held at the end of October.  It was also great that a number of other beery folk could join us and I went away with new friends and great memories of a city that is bursting with excellent pubs within a relatively small area.  If anyone is looking for a beer destination then Manchester will certainly fit the bill.  From the magnificent traditional interiors of the Marble Arch and the Crown & Kettle, to the more eccentric Bar Fringe and the quirky Soup Kitchen there are pubs to suit all tastes but they all had a common theme of a quite magnificent range of ales. 


**  There was indeed time for one more because I am reliably informed that we also went to The Castle but I have no recollection of this.  I'm sure it was a tremendous pub though.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Cask Ale Week

Cask Ale Week kicks off today and this celebration of our national drink means everybody should be encouraged to visit the pub to enjoy a pint of cask ale in the environment it is made for.  One way to encourage people to go down the pub of course is to offer free beer.  This certainly works with me and so that is what I did this lunchtime.

Yes it is true.  All you have to do is click here and register for your free pint.  An email voucher will be sent to you which you can print off and use in over 700 pubs across the country.  They even make it easy for you.  Just enter your post code and you will be shown the list of pubs that are accepting the vouchers.  You could always be sneaky and print the voucher numerous times and visit numerous pubs if you wish although I would never do such a thing of course.
I am very fortunate because one of the 'free pint' pubs listed is the Wilkes Head in Eastergate which is only a couple of miles from my home.  This superb pub has recently been voted the CAMRA Sussex Pub of the Year for the third successive year.  Despite being a Punch Tavern they sell a fabulous range of ales as well as hosting a couple of excellent beer festivals each year.  With voucher in hand I made my way there today and swapped my bit of paper for a pint of Flipside Russian Rouble (7.3% ABV).  I defy anyone to find a better free pint than this during the entire promotion.  I had to check that this was actually included in the free pint offer and amazingly it was.  It is a rich, sweet robust Russian stout with chocolate, plum and blackcurrant flavours all in abundance with a sweet roast malt character.  Sensational.

So get out there and use your voucher in a local pub.  If you like the pub then I suggest you go the following week and pay for a pint.  Everybody needs a regular visit to a local.  Cask Ale Week is an opportunity to try something new for free so take it.  


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish Independents

Today is a momentous day in the history of the United Kingdom which could result in independence for our Scottish neighbours.  So on a topical note I bring you a review of some of the best (as it turned out) Scottish beers that I have recently enjoyed.  

Electric India (6.5% ABV) - Brewdog  

This is the beer that was brewed collaboratively with input from all the punks who obviously love Brewdog and all that they stand for.  This saison should have been included in my saisons review last time but I must say it compares very favourably to the best of those.  This one is brewed with orange peel, heather honey and crushed black pepper.  The hops match these flavours perfectly (Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin).  There are strong orange notes, the addition of the heather honey gives it a lovely smooth sweetness and the pepper combines with the Nelson Sauvin to give a lovely spiciness to the finish.  The Belgian yeast is evident in the aroma and overall this is a superb beer so I have to recommend this quite strongly.  My wife is not a massive fan of this type of beer but she found it 'fairly pleasant'.  Score 9/10.        

Single Malt Ale (5.0% ABV) - Islay Ales

This brewery is located on the beautiful Isle of Islay off the west coast of Scotland, an island more famous for its whisky.  I think this is my first beer from this brewery that has been producing now for about ten years.  This beer is brewed with just pale malt and hopped with Amarillo and Bramling Cross.  It is a lovely beer with some quite mellow fruit flavours up front mixed with a little spiciness but these soon give way to sharp bitter orange notes and a quite magnificent long dry bitter finish.  Too bitter for my wife but she understood why I appreciated it.  This beer is close to perfection for me and I gave it a score of 9/10.  I'm now wondering though that perhaps it should have been given a ten.  I'll have to buy another one to check!                

Wolf (6.0% ABV) - Windswept Brewing Company

Windswept are another Scottish micro unknown to me.  They are also fairly new to the scene having begun brewing a couple of years back.  They are located near RAF Lossiemouth on the shores of the Moray Firth and the guys running it are former Tornado pilots.  Wolf is described as a dark and strong Scottish ale and it is certainly getting me ready for the joys of  winter ales.  My wife adored it giving it top marks.  This really is her kind of beer.  Sweetness of blackcurrant, not too much bitterness with hints of liquorice and chocolate and very robust with a strong malt character.  I also detected hints of berries and plums and I must say it really is a magnificent winter ale and, as with all the beers here so far, it is one I want to go back to.  Score 9/10.          

Rum Finish (6.8% ABV) - Innis & Gunn

Innis & Gunn are not really an independent brewery as their beers are produced at the massive Tennent's Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow, but the company is family-owned and independent from the large Scottish brewer.  Their story revolves around a happy accident apparently.  A whisky producer wanted to season some of their oak casks with a malty beer.  After thirty days the beer was removed and the whisky was put in.  Someone obviously discovered the beer tasted pretty good so the Innis & Gunn oak-aged beer was born.  The beer is readily available in supermarkets and I found this particular one in Waitrose.  This beer has a very spicy aroma.  My wife thought it tasted like a rum baba and there was certainly a strong taste of alcohol with flavours of mulled spices tempered by rich malt and a fruit sweetness in the finish.  This beer is not something I could drink lots of but it is warming and not at all unpleasant.  A beer for certain occasions but it would never become a favourite with me.  Score 7/10      

Punk IPA (5.6% AB) - Brewdog

I wasn't going to review a fifth beer and really I'm not going to but I did see this old favourite of mine in Waitrose when I picked up the I&G above.  The beer tasted as good as always and if you haven't tried it then go out and buy yourself one.  It's gorgeous.  The same cannot be said for the new labels though.  It has no stand out qualities at all on the shelf.  Very boring and not at all punk.     

Whatever the result today great beer is very much alive in Scotland.  All of the beers here are well worth trying and will suit a range of tastes.  If I had to pick a favourite it would be the one from Islay Ales and my wife would undoubtedly choose the Windswept Wolf.  The question today though is whether they will all be appearing in the foreign beers section after the count has been made.


Friday, 12 September 2014

Brooksteed Alehouse

It is over a year now since I first got together with Nick Little to discuss micropubs and our desire to set one up.  We had both been working in IT for about 25 years and we were both sick of it and we both loved the concept of the micropub.  Nick's plans were more advanced than mine and indeed he left his job at the end of 2013 to work towards his goal.  It took longer than he anticipated but last week his plans finally came to fruition when he and his wife Paula proudly opened the Brooksteed Alehouse in Worthing.  Naturally, I had to pop over there to enjoy a beer or three.  

The micropub is located in a neat row of shops on the outskirts of Worthing but conveniently located just a few hundred yards from the train station.  South Farm Road was called Brooksteed Road many years ago I am told so this is where the name was conjured up from.  The signage looks impressive and stands out nicely to entice the passing trade.            

Upon entering the first thing you notice is the size.  For a micropub it is actually quite large.  By the door there is a table in front of you with seating for about five.  To the left is a small table made from a beer barrel with stools.  Then all down the left side we have four high tables with a long bench along the wall serving all of them.  At the far end there is a low table with sofa and next to the stillage room there is a shelf with a few high stools.  All in all there is seating for about forty at a guess and when I was there on Tuesday evening all tables were in use for much of the time.  There is no bar and Nick and Paula serve you at your table and are constantly kept busy by the customers when they are thirsty for more.    

The decor is modern with lighting that has an industrial look which works best in the evening when it is extremely effective.  The walls are a mix of light blue-grey and orange which I think works really well too with yellow the chosen colour at the rear.  

The previous occupancy of the shop unit was as a ladies hairdressers and there are reminders of that with a humorous picture at the far end of ladies under the hair-dryer sharing a bottle of beer.        

They have even reclaimed a couple of hair-dryers that were left lying around by converting them into lighting over the table at the far end.  It is feature of many micropubs to still have some indication of the former use so these touches are excellent.   

The stillage area holds eight casks and is tightly packed into a temperature controlled room so it must be nice for Nick and Paula to pop in there when they need to cool down.  The beer was certainly served at a perfect temperature and I particularly loved the Goldmark Ebony Mild (3.5% ABV).  Four beers should be on at any one time although there were three on my first visit as they were getting through them at a cracking rate in the first few days of opening.  There are also real ciders and perry for those inclined along with wine and a good range of local and foreign bottled beers.  The beers were all from local micros but there are plans for national microbrewed beers too.  The emphasis here will be to bring the best microbrewed beers from all parts of the UK alongside a local selection.       

Currently the food selection consists of (real) crisps and nuts but these will soon be joined by traditional snacks such as local pork pies sourced from local butchers.  

As with all micropubs there are no distractions such as TVs or music with the emphasis very much on the long lost art of conversation.  For those who can only chat through social media there is wifi available.  Children are welcome to bring their parents along at lunchtimes and dogs are welcome at all times.         

The Brooksteed Alehouse is the 65th micropub to open up in the UK and the third in West Sussex following on from Anchored (also in Worthing) and the Old Star in Shoreham.  Nick and Paula have put it a lot of effort and I'm sure they will be rewarded with a very solid customer base.  I know that due to the close proximity of the station it is a place that will also be frequented by ale lovers from all along the Sussex coast too.  I have already enjoyed a couple of visits and I'm sure I will enjoy many more.  If you are in the area then pay it a visit and see for yourself why micropubs are becoming so popular.  The Brooksteed Alehouse is a first class example of one and it is open Tuesday-Saturday (11.30-2.00, 5.00-9.30) and Sundays and bank holidays (11.30-2.00).  You won't be disappointed.


Thursday, 11 September 2014

Western Sussex Good Beer Guide Pubs 2015

The Good Beer Guide is officially launched today and although I have had my copy for a week or more now I can finally talk about which pubs are in this year.  So to celebrate the fact here are the 22 pubs chosen by my CAMRA branch this year.

Hatters Inn, Bognor Regis - A new entry this year for this Wetherspoons pub.  The only place in sunny Bognor Regis where you can get a decent pint and the first entry for this seaside town in quite a few years.
Bell Inn, Chichester - I am yet to visit this Enterprise Inn owned pub so it is not one I voted for.  I am looking forward to visiting soon though to see if it can attract my vote next year.

Bull, Chichester - Popular town centre pub with six ever changing beers.  Home to our branch meetings every two months.  The famous O'Hagans sausages are always available to enjoy.

Chichester Inn, Chichester - This Punch Tavern is a popular music venue and always has a couple of guest beers from local micros.   

Eastgate, Chichester - This former Gales pub, now owned by Fullers, is a classic town centre pub.  A regular beer festival is held in the summer.

Coach & Horses, Compton - This lovely pub in the pretty downland village of Compton is privately owned and offers locally sourced food and up to five real ales from local micros.

George, Eartham - A well deserved new entry for this former Gales pub which is now a thriving free house serving the best of Sussex in both food and drink.  There is an annual beer festival held in the summer making use of their large sunny garden.

Horse & Groom, East Ashling - This village free house has been an inn for over 200 years and is located just outside Chichester.  It sells a great range of beers at some of the cheapest prices in the area with Burning Sky and Dark Star beers sold regularly.

Shore, East Wittering - This large, friendly pub down on the coastal peninsula is popular with locals as well as the many summer tourists.  Always a pleasure to visit when the Dark Star American Pale is available.      

Wilkes Head, Eastergate - This Punch Tavern is yet again the pub of the year for the branch area and is thoroughly deserved.  Set in the heart of the old village away from the main A29 the pub is Grade-II listed.  It has up to five well chosen guest beers and there are also regular beer festivals

Three Horseshoes, Elsted - Village pubs do not come more rustic than this and the view from the garden across to the South Downs is stunning.  The pub is divided up into small rooms and the beers are served by gravity from a stillage.    

Fox & Hounds, Funtington - This new entry is another pub I am yet to visit.  It is now free of tie and concentrating on local and regional microbreweries.  Beer festivals are also held.

Foresters Arms, Graffham - The third pub in our list that I have not visited.  This Grade-II listed pub was built in 1609 and is located in a quite isolated downland village.  Guest beers are sourced from local independent breweries.  

Duke of Cumberland, Henley - This amazing 15th century pub in the tiny hamlet of Henley in the Surrey Hills was recently voted into the Waitrose national top 50 food pubs for 2015.  Beer is locally sourced too and the pub is nestled on the hillside in over three acres of grounds.  It is probably now my favourite pub in our area.    

Ship, Itchenor - Situated in the village of Itchenor close to the Chichester Harbour shoreline this pub is popular with the local boating fraternity as well as the many visitors.  All real ales are from local microbrewers.      

Black Fox, Milland - This pub is very close to the border with Surrey and quite a hike for us lot living near the coast.  As with most of these pubs the guest beers come from local micros.

Inglenook, Nyetimber - It is a new entry for this Grade-II listed 16th century hotel which was my local before I moved house a couple of months ago.  The guest beers come from some of the best micro brewers in the country and they all tend to be over 5.0% ABV.  Thornbridge, Magic Rock, Roosters, Summer Wine, Ilkley, Sadlers, Wild Beer, Harbour and RedWillow have all appeared and at prices which are hard to beat for such quality.  The pub has been owned by the same family for over 30 years and the cosy bar areas are particularly welcoming in the winter months.  In the summer there are gardens front and back to enjoy.           

Gribble, Oving - This brewpub has been devastated by a fire in recent months so is currently closed although the brewery is still operational and a bar area is to be opened up in the unaffected skittle alley shortly.  This pub did not get my vote but it is a pub loved by many of our members.      

Seal, Selsey - Another pub which I am yet to visit.  Selsey is a seaside village famous for being the home of Sir Patrick Moore.  This pub is a community hub family-run for over 40 years and it has a good selection of beer from local micros.      

Hare & Hounds, Stoughton - This pub is located deep in the South Downs and well away from any main roads.  It is a former Gales pub which is now free of tie with a good range of local and regional real ales.

Stags Head, Westbourne - Westbourne is a bustling village close to the border with Hampshire and not far frm Chichester Harbour.  This pub is at the centre of the village and offers a good range of local beers and there is an annual beer festival.

Maypole, Yapton - My new local and a ten minute walk from my front door this pub is the home of our branch meetings every two months.  The pub is on the outskirts of the village down a lane that leads nowhere.  There are always up to six beers of which a couple are regulars including Dark Star Hophead.         

So that's your lot for this year.  Although a few of these pubs did not get my vote I can say that of the ones I have visited they are all worthy entrants.  The four I am yet to walk through the doors will be visited in time for the vote next year.  Am I disappointed for any pubs that I did vote for not making it?  Yes there is one that I feel should definitely have been included.  This particular pub has improved further this year so I will be pushing for it strongly for the next guide.  

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Canned beers

Is it time to start drinking from cans again?  I remember those days of drinking absolute piss from a can at parties.  Many of the national beer brands have been available in cans for many years and it has never been particularly good compared to cask or bottled but there again most of these beer brands aren't particularly good via any method of dispense.  Then there was the attempt to make canned beer more smooth with a good head with the draughtflow widget in cans.  Boddingtons and John Smiths used this and it gave the beer the texture of milkshake and they tasted incredibly bland.  Now we see cans appearing again via the craft brewers.  A fortuitous trip to Cotteridge Wines in Birmingham a few weeks ago meant I was able to purchase a few of these as well as the bottled version of the beer in a couple of instances for comparison.  With a bit of help from my wife I was able to compare these beers blind so here goes. 

Beavertown Gamma Ray (5.4% ABV)

This is my first taste of this beer in any form so let me begin by saying it is absolutely gorgeous.  The first beer had a strong aroma of tropical fruit and a nice creamy mouthfeel.  The sweetness of the tropical fruit flavours was heavenly.  It is not as strong as some American IPAs I've had but this doesn't show in the taste.  Masses of hoppy flavour.  Beer number two had a much less pronounced aroma and was less smooth.  The same tropical fruit flavours were there but there was a more grassy bitterness to the finish.  I preferred this beer as it had slightly more depth to it with this extra bitterness to the finish.    

The verdict here is I preferred beer number two which I guessed was the bottled version.  My guess was correct.  This is a 10/10 beer in the bottle and about 9.9/10 from the can.  Very small differences between the two and both of them fantastic.   

Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA (6.2% ABV)

I had tried a can of this beer before so that should have helped me work out which is which.  Beer number one had a strong hoppy aroma.  Plenty of fruitiness from the hops but there was an earthy bitterness to it also.  This beer also had a heavy malt character with very subtle tobacco notes but it combines well with the hops.  Quite smooth and I was immediately thinking this was the can.  Beer number two however was smoother with more citrussy notes coming through in the aroma.  It was also slightly darker in colour.  There was still a strong malty base to it but it was not so apparent and the tobacco notes were missing.  The citrussy notes came through quite strongly in the finish.  This did not taste like the can I had a few weeks back.      

The verdict here was that the bottle was yet again my particular favourite and once again my guess was correct as to which was which.  When I first tried this beer from the can a few weeks ago I gave it a 7/10 but the bottle gets a 9/10 from me.  Having said that I enjoyed the can more this time too although this may have been helped by having the bottled version alongside it too as I tried alternating between the two towards the end.     

The Beavertown beers are much loved by me.  I tried a can of the fabulous Neck Oil (4.3% ABV) a month ago and this hoppy refreshing session bitter seemed ideal for drinking quickly straight from the can to quench the thirst on a hot day and this is indeed what happened.  I was planning this comparison test once I was able to purchase more of their cans and the final two here were enjoyed with no bottled versions to compare them to.  The Black Betty IPA (7.4% ABV) is a classic black IPA.  Lots of roasted malt character with liquorice strongly evident but it combines with the hops to deliver a light hoppy finish that you never get with traditional black beers.               

Finally we have the incredible Smog Rocket (5.4% ABV).  This beer I found did not transfer to the can quite so well.  I first tried this beer from the bottle last year and later I enjoyed a pint of the keg version in the Evening Star in Brighton.  That was pretty much bang on.  Incredibly smooth, very rich with hints of dark fruits, a little smokiness and liquorice.  This can had plenty of flavour but it did not have quite the same depth of flavours that I remembered or perhaps my taste buds are playing tricks on me.  Whatever, however this beer is served I think it is the best smoked porter I have ever tasted.

There is definitely a place for canned beers.  Some craft beer lovers seem to suggest they contain mystical qualities which the bottled versions never had but quite frankly that is crap.  They are handy though for train journeys and much more convenient at certain times and for certain events so I will definitely be buying more of them.  Indeed I have already tried other canned beers including the fabulous IPA (6.5% ABV) from Fourpure, a new London micro.  This beer uses the classic three 'C' hops from the US (Cascade, Chinook and Centennial) which combine to create a rich sweet hoppy beer full of tropical fruit flavours but with a satisfyingly light grassy bitter finish.

Canned beers are also popular among the craft brewers of the US and I enjoyed a few on my travels last year.  The Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA (7.2% ABV) is one you can get quite easily over here and is highly recommended with similar flavours to the Fourpure IPA above.  What I particularly like about the American cans are the larger sizes though and the Brits should definitely do the same.  330ml is just not enough so please sort this out.   

Canned beers are definitely worth drinking now.  I'm sure we will see more craft brewers offering their beers from cans in the future.  They don't seem to offer anything by way of taste improvements on the bottle from what I can tell although they may be less affected by sunlight and have a longer shelf life perhaps which may lead to greater consistency.  Where it does win though for me is in the convenience which is why I will be buying more in the future.


Friday, 5 September 2014

A Man For All Saisons

When it comes to saison beers I am a bit of a novice.  Saisons originated in French Flanders and the French-speaking parts of southern Belgium.  They were typically brewed to be kept for the summer months when it was difficult to brew beer due to a lack of refrigeration.  They are also known as farmhouse beers and they can vary greatly in both taste and strength although they are typically crisp, tart, dry, refreshing beers.  British brewers are producing saisons now in greater numbers and I had my first taste of one last year and hated it.  It was very tart and sour, very very dry and generally not a pleasant experience.  I won't mention the beer or the brewer here but it was actually a local brewer that changed my opinions on this beer style earlier this year and I have since come to find them much more enjoyable as you will see here.  

Langham Brewery - Saison (3.9% ABV)

I first tried this beer in the prototype stage and I was quite impressed.  There was a slight sourness to it that I experienced on my first venture into saisons and the aroma from the Belgian yeast was fairly typical and which I don't always find appealing.  However, when the finished beer was available at a Meet The Brewer event in the Chichester Wetherspoons I was absolutely knocked out by it.  It has a mega abundance of hops which blend with the German malts to give an amazing deep bitterness that I absolutely loved.  A strength of the bitterness comes from the fact that I had a pint of their Hip Hop (4.0% ABV) afterwards.  This is normally a very hoppy beer but on this occasion it seemed quite tame in comparison to the bitterness of the saison.  Flavours of bitter orange, a little spicy hoppiness and that very long dry bitter finish all combine to give a beer that is sensational.  This is actually the best cask beer I have tried so far this year and the easiest 10/10 I have ever scored in 2014.         

Saison Pumpclip

Ilkley Brewery - Siberia (5.9% ABV)

When trying out a new beer style for the first time I generally go for brewers that I know produce superb beers.  This is the case with all of these saisons.  This beer from Ilkley Brewery was a collaboration with top beer writer Melissa Cole and it is absolutely gorgeous.  At the time of buying this one I was still not sure about saisons and I have never been a fan of fruit beers but it seems that the saison style lends itself perfectly to odd ingredients as you will also read later.  The rhubarb flavour is evident but the tartness is balanced superbly by the sweetness of the malts.  There is a nice spicy edge to the finish too to give a lovely zing to the refreshing dry bitter finish.  This beer scores a healthy 9/10 from me.       


Bristol Beer Factory - Saison (6.5% ABV)

Bristol Beer Factory is another brewer that only seems capable of producing fantastic beer.  This saison is the strongest of the ones here at a very robust 6.5% ABV and this comes through in the taste although it is also dangerously easy to drink with a lovely smoothness.  It has a lovely deep golden colour and the aroma is typical for a saison.  This beer is actually very fruity with a nice sweetness balancing the usual tartness and there is an abundance of spicy hoppiness too which gives the beer a lovely dry, bitter finish.  This beer also scores highly and gets a 9/10 from me.        

Burning Sky - Saison L'Ete (4.4% ABV)

Burning Sky began brewing last year and is the brainchild of Mark Tranter, formerly of Dark Star Brewing Co.  The brewery is located in a Sussex barn at the foot of the South Downs and they have already built themselves a fearsome reputation for brewing first class beers and they have quite a range of saisons in their portfolio.  This particular summer saison is a classic.  It has a lovely pale colour and it is a little hazy in the glass as with all traditional saisons.  This beer is brewed with elderflower and after fermentation it is aged over a bed of gooseberries.  The elderflower is quite evident but it is not a strong flavour so it simply gives it a lovely refreshing zing which results in a fantastic slightly tart, refreshing beer which is very dry in the finish.  A real thirst-quencher and perfect for those long hot summer days.  This scores a good 9/10 too.              

Burning Sky - Saison Le Printemps (4.2% ABV)

For my second saison from Burning Sky I chose the one for spring (my 'O' level French is coming in handy here).  This beer is much darker in colour than the summer one and probably the most complex of all the ones here.  The aroma is quite medicinal and not very pleasant which probably comes from the addition of nettle tips after fermentation.  I have no idea what nettle tips taste like but the beer has good flavours of bitter citrussy orange along with a spicy hoppy bite with hints of nutmeg and cinnamon.  The balance between sweetness and bitterness is good and the finish is again quite long, dry and bitter.  I prefer the summer saison and this one I will give a score of 7/10 but the beer is still very interesting and enjoyable.

Saisons can be challenging but they are well worth getting to know.  The variety of flavours and strengths does mean that you may not like all of them so keep trying them if you do come across one that isn't to your taste.  What you will generally find though is that they are very dry refreshing beers perfect for the summer months when you are looking for something to quench your thirst and if you want to begin your journey into this beer style then you could do a lot worse than trying one of the ones reviewed here.   


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

CAMRA Good Beer Guide

The Good Beer Guide 2015 should be falling on my doorstep this week and a chat with a fellow CAMRA member last night brought it home to me how subjective it is as to which pubs get included although, in our branch at least, the process is as democratic as we can make it.  First of all, how does one define 'good beer'.  To most members the pubs in the guide must meet at least one criteria - they always serve their beer in excellent condition.  It may only serve Greene King IPA but it is Greene King IPA as good as it possibly can be whenever you go in there.  But would most CAMRA members think any GK beer is 'good' even if it is served in excellent condition?  I'm sure some would but there are many who won't.  
My discussion last night revolved around a pub that was on our short list this year but did not receive a single vote.  My argument was why put it on the short list again as the beer selection is still the same, the pub is still more restaurant than pub and nothing has changed to suggest it will receive a vote next time around.  When we meet later this month and discuss the initial long list I'm sure it will be included on that one but personally I would like to see more worthy pubs on the short list this time around.  

Those of you wondering how pubs are included in the GBG I can therefore tell you that the process for selecting the pubs for the 2016 guide will begin this month.  We draw up a long list and come December we will have narrowed it down to a short list of about 30-35 pubs.  All members will be aware of which pubs are on the short list so they can visit those pubs selected over the winter months before we vote on which pubs to include in a special meeting in February.  At this time all the branch socials will involve visiting these pubs too.  All members will select their 24 pubs (the allocation for our area) and the number of votes for each pub are added up.  The top 24 pubs are therefore included and those finishing just outside are listed as reserves in case of last minute occurrences such as licensee changes or closures.
Going back to my discussion last night the question goes back to how we define 'good beer'.  Personally I would not vote for a pub that only sells national brands if they are free to sell anything else.  In my opinion a pub selling Doom Bar is not selling 'good beer' whatever condition it may be in.  There are many pubs in our area selling this beer but rarely at the exclusion of anything else too.  There was one example this year of one pub which sold this Cornish beer but which also sells some notable guest beers (one or two depending upon season) but when I went to survey it the guest beers were off and I ended up having a bottle of Punk IPA.  Despite this I voted for it to be included because I know the pub and I did do my survey on a Monday after a weekend which saw all their guest beers sell out.  Another member going into the pub for the first time may not have known this and would probably not have voted for it.  So you may begin to see how subjective it all is.  All members have their favourite pubs and will always vote for them to be included I'm sure but other pubs will be judged on just one or two visits by some members.  

The vote is an open meeting to all CAMRA members.  In our branch we have over 300 registered members but it is generally only the active members who attend the meeting and last year this was attended by 18 members.  When you are wondering why certain pubs are included then you may begin to realise the decision is actually made by a small number of members but I would guess that it is these members who are the ones who have actually been to the majority of the pubs on the short list and therefore better placed to compare those selected for inclusion.  If you would like to see your local included though go along to a meeting and tell other members about it and tell them why it should be included.  
As always I would like to know what others think of the Good Beer Guide, the process for deciding which pubs to include, how this varies from branch to branch and anything else you wish to comment upon here relating to the GBG.  I would also like to know how others would define 'good beer'.  Do some people base it purely on condition irrespective of the quality of the actual beer or not?  And that is a question I will leave you with.