Friday 30 April 2010

The Map Room and Hop Leaf

Considering my tiredness I was pretty well OK on Friday morning. After a "wherethefuckamI?" kind of wander round near my hotel, I was having coffee in one of the many coffee spots in Chicago, a town that seems to take its coffee seriously and contemplating breakfast, when my phone rang. It was Jeff. "We are meeting for lunch in the Frontera Grill at 11.30." What? Lunch at 11.30? Still when in Rome. I didn't know this of course, but this is one of the most sought after places in Chicago. My mate Ryan, a noted foodie, was practically purring. It was simply fantastic and made so more by the good company and the fact that we had a reserved table for nine, while queues snaked outside the building and onto the street. You want some details? My friend Jeff's blog has it here, though my cocktail(s), recommended by Ryan were stunning. Base of tequila with green chilli, cilantro and lime juice among other stuff I can't remember, it was the perfect pick me up.

But man cannot live by refried beans and tequila alone, so we hit the train and off to the Map Room which isn't a brewpub, but a proper boozer and a bit of a classic. Long and low ceilinged, with big windows and festooned with world flags and an oddly distorted map of the world on the rear wall, it has a great atmosphere, though oddly much less in your face service than is normal. And if you are going, bring cash. Unusually the credit card, a mainstay everywhere else, is not accepted there. Allagash White for me for the first three or so, a classic Belgian Wit which ticks every box. Then on to Alpha King while getting and giving tastes of various others from Sour Belgian style Bokor Flemish Red through to Imperial IPA's barley wines and more from Arcadia, Lost Abbey, Dark Horse and Metropolitan. Some of the boys then went off in search of Italian beef sandwiches (where did they put them? I was stuffed) while a few of us kept the Alpha King tap red hot. I reckon the Map Room is my favourite pub in Chicago and probably one of the world's top twenty. Not cheap though and a strong will is needed to cough up fifty bucks or so a round, (plus tip) but a great place.

Then a complicated taxi ride to Hop Leaf which was literally full to the rafters, as the upstairs room is in the eaves. Some of the Italian beef brigade didn't like it for reasons best known to themselves and fled to the Clark Street Ale House, but those of us that stayed were rewarded not only by wall to wall totty (much more conservatively dressed than at home) but by Alpha King, Dogfish Head Raison D'etre, Bell's Brown Ale, Metropolitan and a host of Belgians, ignored by us except for one aberrant round of Timmerman's Peche! Another great bar, but maybe better on a quieter night.

And so ended day two for me, though the rump that went to the Clark Street Alehouse were apparently chucked out at four a.m. closing, by which time I had been in the Land of Nod for at least two hours.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Revolution, Stamina and Bryson

My first Chicago drink (this time) was in Rock Bottom Brewery (more on this in a further post) a couple of hours after I arrived, knackered but slightly freshened after a shower in my lovely Hilton room. (Hotwire does not suck). I met Joel there and had a couple of decent beers while we caught up. Aware of the fact that I'd been up a long number of weary hours, I started slowly with a Chicago Gold, a lightly hopped, well balanced drinkable beer and followed up with a very nice Belgian Wit which was refreshing and lemony. Joel's German style pilsner was great too. Then off on the El to Piece (a brewpub) to meet the Rock Bottom brewer, Pete, really nice guy, whose last day it was. I should add here that he is leaving Rock Bottom to set up his own brewpub, so another one is coming for the well established Chicago scene. On entry a remarkable co-incidence. A colleague of mine from BSF at GBBF was there. We gave a double take as we recognised each other. Well you would do wouldn't you? Carl, had been stranded by the ash cloud and was awaiting his return to Amsterdam. Piece's beers will be covered later but were pretty drinkable, though by that time who knows what my palate was like, but I am informed by Andy my friend, that some mystery extra beers arrived at the end, including an "awesome barley wine". Things were slipping by then but I remember the pizza was also excellent.

Then the other boys joined us to make eight and it all went downhill. Off to Revolution Brewing next where we bumped into American writer Lew Bryson, an old mate of ours, big and cheerful as ever, whose laugh could be heard throughout the packed and noisy pub (as always.) Iron Fist Pale Ale was my beer of choice with its very moreish Cascade/Centennial/Amarillo mix, but I also tried tasters of various others and while not overwhelmingly brilliant, were all very decent beers and not too strong either. Around 1.30 a.m. realising I had been up for over 26 hours, I retired, still in reasonable shape - well I was by 26 hours up standards - back to the hotel where sleep was instant. It was there (Revolution) that one of the lads fell asleep, but by then I already was, albeit in bed, not the pub.

That set the pattern, but unbeknown to me, my next drink would be a tequila cocktail. Yes really and what a cocktail and the best Mexican meal ever at Frontera Grill.

Photo is the exterior of Revolution Brewing

Wednesday 28 April 2010

My Kind of Town - Mostly

Chicago is big and brash and like most cities in America, laid out on a grid pattern, which makes navigation easy, though there seems to be an assumption that everyone carries a compass in their head. Knowing North, South, East and West is kind of assumed, but once you figure that out, it is straightforward. There is an excellent and cheap public transit system and buses fill in the gaps. Main metro lines run all night. And there are pubs, though the good ones aren't particularly near each other and while there is good food, a liking for pizza and burgers is a distinct advantage in brewpubs. Apart from the transport, nothing is very cheap and beer servings are small, rarely even being as much as 16oz, the US pint. Measures are vague and described variously as snifter, half, tulip, imperial, pint, glass, Willi, or in ounces. Short measure is the rule. You get what you are given.

So now we have the basics, let's talk about the beer itself. Recently there has been much discussion about how American craft beer is getting seriously (and dangerously) too strong. This case seems well supported by Chicago and one that does tend to have you scratching your head as to what to drink. A five percent beer there is a rarity, a sub five percent one almost non existent. And here I must shatter a myth. People do like to have a drink and they do like to have one or two more than one or two. There was a lot of beer being drunk. Conversations - and Americans are pretty friendly people - elicit that a lot of people do think it is out of hand and getting worse. It seems hard to get into an American brewer's head, that flavour doesn't have to come from alcohol. It is my observation that at the craft beer scene, this hell for leather dash for strength, is brewer not customer driven. My American friends are used to this, but they too would like a bit more lower strength stuff. Our outing to the Map Room (great place) meant that Alpha King was one of the weakest beers all day at 6%. And we were there for quite a few hours. It makes it dangerously easy to get completely pissed. Fortunately a few pints of the delicious Allagash White, made life a little easier, but even this is 5.5% (not 5% as in the picture). See what I mean?

There was one honourable exception. Goose Island Brewing where I went on Sunday, while my mates went to baseball and got thoroughly soaked and cold). There you could get a 3.2% mild or a 3.5% bitter in English style, while there were other beers of drinkable strength too, for example Honkers at 4.2%. More of Goose Island in a subsequent post.

I know it is a different culture and that you might argue that you could have samplers - we did sometimes - or small measures - we did- or just drink less - well we did as you simply can't swoop such strong beers (though sometimes we did), but really, have a look at the beer menu above and ask yourself if it is sensible or balanced? I know that you will reply that it isn't meant to be, but if Goose Island see the merit in it, there must be some call for it surely?

Of course we could just have drank Bud/Miller/Coors, but that was never on the cards, so strong beer it was, but we'd have liked a choice.

Since this subject is topical I thought it was worth an airing. Next posts will be all positive as I had a fantastic time.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Clinch's Brewery

While supping a pint of Bushy's in the Rover's Return in Douglas, I noticed on the wall, an old advert for a long defunct brewery, Clinch's. Clearly with what I saw contained in it, it was an Isle of Man brewery and the name seemed familiar, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen it before.

Later while waiting for the lovely E who had been on the steam train to Port Erin, it all came flooding back as I surveyed the building in front of me, which is pictured (right). Wikipedia has a good piece on it here. I can add for their info, that it is now a tapas bar, in part at least.

Looks great doesn't it?


It was rather pleasant to go to Liverpool for the ferry rather than Manchester Airport for a flight and it set both me and E wondering why we hadn't gone by boat in the first place. " Time" we recalled, time, but given the mill pond nature of the trip, the speed, the CAMRA company and things like that, it was a good option. The Mannannan is a former US Navy Fast Response Ship and it flies. 28,000 hp from four massive water jet engines propelled us over the Irish Sea in just under two and a half hours.

Douglas was looking spruce and continental with its palm trees and lots of people made it despite the volcanic ash - approx 500, though I understand around 200 didn't. There was good beer to be had and even though prices were London like, it was fun. We injected a few bob into the Manx economy of course. The Villa Marina, the venue, has been refurbished and was wonderful as a location. The quality of the debate was high, with some good speakers. I had the chance to speak a few times too.

The atmosphere was friendly and constructive.

So what was passed? Motion 5 which I drew up and seconded, calling for a "fit for purpose review" of CAMRA was passed overwhelmingly, though with the word "independent" being replaced by "objective." We'll watch out for how this is intended to be progressed. There was a distinct mood of dissatisfaction about some of the issues pervading the hall and the National Executive got a few kickings, particularly over the dumbing down of What's Brewing, our newspaper, but more generally over communication. Mike Benner the CEO gave a very capable speech in which he outlined the many successes, but the feeling was these were not widely enough known or understood by either membership or trade. I believe that this was acknowledged as an issue (certainly by Mike Benner to whom I spoke at length afterwards) and I'll be pressing for action on this, hence my withdrawing motion 13.

So a successful and enjoyable weekend with beers of the trip being Bushy's Bitter, Dr. Okell's IPA and Holdens Golden Glow. Pub of the trip was Bushy's Rover's Return.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Wait and See

It looks like things are dodgy for my IoM trip to the CAMRA AGM. The Icelandic volcano eruption has grounded all flights today and who knows for tomorrow. I'll be bitterly disappointed if it's a no go, as will the lovely E who is coming home tonight for it. It's bad enough them not paying us back the dosh that they owe us, but this is pushing things too far.

Question is, do I write my moving speech for my motion or not? I suppose I'd better!

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Bumpy Lane

I have once mentioned our pub's special beer in this blog way back on Christmas Eve in 2007, but I think it is the only time I have done so. The Landlady pestered Lees for another beer to enhance her cask offering. The result was a dry hopped version of Lees Bitter which was named after the rutted lane which leads to the pub, hence Bumpy Lane. As an aside it was named after a competition for a name for the new beer, some of which had particular local meanings and allusions and were exceeded in their inappropriateness, only by their libellousness.

We had wondered if a change of licensee would bring an end to this unique little feature - and it is unique to our pub - I confirmed this with the Head Brewer yesterday - but no, it is still there and is selling well. I have never been a total convert to it, but I do enjoy a pint of it now and then. My way on a Sunday is to start slowly with a couple of pints of mild then move on to Bitter and I did so this Sunday too, but detected that tell tale taste that the bitter is nearing the end. Not enough to complain, but that slight loss in condition and very faint, but recognisable taste of "bottoms" where the beer is picking up a slight touch of the sedimented detritus of the cask conditioning process. So I switched to Bumpy Lane and this was a very good sample of it, with a distinct dry hoppiness which lifted the beer considerably. If you ever come to the THT, do try a side by side comparison.

So, things are shaping up nicely at the pub and a return of in form Bumpy is another good thing, as is the reappearance of the seasonal beer. Nice to see my local and new landlady Sarah, doing so well.

Bottoms refers to the lees at the bottom of the cask as a result of the secondary fermentation. It has no other connotation.

Sunday 11 April 2010

On and Off the Boil

Even the best of pubs have off days and so it proved yesterday. I met my mate Mike after a visit to the CAMRA Regional Meeting, where the Chief Executive Mike Benner was a guest speaker and was most impressive. His grasp of CAMRA's role as a super complainant and his understanding of the industry and the various pressures on the average drinker inspired me. There is so much going on behind the scenes that I am rethinking a motion I have to the AGM later this week. I left feeling that the campaign has a very able person indeed at the helm and looking forward to a chance to chat to him in Douglas.

Less inspiring was the beer in the Black Horse in Salford, with Mallinson's Tulip and Lytham Gold both being a bit under conditioned. Worse was to follow in the Old Wellington in Shambles Square. This GBG listed pub had no less than seven pumpclips out of eight turned round. The sole offering was Otley O1 which we found hard to finish. A really poor show. It can be depressing to list a lot of bad beer and pubs, but suffice to say that the beer in the Waterhouse (JDW) wasn't great and even the Marble Arch was below par too. (As an aside, the barman advised me the brewers have decided that Dobber should not be served with a sparkler - Odd) On the positive side, The Angel was comfortably above average and only the City Arms provided perfect cask beer.

So as always with the real stuff, you win some and you lose some. It was ever thus, but frustrating all the same.

Thursday 8 April 2010

Spoonfest on the Road

The Regal Moon was buzzing with anticipation of a good day out when I got there a little late due to First Bus's continual inability to run a proper service. There was a photo call for Wetherspoon News first of all (Timbo has exacting requirements for this) and then a chance to sample a beer or two before the off. Bateman's Waynflete Hedgerow was delicate and appealing though it kind of dies off a bit towards the end. Morrell's Oxford Blue had the right mix of hops, but too toned down, resulting in a beer less than the sum of its parts. This was followed by the excellent Titanic Tomahawk which was bursting with hop flavour in a very good firm body. One to seek out again I'd say.

Then on to the bus to the Cotton Bail in Hyde where a throng at the bar was dealt with pleasantly and efficiently. Fremlins Bitter was quite thin as you'd expect from a 3.5% beer, but was a good example of a Boy's Bitter. Oakham Rollercoaster was much better than its programme description and a lot more hoppy too. A good beer. Sharp's Gentle Jane was a little too thin, but the Belgian yeast was noticeable and it made a good aperitif for the altogether more complex and authentic Val-Dieu Abbaye Blonde which ticked all the right boxes and made the transition to cask effortlessly. I had a taste of Theakston's Grousebeater and was glad I didn't part with hard cash for it. The only dud so far.

A far more boisterous and cheery mob reboarded the coach for the short ride to Stalybridge and the Society Rooms. An immediate queue formed here. BrewDog Trashy Blonde was on and it certainly didn't disappoint in any way whatsoever. Superbly balanced, but tilted just enough in favour of resiny hop to make this a stunner. When BrewDog make beers as good as this, you can forgive them anything. Still man does not live by BrewDog alone and it was onwards and upwards with the fantastically good Herold Black Chalice. A tight, creamy head and dense black body was full of dark chocolate flavour, with a raisiny edge and a very pronounced Saaz finish. A sheer delight and another effortless transition to cask.

Next up was the Ash Tree in Ashton with Zululand Blonde the beer of choice for most. A bit more bitter than the tasting notes suggest, but a little too sweet for my tastes really. Things were slowing down a tad now as the volume kicked in, but there was no let up.

Back in my home area, the Upsteps in Oldham was busy and we made it a lot busier. Goose Island Honkers here and it was pretty damn good. It seemed to me to capture the flavours exactly, but I'll check that out in Chicago in a couple of weeks. A quick half of Budelse Capucijn was rewarded by a very decent and complex beer of considerable poise.

A short walk then took us to The Squire Knott for a bit of snap and more beer of course, with an added bonus of a Meet the Brewer session, with Allgates, Greenfield and Howard Town providing free samples and a chance to chat. I was fading then, so a couple of Val-Dieu and I was off, hoping to make my quiz, but didn't of course, due to First Bus and a bad decision bus wise from me. I'd been drinking.

So, a great day out, some damn good beer and company, a fine show from all the JDW's and from Chris Riley, manager of the Regal Moon who arranged it all. Well done.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Meet the Cookster

Our eponymous lout loving hero has hitherto been firmly concealed under a cloak of anonymity, unbroken and impenetrable. But no-one can hide forever and the first chinks in his veil of invisibility are emerging.

Maybe more recent pictures will come to light in the fullness of time - after all I thought I'd destroyed all the ones of me drinking Carling, so it can happen - but for now this exclusive will have to do.

You gotta start as you mean to go on. Lout pedigree confirmed I'd say and ain't he sweet?

Next One Up

Now that Cask Ale week with all its controversies is behind us, it's time to look forward to the next event. In my case it is Wetherspoon's Beer Festival. This bi-annual event is usually most interesting, partly because of seeking out the beers either imported or brewed here by foreign brewers (using the facilities of some of our breweries) and just for the novelty value of not having the usual suspects to go at.

The list this year isn't spectacular, but it is pretty damn solid. (The gorgeous E did think it "too brown" which is a recurring theme to her.) As an aside, possibly this is because most of JDW beer is sold in the South where brown beer still has a pretty firm grip, or maybe it is a sort of seasonal reflection, or, as is more likely, the smaller producers of pale and hoppy beers, by and large, aren't big enough to supply the volume JDW require.) I just don't know. Nonetheless there is still plenty to appeal and there is a few blondies too.

So what are the highlights? Let's take the beer brewed here by foreign brewers as a given, though it has to be remarked that having Honkers Ale instead of Goose Island IPA is an opportunity missed. (Though as I'll be in Chicago in three weeks, I'm not so bothered personally.) I do like the sound of the following: Otter Mild, 3B's Oatmeal Stout, Morrell's Oxford Blue, Phoenix Black Shadow, BrewDog Trashy Blonde, Welton's Hawthorn, Atlas Wayfarer, Bearton Peach Melbear, Herold Black Chalice, Sharp's Gentle Jane, Hawkshead Lakeland Lager, Titanic Tomahawk and St Peter's Old Style Porter. As always it will be educational to see how the beers measure up to the descriptions. No doubt some of my highlights will fail to appeal and some others will pleasantly surprise.

I remarked earlier about the thrill of the chase, but this year my hard work is being taken away by the endeavours of our local JDW Area Manager and the landlord of the Regal Moon in Rochdale. A bus will take selected old soaks round all the local JDW's where the aim is to have all the festival beers available between them. It should be a good do and of course it will be reported here by yours truly and likely by that dedicated toper Tyson, who will be attending with his entourage and will no doubt be giving his own take on events.

So the list is linked above. Any views?