For some reason, our French teacher at school was particularly keen to teach us the phrase l’embarras de choix – “having too many to choose from”. I remember my friend saying that grammar tests were going to start taking a different format – “I will have had too many to choose from; you (singular) will have had too many to choose from; he or she will have had too many to choose from” et ainsi de suite. Well, it was funny at the time.

The phrase has never left me, though, and I was forcibly reminded of it when I visited the Velopark for the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. Last year I arrived on the last day, when beer was getting thin on the ground, and still had an excellent session. This year, arriving much earlier on, I had… what’s the phrase I’m looking for…? My usual routine at a beer festival is to get a half of the first thing that catches my eye, then do a quick circuit of the bars, see if anything else catches my eye, and sit down and work my way through the programme. This year I hardly looked at the programme – I didn’t need to: by the time I’d been once round the bars in the centre of the arena I had an absolute must-have wish-list five beers long (Magic Rock! Ticketybrew! St Feuillien!). And then there were the bars on the concourse, which I only reached later on (Conwy! Fuller’s!).

The beer list was, frankly, stupendous. Tremendously varied, too – when I did take a look at the programme I noticed that the style key included a number of abbreviations I hadn’t seen before: alongside the familiar ‘Sp’ (special, which can mean just about anything) were ‘Sa’ (saison) and ‘So’ (sour). There were quite a few of my favourite styles, too – BW, OA and SM (strong mild) – and when I say ‘quite a few’ I mean ‘too many’. At least, too many to choose from. My only regret is not being able to have another session there and work my way through some of the obscurer beers & breweries – there was that much good stuff, I couldn’t fit many new discoveries in.

Lessons had been learnt from last year, particularly on the seating front – the organisers had bowed to the inevitable and put out quite a lot of chairs and tables in the centre, while also diverting traffic onto the concourse by locating some of the bars up there. It worked: things were getting fairly busy by the time I left, but I don’t recall seeing anyone sitting on the floor. There were some changes on the food front, as well; I was a bit disappointed when I first realised that there wasn’t a summat-and-chips option, but the Japanese noodle bar rose to the occasion by selling portions of sauté potatoes. Which were very nice – as, indeed, were the noodles.

TastingDrinking notes

Ilkley Mary Jane 3.5
Magic Rock Punchline chocolate chipotle porter 5.4 (couldn’t taste the chocolate, the chilli was unmissable though)
Timothy Taylor Ram Tam 4.1 (Ram Tam! We meet at last! Never had this before. Didn’t disappoint, either.)
Ticketybrew Pale Ale 4.3 (a short-run version of their wonderful Pale Ale, brewed a bit lighter; just as wonderful)
Bad Co Comfortably Numb 3.8 (fruity hops coming out of your ears)
Conwy Telford Porter 5.6 (mmm, Conwy…. mmm, porter)
Fuller’s Past Masters 7.3 (an interesting one, this – like cranking up a strong bitter almost to the point of being a barley wine)
Marble 125 10.7 (This was perhaps a teensy bit expensive at £3 a third – but come on, it’s the 125 barley wine on draught, when are you going to see that again? Perhaps a bit on the hot-and-heavy side, but good stuff.)
Red Willow Soulless black IPA 6.5 (six and a half? blimey, that’s drinkable)
St Feuillien/Green Flash Belgian Coast IPA 7 (keg, alas – when will the Belgians go back to our brewing traditions? – but absolutely superb; the tripel/IPA combo works better than you could imagine)
Alphabet Space Invader 6 (A saison made with grapefruit, pink peppercorns and tarragon. Hmm. Tasted like something made with grapefruit, pink peppercorns and tarragon, but I stress the word ‘something’ – as in, not necessarily a beer.)
Ringway Best Bitter 4.2 (get ‘em before they’re gone – and a lightish, brownish BB seemed like a good way to finish)

If I had a complaint, it would be… no, I can’t think of anything. It was all good, pretty much.

Great venue, great beer, brilliant festival. If you missed it, you missed a good ‘un.

Money Saving Expert

I went to the Font the other night. For those not familiar with the Font, it’s a double-fronted bar, extending a long way back from the street. It’s a fairly big, cavernous place without much in the way of internal divisions, furnished with an assortment of sofas, hard chairs, coffee tables and dining tables. The night I went it was rather dark and very busy – I couldn’t find a table and ended up perched at the bar, although given the lighting (and given that I’d brought a paper to read) this was probably my best bet anyway. About half the clientele seemed to be under-30s in groups, with the remainder dividing between youngish couples and youngish families; I estimated that my arrival had raised the average age by about six months. I didn’t see anyone I knew and didn’t really expect to.

As for the beer, they had eight hand pumps and sixteen keg taps; I had a pint of (cask) Magic Rock High Wire, which was superb. I made a few free-associative tasting notes, from which I remember “smokily aromatic”, “stern and unforgiving” and “creamy beast”. (After my thought processes had thrown out “creamy beast” I got a bit self-conscious about the whole thing.) A really lovely beer, anyway. After claiming my CAMRA discount I paid £3.15 for it, a saving of £1.05.

I also went to the Sedge Lynn the other night. For those not familiar with the Sedge Lynn, it’s a converted snooker hall. It’s a hangar-like space with a high, vaulted roof, extending a long way back from the street without any internal divisions; there are a few booths with upholstered bench seating, but the furniture consists mostly of hard chairs and small round tables. The night I went it was very busy and (as usual) very well lit; I couldn’t find anywhere comfortable to sit but did get a small round table to myself. About half the clientele was made up of groups of middle-aged men, with the remainder dividing between middle-aged couples, middle-aged men on their own and fairly young families; I estimate that my entrance had precisely no effect on the average age. I saw two people I knew and had a chat with one of them.

On the beer front, they had ten hand pumps and seven keg taps; I had a pint of (cask) Acorn Rakau IPA. This was a very nice NZ-hopped IPA; quite light and drinkable but with a definite fruity hop character, backed by a bitter finish which built over the length of the pint. After using a CAMRA token I paid £1.75 for it, a saving of 50p.

The Sedge Lynn, of course, is a Spoon’s – and as such you don’t expect to be entirely comfortable there, just as you don’t expect to be getting the best beer in the universe. (This, of course, explains the consternation which was felt last year when, probably due to an administrative error, Spoon’s briefly started serving the best beer in the universe.) As it goes, on the night I felt a lot more comfortable in the Sedge Lynn than I had been at the Font. (Although, to be fair, the Font is great if you can get there early doors and bag a sofa.) As for the beer, that Acorn IPA was a very nice beer. The High Wire was better, but I paid nearly twice as much for it (80% more, in fact) – and, hand on heart, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was that much better. Is it worth £3.15? Definitely – in fact I’d say it’s a bargain at that money. Is it worth £4.20? Only in the sense that if I did pay that much for it – which I’d only do if everything else was even dearer – I wouldn’t feel too badly ripped off. Is the Acorn IPA too cheap at £1.75, or even at £2.25? Sorry, don’t understand the question.

It’s horses for courses: if you want to drink truly excellent beer at a good price, while feeling physically uncomfortable and socially out of place, the Font on a Saturday night is the place for you. If, on the other hand, you’d rather drink good beer at an excellent price, while feeling only mildly physically uncomfortable and socially awkward, you’d be better off with the Sedge Lynn.

(Either way, you’d be mad not to join CAMRA.)

Underneath the arches

I had dreamt of finally filling the Winter Warmer card this year, but that thought evaporated after my pavement encounter. But I didn’t want to leave it there, particularly when – on checking my personal WWW map – I realised that I’d ticked off all but four of the pubs inside the M60. A route was planned.

And so it was that I found my way to the Hind’s Head. Not the easiest pub to get to from Chorlton – I can’t see it being exactly handy from Stockport, for that matter – but needs must. Not for the first time on a WWW, I had a half of Hobgoblin and was pleasantly surprised; it’s not so much an old ale as an old-ale-style beer product, but kept well it’s really rather good.

I walked from there to the Nursery; well, somebody’s got to. My twenty minutes of urban orienteering – in the rain – were rewarded by absolutely zilch in the way of dark or wintry beers. I had a pint of Manchester’s Finest (or Hyde’s bitter to you and me) which isn’t really a qualifying beer – although at 4.5% I guess it just about qualifies on strength. I also had quite a nice lunch, although it was disturbed by a family on the other side of the room whose youngest child had just reached the Exorcist stage of endless hwagh! hwagh!ing. I never have this trouble in Spoons’.

Outside it was still raining, and it took longer than seemed entirely reasonable to get back to civilisationthe main road. Once there I doubled back a bit to the Hope. Sadly not one of the panoply of their own (Fool Hardy) beers was dark, so I had a guest – Pin Up milk stout; it was fine. Then down the slope to the Magnet, a multi-ale free house which I think I’ve underrated a bit in the past, possibly thanks to its rather hotel lounge-ish decor. The Rat brewery’s Workhouse Rat (“Victorian smoked porter”) was excellent, and I couldn’t resist topping it off with a half of SWB Diablo IPA (6%, didn’t taste it).

And finally Esther, the Crown. It is, and remains, a lovely pub with a remarkable range of beer – as ever, they had umpty-tiddly-three beers on from almost as many breweries. But (you could tell there was a ‘but’ coming) it wasn’t quite hitting the spot for me. Perhaps it was because the breweries were just too small – with the exception of Pictish and Facer’s, I hadn’t heard of any of the breweries there. I had a Rockin’ Robin from Bluestone, which – despite the awful name – was a pretty serviceable ginger porter. I wasn’t really in the mood for collecting ticks, though, so I left it at that.

In terms of beer, what I suppose we can call the northern outskirts of Stockport are looking better than the centre. For the final summing-up, we’ve got:

Stout: 5 + 1 = 6
Porter: 3 + 2 = 5
Old ale: 7
Not quite old ale: 6 + 1 = 7
No qualifying beers: 7 + 1 = 8

And the pubs:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 12 + 3 = 15
PIROTGIMO: 9 + 2 = 11

Eighteen qualifiers, eight non-qualifiers and seven borderline cases – could be a lot worse. And eleven, count ‘em, pubs I really ought to go in more often. Perhaps that should be another resolution, along with the session bitter.

Many thanks to the organisers of the Winter Warmer Wander 2014, and to all the pubs who got into the spirit of it – it’s been a lot of fun.

Golden wossnames

I can’t really be bothered doing a full-on Golden Pints for 2014, not least because I’ve no idea what I’d put in most of the categories. (Best bottled beer? I did have a Rochefort 10 over Christmas, but was it my peak bottled beer experience? Set and setting…) Anyway, here are some random thoughts about last year, jammed awkwardly into an ‘awards’ format. It is, after all, only blogging.

Cask Beer Of The Year Spingo Middle. No, Special. No, Middle. I think. Or maybe the Special. (When can we go to Cornwall again?) Runner-up: about half the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Keg Beer Of The Year Electrik/Blackjack LFO (and not only because I was muttering “Ell, Eff, Oh” for the rest of the evening). Runner-up: Wild Fresh.

Worst Cask Beer Of The Year Wild Evolver, which looked and tasted almost exactly like an off pint from the bottom of the barrel. (For all I know it may actually have been off – how would I know? come to that, how would the bar staff know?) Runner-up: the other half of the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Most overrated and overpriced beer Of The Year, probably Wild Wildebeest, which was insanely strong, Tarquin Fintimlinbinwhinbimlim Bus Stop F’tang F’tang Olé Biscuit Barrel expensive and tasted, well, kind of like a chocolate stout. Except for about every third mouthful, when it somehow changed into a monster of enveloping gorgeousness and almost persuaded me it was worth the money. Only then it changed back again. Runner-up: Magic Rock Cannonball. (OK, it’s not the beer, it’s me – I still don’t get it, though. It’s so… moderate.)

Disappointment Of The Year Unreliable breweries. See also TwIshhpOTY, below.

Actually reliable (and consistently interesting) brewery Of The Year Ticketybrew. I can’t believe nobody else is raving about these people yet – I’ve never had a duff beer from them, and when they’re good they’re superb.

Pub/Bar Of The Year I’ll stick my neck out a bit on this one. OK, it’s a bit cavernous and lacking in atmosphere, like others in the same chain – it could certainly never be mistaken for a traditional pub. And OK, the clientele isn’t necessarily composed of people I’d choose to mix with. But the service is civil and efficient – even if there is a bit of a wait sometimes – and there’s always something decent on one or more of the hand pumps. All that and money off for CAMRA members – what’s not to like? So my vote for this year goes to the Font, Chorlton.

Trend which I haven’t quite caught up with yet Of The Year Sours. Well, I say sours – I like saisons, and I was drinking Rodenbach years ago. Full-on bretty ex-bitters, though… I’m not really there for them.

Trend which I sincerely hope has peaked Of The Year I’ve called it ‘poker dice’ brewing in the past, but on reflection ‘fruit machine’ brewing is probably a better label. Pull the handle (showing my age, I know), set the reels spinning and see where they stop: red… imperial… bourbon cask… pilsner! I first started noticing beers that couldn’t be named in fewer than three words around the start of this year (they’ve probably been doing it for ages in that London); I’ve had a few, but I’m struggling to think of one that I really liked. (Hang on – Ticketybrew Jasmine Green Tea pale ale. So there’s one.) The problem with this sort of multiple-compound-style brewing, it seems to me, is that neither you nor the people drinking the beer can really know whether you’ve got it right, or got it as good as it could be. (And quite often, in my experience, it’s not – this year I loved Blackjack’s Stout and White IPA, but hated their Orange Cream Ale and Belgian Honey Porter.) There’s a craft to making a good bitter (or pale ale, or stout, or porter, or mild, or…) and a fair amount of trial and error; comparing batches of what’s essentially the same beer, and tweaking the recipe to include the best bits of different batches, is quite a big part of my idea of being a brewer. So you’ve made a hickory-smoked cranberry porter: I’m sure the smoke and the berries come through loud and clear, but is it a decent porter? Can you tell? And, more importantly, are you going to hang around to find out – or are you already busy on your imperial white IPA? I was pleased to see Pete inveighing against craft neophilia the other day; perhaps one day we’ll look back at fruit-machine styles and think “that’s so 2014…“.

Book Of The Year Although the cynical young pups obstinately refuse to acknowledge that the foundation of CAMRA was a Very Good Thing, this was without doubt the year of Boak and Bailey and Brew Britannia (my review is hereabouts). Other beer books are available, but I bet they’re not as good.

Spectacularly Unmet Resolution Of The Year Looking at my Golden Pints for 2013, I didn’t do too badly on I will try and stop going on about ‘craft beer’; or I will stop going on about my experience of ‘craft keg’ beers, unless it changes interestingly (e.g. I find one I really like); or even I will remember that this stuff is supposed to be fun. The one resolution I really fell down on was the one that was beer- rather than blogging-related: I will drink more session bitter. That went out the window very early on, with results which – as you’ve just seen – weren’t entirely satisfactory. Maybe in 2015.

More wanderings

My next trip out – to Stockport – was overshadowed by how it ended, with a bleeding forehead and an incipient black eye. A rash decision to run for a bus, across an unsuspectedly muddy patch of grass, led to me becoming rather suddenly and intimately acquainted with the pavement. (There was no blacking-out, confusion or lost time – if anything I was rather more alert after the accident than I had been before – so I’m not concerned that I did myself any serious damage. I’ve got a hell of a shiner, though.) On the off chance that anyone in the group of people who helped me afterwards reads this, many thanks – you made a nasty experience much more manageable.

Stockport, anyway… Going round the pubs of Stockport wasn’t a nasty experience, but it was a bit disappointing. At the Swan with Two Necks, the first thing I saw when I went in was the Old Tom pump clip. I duly ordered a half, to be told it was off. “And that one [Trooper] is off as well, and the cider.” I didn’t bother asking why the pump clips weren’t turned round. I settled for a half of 1892 Dark, which it was good to renew my acquaintance with – a really nice, lightish dark mild. Not actually a qualifying beer, but I wasn’t going to leave the pub without asking for a sticker. The drought continued at the Calvert’s Court (JDW): they had plenty of beers on, but every one of them seemed to be a pale bitter. Reduced to asking for the darkest thing they had on, I had a half of Cheshire Brew Brothers Kings Tower Tawny (and breathe). Which was fine – and qualified on strength grounds – but wasn’t very dark at all. (Also, no stickers.)

This wasn’t how I’d seen my trip to Stockport developing at all. Fortunately the revamped Bakers Vaults – which, unlike any of the other pubs I went in on the day, was humming – had Old Tom on, in all its sparkled glory. It really is a mighty beer. Revived and encouraged, I headed for the Cocked Hat. The only other time I’ve been in there – round about this time last year – I picked up a bit of a League of Gentlemen vibe: it seemed like a friendly and welcoming pub as long as you were already there. This time the regulars were less obtrusive, but I got into an argument with the woman serving – at least, she pulled me a pint instead of a half, then flatly denied that I’d ordered a half. Also, no stickers (apparently they’d run out). The half, as it goes, was of Millstone IPA; there wasn’t anything that qualified on style, with the dubious exception of the Cheshire Brewers… Cheshire Brother Brewers… the beer with the long name I’d had at Spoons’. I felt, again, that I was in ‘sup up and move on’ territory.

I moved on to the Arden Arms for my second half of Old Tom, this time on gravity. As such it was a bit slack and gravyish, but it was thoroughly enjoyable for all that. Plus it’s a nice pub; perhaps not one to seek out, but a good place to just sit and occupy a corner. As is my final stop of the day, the Railway in Portwood, where I had a Jaipur of all things – they had the usual outstanding selection of beers on, but not one of them was both dark and strong. (The Dunham Chocolate Cherry Mild was very nice, but that’s for another month.)

I make that Old Tom 2, Rest of the World nil. More precisely:

Stout: 5
Porter: 3
Old ale: 5 + 2 = 7
Not quite old ale: 6
No qualifying beers: 3 + 4 = 7

And the pubs:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 8 + 4 = 12
PIROTGIMO: 7 + 2 = 9

The stash

After a bit of pre-Christmas shopping, I find myself with 22 bottles of beer under the stairs (plus a couple which still need a few months’ ageing). Pausing only to check my window locks (there’s some excellent stuff in here, you know) here’s

What’s Under My Stairs

Thwaites’ Wainwright (all right, I didn’t say it was all excellent stuff) (Supermarket purchase)
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord (S)
Orval (local Off-licence)
Okell’s Aile (porter) (Bargain shop)
Corsendonk Agnus (O)
Harbour India Pale Ale (S)
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (S)
Bosteels Pauwel Kwak (O)
Theakston’s Old Peculier (B)
Moortgat Duvel (S)
Robinson’s Old Tom (S)
Ridgeway Bad King John (S)
Adnams’ Broadside (S)
St Peter’s Christmas Ale (S)
McEwan’s Champion (S)
Thornbridge St Petersburg (O)
Marston’s Owd Roger (B)
Bateman’s Vintage Ale (Aldi (2013))
Rochefort 10 (O)
Paulaner Salvator (O)
Schneider Aventinus (O)
Goudale Abbey Beer (A)

Whether I’ll get through that lot before the next supermarket trip in the New Year is another question. But I’ll see what I can do.

Merry Christmas all, and best wishes for a happy, healthy and appropriately bibulous 2015.

More wandering

Winter Warmer Wander – quick pre-Christmas update

My earlier tour de Chorlton hadn’t reached as far as Beech Road; I don’t much myself these days. A special outing to the Parlour brought the welcome sight of Red Willow Heartless, flanked by the even more welcome sight of Robinson’s Old Tom. Unfortunately I could only stop for one; it had to be Old Tom. And what a very fine beer that is when it’s in good nick, as it was here. (The price was a bit ‘craft’, though.)

Later, I tackled the ‘Didsbury leg’ of the WWW, with variable results. The Gateway (JDW) in Parrs Wood had Howard Town Dark Peak, a nice if unspectacular dark old ale. I’d only seen the Gateway before when it was quiet; I’d been unfavourably reminded of an empty hotel dining room. Last weekend it was more like a busy hotel dining room. I suppose I didn’t do myself any favours by sitting under one of the TV screens; I was curious to see whether it would feel as if everyone in the room was looking at me (it did). But the Gateway was positively sparse compared to what awaited me up the line at the Milson Rhodes (JDW); the atmosphere there was more like a busy Sergeants’ Mess on a Saturday night. The bar staff managed to find me a sticker, which impressed me, but on the “stick around for another?” scale it was strictly “drink up and get out”. They didn’t have anything dark on, either – I had a half of Adnams’ Broadside, which was fine.

Two Hyde’s pubs were more satisfactory on the ambience front. The Fletcher Moss was heaving – the back room alone seemed to be accommodating three separate Christmas parties – but thanks to its Tardis-like proportions I managed to get a corner to myself. Kelham Island Fairytale of New York – a dark beer made with Belgian yeast – was a borderline qualifier (as well as being very nice); not the easiest beer to order in a busy pub, though, unless you want to be the guy shouting about fairies when there’s a sudden lull. I also had a half of Cameron’s Strongarm, mainly to see what it was like without the Hartlepool Head. (Answer: not as flat, but not as distinctive either.) In Withington, finally, the Victoria also had the Kelham Island beer; I swerved it in favour of a Hyde’s seasonal with the awful title of Yule Rejoice. Another not-quite-old-ale, but a good example of the style – I’d have it again.

There wasn’t any trouble getting a sticker in any of these places (even the Milson Rhodes); the guy serving in the Gateway commented that he was looking forward to doing the WWW himself. The server in the Victoria went so far as to turn round the pump clip on the Hyde’s beer to check that it qualified, which is a first in my experience; fortunately she decided that it did. (If we were being really strict neither that one nor the Kelham Island beer would qualify, as they’re both under 4.5%.) I’m not sure what she would have recommended as an alternative; the only strong beer they had on at the Vic was (Hyde’s) Beer Studio Arctic Blonde, which (while very nice) wouldn’t qualify on style grounds. I guess the fact is that there will always be pubs (and breweries) that don’t see strong dark ales as a commercial proposition; if they can be persuaded to put on session-strength beers in an ‘old ale’ style, that’s a step forward, and it spares people like me from the horrors of ‘Christmas beers’.

Scores on the doors:

Stout: 5
Porter: 3
Old ale: 5
Not quite old ale: 6
No qualifying beers: 3

And the pubs:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 8

(The Fletcher Moss hovered on the edge of qualifying for ‘ought to go in more often’ status, as did the Friendship last time out, but didn’t quite make it. Poor old Hyde’s; they’ll just have to manage without me (unless I’m in Withington, that is).)

PIROTGIMOs and others

Interim report on the Winter Warmer Wander 2014

Doing the WWW for the fourth year running – on top of several Mild Magics and (this year) a foray into the Cider Circuit – reinforced my impression that there are three categories of pubs involved: the pubs I go to anyway; the ones I only go in when there’s a sticker to be collected, and don’t much miss the rest of the year; and (most importantly) the Pubs I Really Ought To Go In More Often, or PIROTGIMOs. (“Pirr-O-jim-oh”? I’m sure I thought of a much better acronym – one you can actually pronounce – on my way home from one crawl, but by the time I got up the next day I’d forgotten it.)

In Chorlton, I’ve already mentioned my slightly unsatisfactory encounters with Oddest and the Marble Beerhouse; I should add that this was early on in the WWW, and the last time I was in the Beerhouse they were serving the celebrated ‘Stouter’ Stout. What I had in the Font escapes me; the last time I was in there, on the other hand, I had Ticketybrew‘s odd but successful Mint Choc Stout, which would certainly qualify. The Sedge Lynn (JDW) had Theakston’s Old Peculier, a beer of which I’ve yet to get tired. No problems on the sticker front except for the Sedge Lynn, where the server managed to find the WWW pack but no stickers.

No stickers could be found at the Paramount (JDW) in town, although to be fair the place was heaving; I thought the server deserved credit for looking at all. Otherwise the only places in town which couldn’t find me a sticker were the Wharf (who, I’m fairly sure, have been reminded about their participation in the WWW already this year) and Bar Fringe (who, er, aren’t in it – but did serve me a very nice half of Facer’s porter). The beer at the Paramount was – as ever – the rather wonderful Elland 1872 Porter, at its full strength of 6.5% and a distinctly un-Spoons-like price of £3.19. The beer at the Wharf was a dark bitter nudging into old ale territory – as was the beer at the Smithfield (although the latter was quite a lot cheaper).

Another few in town: what the Castle were serving I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure it was a stout; certainly this year’s Old Tom n’est pas arrivé. The Waterhouse (JDW) didn’t have anything particularly dark, but they did have Phoenix Wobbly Bob, and if that’s not an old ale I don’t want to know about it. The Marble Arch had Chocolate Marble, which I reckon can pass for a stout; the Knott Bar and the Crown and Kettle had two of my very favourite dark beers, Red Willow Smokeless (porter) and Ticketybrew Stout, respectively.

Another few pubs dotted about the place: in Rusholme the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) had Full Sail Wassail, a stonking old ale brewed, rather surprisingly, by a brewer from Oregon. Down the road in Fallowfield, the darkest thing the Friendship was serving was Fireside Ale from “Westgate Brewery” (Greene King); the Hyde’s Beer Studio beers looked far more interesting, but paler. What I had in the Great Central (JDW) across the road I couldn’t tell you, although I suspect it was something in the “not quite old ale” category. In Salford, lastly, the New Oxford served… um… a cask stout from a brewery I hadn’t heard of. It was nice, that I can tell you.

That’s sixteen pubs (seventeen with Bar Fringe!), and the beers lined up as follows:

Stout: 5
Porter: 3
Old ale: 3
Not quite old ale: 4
No qualifying beers: 2

Generally there’s a much higher level of ‘compliant’ beers available. The last category but one, above, is perhaps a bit over-critical on my part. I’m not talking about the “Santa’s Drawers” variety of novelty Christmas beers (which I have been reduced to occasionally in past years); all the beers in this category were genuinely darker, spicier and heftier than your average brown bitter. It’s just that, next to something like the Full Sail beer – or Old Peculier, for that matter – they don’t really stand up as capital O, capital A Old Ales. All three of the beers in that category were served in JDW’s, interestingly enough.

As for the pubs, one of the reasons I enjoy these crawls is the feeling of settling down with a beer, looking around and thinking, I really ought to come in here more often. When I get that at two pubs in a row, that’s a good crawl. But then, the pubs I go to anyway are home turf, and as for the once-a-year pubs – well, I can always move on.

So far this year it’s roughly:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 5

Let’s hear it for the Crown and Kettle and Bar Fringe (what a beer range! what a cider range! what great, atmospheric, welcoming pubs); for the New Oxford (I’ll get round to the bottles one of these days); for the Knott, the only bar I know where you can be guaranteed to spot a beer you really fancy immediately after you’ve ordered; and, of course, for the Marble Arch.

Next: Stockport. All those places with an SK postcode – they’ll basically be within walking distance, won’t they?

By ‘eck!

It’s Winter Warmer Wander time again; I’ll write a bit about that another time. It’s going pretty well: I haven’t been reduced to major-brewery Christmas novelty beers yet, and I’ve had some rather fine stouts and porters. (Not so many old ales – but what, as they say, are you going to do.)

Early on, though, I hit a bit of a dry patch in Chorlton, picking up two successive stickers for halves of mid-strength bitter. They had a couple of dark beers on at the Marble Beerhouse, but both on keg; I did try the 7% black rye beer, but I thought I should have something on cask for the purposes of the WWW. So (Manchester) Bitter it was – and what a fine beer that is. In comments threads elsewhere it’s been nominated as a good example of the dry ‘Manchester pale’ style, & hence a decent substitute for Boddies’ for anyone not equipped with a time machine. Having reacquainted myself with it, I’m not entirely sure; I think tastes have evolved in the last decade or two. The Bitter probably occupies very much the same position that Boddies’ once did – at the pale and uncompromisingly dry extreme of the standard bitter flavour spectrum – but that spectrum has broadened and shifted towards the hoppy since Boddies’ heyday. It’s a bit more full-on that Boddies’ would have tasted back then, in other words, unless you were just off the National Express from somewhere where beer actually looks and tastes like beer is a bit different. There’s also something else – but I’ll get to that in a minute.

My second half of bitter was in Oddest, where Blackjack‘s Oddington seemed to be the darkest thing available. Not that it was dark dark, but it did have a definite brownish tinge and a bit of a burnt-caramel flavour to go with it. Despite the name, I concluded, it was nothing like Boddies'; unlike the Marble beer, it was much less pale’n’oppy than Boddies’ bitter was in its time. But then the similarity hit me, literally as an afterthought – or rather, an aftertaste. Oddington has a light, somehow creamy quality to its aftertaste, which I haven’t tasted in very many other beers: Coniston Bluebird bitter is one, and Boddington’s bitter was another. (That ‘cream of Manchester’ slogan didn’t just refer to the head. At least, that’s my theory.) Marble Bitter doesn’t have it; Lees MPA doesn’t have it; but Oddington does. It’s a shame the flavour – and the look – of the beer is so far off its glorious original, but as far as the aftertaste is concerned Blackjack have absolutely nailed it.

Any time they want to collaborate with Marble on something that really tastes like Boddies’, I’ll be ready and waiting!

It comes in thirds

These are a few of my favourite things

A few of my favourite things

I had a bit of a revelation the other night, as I sat with a third of Magic Rock Cannonball (keg, of course). I suddenly thought: if you were Stuart Ross (or any other forward-thinking contemporary brewer) and someone suggested going down the ‘craft keg’ route… why wouldn’t you? Lots of people seem to like the stuff, and there are enough outlets that stock it, so no problem about shifting it. Then there are the positive advantages: the stability and consistency of keg would mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about the odd dud barrel, or about losing re-orders to incompetent cellaring (letting the beer spoil or putting it on too soon). As Dave Bailey recently commented, kegs are easier to export than casks, for much the same reasons.

Then there’s the price issue. In the cask world it’s rare to sell anything over £4 a pint, and it would be a brave brewer who insisted on £4+ prices: if competition from other brewers didn’t get you, you’d be sunk by all the ale-drinkers who think they know the right price for a pint and dislike being ripped off. Now, I am one of those ale-drinkers – I do think I know the right price for a pint, I do suspect rip-offs at every turn and I have to grit my teeth to pay anything over £4 a pint for anything. From my perspective, that combination of free-market competition among producers and penny-pinching drinkers is basically a good thing; if I was asked why I’d say something like “it keeps brewers honest”. In any case, it keeps my pint relatively cheap, and that’s a good thing in itself. (I’ve drunk some Stella in my time, but I’ve never been reassured by expense.)

But, of course, in the craft keg bubbleworld those factors don’t obtain – there’s no bog-standard pint of wallop pulling keg prices down, and no great mass of drinkers who think it’s their birthright that beer should be both good and cheap. From my point of view, this just shows what’s wrong with the craft keg world. In particular, the idea of beer drinkers being happy to pay high prices seems all wrong: it’s like workers taking pride in accepting a pay cut. From the brewer’s point of view, though… blimey. Say you did all the sums and came out with an estimated retail price of (say) £5/pint – that would be OK! You wouldn’t need to go back and work out how to do the same thing a bit cheaper! And if the bar wanted to be a bit cheeky and stick another 50p on, that would be OK too – nobody would even notice!

In short, I realised (as I drank the Cannonball) that going keg has the potential to get rid of a lot of quality worries, removing possible obstacles to repeat orders, while also gaining both the brewer and the retailer a significantly higher margin. It’s a whole new world! Why wouldn’t you do it?

I understand the thinking, but I think it misses out one crucial factor. The answer to the question, I honestly believe, is “because any given beer is better from a cask than a keg (or bottle, or can)”. But those like-for-like comparisons aren’t easy to make (I’ve never seen Cannonball on cask, for instance). And sometimes, maybe, a keg beer is the one to go for.

Here are some thoughts on recent encounters with keg, thinking about when – and why – it does and doesn’t work.

The “Yeah But, No But”: Cannonball

I described Magic Rock Cannonball once before as a big disappointment:

I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma.

I trust The Beer Nut’s reviews, and what he said about this one recently made me think I’d been missing something – quite a lot, in fact:

an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish

So I had to give it another try, and the other weekend I duly handed over my £2 (for a third). And it was… quite nice. I’d certainly agree with ‘drinkable'; it slipped down very nicely. I didn’t get ‘massive’ hops, though – compared to Magic Rock Curious (which is roughly half the strength) the hops were dialled right back. It’s certainly hoppy, it’s just not “being smacked in the mouth with a hopsack” hoppy. I couldn’t say I noticed the 7.4% alcohol, either. A few days later I had a third of Red Willow Ageless DIPA (7.2%), which was on cask in another Font bar – and, I think, had been sitting around in the cask for a while; it was a bit lacking in condition and warmer than I would have liked. Despite those disadvantages, it was a massive beer – a big, uncompromisingly smoky hop attack, broadening out as I went down the glass into an extravagant flowering of citrus flavours on a dense alcoholic background. Perhaps not the nicest beer to drink – even a bit offputting on first sip – but a great beer all the same. (It was also going for £3.60 a pint, which – once you’ve taken off the CAMRA discount – works out at 90p for a third. I felt slightly guilty paying so little.) The Cannonball didn’t really develop in the same way, perhaps unsurprisingly for a keg beer: it was the same all the way through, like Blackpool rock. So you got your citrus-y aroma and your smokey bitterness, and you got a bit of alcohol (not much), all in a very drinkable, well-put-together package. It just wasn’t terribly impressive, or overpowering, or memorable; nice, but not great.

The “Think Of It As A Very Large Bottle”: Electrik/Blackjack LFO

That ‘developing’ thing – where ‘halfway down the glass’ actually tastes different from the first mouthful, and the last mouthful tastes different again; I’ve never known a keg beer do it. But it’s not really something bottled beers do, either, and there is some great bottled beer out there. This is what went through my mind when I tasted the Electrik bar’s fourth collaborative brew, which is a keg lager named LFO (in response to some recent sad news). Fittingly, LFO is an absolute monster – very dry, very bitter, very hoppy on top of all that, and then all of the same again. It reminded me of nothing so much as my first taste of Jever Pilsener: it’s a great big beer that just keeps on coming at you. And if it doesn’t unfurl new flavour dimensions halfway down the glass, well, too bad – the Jever wouldn’t have done that either. (And it was on at £4/pint, which squeaks into the affordable bracket.)

The “Think Of It As A Very Small Bottle”: Mikkeller/Siren White Stout

For obvious reasons, really strong beers are a rarity in cask; they don’t tend to go, and if they don’t go they tend to go off. I think the strongest beer I’ve had from a cask was 8.5%: it’s a tie between Coniston No 9 barley wine (at a beer festival) and Robinson’s Old Tom. Old Tom is unusual in being widely available in Robbies’ pubs, and the brewery deserves a lot of credit for not abandoning it but building it up as a cask beer. It’s generally in pins to minimise spoilage, though – and I’m sadly familiar with the warmish, flattish, slightly metallic taste of old Old Tom!

So if somebody brews a beer at 12% – stronger than many wines – the chances are you’re only ever going to see it in a small, expensive bottle; what’s more, the chances are you never will physically see that bottle, and that if you do you’ll think the price is just a bit too silly. Kegging to the rescue: someone who might baulk at paying (say) £3.50 for a 250 ml bottle may well be amenable to paying £2.80 for a third of a pint (even though that equates to £3.66 for 250 ml). At least, I was.

Why Mikkeller and the ever-impressive Siren have called this beer a white stout I’ve no idea, given that all the information this really conveys is that it’s (a) strong and (b) not black. What it is, as far as I could see, is a barley wine. What it is, to be more precise, is a very, very good barley wine – a rich, dense, marmaladey fruitiness, smooth without being syrupy, heavy without (amazingly) any overt alcoholic heat. A stonkingly good beer, quite honestly, and one which I would probably never have had if I’d only seen it in bottles.

You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin! a stranger in a pub said to a friend of mine, unprompted, some time in the early 70s. By and large I’d agree with that; by and large, I don’t want beer squirted out of a tin. But, like CAMRA, I’m pro-cask rather than anti-keg; and I’m increasingly finding that there are times when the list of the best – or most interesting – things on the bar includes some beers on keg. Keg vs cask, I still think the keg is likely to be second best. ‘Cold and fizzy’ I can live with; what I’m thinking of here is more a ‘light, drinkable, rough edges shaved off’ sort of thing, not to mention the absence of the ‘developing in the glass’ thing. But if what you’re getting is something you can’t get on cask – something you would only previously have found in bottles – some of the objections become a bit academic.

(I still wish it wasn’t so expensive, though.)

Play us out, Mark:


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