Not a fan

I realised the other day that I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean that in the usual sense, as an elaborate way to say you don’t much like something – although I’m sure I could reel off as many dislikes and prejudices as the next blogger. I’m not a fan of beer you can’t see through, for example, and I still haven’t managed to get into sours; in my experience Wild‘s beers need to be approached with caution, and Omnipollo‘s are rarely worth the trouble (and expense) of approaching at all.

But that’s by the way. The point is, when it comes to beer I’m not a fan – of anyone or anything (any brewery, any style, any beer).

(OK, I’m already thinking of exceptions. But let’s pursue this melancholy line of thought a bit further.)

What’s happened? How did the decades-long journey of discovery – starting out with one big, explosive discovery (beer!!!) and continuing through the smaller explosions of other discoveries (old ale! abbey beers! Weizen! Dunkelweizen! porter! imperial stout! really really really pale hoppy beers!) – how did it wash up in my current state of vague yeah it’s all right I suppose not-a-fandom?

The short answer is that things change. The long answer is the same, but in four parts.

1. Breweries Close

Yes, I’m going to mention TicketyBrew again. I was a huge fan of Duncan Barton’s beers; I’ve still got a few in the garage, but when they’re gone I’m really going to miss them. If I knew a bar nearby had one of their beers on I’d always check it out, even if it meant making a special trip later – and I was very rarely disappointed when I did. I only really discovered how big a fan I’d been after the brewery closed, when I realised that I’d stopped peering in at the windows of local bars as I passed. If I already knew I wasn’t going to see one of TicketyBrew’s instantly identifiable zigzag pump clips… well, what was the point? There are a few other breweries in the “always check out” category – Batham’s, Holden’s, Harvey’s, Dark Star – but three of those are very rarely available around here, and as for the fourth…

2. Breweries Change

For a long time I felt like I ought to be a fan of Marble, what with the eponymous Beerhouse basically being my local, and for a long time I didn’t really get their beers. I don’t think it was entirely me, either; some of them were a bit rough round the edges, particularly in the period when they were using that one hop that smells like vomit. (That’s not just me, is it?) Anyway, breweries change – sometimes for the better – and, while James Kemp was head brewer, Marble produced two superb pale ales, the beast that was Built to Fall and the crystalline perfection of Damage Plan. Kemp, with Joe Ince, followed up with the Gothic Series, a range of barrel-aged old ales and imperial stouts, which were equally brilliant. I bought one of everything and started making notes towards what would have been a big (and favourable) review of Marble Beers In General. Then things changed; James Kemp moved on (to Yeastie Boys); the bottles started going out of stock and the beers weren’t re-brewed. There have been a few new barrel-aged beers from Marble, but Ince’s interests seem to lie more in pales and sours. (So, am I a fan of Marble? No. Yes. Which Marble?)

3. Fashions Change

When I first got into beer there was a simple rule of thumb; beer in general was brown, malty and traditional, quite easy to find but not very strong; good beer was very brown, very malty, very traditional, quite hard to find and very strong (a phrase which here means ‘over 4.9%’). I had Young’s Winter Warmer at a beer festival once and for a moment had to restrain myself from shouting Yes! That’s it! (“Est, est, est!” “Tell them I am drinking stars, although by ‘stars’ I mean ‘memories of under-age drinking in South London’!”)

Anyway, one taste I’ve preserved from that period is a taste for old ales and barley wines. But can you get them? I realise that 8%ers on cask are a tall order, but you’d think that the ‘craft keg’ scene – with its tolerance for high strength and high price, and its endemic competition for stylistic niches – would have been ideal territory for a revival of these types of beer. (And you can always bottle them – see above.) Strong pales we get; strong stouts, we get; strong sweet stouts, even. Old ales and barley wines, dubbels, tripels, doppelbocks – not so much. It must just be fashion. I guess barley wines will come back round again – everything comes back round again eventually; I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

4. Tastes Change

This last point, though, is the real shocker. I cut my teeth on the brown, malty beers characteristic of the London area and South Wales – and Sussex, and rural Yorkshire, and the South-West, and the North-East, and East Anglia, and Scotland… – and for a long time I was a staunch partisan of those styles, despite them not being the thing around here (or in south Lancs and west Yorks generally).

After several years of more or less forced exposure to them, eight years ago I made the happy discovery that pale’n’oppy beers are actually quite nice. But I retained my appreciation of the good old brown-and-malty, if done properly – as in, Adnams’ Broadside or Fuller’s ESB rather than Sheps’ Spitfire – and would always make a beeline for beers from those few contemporary breweries that were still turning them out. They were often Welsh; Conwy was a favourite for a while, and I was over the moon when I realised that Evan Evans was a direct continuation of Buckley’s, whose bitter was the one of the first I ever loved.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I had a half of Evan Evans’ uncompromisingly-titled Cwrw in a Spoons’ in Urmston (of all places), and it was… fine. Well, barely that. I mean, the beer itself was absolutely fine – good example of the style, well kept and in good nick, I could tell that it was doing what it was supposed to do. It was just… a bit on the sweet side, if I’m honest; a bit too big and mouth-filling for my liking. Results from a subsequent tasting of Fuller’s ESB were similarly disappointing. It’s a good beer, it’s just… it’s not really my thing, any more.

But if I haven’t got a brewery to be a fan of, and I haven’t got a style to be a fan of – except breweries and styles that you basically can’t get – what does that leave?

5. Found in the Supermarket

A bottle of Landlord, the other week, absolutely knocked my socks off – it was every bit as good as it is on cask, when it’s been cellared properly and allowed to dry out a bit. A can (it’s what all the cool kids are drinking these days) of Rooster’s Yankee was terrific; I was genuinely surprised at how fruity and how bitter it was. The whole thing was so well done, it really seemed to make sense of the pale’n’oppy style (which can be as ho-hum as any other). A bottle of Proper Job delivered something similar but in heavier boots; that’s a big pale hoppy beer.

So there’s that; the classics are still classics, at least some of them. And, going back to the first couple of points, it’s worth noting that these are all quite long-established beers from independent breweries that are still trading (and still independent). Maybe that’s something I am a fan of: independent breweries (so that the brewer is close enough to the top of the organisation to guarantee quality) making styles they’ve been brewing for a few years (so that they’ve had time to get them right). Same thing I’ve been a fan of since the 1970s, really.

Roll up! Roll up!

All the fun of the festival! Yes, it’s another beer festival – Chorlton this time.

I’ve been to Chorlton Beer Festival, held every year in the outbuildings and grounds of St Clement’s Church, most years since it started in 2005; I’ve still got fond memories of the BrewDog Zeitgeist black lager I had there once (and that’ll be at least ten years ago now). So the lineup of attractions this year wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. In rough order of appearance, there was:

The Hip One (On Cask!)
Always nice to see a cask beer from a fashionable brewery who you don’t always see cask beers from, if that’s grammar. Cloudwater Mr Green’s Bouffant is a strongish pale ale, and it was pretty nice. (It’s no Zeitgeist, but what is?)

The One With The Flavourings
I couldn’t say no to RedWillow‘s pink peppercorn saison (a Faithless), particularly when there was a gap in the bar between me and it. I realised afterwards I’d been at the keg bar – and I do hold to the general position that any given beer is almost always better on cask – but they didn’t have this one on cask, so never mind. Anyway, the carbonation and chill didn’t seem to do it any harm (and it was a warm night).

The Crush At The Bar
Or, as it turned out, not. I wimped out of volunteering this year, as indeed I have ever since my rather strenuous – and very dry – experience at the festival in 2015. But the bars seemed to be much better arranged this year; I don’t think I ever noticed a bar that was two deep along its full length, let alone three. Maybe next year. (If they’ll have me – if they’ll let me back in, come to that. But more on that later.)

The Other One With The Flavourings
I was a bit disappointed by Stockport‘s Raspberry Porter, having really liked the brewery (and indeed their porter) before now. You know how in Sam Smith’s raspberry beer you can actually taste raspberries, it’s not just a syrup flavour? Not like that, sadly. (But Stockporter’s still ace.)

The Seating Situation (featuring Staring At Strangers)
I believe there were enough chairs, and to spare. It’s just that it’s not always easy to get at the one empty chair halfway down a long table (backing onto another long table); and it’s not easy (in another sense) to sit yourself down, as a lone punter, in one of the two empty chairs in between two groups of six, which was generally what was left by mid-evening. (Were they even empty? Were they keeping them for their friends?) So I spent a fair amount of time leaning against the church or perched on various bits of wall that shelved outwards, sometimes directing hard stares at people who seemed to be particularly profligate in their use of seating. (The three people chatting, standing up, in the middle of a cluster of eight empty chairs – I saw you.)

The Murky One
Track Helios – a Stockport Beer Festival home-brew competition winner – was everything you’d expect from a New England IPA: it was fruity, it was creamy, it was zingy, it was… completely opaque, and frankly rather unattractive to look at. So I drank it without looking at it. But it is a great-tasting beer.

The Food Situation
Having eaten before I came out, I wasn’t in the market for a full meal, but after a few beers you always fancy something… But what? I’d scouted out a couple of food stalls where everything seemed to be large-ish and priced around the £8 mark, and was musing grumpily on how this was Not what I wanted At All, when I caught sight of the answer to my prayers: a stall selling pork pies. Lots of pork pies. All different. A couple of different vegetarian options even. I bought one – £3, for a proper handful – and was well pleased. Festivals everywhere please copy.

The Cold Fizzy One
So there was this keg bar, and some of them were only on keg, and it was a warm night, and… What can I say, Beatnikz Republic/Atom Blanc Atomium (white IPA) is a really nice beer.

The Advancing Inebriation (also featuring Staring At Strangers)
No thirds at Chorlton, and some of these beers were rather strong (although I regretfully decided to swerve the Cloudwater Human Meanings at 8.5%). Rather sooner than anticipated I found myself sitting with my back to the church, gazing vaguely ahead of me and thinking rather slowly. I remember noticing a very tall woman who looked a bit like Thom Yorke, and wondering if she found that difficult. On getting up to go for another drink, I realised I’d been looking at a fairly tall man who looked a bit like Thom Yorke.

The One You Don’t Remember Afterwards
A classic sign of actually getting drunk at a beer festival is that, even though you’ve made a list, when you look at it later you’ve got no idea what the last beer on the list was like. (Or sometimes the last two or even three beers.) Blackedge Porter falls into that category this time. I do remember the guy serving me recommending a different porter, which – unlike this one – was on cask; I didn’t go for it, though, possibly because it was the Stockport and definitely because he’d already started pouring this one. I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t bad, anyway – I’d have remembered that.

Then there was a feature you don’t get at most festivals:

The Argument With A Clergyman
Chorlton BF runs on tokens, sold in sheets of £10 a go; this is on top of an entry fee, which also gets you a programme and a (non-returnable) glass. Partly-used sheets of tokens can be refunded on the way out. Some years ago, the organisers caused a bit of a row – literally on the night(s) and figuratively afterwards – by implementing a policy of not refunding partial sheets and holding on to the difference, for the benefit of the church. This is not something CAMRA approves (and the festival is sponsored by CAMRA), so they’d promptly stopped doing it. However, subsequent festivals have featured signs at the refund desk, asking visitors to consider not getting a refund and donating the value of their unused tokens to the church. Now, I don’t have many issues with the Church of England in general – and I dare say St Clement’s in particular could make good use of my money – but I have got a bit of a thing about making conscious choices: when I donate money, it’s because I’m choosing to donate money. Rattle a tin and I’ll often choose to put money in it; sell me a programme and I’ll usually choose to buy it; just don’t borrow money from me and then say, hey, here’s a thing, how about we keep it? This kind of ‘nudge’ technique, extracting the cash by replacing a deliberate donation with an unthinking default, is something that annoys me intensely whenever I see it (and I’ve seen it in lots of places beside St Clement’s, of course).

I’d seen the sign as I came through the churchyard on the way in, I knew where I stood, and by the time I was leaving I’d had plenty of time to think about it all. Asking at the tokens stall, I was redirected to the refunds stall, which was staffed – probably not coincidentally – by a man in a clerical collar. When he asked if I’d consider donating the money that was left on my card, I declined, giving him a polite but firm prepared statement: No issues with the church… like what you’re doing here… when I donate… choose to donate… so yes, thanks all the same, but I would like my money back. He wasn’t best pleased, and reacted as if I was the first person to be so awkward all evening (and, to be fair, I probably was the first person to make a speech about it). But he turned to his cashbox, and I prepared to take my £4.40 and leave with a good grace, feeling slightly ungenerous but satisfied that I’d made my point.

Then he took £4 out of the cashbox and explained that he was only giving me back the whole pounds. I did not have a line prepared for this – and I was, as I may have mentioned, quite drunk at this point. I don’t think I swore, but I certainly expressed some surprise and disappointment. His response, rather to my surprise, was not to try and mollify the ranting drunkard who’d just appeared in front of him, but to explain that this was in fact the festival’s policy, and even to indicate the small print on the sheet of tokens which had (apparently) notified me of this. (The chance of my reading any of the said small print was non-existent – I’d already handed the sheet over by this time, and in any case it was 10.00 at night.) Outmanoeuvred and out-documented, I turned to go – but then remembered CAMRA’s previously-expressed policy on the non-refund thing, and turned back to advise my new friend that he was in breach of this policy. He got quite flustered (I suspect I was getting rather loud by now, which I do regret) and offered me 50p, “if it matters so much to you”. But the money, of course, didn’t matter to me – and I certainly wasn’t going to take any money off him that wasn’t mine – so I left it and walked away, highly disgruntled.

It’s a shame; it was a bad note to end the evening on. (To clarify, I wasn’t involved in the planning, so I don’t know if the ‘whole pounds’ thing is covered by the festival’s arrangement with CAMRA or not. It doesn’t strike me as particularly good practice, though.)

Conclusion: The Negatives
As I’ve said, there were no delays getting served and no trouble finding affordable food. There was live music, but it was kept to a level where it was no nuisance to anyone who wasn’t in the mood; there were no queues for the loo, either, although as a man I was well provided-for. (None of the portaloos dotted about seemed to be designated for women only, while men had the added benefit of a block of urinals. This may be one for the organisers to keep an eye on.) More importantly, none of the beers I liked the look of had run out (and I was there on the second night); none of the beers I had was in poor condition; and I did not regret having any of them. Overall, it was not a bad little festival, and I would not rule out going again this time next year – as long as I’m not barred.

Mild by Northwest 4

Final scores

About 2/3 of the pubs I went to had a mild on (although in a couple of cases this took multiple visits). 32 out of 48 is lower than in previous years, but there does seem to have been a bit of a timing clash, and perhaps some miscommunication, on the Spoons front. Also, I have been a bit more selective in some areas – I visited fewer Hyde’s pubs than usual and only two Holt’s.

Dark mild: some good stuff from Brightside, Dunham, Moorhouse, Poynton, Salopian, Stockport, Tweed and a couple of less familiar breweries, as well as old friends from Hyde’s and Holt’s; Moorhouse and Tweed were probably the best of the bunch. Not so many actually labelled as ‘mild’, though.

Light mild: just the one, from Hyde’s – and the pump clip calls it a ‘session ale’. (Which, for once, is probably an improvement on calling it a bitter.) If mild’s endangered, light mild should be on a watchlist.

State Of Pub-Going: generally seemed fine, to be honest; there were a few tumbleweed venues, but much fewer than on my last round of MM outings, particularly at weekends. Perhaps it was just something about 2018.

Pubs where I was sorry not to be stopping for more than a half: Briton’s, Four Kings, Jake’s

Pubs where a half was plenty: Cocked Hat, Oxnoble

Old favourites: Petersgate Tap, Stockport Arch 14

New favourite: Reasons to be Cheerful, Tweed Equinox

Rediscovered old favourites: Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, Moorhouse’s Black Cat

The pay-off

All this boozing earned me – what else – beer tokens, for use at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival; enough for six halves, in fact. Since they weren’t restricted to the purchase of mild, I decided to spend them each on a different style of beer – subject to a strength limit of 5%, which ruled out going for a swift half of a 12% barrel-aged imperial stout. In the end I had:

Boudicca Spiral (stout)
Five Points Railway Porter (really good)
Stockport/Bar Nouveau Mild Mannered Victorian (mild; it was good, but how did they miss the obvious name?)
Twisted WTF (bitter; supposedly a biscuity old-school bitter with masses of hops, but I wasn’t sure about the hops)
Thirst Class You can call me Hal (pale)
Moorhouse M/44 (saison; really nice)

After that, I spent my own money on some >5% beers (in thirds):

Marble Different Dobber (nice, but I’d need to taste them side by side to verify the ‘different’ part)
Lacon’s Audit Ale (recommended by Dave Pennington, to whom many thanks; a terrific old-school barley wine)
Serious Gold Rush (a golden ale with Belgian yeast)
Cloudwater Henry’s Last Call (a cask pale from Cloudwater, got to be worth a bash – and it was)

The Lacon’s was my beer of the festival, although – slightly to my surprise – that Moorhouse saison wasn’t far behind. Great festival, great beers.

Many thanks to everyone who gave up their time to organise both the Mild Magic trail and the Festival; your work is really appreciated, at least by this punter.

Mild by Northwest 3 – Way Out East

Mild Magic 2019: the Eastern leg

The ups…

I’d been to Marple before, albeit only in search of beer and quite briefly at that; train in, head for the Samuel Oldknow, bus out. I saw a bit more of it this time, for two reasons. One was that Marple as a destination had been joined on the Mild Magic map by Marple Bridge, itself divided into ‘North’ and ‘South’ areas. The other was that I got the wrong train. The map on my phone suggested to me that Rose Hill Marple was only a little way out of town; I was impatient to get going, so I caught that train rather than hang around for the Marple (proper) service a quarter of an hour later.

This turned out to be a bad idea. I’m not one of life’s ramblers, but if there’s a hill to be climbed I’ll climb it without complaint. A long and gentle uphill slope, though – particularly one that continues uninterrupted for the best part of a mile – is not my idea of fun. This, though, is what lies between Rose Hill and the centre of Marple. At least it gave me plenty of opportunities to look at Marple. I concluded that Marple – like so many other places – is coming up in the world, not least because – like so many other places – it now supports at least three different craft beer outlets (including one that also specialises in craft gin). The longest-established is the Samuel Oldknow, an unassuming shop-front bar with hidden depths; I had Stockport Arch 14 mild, which was rather good (although admittedly I was thirsty by this stage).

Next, I headed for Marple Bridge, which to my surprise turned out to be at the bottom of a very steep hill, with Marple Station halfway down. (I guess bridges go over rivers, and they tend to be in valleys… Perhaps I’ve been a townie too long.) The mild on offer at the Norfolk Arms – a big old-style pub at the foot of the hill was 4 Ts Old School; the main thing I remember about it is that, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with stickers, I took it and sat down without paying. I reckon I could have got away with it, too, if I’d thrown it back and legged it, but honesty got the better of me.

Further out of Marple Bridge – strung out on the northbound road out of town, in fact – were the Spring Gardens and Northumberland Arms, two more big ‘roadhouse’-type pubs. The Spring Gardens didn’t have a mild on, but I hadn’t seen Abbeydale Deception in yonks, so it was nice to reacquaint myself. The Northumberland Arms had Dunham Dark, a very decent mild & one of those local milds I’d expected to see more of in the free trade. From there I got the bus to Romiley, where the proprietor of Jake’s Ale House (Jake?) proudly exhibited his all-but-empty sticker sheet – “75 new customers!”. Quite how often I’ll be making the trip to Romiley between now and the next CAMRA crawl, I don’t know, but in principle that is very much the idea. (It’s a nice little bar, and the Poynton Dark Side was really good.)

According to my notes it was 40 minutes from Jake’s to my next stop, the Railway in Portwood (covered in the first of these posts); as I remember most of that was spent on a minuscule bus bobbling around through the estates of Romiley and Harrytown. (Yes, Harrytown. Whether there’s any reliable way to distinguish people who come from Harrytown in terms of their accoutrements, I don’t know.) From there it was on to the Petersgate Tap and home (NB two distinct places).

…and downs

Glossop – which is also very easy to reach by train from Manchester, public transport fans – is another place that’s coming up in the world, at least if its craft beer bar quota is anything to go by. After a mildly disappointing start at the local Spoons, I’m afraid I incommoded the proprietor of Bar 2 slightly by walking into the bar at 12.15, at which point he was (as he explained) not only still setting up but still waking up after a very late night and a short night’s sleep. (Sometimes I think how nice it would be to run a little bar, and then I think again.) But there was mild (Stockport Arch 14) and it was in good nick. Bar 2, incidentally, was Tweed 2 until a disagreement with the Tweed brewery over rates and availability; there were no Tweed beers at all on the bar when I went. Finally – for Glossop – Four Kings Cask and Kitchen didn’t have any mild on, but I could forgive them that for the quality of the Four Kings Porter. The food menu looked extraordinary, too, but nothing quite leapt out at me, so I moved on.

You know how places like Marple and Glossop are coming up in the world, proliferation of craft beer bars etc? (It’s not just the old country towns, either – look at Urmston. Even Stretford is loaded with ‘craft’ joints these days – Stretford!) OK, so: Hyde. The centre of Hyde is busy, you’ve got to give it that, and I didn’t notice many vacant sites – but you’d be looking at it for a long time before the phrase “up in the world” occurred to you. (Having a honking great motorway running – at best – right alongside the town can’t help matters.)

Where beer’s concerned Hyde sometimes means the Queens; not this time, though, I reckoned I’d had my quota of Joey’s pubs. But it always means the Tweed Tap, the Sportsman and the Cheshire Ring. The Tweed Tap somehow looks like a craft beer bar which has no intention of bringing the surrounding area up in the world; I’m not saying it’s rough, just a bit… spartan, inside as well as out. Tweed Equinox is badged up as an “English brown ale”; I suppose you could find some echoes of Newcastle’s finest in there if you thought about it, but it was basically a pleasantly complex light-ish dark mild. As for the Sportsman, there is, in all honesty, very little to say that I haven’t said before. Here’s what I said when I visited four years ago, with a bonus callback to two years before that:

The last time I was in there – for 2013’s MM – the place was deserted. Not only was there only one other drinker in there, there was nobody behind the bar … in fact there was nobody in the place at all, apart from some people in the back kitchen preparing food and chatting in Spanish. (I got someone to serve me eventually, but it was a struggle.) It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant.

It’s still a Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant – with little or no signage outside indicating either of these things – and it’s still a bit challenging to get served; if you’ve ordered food, in particular, it’s handy to memorise phrases like “relaxed, unhurried service” and repeat them to yourself occasionally. (It’s good food, to be fair.) A vast array of Rossendale beers were on the bar – seriously, there must have been seven or eight of them – but none of them was a mild as far as I could tell.

As for the Cheshire Ring, I always vaguely think of it as a bikers’ pub; I’m sure it isn’t, but it’s got that combination of cheap – but good – beer and macho bonhomie that I remember from my few forays into bikers’ pubs, Back in the Day. (People didn’t even say ‘back in the day’ in those days, I’m talking properly way back…) Further investigation establishes that there is in fact a biker’s pub in Hyde, the uncompromisingly named Bike’n’Hound; perhaps I’ll investigate another time. Or perhaps not; either way, something tells me that my mental image of the b.’s p. (involving draught cider, pork scratchings and singles by Hawkwind on the jukebox) may not be entirely up to date.

Back at the Cheshire Ring, there was nothing dark on the bar except Beartown Crème Bearlee (which is a stout); not being the world’s biggest Beartown fan, I swerved this in favour of something light (Shardlow Narrow Boat, my notes say, but I couldn’t tell you more than that). When I asked for a sticker the barman gestured at the Beartown stout – You should have had that one! I demurred politely, pointing out that it wasn’t a mild. You’re all right, he replied. Trouble is, when we do have Quantock on, it goes in a flash! As an argument against stocking Beartown’s dark mild, I thought this lacked something.

Exactly what happened after the Cheshire Ring I’m not able to tell you (although my notes tell me that I was back in Stockport an hour later). Similar issues relating to alcohol and memory make me unable to say very much about another trip, which finished at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; there are pubs where I find it all but physically impossible to stop for just the one, and the Buffet Bar is definitely one of them.

Earlier that day, though, I definitely made a stop at Silly Country in Droylsden. There’s a distinct set of bars where I never do stop for more than one but invariably think I’d like to – Jake’s is one, and the Four Kings bar is heading that way; and Silly Country is on that list. On this occasion, though, one beer was plenty: they had an act on. There had been an act on at Platform 5 – or “the Holt’s pub with the flirty barman” as it is to me now – but that place is so big, they could set up a bowling alley if they moved a few tables; even with amplification, a full band off in the middle distance was no impediment to a quiet half. Not so Silly Country, which looks big-ish when it’s empty but looks – and sounds – decidedly bijou when it’s occupied by a dozen punters and a young man with an electric guitar. I say ‘young man’ – he can’t have been older than twelve. He was doing a decent job, accompanying himself through a series of hits – now the Beatles, now George Ezra – and he seemed to be collecting for a good cause. I didn’t feel like lingering, though. There no mild on offer, that day at least – I had a half of Stubborn Mule The Mandarin Candidate, an experimental-sounding IPA (Mandarina Bavaria hops plus actual mandarins). It worked, just about; awful name, though.

Next: final thoughts

Mild by Northwest 2 – Times Change

More on Mild Magic 2019

Times change
Ways change
Times change, people change
– Julian Cope

Didsbury and beyond
I haven’t been in many Hyde’s or Holt’s pubs for this year’s Mild Magic. But Hyde’s, in particular, is hard to avoid if you’re doing the Withington corridor, and one or other of 1863 and Old Indie was on offer at the Friendship, the Victoria, the Horse and Farrier (Gatley) and the Crown (Cheadle). The Vic was a bit dead when I called in, but the other three were all pleasantly busy – not something that’s always been true of the Friendship, in particular. (There have been fewer empty pubs across the board as compared to last year; it may not mean anything, but it does seem like a good sign.) I think 1863 is the only light mild I had this time round, if indeed it still is a light mild.

East Didsbury was more varied, in all senses of the word. I’ve never yet had a mild in Wine and Wallop (despite the name) and this year was no exception – although I gather that they did have a mild on for at least some of the Mild Magic period. My first visit to the Head of Steam also drew a blank, but when I returned a couple of weeks later they had Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild on. The last time I’d seen that beer it was on the bar at the George in Stockport, side by side with Golden Best and both going for £2 a pint – happy days. It wasn’t £2 a pint at the HoS – in fact it was very nearly £2 a half – and I guess trade hadn’t been brisk, as it was rather tired. Still, better that than the reliably awful Coach House Gunpowder Mild which was on at the Olde Cock. Up the road in Burnage, Reasons to be Cheerful had Salopian Divine Comedy, an excellent contemporary take on the dark mild style, along with much else; it’s one of those bars that I try to fit in last when I’m doing a crawl, because I know I won’t want to stick to the one half. I have to confess, the places in this category used to be old-style real ale ‘exhibition’ pubs – the Crown in Stockport, the Railway in Portwood, the New Oxford – but these days they’re more likely to be places with interesting keg as well as cask ranges: Reasons, Petersgate Tap, Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Times change, people change.

Urmston
I like Urmston, but next to Chorlton – next to Stockport, for that matter – it’s… odd. It has the unevenly-developed, up-and-coming quality of bits of the Northern Quarter (ever-shrinking bits), or of Beech Road in Chorlton about five years ago, but with the difference that in both those two cases a bohemian/foodie/’craft’ scene took root in the midst of urban decline. Urmston’s not quite like that, in that the ‘old’ – pre-hipster – Urmston is still right there and doing absolutely fine. Put it this way, there can’t be many other places in Manchester where you can walk out of a craft beer bar and come face to face with a poster advertising a 70s dinner-dance hosted by TV’s Stan Boardman.

I was there for the beer, starting with Holt’s dark mild at the Lord Nelson; I even went for a pint, on the basis that

  1. it had been off at Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme, so I hadn’t had Holt’s mild yet
  2. it’s only 3.2%, and
  3. it seemed like the kind of pub where one orders pints

Nice pub, like a lot of Holt’s suburban pubs (the Griffin, the Park Inn) in being a massive, multi-roomed beer palace; hard to fill, but it was early in the evening when I was there and I got the sense it would get busier later. Perhaps it was just having a pint of mild in my hand, but it felt very much like proper old-school pubbing.

My other scheduled stop was the Tim Bobbin (JDW) for Lymestone Stonefish dark mild – and not Stella, as my order was initially misheard. (This seems to happen to me a lot in Urmston. I guess my accent still sounds a bit ‘southern’ – I’ve only been here since 1987, after all.) I also had a half of Evan Evans Cwrw; Evan Evans is the successor brewery to Buckley’s, whose bitter provided me with an unforgettable teenage beer epiphany. This time round… well, times change.

But I finished off at the Schooner, which wasn’t doing Mild Magic but would have been a sure-fire last-bar-on-the-route if it had been. The porter I started with was excellent; the arancini that were being prepared – one night only – on a stall outside made a great meal (and I’d been wanting to try arancini); and the second beer I had was the best of the night: it was dark, it was 7%, and it was an India Dark Ale. That’s right, it’s like an IPA only dark and stouty… It took me right back to when that piney/roasty combination was new – and “Cascadian Dark Ale” was being bandied about as an alternative title – and reminded me of what’s good about black IPAs, when they’re done well. It’s only a shame I can’t remember the brewer.

The Schooner also does off sales, and they had some beers reduced that night – including some that were up against the sell-by date and were reduced to £1. A recent Belgian beer tasting had introduced me to De Dochter van de Korenaar, so I was pleased to be able to pick up a bottle of their Beau Monde saison (brewed with bitter oranges and dry hopped). This is a daft recipe on paper, and it was an unprepossessing beer when I got round to opening it – it gushed enthusiastically and took about five minutes to transfer into a glass; how long it would have taken to settle I don’t know, as I wanted to drink it that evening. Still, sludge-brown and murky though it was, it was a terrific beer; the dry hopping and the oranges worked to blunt the rough edges of the saison style, and it all added up to a properly grown-up fruit beer.

Urmston took me back: back to the glory days of the late noughties when black IPAs were new, back to drinking malty Welsh bitter in my teens, back to the kind of pub that my Dad would have known his way around… (Not to mention taking me back to when I was new in Manchester and I was still getting accent-checked.) But the Schooner, at least, has one foot firmly in 2019. No mild, but nobody’s perfect.

Next: way out East.

Mild by Northwest

More observations on Mild Magic 2019.

Manchester
Pubs in and near the city centre did pretty well by Mild Magic this year. I had Brightside Ch-Ch-Cherry Mild at the City and an excellent Moorhouse’s Black Cat at the New Oxford (have Moorhouse’s changed the recipe? I’m sure it never used to be that good). The Briton’s Protection even had a house mild on (brewed by Beartown). I would have liked to stay longer at all of those, the Briton’s most of all – partly because they had an excellent beer range, partly because I’m not a huge Beartown fan and wouldn’t have minded moving on to something else, but mainly because I was the only person in, that Wednesday evening. Most of the pubs I went into on a weeknight were pretty quiet, but that was a low point. Of the town-centre Spoons’ – which weren’t quiet – the Moon Under Water and Paramount both had a mild or something similar (Pheasantry Mikado and Orkney Dark Isle respectively); the Waterhouse didn’t, although the porter I had instead was very good. The Oxnoble was (I think) new to Mild Magic this year, and (definitely) wasn’t really trying – only one hand pump on when I visited, and that one had Robinson’s Trooper on.

Stockport
I mentioned the Hope and the Remedy Bar in the previous post. The Petersgate Tap also had a ‘coffee mild’ on – North Riding Coffee Bean Mild – while the Railway had Howard Town Milltown. Less encouragingly, on my visit there was no mild at the Angel or at the Cocked Hat. I’d been encouraged to revisit the Cocked Hat by reading that it had reopened under new management, but I won’t be hurrying back. The main beers on the bar were a pale bitter called 28 Days Later and a darker bitter called One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, both from a brewery called RT about which I can find out precisely nothing (except that I don’t think they’re anything to do with RT Ales of Cardiff). I had the second of these, and it was really poor – somehow bland and unbalanced at the same time. As I was forming this opinion the song playing on the PA finished and another started – a cover version of the Steely Dan classic Do It Again, which had apparently been augmented by the bass and drums from Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Recoiling from this travesty, I necked my beer as quickly as I could manage and moved on. Up the road, Heaton Hops wasn’t serving a mild (although the Siren Undercurrent was excellent). Normal mild service was restored – not before time – at Fred’s in Levenshulme, where I had my second half of Brightside Ch-Ch-Cherry Mild, to the accompaniment of the bar staff talking among themselves about how horrible it was.

– Have you tried that one? It’s… ugh…
“I’d be all right, I like anything with cherries in.”
– Well, I’m the same, that’s what I thought, until I actually tried it…

(Memo to Brightside: I don’t care what they say, I like it.)

Spoons’
Mild in Spoons’ pubs was patchy this year, possibly because the chain’s latest ‘beer festival’ had only just finished when Mild Magic started; the Sedge Lynn in Chorlton was still starting ‘festival’ beers two weeks later. Yes, there were milds at the Moon Under Water and Paramount – not to mention Tim Bobbin in Urmston (Lymestone Stonefish), the Great Central in Fallowfield and the Society Rooms in Stalybridge (both Leeds Midnight Bell) – but there were no milds at the Waterhouse, the Bishop Blaize, the Ash Tree, Ford Madox Brown or the Gateway. Part of this will just be down to when beers start and finish; I was told at the Gateway that they’d have a mild on the next day. On the other hand, the Smithy Fold in Glossop did have Beartown Brown Bear on, but it was off (and was exchanged without a fuss). The Sedge Lynn didn’t have a mild in the first week of Mild Magic, or the second, or the third; that said, when I went in the week after that they’d put two milds on to make up for lost time. (But no, I didn’t note either of them down.)

Next: Urmston, Didsbury and beyond…

Mild Magic – slow starters

I thought I’d get going reasonably quickly on this year’s Mild Magic – Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA’s annual celebration of this beleaguered beer style. MM 2019 started a week ago today. I can’t match those people who have set about filling their cards inside the first week (in at least one case, inside the first day), but I’ve made an effort to check out participating pubs in the last week, and thought I’d have a reasonable amount of progress to report by now.

The reality? Two stickers.

The first pub I tried – a week ago today – was the Gateway in Parrs Wood. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much success here; day one of MM was also two days after the end of Spoons’ latest “beer festival”, and I expected there would still be a fair few ‘festival’ beers on. As indeed there were. Under the terms of Mild Magic, I could have asked for a sticker anyway, but I felt I’d rather not start my first sheet with a non-compliant beer, so we moved on – or rather, went to our planned lunch venue.

This was the Head of Steam in Didsbury – or at least, it was going to be, until we checked out the chain’s new menu and decided we’d rather go for our fallback option. I stuck my nose in anyway and established that they didn’t have any mild on either. (The bar’s Web site is currently listing Timothy Taylor‘s Dark Mild – a rare beast around here and well worth the detour.)

On a previous visit to the Head of Steam I’d been confidently assured that Cameron’s Strongarm was a ‘ruby mild’. On a previous visit to Wine and Wallop – where we had a rather nice lunch – I’d been treated to a mini-lecture about how mild just wasn’t a very popular style these days, certainly not round here, so even if they did try stocking it it would only end up going off… There’s a grain of truth in there, certainly, but the fact that we were in the middle of that year’s Mild Magic at the time – and that the bar was participating – seemed a bit ironic. Anyway, there was no mild on this time either; that said, several pumps were off, so maybe a mild or two have come on since then. The beers we did have – from Silver Street and Siren – were excellent, but mild they weren’t.

Back in Chorlton I checked the Sedge Lynn, and found that the ‘festival’ was pretty much in full swing. I checked again during the week, and once more last night – when I found that one of the festival beers was being replenished and another couple had only just come on. This, eight days after the ‘festival’ formally ended; it looks rather as if they over-ordered. (The place has been rammed every time I’ve gone in, mind you, as indeed was the Gateway last Sunday.) No mild, anyway. I tried the Greene King ‘Ernest’ heritage beer they had on draught; it was just as dull, woody, brown-bread-y and generally malty-in-a-bad-way as I remember the Suffolk Pale being. I’m strongly in favour of reviving ‘heritage’ beers, but GK are starting to push it.

A trip to Stockport via Levenshulme was more productive, although we got off to an unexpectedly bad start by looking for food on the hip and happening Levenshulme Market. Not that there weren’t food options – there were; there was a variety of ‘perfectly nice’ options and quite a few ‘rather special, at a premium’ as well. Our problem – one I’ve had before, in town – was that as far as we could see the ‘perfectly nice’ options were already at a premium. Levy (as the cool kids were calling it in the 80s) clearly isn’t what it was. Fred’s Ale House was handy – and had the very respectable Phoenix Monkeytown Mild on – but, as I suspected, they weren’t serving food.

We eventually found exactly what we were looking for, foodwise, at the Produce Hall in Stockport, which has adopted the novel approach of selling Mackie Mayor food at Stockport prices. Unfortunately this was every bit as popular as you’d expect it to be, and there wasn’t a seat to be had in the place. We repaired to one of the cafes in the – rather more sparsely populated – Market Hall.

After lunch I looked in at the Baker’s Vaults; I don’t think I’ve had a mild in there since 1892 went out of production, and that day was no exception.

So far my scorecard read like this:

Pubs visited: 6
Milds seen: 1
Milds drunk: 0 (sorry, Fred’s; I’ll be back)

Fortunately my luck was about to change. Remedy had a beer, and in fact a brewery, that was new to me – Northern Monkey Reeny’s Beans, a “coffee mild” that I’d class as interesting more than impressive. (But at least it was a mild!) My next mild stop was the Hope, where the startlingly wide range of Foolhardy ales included Dark Raven, a very solid traditional dark mild.

Seven days, eight pubs, two stickers. A bit disappointing so far, but maybe I’ll have more luck with some of the more traditional pubs on the circuit. (And the Spoons’ ‘festival’ beers can’t last forever!)

Back to 78

This is an interesting thread from Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau:

Interesting – and informative (read the whole thread) – but, sadly, wrong.

The interesting part first: yes, moving from wooden to metal casks meant that secondary fermentation happened – or didn’t happen – in different ways. I’m not sure what Steve means by ‘micro-oxidation’, but I’d agree that the natural porosity of wood is likely to lead to (what we’d view as) undesirable loss of condition (i.e. beer going flat), while beer that was in a wooden cask for any length of time would be likely to pick up flavours from the wood itself (and/or from the pitch used to caulk the barrels(?)*). There’s also Brettanomyces, the proverbial English Disease**, which flourishes in the less-than-sterile environment of a repeatedly-used wooden cask*. Most beer – at least in 19th- and 20th-century conditions – was ‘running beer’*, which wouldn’t spend a lot of time in cask, but the difference in a ‘stock’ beer like a porter or Burton* would be quite pronounced.

The question then is whether anyone moaning about ‘kegging’ should either (a) insist on getting their beer from the wood or (b) shut up. I say No, for three reasons. In ascending order of importance:

Whose keg is it anyway?

Take the same, conditioning, beer, put one lot in a steel cask and the other lot inna bag inna box, and wait. Very similar stuff is going to happen to both lots of beer (although the bag inna box may be a bit of a bugger to vent). Slightly different things will happen once you start tapping the two containers, but the main difference will be the lack of oxidation in the beer inna bag inna box. Anyone who objects to every single manifestation of kegging – including unfiltered beer being packaged inna bag inna box and conditioning in very much the same way as beer in cask, but oxidating (if that’s a word) more slowly – is letting their taste in beer be ruled by an objection to the word ‘keg’, which is a bit daft.

That said, you can object to keg because you don’t like beer being filtered, pasteurised and force-carbonated (as, indeed, who does?). Admittedly, this objection doesn’t catch quite a lot of what’s done nowadays under the name of ‘keg’, but it’s still a valid position. Or you can object to the “filtering and serving under gas” part of conventional kegging; or you may not like your beer chilled (which in itself doesn’t have much bearing on whether a beer’s in keg or not*, but does tend to go along with kegging). Or – and this is the nearest I personally come to an ‘anti-keg’ position – you may have no principled objection to beer being filtered and CO2’d (or even chilled), in and of itself, but believe that beer which can be cask-conditioned (and traditionally has been) is probably going to be better if it continues to be.

So, someone who tells you they don’t like “keg” may be saying that they believe (or affect to believe) that putting beer inna bag inna box immediately turns it to bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel; or they may be saying that they’ll drink pretty much anything apart from b. W.’s R. B. or its modern equivalent; or they may have one of a number of positions in between, including my own (irrefutably correct) position of drinking interesting beers in keg when they’re on keg, but preferring the same beers on cask*** when they’re available. It follows that some people who moan about kegging are ignorant, obtuse stick-in-the-muds, but not all; I myself, for instance, am open-minded, erudite and thoroughly sophistimacated.

One of its legs is both alike

But let’s say that there are people going around being ignorantly prejudiced against any beer in a keg, up to and including unfiltered beer inna bag inna box. (Incidentally, I have seen “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” labels on keg taps, but only twice in the last four years; I guess it’s not much of a selling point. Presumably the CAMRA members don’t believe it and the craft keg drinkers don’t care.) The question then is whether wood to metal is the same kind of change as cask to keg – or rather, whether it’s a change of the same kind and similar magnitude. (“How can you object to us building a housing estate in this National Park? You didn’t mind when it was one house!”)

Steve argues that, as compared with beer from a wooden cask, beer from metal is fizzier and “a much cleaner, almost filtered product”. On the specific issue of losing condition, the difference between wood and metal clearly is the same kind of difference as the difference between metal and beer inna bag inna box. (That said, I doubt that the first difference – between oxidation plus loss of condition via the wood and oxidation alone – is of the same magnitude as the second one – oxidation vs no oxidation – or anywhere near.) I have more problems with “almost filtered”: in terms of active yeast in suspension*, surely a beer’s either filtered or it’s not. Surely it’s a coincidence – at best – if the effect of putting an unfiltered beer in metal seems ‘almost’ the same as that of filtering it; unfiltered beer is still, well, unfiltered. It’s certainly unlikely to be a change of the same magnitude.

You’re a fine one (just like me)

But let’s put all this logic-chopping aside. Steve’s right about the effect on beer of keeping it in wood, as compared to the effect of keeping it in metal; let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the effect of kegging is just “more of the same”, another step down the same road. Beer in the wood, ‘woody’, Bretty and flat; beer in metal, clean, consistent and sparkling; keg beer, more clean, consistent and sparkling. Does this leave keg objectors without a leg to stand on, unless they go the whole hog and enrol in the SPBW?

I don’t believe so. It’s a common tactic, when you’re pushing a conservationist line of some sort, to reduce a complex history**** to a black-and-white choice: to claim that the thing you’re trying to protect or preserve is utterly unspoilt and pristine, and that the development you’re resisting would ruin it forever. It’s a common tactic, and it’s almost always poorly-founded: very few things in the world are unspoilt and pristine. Beer and pubs certainly aren’t, and to all intents and purposes never have been. Even if you were to take the view that we should go back to a time nobody alive now remembers – before the First World War, when Lloyd George ruined everything – you’d be effectively disregarding several hundred years of history, during which a lot of things changed (even in brewing).

So it’s certainly not the case that everything was great before kegging came on the scene, or that nothing had changed up to then. However, the fact that nothing (in the world of beer) is pristine and unchanged doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth preserving – or that there are no changes worth resisting. This becomes clearer if we assume, not only that “wood to metal” and “metal to keg” are the same kind of change, but that they’re both bad changes. If you assume that going to metal casks made the beer worse, and that going to keg makes it worse again, Steve’s argument becomes “why are you objecting to something that’s deteriorated twice when you accept something that’s deteriorated once?”. It’s a good argument for beer from the wood, but as an argument for kegging it lacks something – it’s a bit like saying “how can you say I’d be better off not being neck-deep in water, when you’re knee-deep yourself?”

In short, Steve’s argument only really works if you assume that going from wood to metal wasn’t a bad thing, and that going from metal casks to kegging wasn’t a bad thing – but if you already believe both of these, you don’t need the argument.

(Interesting stuff about beer from the wood, though. Me, I’m a child of the 70s, so it’s unfiltered beer from a metal cask for me, for preference – but, as ever, there’s plenty of good stuff that doesn’t fit that description.)

*All corrections welcome. I’m very hazy (ironically) on the history and even more hazy on the technicalities of brewing & keeping beer.
**Brett has never been referred to as the English Disease, AFAIK, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on.
***In my experience, Blackjack Devilfish Saison and Marble Earl Grey IPA are, in fact, better on keg. Everything else where I’ve had a chance to compare, the cask wins.
****All histories are complex.

Say goodbye

I recently bought some beers from my personal favourite brewery, TicketyBrew.

What’s wrong with that statement? As we know, TicketyBrew closed down in early to mid-2018 (May? June?). There was no announcement, so I didn’t get the news till a couple of months later. After that I bought their beers whenever I saw them in shops (which, by that time, didn’t happen very often), and laid in stocks of the three greats – the Pale, the Dubbel and the Blonde – from an online beer merchant which still had a few bottles.

I worked my way through those over the next couple of months, and didn’t think much more about it. It was only the other day – on noticing Grimbergen Blonde, which never fails to remind me how much better TicketyBrew Blonde iswas – that it occurred to me to wonder if any other beer merchant still had any bottles in stock.

And so it came to pass. Sadly, the beers Flavourly had in stock (and still have, at the time of writing) don’t include all the ones I would have liked to stock up on, but the fact that they’ve got any of them, seven or eight months down the line, is worth celebrating.

Drinking them is an odd experience, though. There’s a distinct Mary Celeste quality about TicketyBrew’s closure – this post about their exciting new label designs dates from June 25th this year, by which point I suspect the brewery had already closed; certainly some of the new labels never seem to have made it into production. The impression is strengthened by some of the label copy on the bottles I bought, as we’ll see.

The Dubbel seems to have had a redesign (see previous link), but the bottle I bought came with the old-style label (black lettering on single-colour background with no spot colour, label copy reads “THE TICKETYBREW COMPANY”). As soon as I started to ease the crown cork there was a loud hiss and a thick collar of foam formed in the bottle; some careful work with the bottle-opener was required to avoid any gushing. Once open, it all went into a 355 ml glass without any fuss, though. As for what it’s like, it’s a beautiful beer. It opens with red-berry jamminess backed by malt loaf; at 6.5%, there’s no alcohol burn to speak of, just a pleasant density and warmth. There’s bitterness on the finish, but it’s smooth and unassertive, more like dark chocolate than coffee and perhaps even more like high-cocoa milk chocolate. It’s a really good dubbel, and I hope the world hasn’t seen the last of it. (I know I haven’t, as I bought several bottles, which are stamped BBE Feb 2020.)

Carrying on down the strength scale, the Black IPA – also with the old-style label – comes in at 6.1%, and I’d class it as good rather than great. I drank another black IPA earlier the same evening for comparison, and this one was certainly the better of the two; it just didn’t set off the piney fireworks that I remember from some black IPAs, back when they were new and some were referring to them as “Cascadian dark ales”. What you get is something like a best bitter, but with a smoky, tobacco-like edge, which builds to a charcoal bitterness and an overpowering ‘roasty’ finish; lots of bitterness, then, or different bitternesses. It is good and it is interesting, but it doesn’t score high enough on either count to make me want to bag the remaining stock. (BBE Jan 2019, so if it does appeal to you, the clock is ticking.)

Both Viva La Stalyvegas and Gertcha! are in the new livery, with spot colour (although, oddly, the VLS label has an amorphous blob of colour where publicity photos suggested the number 9 should be); both are listed as being in the ‘Staly Series’, complete with collect-the-set “Stalyfacts” (##1 and 3 respectively; I assume #2 was on the bottles for the US-hopped Yanks for the Memories, which coincidentally was the last cask Ticketybrew beer I ever drank). My VLS, like a lot of TicketyBrew bottles, was on the fizzy side of well-conditioned, but a careful pour into an oversized glass was all that was needed. It’s a 6% IPA and it’s terrific. Citra, Rakau and Ekuanot hops give a complex fruitiness, dominated by grapefruit – particularly on the long aftertaste – but with a distinct pineapple-ish sweetness in the mouth. Interestingly, the label says the beer was based on the Summer IPA, which was made with added pineapple and mango. I was positive about that beer when I reviewed it last year, but noted “I still can’t help feeling I’d rather be drinking an IPA that had got pineapple and mango flavours out of hops and malt”. I guess Viva La Stalyvegas is that IPA. If you like fruit-salad IPAs that don’t compromise on bitterness – and why wouldn’t you? – this is a fine example. (The BBE date for this, and for all the remaining three beers, was Feb 2019.)

The new label system included two-tone labels for short-run beers; one such is the Pink IPA, labelled in two rather fetching shades of pink. The label copy announces that this was the second in TicketyBrew’s “rainbow series of IPAs for 2018”; second and last, sadly. It’s a 6% IPA, like Viva La Stalyvegas; unlike VLS, it was made with fruit additions – strawberry, raspberry and hibiscus, in fact. It’s not pink to look at, though, or particularly fruity to taste. Initially it tastes like a pale ale, albeit with a faint raspberry overtone; something else rapidly takes over, though, and the flavour is dominated by a rather overpowering bitter finish. Being bottle-conditioned (as all these beers are) and close to its BBE date (as most of them are), I wonder if it had dried out since it was fresh. For whatever reason, I didn’t think this one was a success.

The aforementioned Gertcha!, its label featuring a large spot-colour number 11, is a 4% pale ale, and as such falls foul of my scepticism about putting 4%ers – or anything much under 6% – in a 330 ml bottle. The label copy retrospectively sounds a particularly sad, Mary Celeste-ish note:

This is a pale ale which showcases two different hops each month, utilising the hop back. Just check on the Web site to see which hops are in your bottle! http://www.ticketybrew.co.uk/doublehop

Needless to say, that URL won’t get you anywhere now. So I’ve no idea which two hops were featured in the bottle I’ve drunk, but the end result was perfectly pleasant. Like VLS, it’s very much in the grapefruit zone, but with a simpler and more straightforward flavour and a lighter texture to go with it. More of a sessioner, I guess, although that brings us back to the vexed question of bottle size. (Stalyfact #3, in case you’re wondering, is the fact – or rumour – that the Courage advert based on Chas and Dave’s song “Gertcha!” was filmed in Stalybridge Buffet Bar, standing in for an East End boozer of old. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating thought.)

Lastly, Mocha Mild (a short-run beer, also in a two-tone label) is a bit of an oddity. This is another beer with additions: coffee, cocoa nibs and lactose. Uniquely (in my experience, at least), what these sweet coffee and chocolate flavours have to contend with isn’t the depth of an imperial stout or the weight of a porter, but a thin-textured, 3.9% dark mild. The oddest thing of all is how well it works: it doesn’t put you in mind of an Irish coffee so much as a mochaccino, but that’s no bad thing. The beer underneath isn’t swamped as you might expect, but works harmoniously with the additions; as well as giving you a blast of coffee and milk chocolate, they effectively tweak the flavour profile of a dark mild in that direction (and away from the more familiar malt loaf area). I’ve never had a coffee mild before, and I hope this one won’t be my last – although it may well be my last Mocha Mild.

So, farewell then (again), TicketyBrew! Although even this isn’t likely to be my very last look at their beers; as well as a small stash of Dubbels, I’ve held back one each of the Blonde and the Pale, for drinking when the Dubbels are finally down to the last one. (Also, at the time of writing the beer merchant I mentioned has 20+ bottles of all of these beers except for the Mocha Mild, so I might just restock.) As the man said, How can I leave you when you won’t go away?

 

Val-de-ree!

Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s “Winter Warmer Wander” is often celebrated as a means of encouraging people to go to pubs they wouldn’t usually go to. That’s fine as far as it goes. But in my experience, it also encourages people (e.g. me) to go to pubs where they wouldn’t usually stay, which is a bit different.

Consider a few pubs I’ve visited recently (well, today).

PUB 1 is pleasantly busy, with a hum of background chat from what seems to be a group of regulars. However, the regulars are all in the back bar, and I’m in the front bar – which is empty apart from me and two men who came in shortly after me. One of them exhibits an admirable level of trust in his friend, opening up to him about past and future medical procedures in a way which does both of them credit. Unfortunately he has quite a loud voice – and the front bar is really very quiet.

PUB 2 is a Wetherspoon’s, and it’s rammed. (As, I suspect, it will be from here to Christmas.) I find a seat with some difficulty. Behind me and to the right is a large group – two families or possibly three – having lunch; at least, the adults are having lunch. One of the children has recently been introduced to the concept of the “high five” and is keen to gain practice in using this gesture in a social setting. Over the background noise of conversation I can hear:

“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”
“High five!”

It continues.

After a while one of the adults decides to introduce a bit of variety by making a game of it, presumably involving ‘low’ as well as ‘high’ gestures. The result is slower-paced and more varied, but just as relentless; now I can hear

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

“High five?”

“Scuba dive!”

and so on.

And on.

PUB 3, to be fair, was fine, and PUB 5 was a delight.

PUB 4, though… PUB 4 has a small front-of-bar area and two back rooms, one reserved for gigs and the other full of people – as indeed is the front-of-bar area. Waiting at the bar, I realise that the three people ranged along it in front of me are not in fact three strangers but a group; a moment later I realise that they are not standing waiting to be served but have installed themselves on bar stools. Although they are a group – making me feel as if I’m invading their space when I move between two of them to look at the beer pumps – they have positioned their stools so as to keep a respectful distance from one another, and are consequently taking up most of the length of the bar. I find a space at the other end of the bar and wait while they get served. They have ordered three pints, plus three pints of tap water; they are clearly settling in for the long haul. I order my half of Winter Warmer-fuel, get served, pay, ask for the obligatory sticker, etc, and glance round to see how the bar-hogging trio are getting on. All three of them are sitting in complete silence, pints untouched, staring at their phones.

I go in search of somewhere else to sit down. As well as the main rooms, I remember coming to PUB 4 once before and spending a pleasant quarter of an hour in an upstairs room (with a beer and something to read, let’s be clear) – a memory which was only slightly marred by the fact that I slipped on the stairs afterwards and sat down rather hard. I negotiate the stairs but find that the upstairs rooms are locked; in fact they appear to have been converted for staff use. I head back down, half-pint in hand. On the last step, just as I congratulate myself on making it down the stairs unjinxed by past bad luck, I step down and realise that I was actually standing on the last step but one; I keep my footing but land very hard, splashing the wall liberally with beer. I decide to find an unoccupied patch of bar and finish my drink before anything else can happen. Finishing my beer, I feel that a swift exit is in order; I tip the last mouthful of beer into my mouth, put the glass down, turn and head for the door, planning to swallow the last of my beer as I’m walking out of the door (it’s called multi-tasking). Unfortunately some beer has gone down the wrong way and I cough explosively just before I reach the door, spraying a table of drinkers. I mutter an apology and make an even swifter exit than I had planned.

Would I have stopped for a drink in PUB 1, 2 or 4, if I hadn’t been in search of Winter Warmer Wander stickers? I think not. (PUB 4 didn’t even have a stout or porter on, let alone an old ale.) Would any of them have missed my custom? PUB 1 maybe; the other two, definitely not. (I couldn’t find anywhere to sit in PUB 3 either; even the deceptively spacious PUB 5 was pleasantly busy.) As I’ve said before, considering that part of the point of ‘trails’ like the Winter Warmer is to spread the custom around by sending people to different pubs, it seems odd that we do this one in the run-up to Christmas, a time when a recurring complaint about the pubs we go in is that they’re too full.

That was certainly my main complaint today – and I know from experience that PUB 4 and even PUB 2 can be perfectly delightful places to spend some time, when the crowds aren’t out. Some people like busy pubs, admittedly – but does anyone really enjoy dropping in on a busy pub?