IPA, IPA, IPA

Martyn’s recent post on the relaunch of Greene King IPA strayed, for me, a little too close to following the GK party line – a view shared, and stated rather emphatically, by some contributors to the ensuing comments thread. But I thoroughly agree with the final point:

Meanwhile, here’s a small rant directed at all those idiots who keep chuntering on about how Greene King IPA is “not an India Pale Ale” and how IPA has to be “strong and strongly hopped”, so it would survive the long journey to the Indian sub continent, over 200 years ago. You don’t have a clue what you are talking about. Let’s rush past the fact that 19th century IPA wasn’t strong at all, for the time, but comparatively weak, at around 6% abv. Do you complain because today’s porters aren’t matured in 30-feet-high oak vats for 18 months, as they were 200 years ago? Or that today’s stouts are as weak as 19th century porters? Do you complain because today’s milds are nothing at all like the mild ales of 200 years ago, 7% abv and made solely from pale malt? Beers change, and beer styles are not carved on stone tablets. A 19th century IPA would have been kept for up to a year in cask, would have lost all its hop aroma and would have developed a distinctly Brettanomyces flavour. Nobody at all is brewing an IPA like that. American IPAs, in particular, lovely beers though they often are, are nothing whatsoever like 19th century IPAs: totally wrong hops, totally wrong emphasis on hop aroma, often too strong, and meant to be drunk much more quickly after being brewed than 19th century IPAs were. After the First World War, and the huge rise in the tax on beer, all beers, of all styles, were brewed to lower strengths than they had been in the 19th century. What Greene King IPA is, is a perfect example of a mid-20th century IPA, just like those once brewed by Charrington, Palmers, Eldridge Pope, Wadworths, Wethered’s, Youngers and others in the 1960s and 1970s, all 1035 to 1043 OG. Go and get your Camra Good Beer Guide 2015 edition and look up Phipps IPA (page 844, column 2): OG 1042, abv 4.2%, “recreated from old recipes”: recreated from genuine 20th century recipes, as a genuine 20th century IPA. Just like Greene King IPA.

I’ve never had anything from Phipps, but I did stumble on Wall’s Explorer IPA (4.7% in cask) the other day and noticed that the pump clip described it as “a traditional style India Pale Ale”. So I tried it, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

Clearly, somebody at Wall’s remembers mid-20th-century IPAs too. What was it like? You get a big, fairly heavy, malty body with just a little sweetness. Then you get the bitterness – a tannic bitterness, which hits in mid-mouth, but it’s dialled right up, almost to the charcoal level. The bitter aftertaste isn’t immediately apparent, but it kicks in hard  at the bottom of the glass.

One of my pet hates is the phrase ‘with a twist’. I’d be useless as a judge on Bake Off – I’d much rather see a straight Dundee cake recipe brought off really well than a competently-executed Dundee-with-a-twist, using pecans instead of almonds, chillis instead of glace cherries and polenta instead of flour. The same goes for beer, obviously – I’ve had some really good raspberry beers, damson beers, chocolate beers and w.h.y., but a straight style done really well will usually beat them all. But that IPA made me think that ‘twisting’ a style need not be such an artificial process. A fuller body, a more bitter aftertaste, much more bitterness mid-mouth – the 20th-century IPA was, basically, a twist on best bitter (the same way that black IPA emerged as a twist on stout, perhaps).

To compare and contrast, I made tasting notes for the next few beers I had with ‘IPA’ in the name. Harbour IPA (5%) is a favourite of mine; perhaps the best way to review this one is to say that, if there was ever a juicy banger, this beer is it. There’s bitterness from the off – it leaves your lips buzzing with it – and then a big, bursting hop flavour, fruity without being sweet, citric without being sour. It’s light, goes down very easily and finishes with an emphatic bitter aftertaste.

Another comparison: BrewDog Punk IPA (5.3%). One thing BD’s bottled beers really get right, in my experience, is the aroma – by which I mean, they’ve got lots of it: you really know when you’ve opened the bottle. In this case the aroma was mostly citrus, but with an odd, grainy, burnt-toast quality blended in. The flavour began with citric freshness, building to a big grapefruit character but with some of that burnt toast mixed in. Some sweetness on the finish, too; a distinct lychee or pear-drop flavour lurking in among the bitterness. Like the Harbour it’s very drinkable, and has almost nothing in common with the Wall’s beer.

The impression that IPA means (or has meant) two completely different things was strengthened by a bottle of Shepherd Neame‘s ‘historical recipe’ India Pale Ale (6.1%). Comparing with the Wall’s beer, the same key elements were there: the big, heavy body with a sweet edge; the strong, uncompromising bitterness mid-mouth; both were intense enough to combine in a pleasantly marmaladey way. In fact, the flavours were stronger all round than in the Explorer. Indeed, compared to the Wall’s beer the Shep’s beer was stronger, with more citrus at the front of the mouth and a more intense bitter-lemon aftertaste: in other words, it was like a halfway house between a twentieth-century IPA and the much more extreme contemporary style.

One final comparison: Greene King IPA. I jest – I don’t know where I’d go to find it (my local Spoons serves Ruddles and Abbot Ale). No, what I’m comparing with this time is Metropolitan Lone Wolf – which is to say, a 6% IPA sold in supermarkets in 330 ml bottles (with a rather stylish branding reminiscent of Peter Saville’s Manchester M logo) and brewed by, um, Greene King. The label boasts of seven different hops, with dry hopping for added ‘intensity’. What I tasted, bizarrely enough, was a rather bland variant on the twentieth-century IPA style. Heavy body, sweetness, tannic mid-mouth bitterness and a drying bitter finish were all present and correct, although for my money there was rather too little tannin and too much sweetness; in fact a malty sweetness dominated throughout, perhaps with some hop fruitiness a long way down in the mix. I don’t know if this is in any way related to Greene King IPA in any of its guises, but I’d be surprised if it was startlingly different. Why GK are trying to sell this quintessentially undemanding old-school beer into the ‘craft’ market is anybody’s guess. About the best I can say of it is that, if it were a better beer, it’d be good example of a twentieth-century IPA.

Which – returning to my starting-point – would be no bad thing. To quote a comment I left on Martyn’s post,

I got into real ale as soon as I was old enough to drink, then had a break from beer (or at least from taking beer seriously) between about 1980 and 2000. Coming back into a vastly changed (and rapidly changing) beer scene, one of the things I remembered clearly from ‘before’ was how an IPA ought to taste. Imagine my surprise (among other reactions) when I first tasted one of the new breed of IPAs. I’m not about to start drinking GK IPA in preference to Bengal Lancer et al – that ship has sailed – but I’m sure my 18-year-old self would have recognised & liked it

Even at my current advanced age, I recognised the Explorer IPA as such – and liked it. (But I like the Harbour too.)

Uncool

In comments over at Ron’s, John Clarke raises an interesting point:

The usual narrative is that US soldiers stationed in the UK during the war found our beer “warm” because they compared it to what they were used to back home. However given that many of them would be stationed in the country and visited rural pubs, it seems that the beer really would have been warm – especially those that stored the beer in the way described here and the moved it inside to be served on gravity, as I suspect many of them would have done at the time.

(“The way described here” refers to… no, I won’t spoil the shock for you. Read the whole thing.)

This got me thinking about the ‘warm beer’ trope. If you plug the phrase ‘warm beer’ (without quotes) into the Google Ngram Viewer, you can see several distinct periods. From a low point at the turn of the century, the frequency of the phrase creeps upwards through the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but it’s fairly low throughout. From Google Books we can see that, before 1941, the phrase ‘warm beer’ is used in several different contexts:

  1. Recipes for beer that’s warmed on the stove before drinking (what we’d now call ‘mulled beer’)
  2. Same as 1, but for medicinal or other household purposes (warm beer is good for cleaning oak furniture, apparently)
  3. First-person references to drinking bottled beer that hasn’t been kept cool, particularly in hot countries
  4. Occasional references to problems in serving draught beer, invariably from the point of view of the server

The last of these is interesting: serving beer that was warm when it hit the glass was recognised as something that might drive custom away as early as the 1930s, if not before. (In one article the tendency to end up with warm beer is cited as a reason for the limited takeup of kegging!)

What we don’t see is any reference to drinkers finding cask beer to be warm in the glass. This rapidly changes from 1941 onwards; there’s a steep climb on the Ngram Viewer’s chart, peaking in 1945. The frequency then drops back down, to settle at a higher level in the early 50s. It’s in 1941 that Google Books finds its first reference to ‘warm beer’ being the norm in Britain – and there’s only one in the whole year. In 1942 – with the arrival of GIs in Britain – the floodgates open. From 1942 to 1946 the references to warm beer are legion; it’s often mentioned together with tea, as typical features of the English landscape which American newcomers found baffling. Warm beer in this sense is referred to just as often as warm beer from bottles. Interestingly, a lot of these references are also from the point of view of soldiers on active service. Perhaps from a GI’s point of view there wasn’t much to choose between beer that had been kept in a hole in the ground in North Africa and beer from a quaint old English hand pump – they both met the same lowered expectations.

As I said above, the Ngram Viewer shows a lower frequency of references after the war; Google Books also goes a bit quiet. This surprised me – I was expecting George Orwell’s famous reference to warm beer to have had more of an impact. (More on that later.) The ‘warm English beer’ trope may have got going when the GIs came, but when they left it seems to have stopped again – or at least become dormant; after 1946 we’re back to the warm bottles and problems with inadequately chilled lines. It’s worth emphasising that this idea of warm beer as a problem, from the server’s point of view, is not at all the same thing as the idea of ‘warm beer’ being the norm. If anything it’s the opposite, as they show that English bar staff in the 1950s and 60s were worrying about their beer occasionally being too warm – just as they had done in the 1930s.

In about 1973 the Ngram chart line starts to climb again; it climbs and climbs until it plateaus at the start of the 90s. This may be partly in response to the rise of kegging, which by then was becoming ubiquitous; some sentimental souls may have seen warm beer as part of an England we had lost. My trawl in Google Books didn’t turn up any evidence to support this, however. What I did find was an association between ‘warm beer’ and another 1970s development: CAMRA, and the broader movement towards taking English beer styles seriously. Ironically, the ‘warm beer’ trope seems to have been given a boost by several people – not all of them called Protz – complaining about it, and pointing out painstakingly that cellar-temperature cask beer is not what anyone from south of the Arctic Circle would call ‘warm’.

Throughout the 1980s, if Google Books is to be trusted, references to warm bottled beer remained the main source of ‘warm beer’ quotations; the idea of the traditional warmness of English beer had taken hold to some extent, but it was still fighting it out with an equal number of grumpy (but well-informed) arguments to the contrary. In fact the idea of ‘warm beer’ as synonymous with Englishness doesn’t seem to take hold until much later. How much later? Well, certainly after 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major told us that

Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school. Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.

Before we get back to the beer, it’s worth noting why it was that the PM felt the need to evoke an unchanging essence of Britishness. The answer is in the next (and concluding) paragraph of his speech:

Surely we trust our own integrity as a people quite enough to fear nothing in Europe. We are the British, a people freely living inside a Europe which is glad to see us and wants us. After 20 years we have come of age in Europe. One Conservative leader put us there. This Conservative leader means us to thrive there. So let’s get on with it.

For Major, in other words, a sentimental vision of an unchanging – even unchangeable – Britain was the counterweight to a commitment to remaining, and playing a bigger role, in the EU. One can think of worse causes for the British pint to be enlisted in. Be that as it may, it was surely this speech which launched the idea of warm beer as an inherent part of Britishness. And it’s worth noting that, unlike the GIs’ catalogues of British quaintness, Major wasn’t evoking Britishness as seen from outside: these were British tropes which we ourselves could be proud of, or mock ironically, or mock our own pride in, or be proud of mocking, or whatever. (Complicated business, being British.)

As for the Orwell quote, it comes from “The Lion and the Unicorn”, the (in)famous wartime essay in which he described Britain as “a family with the wrong members in charge”, and which is generally seen as a low-water mark in the radicalism of Orwell’s politics. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see him banging on about warm beer. Except that he didn’t – and, if you read the quotation, you’ll realise that Major didn’t even say that he did. All the guff about the eternal British verities of county cricket and pools forms was Major’s own invention (which was ironic, really, considering that Major’s own government was about to cut the legs from under the pools companies by bringing in the National Lottery). The same goes for the warm beer – and, in fact, the entire mistily harmonious message. Orwell’s own vision of England was a lot more hard-edged, and looks a lot more like a celebration of diversity and change:

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

Orwell gets a bit soggy and essentialist in the second paragraph – and the conclusion is a majestic piece of having your cake and eating it – but it’s striking that those old maids on their bikes are presented as an example of disharmony: they’re nothing like the Lancashire mill-workers or the kids playing pinball in Soho. And, more importantly (for this blog at least!), the beer isn’t characteristically warm – it’s bitter; in fact it’s bitterer than the beer in any foreign country! (He did like his statements sweeping, did Orwell; you start to notice it if you read his stuff long enough.)

As for the contemporary fortunes of the ‘warm beer’ trope, I’d like to be able to report that the phrase became a stock signifier of Englishness (or possibly Britishness) straight after Major’s speech. I’d like to, but both Google Books and the Ngram Viewer are telling me otherwise. The phrase climbs in frequency very gently between 1992 and 1996, then climbs much more steeply over the next eight years; it peaks in 2004 and then declines gently until 2008 (the Ngram Viewer’s cut-off point). Similarly, Google Books shows very little action for the rest of the 90s; there are at least as many references to beer recipes and to unpleasantly warm cans and bottles (generally in hot countries) as there are to the proverbial Britishness of warm beer. Something certainly happened to give the phrase more prominence some time in the late 1990s, but exactly what it was – and when it happened – is unclear. Interestingly, if we put other phrases from Major’s speech into the Ngram Viewer – phrases like ‘pools fillers’ and ‘old maids cycling’ (Orwell wrote ‘biking’) – we see a similar pattern: a rapid rise after 1994, a peak between 2000 and 2004, then decline. Perhaps it simply took time for Major’s imagery to work its way into print (a book called “Invincible Green Suburbs” was published in 1998). Perhaps it has something to do with ‘Cool Britannia’ (1997-8) – and in particular Tony Blair’s eagerness to jump that wave when he became Prime Minister in the middle of it; perhaps the TV programme “I Love 1993″ (broadcast in September 2001) would be worth checking out.

John Major didn’t invent the image of warm cask beer. It had been knocking around the national consciousness ever since 1942; thirty years after that, the image had been given greater salience both by the rise of keg and, paradoxically, by the efforts of cask devotees to debunk it. (You can’t say “it’s not true that cask beer is served warm” without saying the words “cask beer is served warm”!) But the prominence that the image has enjoyed recently is just that, recent. Before Major (and before Cool Britannia), “warm cask beer” was a sneer and a debating point. It took a controversial speech by an unpopular Prime Minister to turn it into a popular image of a British tradition. Like many imagined traditions, this one is barely old enough to drink.

Update (8th March) This conclusion needs a bit of qualification. As commenters have pointed out, ‘warm beer’ jokes abound in Goscinny & Uderzo’s Astérix chez les Bretons – written in 1965 and translated as Asterix in Britain in 1970. Further Googling for the phrase “as British as warm beer” finds multiple occurrences in the late 1990s and after – as we’d expect – but also one from 1986 and one from 1965; unlike those in the Asterix book, these don’t appear to have been written by outsiders looking in. So perhaps the ‘warm beer’ trope had a bit more of a hold before 1993 than I gave it credit for. I’d still maintain that Major’s speech gave it, at the very least, a big push towards the prominence it now has.

Embarrassed

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
PIROTGIMO: 7

(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
PIROTGIMO: 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?

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