Monday 31 December 2007

Looking Forward, Looking Back

On this the last day of the year there is for me at least, an undoubted feeling of change. Being a Scot somehow makes the day somewhat special and I don't mean it in a "let's go out and get blasted" sort of way. I'll be going nowhere tonight.

Each New Year is a chance to renew, to set aside the old and to look forward. But this is a beer blog, so, looking back, what were the beery highlights? Well, my first visit to Bamberg, didn't suck as my dear Yank chums would say and though I don't like smoked beers one little bit, I thought Schlenkerla's Pub a world classic. My trip to New York in November, before this blog started, gave me a chance to renew my acquaintance with American craft beers first hand and to be reminded that huge amounts of hop, do not of themselves, make a beer great. Nor do I agree with the American brewer's predilection for using a yeast that doesn't fall out of suspension. I like my beer clear, not full of trub. And no, calling it "opalescent" doesn't make it any better!

Earlier in the year I'd been to Berlin with my mate Graham where the highlight was a trip out to the Berliner Burgerbrau, deep in the old east and a thoroughly smashing place with great beer. A beery trip to Glasgow with my Yank chum Jeff Frane brought great pubs and very good beer though not from the "West" Brewpub. where the beers were no more than ordinary and maybe not as much. Then to Plymouth with my Yankee Beer Chums, for a wedding and much poor beer; if I never see a pint of Sharp's Doom Bar or St Austell Tribute again, it'll be too soon. GBBF, various CAMRA trips throughout the UK, a visit to a proper old fashioned hop farm, Oldham and Bury Beer Festivals. All have their place. The highlight? Well abroad, Berliner Burgerbrau and Bamberg tie in a dead heat. At home? Sundays with my friends in my local drinking Lees. You see I'm just a simple pub man at heart.

Looking forward, I have the National Winter Ales Fest, my first trip to Prague, a return to Hamburg which was my first ever German destination, a likely trip to the Allgäu in Lower Bavaria and much more. I am looking forward to it all. So may I wish all of you a Happy New Year and good beer drinking ahead.

If you'd like to share your:

a) 2007 beer highlights

b) Your beery look ahead

Why not do so?

Sunday 30 December 2007

Beer from the Brewing Grave

My party went well. The nine of Phoenix was sunk happily and then augmented by Wernesgruner Pils, a beer I used to drink in Germany long before Aldi kindly imported it and a Czech beer supplied by the good people at Laithwaites, Primator. Both might be described in detail some other time, but filled the gap nicely and were appreciated by the die hards, who made the switch from ale to lager with obvious ease!

I am always keen to impart some knowledge and to broaden my friends beer experience, so I did an impromptu tasting of Kriek Boon and Oude Kriek Boon. For those interested, I reviewed both of these on the Oxford Bottled Beer Database in 2006. We then got on to discussing aged beer. I have some quite old Young's Special London Ale, but as this was my friends, I dragged out a bottle of Morlands Hen's Tooth. Morlands were taken over by Greede King in 2001 and closed, so this bottle is around seven years old.

The beer is bottle conditioned and opened with a gratifying hiss of CO2. It is a clear bottle which had been kept in the dark from the date of purchase and a large yeast deposit was still affixed to the bottom of the bottle. The beer poured clear and bright. It had a toffee/marmalade nose and great body and condition. It opened up with fine Seville orange flavours, developing into a toffee/ madeira middle and ended with a distinct marmalade, toffee and hop finish. It was a stunning beer. I am not really into aged beers as a genre, but this was quite something. I have two more left! Might give 'em another few months, but I suspect they may be at their zenith now.

Thursday 27 December 2007


My final two tastings of the Christmas season were supped while watching "Extras" which I think is a cunning double bluff by Ricky Gervais to pretend that he is not a tosser when he actually is. But I digress.

Two much talked about beers are O'Hanlon's Port Stout and Meantime Winter Time. I have to say that I found both distinctly less than the sum of their parts. I had the O'Hanlon's first. It wasn't quite " if I hadn't paid for it, I'd chuck it down the sink", but it was certainly wandering in that general direction. The nose was dry and roasty, the beer was very dark, the head didn't last, the body was middling, the taste, sourish, with some roast malt and good bitterness. The finish was sharp, sour, dry and too long lasting for my liking. It wasn't a great beer.

The Meantime was remarkably similar in some general respects. It was dark, the head died very quickly, it had a kind of sourish touch to it. It was just about a better beer, but the dark cocoa taste and alcohol edge were unappealing. The middle was kind of figgy and coffee with harsh vanilla. with underlying resinous hops. It didn't meld into one in a way that it should, but remained as its constituent parts with a disagreeable harshness throughout.

Both beers were bottle conditioned and both had best before dates in September 2009. Both beers improved a bit as they warmed up. My guess is that they were just too young and hadn't had the time to let their potential develop. I hope my charitable theory is right and they are not just crap beers!

Sorry for the poor picture, but I couldn't be bothered with my camera, so just used my phone.

Anxious Moments

My nine of Phoenix Flash Flood has been in my garage for a week now. It has been vented, tapped and properly conditioned, but I have been worried that it won't be right. Why? I do the same for our beer festivals where 70 times as many casks are tapped in less than ideal conditions. The beer is always pretty damn good even if I say so myself. I've been doing it for years and I know what I'm doing, but whenever I have a cask at home, I am a little anxious. You see I am the "beer man" and a lot is expected of me. I have to metaphorically put my beer where my mouth is. In fact I actually have to put my beer where my mouth is, but you get my drift.

I tried the beer earlier. It is cellar cool, clear as a bell, tasty and bursting with condition. I am happy with it though another 15 or so hours before serving it won't do any harm. All that remains is to hook it up to the handpump and then we'll really put it through its paces. It will be served in the Northern way as the brewery recommends. Through a sparkler.

Wednesday 26 December 2007

Not Much Christmas Beer

It has been relatively quiet for me beer wise, or rather, variety wise. I've had more (excellent) Lees Plum Pudding and stumbled across Young's Winter Warmer in my local and dire JDW. I found it in good condition, dark brown rather than ruby as the back of the pump clip indicates and rather ordinary. It was labelled "John Young's". I'm not sure what he'd have made of it though.

I may have said here that I rarely drink beer at home. I used to do so to review beers and still do on occasion for the same purpose. My reviews can be found here should anyone be interested enough. Last night though as wine waned, I fancied a beer and remembered I had two bottles given to me from her recent visit to Wales, by our landlady, Michelle. First up was Lamb's Gold from the Pen-lon Cottage Brewery in Ceridigion. Unusually for its 3,2% strength the beer was bottle conditioned. It wasn't gold though, but light brown and not clear. It was vaguely malty with a little background hop and a light fruitiness, but I struggled to drink it. The label was both informative and full of the usual guff about unique taste - well of course technically that would be true I suppose. It gained its secondary fermentation from a "teaspoon of corn sugar". The bottle conditioning was good. Not too gassy and not infected! Is it wise to bottle condition a 3.2% beer? On this showing, the jury is still out, but personally, I doubt it.

Next was The Great Orme Brewery Orme's Best at 4.2% and not bottle conditioned, but not pasteurised. This to me seemed a typical Welsh beer. Predominating malt, mid brown and little by way of hop. Not sure why Great Orme Brewery bothered. Don't they have Hancock's HB down there for that purpose?

Monday 24 December 2007

My Local

When I arrived at around 1.30 my local was heaving. I thought briefly that if it was always like this, I'd enjoy it a lot less. I was spotted by the landlady as soon as I got in though. A new cask of mild was excellent and in the dog days of Lees Mild I was content. I looked at the dynamics of the place. It is not big. One medium sized room which includes the bar and a snug holding only a dozen or so. Locals were squeezed out of their places by occasional visitors and were dotted around, separated from their friends by the teeming throng.

I'd come in with Dave, one of our mob who had picked me up half way up the lane, thus saving me a few hundred yards walk. We found a spot at the bar and were joined bit by bit by others of our lot. We occupy a table between the door and the bar. We get about nine or ten around it by "hutching up" though I believe the record is either eleven or twelve. We look on slightly resentfully as outsiders linger over sipped drinks, taking up with two people, a space we'd get six in. But they are fleeting such folk. By around three, we are all together and making the table's assets sweat. All nine of us drink cask - as always. Most are on bitter which I found a bit sweet. Some are on Bumpy Lane. I switched to the Bumpy, which is a dry hopped version of Lees Bitter and unique to our pub. It was good. Later as conversation grew louder and much ale had been supped, I finished on a couple of pints of Plum Pudding. This was a great sample, full bodied, rich and just a hint of fruit and spice. Lovely stuff. I don't doubt that between us we did a nine in. We are good for business!

The rest of the pub had settled into their usual corners with their usual friends. We all know each other and exchange banter and greetings, but we rarely sit in each other's company. It is just the way of the local. Once normal service is resumed we can nod at strangers and make them feel welcome, but the truth of it is we all like to sit in our usual places. In our pub it's where we belong! When a pub is over full, it does lose some of its allure and some of its manners. A bit of space is essential.

At the bar service is swift and pleasant. Michelle and Duncan have it all under control, while Dave slaves away in the kitchen More or less all of the food is locally sourced, the locals don't come far and nor does the beer. Eco friendly or what? Also, being somewhat isolated, the pub is the centre of this community.There was a Christmas Cake raffle going on in aid of a local charity. We get our eggs from there and later today, along with many others, we'll pick up our Christmas turkey from a local farmer. Of course we all arrange to pick up our turkeys at the same time, so we can slip a couple of pints in.

Our pub is probably like thousands of locals all over the country, a source of familiarity and ease in a busy world. The English pub. Nothing quite like it at all. And nothing to beat it!

Thursday 20 December 2007


No visit to Ulverston is complete without a visit, nay a pilgrimage, to Booths. This fiercely independent supermarket chain has stores all over Lancashire and is justly lauded for its innovative fresh food range. There is another side to them however. Booth's are famous for beer. Their shelves positively groan with reasonably priced bottles of beer from brewers big and small. They have beers you will have trouble finding anywhere else and some you won't even know bottle beer, for example, Wapping Brewery of Liverpool. I don't drink much beer at home, so confined myself to browsing, though I couldn't resist some O'Hanlon's Port Stout. Not as rare as some on offer, but maybe just the thing to accompany my Christmas Pudding?

Ulverston Revisited

I spent yesterday in Ulverston at my mate Graham's place. It was glorious weather. On the way we stopped for a couple of halves at the Angler's Arms, a neat boozer opposite the preserved steam railway in Haverthwaite. Pick of a bunch of seven beers was the excellent Bowland Black Dragon Porter, which was chocolatey, dry and satisfying. The pub at 2.30 in the afternoon was vibrant and full of banter. To add a note of nostalgia, this is a "House of Mitchell" pub. Mitchell's of Lancaster, a former brewery is now a pub company only. It used to brew very good beers and is credited by some with inventing the term "Extra Special Bitter". ESB for short.

Ulverston has a brewing history too. It used to be the home of Hartley's Brewery, which still stands, minus its chimney. Used now as a depot by Robinson's, many of the town's pubs still bear the Hartley name, but the beers now come from Stockport. Increasing "Robinsonisation" may see the disappearance of the name altogether. Now Graham warned me that there are only two pubs with a decent selection, but as I hadn't been there for a while, I dragged him round a few. I'll spare you the details. Poor beer abounded with Hartley's XB leading the charge and the inappropriately named Double Hop not far behind. I have praised Robinsons in the past but they need to do something about their Lakeland Estate on this showing. The pubs though were great. Small, multi roomed and characterful.

We finished in the excellent GBG listed Swan, a Robinsons cast off, where a large selection awaited. Top pick for me was Hawkshead Gold, but there was plenty to go at. A word of warning, If the locals offer you a taste of chilli sauce, don't do it. I did and the merest smidgen rendered me tearful, hiccupping with an on fire mouth for nearly an hour! Apparently this stuff is super-concentrated in some way and all but deadly. They did warn me though! With great locals, assassin strength chilli, excellent beer and pickled eggs on sale, what more could you want?

We missed out on the Stan Laurel which serves Ulverston Brewery Beers, Pity!

Pub or Beer?

My fellow blogger Stonch has stirred up a hornet's nest in one of his recent posts where he posed the question What comes first for you - the beer, or the pub?. Some of the correspondents rightly point out that the pub is a uniquely British concept. (Some would say, me among them to a large extent, that it is quintessentially English. Scottish and Irish pubs are similar, but they are not the same.) Our transatlantic cousins do not have pubs in the same way and additionally, they are thinner on the ground for a variety of reasons, some historical, others more practical in that it is a big place. Everything tends to be further apart. Our pubs are usually stated as one of the most remembered things when surveys of foreign visitors are made. Away from these shores the pub is never quite the same. It can be copied, but rarely successfully.

All of my Yankee friends are beer men. It's how I met them. They are also pub people, but to a different extent due to reasons above. So to answer Stonch's question. I am a pub man. The pub comes first with me and on this blog. In the case Stonch describes, a sterile pub with great beer or a vibrant local with great atmosphere, well I guess the local - but I'd try the interesting beers in the other place first. After all, I am a beer man too.

Some have boiled the question down to "are you a lonely saddo or a gregarious hail fellow type?". Maybe people are viewing the question from a standpoint that will never elicit the "correct" answer for reasons of background, inclination or circumstance. Pub attendances are falling so the question has much validity. To me and this blog, the pub and drinking are synonymous. To others, evidently not.

One of the growth areas for cask ale is women, so maybe Stonch will find less TA types and more totty as time goes on. That'd be nice, though in my case somewhat academic and in the youthful and lusty Stonch, less so. Getting older has some compensations. Some of life's choices are already made, so I can concentrate more on the beer. Or pubs?

For Stonch - a couple of customers at this years GBBF. I suspect they are not in the TA!

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Party Barrels

Fuller's In-House magazine has just dropped through my door and among the usual self congratulatory stuff you tend to get in these things, I note that they are encouraging take home cask beer. It is not a new thing I know, though maybe it is for Fullers. It seems the beer will be available in 34 pint polypins, as well as mini barrels and even two pint cartons. More importantly they can be ordered from any participating Fuller's pub. There is a choice of Pride, ESB and Gales HSB.

I think this is a good thing, though Fuller's would not be my first choice. Why don't more breweries do this? I do know there are a limited number that already do, so if you are having a party or just fancy some real beer, why not ring your local micro and ask them?

I am ahead of the game and I and my guests will enjoy a nine of Phoenix Flash Flood over the festive period.

Monday 17 December 2007

Plum Pudding

I sampled the Plum Pudding yesterday. It is certainly a Christmas beer, with fruit and spices and a warming hint of alcohol. I also had a chat to the Head Brewer of Lees, Giles Dennis who happened to be in. He was, as usual, drinking his own bitter.

Later as anarchy descended, I had Plum Pudding blended with 50% mild and then 25% mild. The 25% mix was just right it seemed at the time and added a bit of lusciousness to the beer. But by then, frankly, my judgement was impaired!

The photo is of Snug, the pub cat!

Sunday 16 December 2007

What Constitutes a Christmas Beer?

On my wanderings yesterday, I came across a largeish number of Christmas beers. Not surprising at all given the time of year. What was disappointing to me at least, was that there was scarcely the merest nod to something seasonal. They weren't dark, malty and luscious with a hint of Christmas spices to lift them and bring a suggestion of winter warmth, but were mostly just plain ordinary beers of ordinary strength and a dreary ordinariness. Do you see a theme emerging here?

I wonder about this. I assume the brewer sat and thought, "we'd better have a Christmas Beer" and then proceeded to trot out another of the same, or maybe, suspicious type that I am, just blended something. He didn't make the leap of faith needed to produce something special, different and memorable.

I am going to name this roll of shame. In order of those tried, tested and found wanting were:

Tom Wood's Jolly Snowman 3.6% and dull, dull, dull.

Northern Brewing Santa's Slide 3.6%. Vaguely hoppy and very ordinary.

Three B's Santa's Skinful. 4%. Darker, but just as dull.

George Wright Partridge in a Pear Tree 5.1%. A bit of winter strength, but pale and unbalanced.

Allgates Santa's Coming 4.4%. This was actually a lovely beer, but not at all Christmassey in my opinion, though it does have an amusing pumpclip.

And finally, a real Christmas Ale. From Allgates again. This time Winter Tipple, with a slight lactic edge, good body, an appealing maltiness with some spice. Warming and moreish! Well done to the lads from Wigan.

Other beers enjoyed yesterday were the ever dependable Hydes Bitter, Jennings Cumberland, Holts Bitter and Bazen's Pacific. All in terrific form, particularly the Bazen's which has seemed off the mark a bit recently. Good to see it back on blob!

My mate Mike is the only one who isn't a pumpclip!

Saturday 15 December 2007

Plum Pudding Arrives!

I walked up to my local last night, where top form Lees Bitter was enjoyed. I was informed that Lees Plum Pudding is in the cellar and will be ready by Sunday. It is probably the best of Lees Seasonal Ales. I'll let you know all about it. Michelle also gifted me a bottle of the just released 11.5% Lees Harvest Ale 2007, so beloved of our American friends. I have most of them going back to the beginning, but I am unlikely to drink it or them in the near future.

Today I'm meeting my oldest friend Mike in Manchester. I have known him since day number one in England and he is a real ale man. We'll eschew our normal Northern Quarter haunts and see what we can find elsewhere. The scene around the Universities is meant to be picking up. We'll see.

Friday 14 December 2007

Still Too Expensive

Yesterday I met my mate Graham, fellow CAMRA Chairman, for a pint in the Marble Arch. I had Manchester Bitter which I thought poor and Janine's One which I thought better. We did a quick Northern Quarter crawl calling next at the Smithfield where decent pints of Osset Pure Gold were quaffed and then across the road to the Fringe Bar where Downton Dark Delight was smooth, dry and I suppose a Porter in style. In any event a decent drop. Then to the Crown and Kettle where the place was shut for a private function. Thanks Guys!

We decided to part the ways and as I needed to catch a bus outside the Marble Arch, I went in again, this time trying McKenna's Porter which was rich, smooth, dry and satisfying. Whoever brews the dark beers here knows their stuff. My bus beckoned and I looked at the display of Decadence Imperial Stout and thought again about the magnificence of the dark beers brewed here. Did I buy one? No!

Wednesday 12 December 2007

The Christmas Social

I am a little tired this morning. It was our CAMRA Branch's Christmas "do" last night at a well known Rochdale free house, the Cemetery Hotel. I had started the festivities a little earlier, as I had to change buses in Rochdale Centre, so popped into the GBG entries, the Flying Horse and the Regal Moon. Phoenix beers in both. In the FH I had a lovely pint of Snowbound, a typical Phoenix beer with great body, mouthfeel and bitterness. Then to the RM where halves of Last Leaf, an autumn ale (where has that been hiding?) and "Double Gold" were enjoyed. Another time I will write more about Phoenix.

At the do we had pie and peas (though I declined - never eat on an empty stomach) and among the beers on offer was Skipton Brewery's marvellous Copper Dragon Golden Pippin. Pale, full bodied, hoppy, bitter and served in excellent condition. I had a few of them. Others enjoyed Bank Top's Flat Cap and Taylor's Landlord. we had a beer quiz in which my team came joint top, only to be defeated in a tie break and wonder of wonders, I was given a lift home by the wife of one of our lot, who had come to collect him. A perfect end to a good night!

The photos show Graham and Mark, having a good time and one of the pub windows, still showing Crown Brewery of Bury. Nice eh?

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Sam's Swim Against the Tide

Samuel Smith's Old Brewery at Tadcaster was established in 1758. It still delivers all of its cask beer in wood. It uses hard water from its own well and traditional Yorkshire stone 'squares' - roofed fermenting vessels made of solid blocks of slate with a yeast strain that goes back to the last century. They won't take anyone else's beers, wines, spirits or even soft drinks. They make and sell their own. They even have a few shire horses knocking around to complete this idyllic picture. It is strictly family owned.

So is there anything to detract from this perfect set-up? Well yes. They are secretive and frankly, rather odd. They own quite a few pubs around here as a result of the takeover and closure of Rochdale and Manor Brewery back in the 70's, but from the outside you can't tell. Neither pubs nor the drays that deliver the beer are signed as Sam's for reasons best known to themselves. They brew only one cask beer, the flinty edged, malty, mid brown Old Brewery Bitter.

Last night CAMRA business took me to a Sam's house. The Yew Tree is an attractive pub which used to distinguish itself by having an old Pullman Coach attached as a restaurant. Until they discovered all the asbestos that is. Like many Sam's pubs it has been refurbished to a high standard in the multi roomed layout they prefer. I like that. The beer is usually extraordinarily cheap. In this case OBB was £1.33 a pint. On form it is a mouthfilling, heavy, malty beer of character, albeit a malty one. But this wasn't on form. It was disappointing. Thin and malty with a yeasty edge. That annoying stage where it isn't good enough to enjoy, but isn't bad enough to take back.

In my own area, like elsewhere and I'm thinking particularly of London here, Sam's have a poor and idiosyncratic record of supplying cask beer. (I was particularly outraged when they refurbed the Anchor Brewery Tap and took the cask out.) The majority of "our" Sam's pubs don't sell it. Probably for all I know the majority elsewhere don't sell it. Bad enough to supply only one cask beer, but to limit its availability compounds the crime. As I said. Odd!

Sunday 9 December 2007

Lees GB Mild

I am lucky enough to live within easy reach of this marvellous beer and last night I had three excellent pints of it in my local. It is a former Champion Mild of Britain (2004) but, like mild all over the UK, it is an endangered species. Even in its heartland, the dreaded "smooth" is eating away at it and now it is less common than it used to be. The brewery is taking action. In an effort to stem the tide, the beer will be renamed "Brewer's Dark" from 1st January 2008. I am saddened by this in a way, but the name is unimportant if the beer can gain a wider audience. It will remain, stylistically, a mild. I shall certainly continue to drink it and will continue to press Lees to promote this wonderful beer.

My pints last night certainly lived up to expectation. The beer is dark with faint ruby hues, malty/sweet on the nose and full and satisfying in the mouthfeel. Pulled through a tight sparkler, there is a beautiful, lasting creamy head, great body and condition, an underlying liquorice and chocolate taste and a full, malty finish in which some bitter hops can be detected. If this isn't one of the finest beers brewed in Britain today, I'll eat my hat! I'll be sampling some again today.

Lees GB Mild (GB stands for Greengate Brewery). It is 3.5% ABV and is brewed by J W Lees (Brewers) Greengate Brewery, Middleton

Saturday 8 December 2007

Marble Brewery

The Marble Arch is my Friday night haunt, mainly as I have to pick my better half up at Piccadilly Station and the pub is handily on the way home. For those who don't know it, it is a splendid tiled affair with lots of marble. Hence the name! It also has its own brewery which produces award winning organic and other beers.*

Given that I was driving, I had to choose my limited beers carefully. First up was JP Best, Champion beer of Manchester. I know this beer. I chaired the preliminary tasting panel that led to it being declared the ultimate winner in the Manchester Food and Drink awards. It rightly came top in our panel. Last night's sample was disappointing and I struggled with my half. That's cask beer for you! I also tried Janine's One which was hoppy and moreish. My usual tipple, the dry and hoppy Manchester Bitter was not available. The star of the show for me however was "Stouter Stout". A roasty, jet black, bitter and dry stout of 4.7%. This was an incredibly good stout and worth a visit to the pub just to sample it.

Also available for purchase by the 33cl bottle was "Decadence" an organic bottle conditioned Imperial Russian Stout of 8.2%. At a whopping £4.50 a bottle, I put the evil moment of purchase off until I am back, with no car and my pockets loosened by drink!

* Until recently the Marble Arch Brewery only produced organic beers, but a sign now tells customers that the soaring cost of organic ingredients has necessitated a change in policy.

The Marble Arch Pub and Brewery is at 73 Rochdale Road, Manchester. M4 4HY

Thursday 6 December 2007

A Tale of Two Wetherspoons

Thinking about my Wetherspoon's fetish, there is a story I'll share about my two "local" London ones. I have another blog, which is really a personal diary. On the 2 November at the beginning of the Wetherspoon's Beer Festival, I wrote this:

"En route to the USA, I am in London so I call into the local JDW (Goodman's Field) with E. After a long wait we are eventually served by a Polish girl who gives us a (very) small bag of peanuts by way of compensation for the wait. Nice. JDW have a beer fest which allows a person to choose 3 x 1/3 pints for the price of a pint, thus allowing you to try more beers. The problem is I have a voucher that allows the purchase of a pint for £1.19 instead of the usual £1.89. The Polish usurper scoffs at my voucher and alleges I can't use it for three thirds, despite all the advertising saying have a go at three thirds for the price of a pint. I argue that logically my voucher is valid for this and point out politely that she is wrong. I ask that she consult the manager which she does reluctantly. He shrugs which I take it to be OK. Our fair Polish maiden is not happy. She says if it wasn't so busy she'd take it all further. I am incredulous. I know she is wrong. In a piece of silly vindictiveness, she snatches back my compensatory nuts. I say nowt, though this is done in front of all the other customers. I am kind of incensed, but faintly amused at the same time, though I'll take this further elsewhere quoting chapter and verse.

We move on to the next JDW, (Liberty Bounds) nobbut a cockstride way. This is a city JDW and thus £2.20 a pint. The operative consults about my voucher, comes back all smiles and says "No Problem". He then helpfully talks me through the available beers. 6 beers are duly selected and two vouchers used. Fantastic! I really wonder where our Polish lass was coming from. To serve the public you have to have common sense, not to mention politeness, and an idea about customer service. Wetherspoons are meant to train them in at least the latter two. I reflect ruefully on her attitude and her sheer cheek. On this showing, there is a way to go for this young lady at least!"

Of course I didn't take this any further, but I should have.

Wednesday 5 December 2007

The Wetherspoons Conundrum

It has been pointed out to me that I have mentioned too many Wetherspoon's pubs in my blog comments about London. Without wishing to be too defensive, I have only mentioned three I think out of the ninety odd in London and two of them are within a five minute walk from my London abode. They are pretty mediocre, but then again, most of the surrounding pubs are too.

It is not just London of course, but love them or hate them, you can’t ignore the somewhat dominating presence of JD Wetherspoon on almost every UK High Street. According to their web site, the company aim is for “comfortable, music-free pubs, offering excellent beer, all-day food and first-class service”. It is highly debatable whether they reach this admirable aim in most of their outlets, but at least they offer choice. In London, for me at least, particularly in summer, they offer cool, relatively well kept beer, in contrast to the unpalatable warm beer I often find elsewhere. They also provide a break from the usual London Pride, Speckled Hen, Abbot and Bombardier offerings so beloved of pubs in the capital. They are of course are much cheaper too, which appeals to my Northern thriftiness.

As Wetherspoon's themselves point out, they have 131 pubs in the Good Beer Guide 2008, so some CAMRA members at least must think them OK. Equally it can correctly be argued that the vast majority aren't. My own CAMRA branch has one in the guide, the Regal Moon in Rochdale. It is pictured above.

What do others think?

Tuesday 4 December 2007

World Famous in Oldham!

In this neck of the woods you either love Robinson's beer or hate it. There's quite a few of the Stockport brewer's pubs in my area and tonight saw me in one for our monthly CAMRA meeting. Most sell Unicorn, a best bitter of 4.2%, a lot sell Hatter's Mild and some, like the Royal Oak in Werneth, Oldham, sell both and OB Bitter.

OB Bitter is a recreation of the bitter brewed by Oldham Brewery which was taken over by Boddington's (remember them?) in 1982. After five years of ownership Oldham was closed and the beers moved to Boddington's own brewery, now a hole in the ground. After Boddington's demise, the beer was inherited by Whitbread and brewed all round the then Whitbread empire, ending up with Interbrew after Whitbread went tits up. It finished its days, changed beyond recognition, at Burtonwood Brewery where it languished and died.

A year or so ago, Robinson's bought the rights to the brand and have made great efforts to recreate the beer. As the recipe received from InBev from whom the brand was bought was unusable, Robbies enlisted the help of two former OB brewers, John Barron and Wilf Burgess, who helped produce the genuine recipe from which the beer is now brewed. Purists will no doubt argue that the brand should have been allowed to die, but while it may not be an exact copy of the original due to yeast changes, it is a good beer in its own right and satisfies a local need. The beer is going great guns and is permanently listed by Robbies. It has gained a good foothold in Oldham.

I had a pint tonight. The beer is 3.8% abv and is bittered using Goldings, Fuggles and Hallertau hops. Robbies yeast is evident, but the beer is clean and appealing. Robbies Mild was dry, and fruity with that familiar Robbies "house yeast" edge. Robbies beers are available in over 400 tied houses. They are a major Independent Family Brewery and have an increasing presence in the free trade too. They also brew the barley wine Old Tom which is widely available in bottle and cask. Seek them out.

Monday 3 December 2007

Not All German Beer is Great

Now as a regular visitor to Germany, I knew this of course, but this visit to Osnabrück was a reminder that the interesting beers scenes so familiar to me in Bavaria, Franconia, Cologne and Düsseldorf, are not repeated throughout Germany. This was "ordinary" Germany, where beer is just an amber liquid to most people.

We arrived on time with the superb Air Berlin. My top and favourite airline. It had obviously been throwing it down beforehand, but we arrived in glorious sunshine and it stayed that way until dark. A neat little bus took us off to the city through flat but attractive countryside. The North German plain, fought over fiercely in the Second World War, is still a garrison area for what is left of the British Army in Germany.

Now it has to be said that Osnabrück is not any kind of beer Mecca. The dominating brew seems to be Warsteiner, with Osnabrücker Pils and Alt providing some variety. Osnabrücker Pils will not set any heather on fire. It is pale, soft, under hopped and that is about all. The "alt" is not a true alt to anyone who has visited Düsseldorf, but just a brown. fairly neutral liquid. But there is a brewpub. Now when someone says brewpub in Germany, I groan inwardly. This usually means a pale unfiltered pils type liquid and darker unfiltered dunkel type liquid. Hausbraüerei Rampendahl is in a handsome building, is extremely pleasant inside and has extremely boring beer. Guess what? Yes an unfiltered pale and dark as the only two offerings. Both were sweet and uninteresting with the dunkel being marginally better. The brewery itself is a very decent, modern piece of kit, capable of so much more. It is a source of constant amazement that so much good brewing kit is put to such mundane use in Germany! Missed opportunity.

The only other beer of any interest was a honey wheat beer sold at the Christmas Market. This beer, Ambrosius Brau, by renowned honey expert Herman Krischer of Oberzissen was bottle conditioned, Belgian in palate, spicy and slightly bitter with a honey edge. I am not sure how the Rheinheitsgebot is got past, but it was different and welcome for that. It seems to me, apart from a few areas, German brewing is stagnating. Maybe beer purity laws aren't always a good thing?

Friday 30 November 2007


I had some Young's Bitter tonight. The taste could best be described as absent!

The Castle and More

A new free house in London selling a variety of cask ales is, it seems, as rare as a bad pie in Wigan, so I had to investigate. Very handy for Chancery Lane Tube, the pub is a single room affair with some kind of function room upstairs. It was full of city types when I called, but I felt comfortable enough. The bar staff were friendly and cheerful. A big plus!

A couple of halves were ordered. Via the blackboard, "Alex" recommended Arundel Autum Fall. It was possibly the worst beer I have had this year! Flat as a witches tit and revolting flavours underneath. A disaster. I grimaced my way through half of it provoking a query from a barperson I assume to be Alex. He said it was unusual and that he noticed it was flat when he put it on. Perhaps the recommendation was whimsical, or he just wanted rid of it as soon as possible. I left half of my half! My other beer, Shardlow Golden Light was pale, hoppy, slightly watery, but refreshing. In addition there was beers from Saltaire, White Boar, Youngs and Bateman's. The up and coming list looked good too. So, overall, good!

After that I nipped into the Shakespeare's Head, a new JDW for me. I quite liked it and thought it one of the more pubby ones I have been in, albeit on a monolithic scale. I was able to renew my acquaintance with Itchen Valley beers. After the poor Tower Bridge, I was wary, but the Gold was light, hoppy and clean, while the Fagin tasted like the gold with crystal malt added and hops deducted. Not bad beers though.

Lastly, in the excellent Freemason's Arms - OK - I am biased because of the fetching bow fronted barmaid, I sampled Shepherd Neame Porter. A big fat zero for this. Thin and uninteresting!

Not Much Winter Warmth

It isn't that often I get the chance to explore my local London pubs, my better half, though a beer drinker, is much more reluctant than me to wander round pubs looking for decent beer. Funny that.

I started off at our local JDW , The Goodman's Field. I have had good and bad here and tonight, that's exactly what I had. The bad, Caledonian Golden Promise, which smelled odd, took a while to clear and was clearly past its best and the good, an old friend, Gunpowder Strong Mild, though now just "Gunpowder" from Coach House in Warrington. Now I have to say I'm not a Coach House fan. I remember meeting one of the owners when they set up years ago. An ex Greenall's brewer. The Gunpowder was as I remember it. Dry, sharp and slightly sourish. A good interesting drink.

Then in pursuit of winter warmers, I tried the Three Lords for Young's. None on and the deafening music (played live by a toneless geezer) drove me across the road to Fuller's Chamberlain Hotel. Now this place is nice enough but somehow contrives to have no atmosphere whatever. Still London Porter was on offer and didn't disappoint being dark, complex and liquoricey with a full tasting dry finish. I enjoyed it a lot but couldn't have drunk much of it. Still, the best Fuller's beer I have had for a long time from this brewery that seems to produce too much overly sweet beer.

I couldn't resist a look in the Cheshire Cheese under the Fenchurch St railway arches, but all the pumpclips were turned round. What's that all about? Then to the Crutched Friar where I was the only person not wearing a suit. Landlord there, sans sparkler and it suffered from that, being overly sweet.

Turning towards home I popped in the Ship for a half. Butcombe Bitter this time. What a godawful bland beer. What's the point of micros producing this tasteless nonsense? Alternative offerings were Courage Best, Sharps Doom Bar and Old Hookey. This is a likeable one roomed pub with only faintly annoying background music. Not sure that a pie and a pint at £7.50 floats my boat, but then again I'm from the grim North.

Then more in hope than expectation to the Liberty Bounds. Only beer worth a second glance was Itchen Valley Tower Bridge. Another pointless beer from a micro. Brown, 4.5% and BORING with a taste of malted old socks. Sometimes I despair. This the kind of nonsense the big brewers used to bring out years ago and which lasted about a week. Think Tetley Imperial and Thomas Greenall Original and you will get the picture. As a digression, I exclude Walker's Warrington Ale from this, but that's another story.

So to the Empress of Prussia. A tied Shep's House, but no Porter. A half each of Bishop's Finger and Master Brew left me convinced they were the same beer watered down. Harsh and unappealing. This pub is attractive, old fashioned and welcoming with a neat line in attractive Polish barmaids and a mere 300 yards from my London front door. Why does it have to be Shep's?

Lastly and just round the corner from our flat is the Brown Bear. This still has traces of its former Taylor Walker ownership and has some wonderful pub mirrors, It also supplements its (yeugh) London Pride and Adnams Bitter with a guest. Great. This week's guest? Greene King IPA!!! So Adnams it was. In excellent condition and a good finish to the night. Incidentally, if you want a challenging bitter beer which is readily available, Adnams is just the ticket.

So. It was a mixed bag. I found all the beer to be in good nick (except the Caley) and didn't see a sparkler, even in Wetherspoons. So there!

Thursday 29 November 2007

3 Rivers

On my way to Piccadilly Station, I had an hour before my train. I was passing JDW , so I popped in expecting little from this pub which tends to attract those drinking down to a price. Indeed the usual mob were there, but more importantly, on the bar were three beers from 3 Rivers Brewery. Now despite it being not a million miles from me, I know little about this outfit other than what I have read in South Manchester CAMRA's excellent magazine "Opening Times". It has been around since November 2003.

The beers on offer were GMT at 3.8%, Hilary Gold at 4.2% and finally IPA at 4.3%. Now I won't bore you with long descriptions, but the GMT was a bit woody with obvious diacetyl (butterscotch). Quite bitter, but not my sort of beer. The Hilary Gold was a nicely balanced, clean, pale, hoppy and polished beer which I liked a lot and finally was the IPA which isn't really an IPA, but a hoppy best bitter with the addition of American hops and an annoying caramel maltiness which didn't sit well with the rest of the beer. The issue of what constitutes an IPA is for another time!

I keep saying that British Brewers shouldn't be afraid of hops. 3 Rivers certainly aren't. The beers are interesting. Try them if you can.

A Different Perspective

This blog, like me, is firmly rooted in the North West of England and unashamedly looks out on the beer world from that perspective. Subconsciously it may be an antidote to the Southern based blogs which I read avidly and am addicted to. It is they which inspired me to start this.

Nonetheless I'm off to London later today. I have tomorrow to do as I like and I'll be visiting a few pubs. Old favourites and some new to me. I'll review them from my Northern point of view. Will I, as some allege find the dreaded sparkler everywhere? It hasn't been so in the past, but we'll see. Will it all be cold as ice or, as my previous experience suggests, be so warm you could poach an egg in it? Well, unlikely. Winter is a good time to drink beer in London. It's colder outside, so cellars are colder. Maybe it's the only time?

Then I'm off to Germany, this time mainly for my better half's benefit, to Osnabruck, which has the second biggest Christmas Market in Northern Germany. There is also a brew pub. I'll let you know how I get on.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Plod Way Off Beam

It appears that West Yorkshire's top cop has been living in some kind of cave for the last few years. In a startling outburst, Sir Norman Bettison claimed the Licensing Act has made Britain's binge drinking problem worse.

The outburst comes just a day after the British Beer and Pub Association released a YouGov survey showing that 78% said they drunk the same and 12% less than before the onset of extended opening hours. Speaking at the National Alcohol Conference in Leeds, West Yorkshire chief constable Sir Norman Bettison said many were now drinking themselves into "oblivion". He recently spent a Saturday night on patrol in Leeds city centre and said "If anybody tries to tells you that 24-hour drinking will lead to the creation of a European cafe culture, send them out on to the streets of Leeds - you won't find many people having a sensible conversation over an espresso."You won't believe the amount of vomit and urine I saw that evening."

Well putting aside the fact that the problems of late night drinking appear to have crept up on this guardian of the law, you are forced to wonder what his motivation is. He seems either very naive or has conveniently forgotten his licensing history. He quotes a "24 hour drinking culture", a creation of tabloid headline writers, which he and everyone who really understands pub and drink culture trade, knows does not really exist.

I wrote myself about this some time ago in "More Beer" my local CAMRA magazine. In that article I pointed out that young people's drinking venues, which pollute and proliferate in our town and city centres, were there in abundance before licensing reform. These venues were already open to two and three in the morning. The horse had already bolted. Fine if he wants to curb that (it won't affect the vast majority of decent beer drinkers) and of course the law now gives him that power, but better that someone who is supposed to police without discrimination, didn't lump all us drinkers in with the idiots whom he meets at 2 am in Leeds! Like most responsible beer drinkers, I am fast asleep by then and haven't urinated or vomited on anyone or anything. Not even on myself!

Tuesday 27 November 2007

A Mon Like Thee!

Today, for the edification of all you great unwashed, is Lancashire Day. The shire was formed from sparsely populated lands given to Roger de Poitou by William the Conqueror and further extended by his son William Rufus between 1072 and 1094. These comprised all the lands 'twixt Ribble and Mersey, along with Lonsdale, Cartmel and Furness. The Queen, God Bless Her, is Duke, yes Duke, of Lancaster.

All this means my local is firmly in Lancashire. Tonight to mark the occasion we are having Lancashire Hot Pot and other traditional Lancashire food such as Bury Black Puddings, Lancashire Cheese and Onion Pie, Manchester Tart and of course Lancashire Beer. The entertainment will be various music on the CD player such as Gracie Field, George Formby and of course, The Oldham Tinkers. The local Vicar will play the accordion and my mate Michael, a former Morris Dancer (who also supplied the Lancashire History bit) will do a clog dance. Lancashire Life will attend.The pub will be chocka!

In these days of doom and gloom, such simple but effective celebrations will fill the pub. It does take a little effort, but pubs, even an isolated one such as ours, can survive and thrive. It also needs some imagination and go ahead behaviour - and a lot of nous - but the pub will be full on a cold, dark, wintry Tuesday night. Not bad.

I was in earlier and it was filling up nicely as I left. It was warm and welcoming. The Lees Mild was delicious and moreish. The landlady, despite enticement from the brewery to take "smooth" mild, insists on cask. She is a star. It is Greater Manchester Food and Drink Pub of the Year, a Good Beer Guide entry and no wonder.

If you want to know its name, look here

Monday 26 November 2007

Thwaites Cask Comeback

Daniel Thwaites have been around for a long time now. Since 1807 in fact and are still family owned. In recent years they have however moved away from cask beer more than somewhat and are now trying to redress the balance. How are they doing? Well the jury is still out. I have recently been sampling one or two of their beers and the result has been mixed. Tonight I had the "Original". Now I remember this when it was plain old "bitter" and a former CAMRA Champion Beer. You'd go out of your way to drink it. Sadly, not now though it was just about acceptable. Also on was Lancaster Bomber which I remember when it was brewed by Mitchells of Lancaster, sadly now just a pub owning company. I didn't try it on this occasion, but did try the newish "Flying Shuttle".It was dark, smooth and fruity and probably needed a hop or two more, but nonetheless enjoyable. It was also good to see a Bury Town Centre pub (The Two Tubs) with three cask ales.

The web site is keen to mention their new commitment to cask, so give them a chance. Get out there and drink some and maybe they can return to their glory days? They'll have to invest in a few hops though!

Punch Drunk

I note from yesterday's press that Punch Taverns are intending to bid for M&B, the Midlands based pub operator. Why should I care I hear you ask? Well you should. Punch already operates 9000 odd pubs, so chances are it will be running one in your area. If it succeeds in taking over M&B, it will own over 11,000 pubs. It will seriously affect the way the industry operates and will do little for choice. Although Punch is signed up to the SIBA Direct Delivery scheme, it seems only 50 of its current 9000 estate (which includes the Spirit Group) take part. So much for choice. When we used to complain about the "Big 5" brewers all these years ago, we never knew that really these were golden days. While now we have more brewers than ever, we have less choice than ever. So if you have a Punch pub near you with a dismal beer list, point them in the direction of SIBA. It might just help.

Let's Start with The Sparkler

OK. Let's nail my colours firmly to the mast. I believe in sparkled beer, but most of all I believe in well conditioned beer. Sometimes there is confusion between the two so let's try and sort the wheat from the chaff. A list of beer facts:
  • good conditioned beer needs no sparkler - TRUE - but it will enhance mouthfeel and aroma to some perceptions and will adversely affect it to others
  • a sparkler knocks out all the condition from beer - FALSE - it will displace some C02 from body to head, but won't knock out the condition to a detrimental effect unless the beer is poorly conditioned in the first place
  • a sparkler will change the flavour of the beer - FALSE - it may change the flavour perception but this will vary from beer to beer depending on circumstance
  • a sparkler will bring flat beer to life. FALSE. Flat beer will still be flat. Once the initial head has gone, the beer will be as flat or indeed flatter
There is a kind of assumption that all beers are equal and that brewers & cellar-staff have conspired to ensure that there is a decent amount of natural CO2 in solution to add that lovely sparkle. All beers are primed differently. A good cellarman knows which are which. In these corner cutting, let's get it served days, beers drop bright quickly, but are they well conditioned and ready to serve? Not always.

It's all about conditioning really. Get the beer in good condition, full of natural CO2 (but not overly so) and really, after that, it is down to how you prefer it No-one doubts that mouthfeel, flavour and other variables taste different with or without a sparkler. The issue is whether they can be proved to be better or worse by a particular method. My assertion is that all things being otherwise equal, it comes down to preference. I prefer sparkled beer, but it must have the condition and not be served too warm. Too warm a serving temperature and too little condition are the enemy of cask beer. The latter two statements are also beer FACTS as they have been proved to be true scientifically. Warm temperatures cause dissolved C02 to return to atmosphere and too little condition will have the same flattening effect on beer. Don't believe me? Read "Beer and the Science of Brewing by Charles Bamforth. I have a signed and dedicated copy. Another beer fact!

* What is a sparkler? Sparklers are the devices on the end of the handpump serving spout that create tiny gas bubbles that form the creamy head on a pint in served in the North of England and increasingly commonly according to some, in the South of England.