Wednesday 30 March 2016

Getting it Right

Our AGM was held at the Sheffield Tap. We had a private room in the part where the in house brewery is and beer, kindly provided for us by owners Pivovar, was on tap on a help yourself basis.  So we helped ourselves.  The room itself is magnificent and we were told it had been closed for over 30 years when taken over and was in a filthy state. It isn't now as you can see from the picture and provided a great backdrop to a very lively discussion.  A wheat beer produced in the brewery was very highly thought of, as was a Vienna style lager. I can vouch that the cask beer was top stuff too.

Once this aspect was over, it was an enthusiastic and slightly oiled bunch that set off on a coach to Thornbridge Brewery, deep in the Derbyshire countryside.  The Riverside Brewery is a neat set of modern buildings which we reached after the driver and some of our chaps worked out how to get over the river which separated the road we were on from the one the brewery was on. That sorted - not without false starts - we arrived and got stuck in to a the beers provided, both in cask and on keg.

The brewery itself is a multi million pound cathedral of stainless steel. "Italian designed therefore twice as costly" as our guide joked. Well not joked, more ruefully explained.  It has been extended from its first incarnation a number of times and will be extended more. The brewing kit is a mixture of types including multi purpose vessels and gives a great deal of flexibility to the brewers.  We also had a tour of the lab which has every kind of device imaginable to test, calibrate and control beer, including a sort of "mini brewery" in a test tube kind of affair that can mimic fermentation outcomes in a very short time. Nothing is left to chance here and it is the minute attention to detail, that to me, sets Thornbridge above many of its rivals.  That isn't to say that every beer will be to your taste, but it won't be muddy, murky and imprecise. It will be clean and there is a very, very  high degree of probability that it came out exactly as intended both process and outcome wise.

For those that like aged beer, we also visited a separate building housing beer maturing in various wooden casks. All done on a very carefully controlled basis and all very neat, functional and well laid out.  Back in the bar, I was particularly pleased to see one of the brewers Dominic Driscoll, an old mate from his Marble Brewery days and all round good egg and enjoyed the beery discussion with him and fellow BSF members. Probably a little more than Dom who had not of course been drinking.

Thornbridge does so many things right. They are beers to seek out for the quality of the ingredients, but also for the care and attention to detail that goes into their making.  I recommend them highly.

Sadly there was no Cocoa Wonderland around at this visit, but you can't have everything. 

The photo of some of the vessels at the brewery is a fraction of them and doesn't really do it justice.

Thursday 24 March 2016

A Cocoa Wonderland

The Annual General Meeting of the Foreign Beer Bars (BSF) from the Great British Beer Festival took place earlier this month in Sheffield.   We meet to plan how we'll do things next time and review what we did right and what didn't go so well at the last event. Like all these things, it doesn't just happen, but is thought through as much as it can be and it all takes place through considerable human effort.  I haven't told you about it as I've been ill ever since. Not through too much beer, but caused by a viral infection from which I am slowly recovering. Still, I am better enough to mention a couple of things before they fade like all endearing charms tend to.

There were three of us attending from Manchester, but one didn't make it out on Friday. He was ill with a viral infection. You can see where this is leading can't you?  Still, a mere 50 yards from our rented front door was, glory be, a Thornbridge pub, the Bath Hotel. Now how's that for lucking out?  The pub itself was a delight and even luckier was that it had two rather unusual and excellent cask beers on. We called in with the aim of trying a couple of halves. Melba IPA (5.2%)  had more peach juice flavour than most peaches do. If you like a beer that is just peachy, well this is your man. It was peachier than a peachy thing, but still refreshing and tasty, though perhaps just a little overdone. We enjoyed it but moved on to Cocoa Wonderland (6.8%).  Now it isn't at all often a beer stops me dead in my tracks, but boy did this do so.  It was stunning. Like a bitter chocolate ice cream with so much depth and complexity, we were rendered speechless.  The brewery describes it as "a full bodied, robust porter with natural mocha malt flavours from the complex malt grist, complementing the decadent additions of real cocoa beans to the maturation process".  Well, if they say so. It was just a chocolate infused dream of a beer. Those that reckon that cask conditioning can't handle this strength of beer needed to be there. No carbonic bite, just a tight creamy head, a melting chocolate malt body and all that wonderful flavour.  Truly magnificent. The best beer I've had this year by a considerable margin. We had to stay for more and indeed returned for more later.

I'll tell you about other aspects of Sheffield in another post, including our trip to Thornbridge Brewery itself and a bit about where the meeting took place, but I must first mention another fantastic pub.  The Red Deer, an unspoilt traditional pub just off West Street.  Not only is it a lovely multi roomed boozer, but it has the kind of easy going atmosphere and mixed crowd that makes you want to stay for more than one. So we did of course. We sought the barman's advice on some of the local brews and he knew his stuff and couldn't have been more helpful.  We settled on Stancill Stainless after being reassured by said barman.  Described as "Unfined, vegan and naturally hazy." our antennae were finely tuned into trying to discern something decent amid the murk. Instead we were presented by a perfectly clear, beautifully balanced best bitter, lush with malt and with a big Cascade hop hit. Poise, balance and elegance.  Class in a glass in fact.

So, three things if not learned, reinforced. Cask conditioning can be just the dab for rather strong beers if the brewery and cellarman know their stuff. Unfined beer does not have to look like chicken soup if the brewer and cellarman know their stuff and good pubs and good beer, when mixed correctly in the right proportions, attract the right crowd and are a winning combination.

Simple stuff really, but highly recommended for great beer and great pubs.

Note the Gilmour's Brewery window in the Red Deer photo.  I understand too that the Bath Hotel has its interior listed as being of national importance. I can see why.

I won't mention the very unwise kebab, or how messily it was eaten either.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

PopUp for a Drink

Somewhat perversely I suppose, I left London before the main piss up of Craft Beer Rising started on Friday of London Beer Week.  I had arranged to go to London long before I had even thought about that and I couldn't stay on as I had an important CAMRA meeting on the Saturday.  A pity as I think I'd have enjoyed it.  Next time, I'll try and be there.  Such is the business of my better half, that I like to come when she has a little less to do, then I get the pleasure of taking her out for an overpriced pint, but this time she had a little free time and I had access to a little free beer. Hooray.

Many readers will know that the vast Truman's Brewery in Brick Lane was more or less abandoned when the brewery closed in 1989. It is now home to many arty type projects and a hub of London Beer Week.  Two pop up brewery led bars were of interest and I had an invitation, as a guest, to one. Sharps had a neat little pop up bar, open to the public, with a fair number of their lesser spotted ales on cask as well as, of course, Doom Bar.  It was good to try Cornish Coaster, Atlantic, Wolf Rock and Special. All were pretty good actually, though hardly enhanced by being served in flimsy plastic glasses.  The fun bit was an invitation to Sharp's Secret Bar, where spoonfuls of various foods were matched to Sharp's Connoisseurs range and boy did it work. This range of beers is excellent and I have to say that the Vintage Blend, described by the brewery as "Five beers of diverse styles and vintages – a Trappist Dubbel, a sweet barley wine, a Quadrupel fermented with yeast, a soured honey wheat beer and a US dry-hopped double IPA – aged for one month and blended with a base beer for truly unique results" was as stunning a beer as I've had in a long time.  The experience was great fun and while I won't divulge details in case anyone gets a chance of going, if the opportunity ever arises, jump at it.  We all trooped out with immense grins on our faces and you can't say fairer than that.  It was interesting too to talk to Sharp's (surprisingly young) brewer Andrew Madden who was a really good sort.  All in all it was a great afternoon out and you learn, if you hadn't already, that big brewers can brew bloody good beer.

Just around the corner was the Guinness PopUp.  This was clearly aiming to promote their new lager Hop House 13.  All the founts bar one were for this beer and much memorabilia and clothing was on sale. Along with my pack from London Beer week, I had a voucher for a free half, so I tried it. Not bad really, rather thin bodied and weedily bitter, it was certainly a little more tasty than many, but not likely to be my go to lager. Ever.  Of much more interest was that they were selling one off beers from the Open Gate Brewery. I won't go into this Guinness experiment here, rather, I suggest you turn to the Beer Nut who wrote about it all in his blog in early December.  Talking to the delightful guys behind the bar, they were sent a different beer three or four times and the current offering was Milk Stout. Now surprisingly to me at least, this 6.4% beer was served on plain old CO2, not nitrogen like Draught Guinness and it displayed all the negative qualities I associate with that kind of serve for ales and stouts, most notable of which was a fierce carbonic bite and the fact that the head lasted seconds.  This rendered the beer into sugar water. Not great and annoyingly sold at £3 a half while the lager was £3 a pint. Bonus was the great staff and welcome, a free bag of the best pork scratchings I've had in  along time and the fact that all the beer was served in proper glasses.

Last up in this little trio of reports was another invitation, this time by Goose Island.  This was a closed event and we were offered  three different bottled beers to go on with, Honkers, an English style Pale Ale, Goose Island IPA and a lighter wheat beer, 312. Now is that Goose Island IPA dumbed down? This was the talk and even though I have supped it at source, I couldn't say for sure, but the consensus, which I probably go along with, is that it has lost something in up-scaling it.  Nonetheless all the beers were very enjoyable in the context. There was plenty nice seafoody stuff too and a chance to scoff rather a lot of Dungarvan Oysters which certainly wasn't a hardship.  Slightly citric, salty sweet and a real treat, they were good to wash down with a swig of 312.  Later on we were invited into a holy of holies where the Goose Island Innovation Brewer, Tim Faith, talked us through tastings of Goose Island Bourbon County in its "ordinary" and aged incarnations.  All in all a good night too, though I preferred the straight Bourbon County by far.

It was great too to hook up with the Beer Father, Justin Mason and @tabamatu Andy. Great company for a good night out at any time.

E and I also went to the Pilsner Urquell pop up which was more or less next door to the Guinness one. Rather dingy inside, Tankovna PU wasn't enhanced one bit by plastic glasses though E liked an old favourite of hers, Kozel, also served from a tank, but with the same reservations on plastic. Can't remember the prices though sadly.

Read Ed's Report here too. 

Monday 7 March 2016

Fun Down the Pub

Last Wednesday after attending the final Oldham Beer Festival Planning meeting in Oldham, I hot footed it to Rochdale to meet my chums as usual. Well I say hot footed - more cold footed really - as the inepts from First Manchester Buses skipped a bus on the half hourly 409 route, leaving me and many others in Ice Station Zebra for a further 40 minutes. (Oldham is at least two overcoats colder than most places.) Sorry for the digression, but a rant about these buggers always makes me feel better. See tweets passim for more such.

Our usual haunt, the Regal Moon is still being renovated after the floods, so our new temporary home is the Good Beer Guide listed Flying Horse nearby. It is rather a good pub, with nice staff and immaculate beer. No hardship to drink there at all and I joined my pals while nodding to other Regal Moon outcasts.  We aren't the only ones in that boat. The company was excellent and once I thawed out I really enjoyed myself. It was jolly with banter, laughter and conversation and the beers, all of them, were at the peak of cask conditioning. It was a really good night and even the unheated 17 home didn't dampen my cheerful mood that much.

So, I had a fun night on the beer in the pub, what's the big deal?  Well there isn't one, but I make this point.  I do remember looking at the pumpclips of the six or more beers on offer, all from breweries I hadn't heard of and choosing my beers based on the colour samples that were in font of each handpump in little jars, or, the pumpclip description. I couldn't remember the names or breweries of any of the beers on the way home and reflected that I'd had four pints from three different breweries and just enjoyed them for what they were and the occasion for the company. The beer was kind of incidental.

Sometimes, and maybe the best times, is when beer is an accompaniment to fun rather than being the fun itself.

Boundary Park, Oldham FC's ground is often called Ice Station Zebra, but I think it applies to the town equally. It's a bloody cold place.

I discovered a photo on my phone from the night. So I might have been drinking Spike's Gold, but then again, maybe not.  And yes, it was topped up. 

Thursday 3 March 2016

Dogged by Trouble

I remember in the early days of my residence in this wonderful area of Greater Manchester, being invited to the re-opening of the Three Arrows in Pilsworth near Heywood, which is part of my CAMRA branch area.  Quite a countrified part of this world really and I recall, as I was going to have a drink and therefore not driving, leaving the car at home and hoofing along country roads to Heywood in my suit. I also remember being ticked off in this Lees pub for wearing my Higsons Brewery tie. Well, it was over 25 years ago, standards of behaviour and decency were much more rigidly enforced and they were, by and large, much more innocent times.

Alas no longer. The current tenant of the Three Arrows is being dogged, by, well, doggers. Seems like this quiet and reasonably isolated neck of the woods is an ideal spot for it. Now unlike my dear friend Tyson of this parish, I'm unfamiliar with such terms, so turned to the Urban Dictionary for enlightenment. It speaks thusly: "This is where people meet up in car parks and watch each other having sex. Sometimes other people join in, but it's mainly about watching and getting off on it!"  Well I never. I doubt if such things ever happened in Dumbarton in my youth and certainly I didn't come across anything like it in Liverpool when I was there - and trust me anything went in Scousley - but hey, things change and seemingly it is a widespread thing. Doesn't sound that much like fun to me, but who am I to judge?

Unfortunately what one might regard as a harmless enough, if somewhat unusual and eccentric pastime, has a darker side.  The discarding of unwanted associated items.  This is what is getting on the nerves of the landlady of the pub. Seems your dogger likes to chuck away "Condoms, underwear and baby wipes".  Not so nice at all for the landlady having to clean such things up.  Seems too your dogger, probably as you might expect, is somewhat brazen in their activities, being undeterred by CCTV or, indeed, daylight. This kind of brass necked conduct has narked the landlady further, but thinking on,  it does kind of go with the territory, but nonetheless I agree that she really does have a point that must be addressed.

So this is a plea to my dogging readers. It isn't smart and and it isn't clever. Pack it in.

If you want to read the full gory details have a look at the Manchester Evening News. There are some less than helpful suggestions and poor jokes on Facebook here.

Heywood is also known as Monkey Town. You can read all about it in the Knowhere Guide. 

Tuesday 1 March 2016

The New and the Old

I mentioned in my last post that the area of London around Aldgate has changed beyond recognition. Bearing this in mind, I decided to make use of the changes and instead of approaching the Brick Lane area via my usual route of Whitechapel Rd, I went along Commercial St for a change, thus giving me a chance to walk on the posher parallel.  A mere 15 minute stroll from our flat I came across Culpepper. From outside it looked pretty attractive, though the name itself set off alarm bells. This wasn't going to be a basic boozer, even though, with Truman's boards on the façade, it obviously was at some time, having lived most of its existence as the Princess Alice and after that as the City Darts - a name that just makes you want to say "Why?" A bit like its latest name in fact.  It has, like many a place in this area, Jack the Ripper connections.  That lad got about a bit.

Anyway enough of pub naming, I'm more into pub shaming, so around noon, in I went.  Now I have no idea what it looked like before, but I rather liked the way it has been done up; stripped walls, large windows with wrought iron surrounds and a nice wooden floor give it a very pubby feel, even though, clearly, the emphasis is on food.  You can read what Jay Rayner thought about it here*, but I was there for the beer. Good it was too, but pricey. You'd expect that, but at least they'd remembered to spend some money on cellar cooling and, more importantly, switched the bloody stuff on. The young barman was happy to chat as I was the only one there, but his boss - I sussed that out - gave me not as much as a glance, so you may have to take your chances in being greeted kindly.  I had two beers; Hackney American Pale and having spotted it, Harveys Sussex Bitter, because it is the law that this cannot be passed by. I enjoyed the latter more than the former, but the Hackney was fine. In fact a touch better than that and if I hadn't been the sole customer the whole time I was there, it might have been even finer.  I understand though the pub/restaurant/hotel isn't this quiet normally, being filled and overfilled by hipsters and suits. Now I know though, I can enjoy a pint there when it isn't rammed. So in short, I liked it.

I also liked the Golden Heart on the corner of Commercial St and Hanbury St, as a pub that has been preserved in its 1960s glory. It really is a smasher inside, with much dark wood, nice old prints, Trumans memorabilia, sparklingly clean (I didn't use the toilets though) and with a legendary, characterful landlady (Didn't know that at the time). So putting aside the gougy prices (£2.80 half of Trumans)  - what's not to like?  Again I was the only customer, so was served by the legend who gave an immediate impression of the individuality that earns her the descriptor of brusque and obtuse in one review. I put it down at the time as her being deaf and eccentric, so enjoyed the décor, put her out of my mind, supped up, thanked her and left.

I didn't witness her other behaviours, described as "rude, awful, unreasonable, acidic, belligerent" and more, though I suppose I did witness "Daylight Robber".  I have a feeling the other less than complimentary attributes weren't hidden that far below the surface. I like "character", but you can have too much of a good thing it seems. Enter at your own discretion. 

*Jay Rayner advises that Culpepper was a herbalist of some repute. They grow herbs in the roof garden apparently. Jay isn't impressed.

You really want to read some of the astonishing reviews of the Golden Heart. You might even want to go there afterwards. I might even go back myself, but probably safer not to.