Choice

I’ve noticed an odd tendency recently in some of the more ‘craft’ places where I drink; a tendency towards differentiation and homogenisation, you could say. If you wanted to be less pretentious about it, you could also call it the development of two different ideas of ‘craft’: one that’s mainly focused on a ‘craft’ style of beer (viz. IPAs and PAs), and one that’s focused on variety and innovation.

On the ‘variety’ front, take the Dulcimer in Chorlton (four pumps, one reserved for Wainwright) and the Gaslamp in Manchester (four pumps, one or two usually off). The last few times I’ve been in each of those places, it’s been quite hard to get anything closely resembling a pint of beer. The odd, innovative and interesting are heavily represented – and sometimes they’re very good – but brown bitters, or even golden bitters, are conspicuous by their absence. I became aware of this at the Dulcimer when I overheard an anxious conversation elsewhere in my group: the Wainwright had run off, so what were they actually going to drink? The 6% stout? The smoked porter? The red rye IPA, 7.5% and a bargain at £4 a pint?

On the other hand, I was at the Font in Chorlton earlier today, where I was greatly impressed with the range of breweries on the bar (RedWillow! Magic Rock! Dark Star! Steel City! Buxton! hey, Buxton, we’re going to miss you!). The range of styles and strengths? Not so much. There was a pale ale, another pale ale, another pale ale… in fact there were eight pumps and eight pale ales. Strengths ran from 3.6% to 5.2%; four were below 4% and only two were 5% or above. I’m guessing there was some weird and interesting stuff on the keg taps, but as far as the cask range went you could basically have a sessionable pale ale or a slightly less sessionable pale ale.

For a third data point, this contrasts oddly with the local Spoons, which – despite fridges now boasting Lagunitas Flying Dog Erdinger Duvel ect ect – is not what most people would call a craft beer bar. Seven pumps were on the last time I was in there, offering two golden ales, three bitters, an old ale and a porter; strengths ranged from 3.7% to 6%, with only one beer below 4%. The breweries weren’t as exciting as those at the Font: two pumps were occupied by Ruddles and Abbott, two more by Moorhouse’s Blond Witch and Phoenix Wobbly Bob (both more or less permanent ‘guests’); the remaining beers came from Phoenix (again), Elland and Blakemere, none of which is likely to be on the front cover of CRAFT any time soon. But a bar serving that range of styles looks more like my idea of a decent pub selection than the Font‘s. (The pub itself looks nothing like my idea of a decent pub, admittedly, but the Font’s not much better.)

Anyone else noticed this tendency for craft beer bars to develop either into a dedicated weirdie showcase or into a Pub With No Beer (Except The Pale Grapefruity Kind)? Or is it just a Chorlton thing?

Something silly

The Curmudgeon commented the other day on the burgeoning of ‘craft’ beers with silly a.b.v.s, arguing that this is a recent phenomenon and that it goes along with a different way of drinking beer. A session of thirds at 10.5% would be a very different experience from a session of pints at 3.5% – more like a wine- or whisky-tasting evening, less like a session down the pub.

The contrast can be exaggerated. Being a bit stronger than average has been a marker of quality in beer right back to the early days of CAMRA, when we’d seek out surviving strong ales and old ales (Young’s Winter Warmer, Theakston’s Old Peculier…) and compare them unfavourably with mass-market (keg) swill. Moreover, strength was still associated with quality and/or originality during the first pale’n’oppy boom. A big part of the appeal of Hopback Summer Lightning, back in the ’90s, was that it was both lighter-tasting than your average bitter and stronger – it was called ‘Lightning’ for a reason. (I wonder, looking back, how much of the original fan-base of Summer Lightning – and of the golden ales that followed – was made up of people who had been to the Netherlands or Belgium and tasted the ‘real’ Heineken or Stella: lighter and smoother than the beer we were used to, yet stronger with it.)

But there’s a big difference between Summer Lightning at 5.5%, or Young’s Winter Warmer at (I’m startled to find) a mere 5%, and something like Un-Human Cannonball at 11%. You’re no longer talking about having three or four pints, as normal, and feeling slightly rougher in the morning; three pints at 10% would equate to nine double gins, more than half the bottle. In fact you’re no longer talking about drinking pints at all (I found it hard enough to get through a third of UHC).

What you are talking about, at least in my experience, is the ideal candidate for a new way of drinking beer: the Half of Something Silly. Beer festivals and pub crawls aside, I almost invariably drink pints. At the end of a night, though, as I prepare to head home (or even after I’ve left the pub), I often fancy rounding off the evening’s drinking with a H. of S. S. (The fact that I tend to pass the Font on my way home from the pub may be relevant here.) To qualify as Silly, a beer needs to be something I’d never usually choose, either because it’s ridiculously strong or because it’s flavoured with, well, something silly – liquorice, cheese, Brett… A typical example of Something Silly was the smoked cherry chipotle milk porter I had a while back. I never want to have it again – I don’t think a milk porter was something the world was waiting for, let alone a chipotle milk porter or a cherry chipotle milk porter. (I couldn’t taste the smoke, which may be just as well.) But that’s not the point; sometimes (particularly when you’re already three pints down), you just fancy a half of something silly, and something silly is definitely what that was.

Any questions?

A new way of drinking beer – isn’t that a bit of a generalisation?

OK, it could just be me. But if you look at the keg list at a place like the Font in Chorlton, you’ll see that some of them hang around for absolute ages – particularly the really strong beers. (And I’m sure they’re fine, what with being keg to begin with.) There may be people having sessions on halves and thirds of loopy juice; alternatively, there may be some beers that only really come into their own after 10.30, when people start fancying a H. of S. S.

Aren’t you just describing what we used to call a ‘nightcap’?

Pretty much; and it’s not a million miles from other end-of-evening practices like switching to Landlord when time’s been called, or spinning out the last half of bitter by sticking a bottle of Guinness in it. But the likelihood of finding a cask ‘nightcap’ – or anything really weird or hefty – is pretty small nowadays. You’ll stand a better chance in a ‘craft’ bar – or a Spoons’ – but the real home of the end-of-evening beer, these days, is the ‘craft’ keg font.

So, Un-Human Cannonball is the new Old Tom.

Old Tom is the new Old Tom, and UHC would be a lousy substitute. Cannonball would do nicely, though. Also Marble Brew 900, Siren/Mikkeller White Stout, Marble Vuur and Vlam… all HoSS that I’ve known and loved. I’d include Magic Rock Magic 8 Ball (the 7.2% BIPA I finished off with last night) but for the fact that it gave me the worst hangover in years; I’m still a bit fragile 24 hours later. I only had a half (obviously), but I’m sure it was that one that did it – everything I’d had up to then was on cask, so it must have been OK.

Really?

No, not really. Actually I blame the saison I had earlier. Saison before black IPA and you’ll feel… how does it go?

A wet weekend

SATURDAY

My weekend’s drinking got off to an unusual start, with two hours of abstinence surrounded by beer.

Back a bit. I’ve been going to the Chorlton Beer Festival most years since it started, what with it being a beer festival, in walking distance, in and around (and in aid of) a rather nice local church. What I’ve never done, there or at any other CAMRA fest, is volunteer. For a while now, I’ve been feeling a bit bad about being the totally passive subs-paying variety of CAMRA member (particularly since the discounts available locally mean the sub pays for itself), and this year I decided to get my feet wet with a quick bit of festival staffing.

Never having done this before, I found I was enormously apprehensive – both in general terms (what would it actually be like?) and about the specific question of (not to put too fine a point on it) beer. My only experience of pint-pulling came from an afternoon stint at the Club Mirror trade event a few years back. This was essentially a beer showcase for licensees, and the beer was free – for the guests & for those of us on the stillage side of the table, if we wanted to sample the goods and/or were getting thirsty. Trade was reasonably brisk, but there was plenty of time for sampling – by the end of the afternoon I estimated I’d had about four pints in total. (Didn’t feel it, oddly enough. Must have been all that running up and down.)

Obviously an event where everybody’s paying will have different rules from one where nobody is, and I wasn’t expecting the Chorlton fest to be anywhere near as liberal as that. But my stint as a volunteer was going to be my only visit to the fest: I didn’t want to end up going home without having had anything at all. The advice sent out to volunteers set my mind at rest to some extent:

Staff are encouraged to taste the beers in order to familiarise yourself with what is available so you can recommend beers to customers. Please do not misuse this privilege. Your bar manager will give you a staff glass when you arrive – mark it with insulation tape showing your name. When going on a break, you may fill your glass. Please drink responsibly.

That didn’t sound too bad, particularly the bit about filling your glass. What did worry me was what would happen at the end of my stint – would I be able to buy some tokens and hang on as a punter? Or would they confiscate my ‘staff’ glass and insist I paid the full whack? (And if they did, what would I do?) I was still speculating (pointlessly) about this when I walked down to the church on Saturday afternoon.

Ah. Saturday afternoon. You may have spotted the flaw in my plan to ease myself into CAMRA volunteering with a little light pint-pulling. The festival was open Thursday evening, Friday evening and on Saturday from lunchtime to 9.30 p.m. For what must have seemed like good reasons at the time, I’d decided to volunteer from 6.00 to 8.00 on Saturday.

Was it busy? Yes, it was busy. It was very busy. There were about eight of us between the bar and stillage which had been set up at one end of the room, serving 20-odd beers – mostly from handpump – to… lots of people. At one point I remember thinking the crowd was thinning out a bit, and then realising it was still three deep along most of the bar. I took orders, pulled beers as quickly and efficiently as I could manage (balancing speed against froth), did mental arithmetic to work out what to charge and then did some more to work out which numbers to cross off on the token sheet – or sheets; a couple of times I was handed three separate sheets, all of them partly completed. Then I did it all again, and again. (As, of course, did all the people around me, most of whom were already doing it when I arrived and were still there when I left.) I spent the first ten minutes dashing unnecessarily up and down behind the bar and getting under people’s feet (sorry), working out where everything was and in some cases wasn’t (a couple of beers had already gone off). Then I got the hang of it. My pump-jockeying was getting quite good by the end of it, too.

Did I taste the beers to familiarise myself with what was available? Well, I did get a staff glass, but actually putting anything in it wasn’t an option. This was partly peer pressure – I could plainly see that nobody else was drinking anything, apart from one guy who was on water – but mainly it was just because there wasn’t time: even if the entire front row of drinkers was being served (which we did sometimes manage) there was always the row behind them, and the row behind them. It was endless. When I left, I suppose I could have pulled myself a cheeky familiariser on the way out, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that while everyone else was still working flat out – and besides, by that stage the beers were starting to get a bit scarce.

As for hanging around to sample the fest as a punter, certainly nobody made any move to take my glass off me, so that was one less worry. The only problem was, by then two of the three bars serving beer had completely run off and closed up; the only bar where beer was still being served was the one I’d just come from. It wasn’t that I didn’t fancy a beer – by this stage I really fancied a beer – but I didn’t fancy queuing up to get served by somebody I’d just been working alongside, let alone doing it two or three times over so as to spend £5 worth of tokens. So I parked my glass on a table and came home, via the Sedge Lynn (Phoenix White Tornado) and Pi (Se7en Brothers EPA).

The moral of this story is that I should have been more selective about which period I volunteered for – and that anyone who does volunteer (knowingly!) for a busy period at a beer fest is an absolute hero. (I’m still aching four days later – what it would have been like to serve all evening, and then do the take-down, I can only imagine.)

SUNDAY wasn’t quite what I’d expected, either.

In a conversation on Facebook earlier in the week I’d chanced to use the phrase “Manchester’s improving daily” – the title of a Victorian broadside ballad about the transformation of the city during the Industrial Revolution. A passing member of the band Edward II picked up on this and asked if I was coming to their ‘mini-festival’ – entitled Manchester’s improving daily – that weekend at the Angel. (It wasn’t quite such a coincidence as that makes it sound – the phrase was in my mind because I’d seen it earlier in the week, on a poster which was presumably advertising the event.) As well as performers giving renditions of selected Victorian ballads, the afternoon was going to feature two sets by Edward II, who are a kind of mutant reggae ceilidh band; there would be food and, the Angel being the Angel, a wide range of beers. The idea of standing in the sun with a beer listening to Victorian reggae appealed to me rather a lot, so on Sunday afternoon I headed out.

Then it started raining. By the time I got into town it was raining really heavily. I decided to take the bus to the Angel and got into an altercation with the bus driver, who’d never heard of the Angel (or, presumably noticed it) and didn’t know what fare to charge: “How much do you usually pay?” “I don’t, usually I walk it…” I got there to find the pub rather full – standing room only – and Edward II in the process of packing up: clearly the rain hadn’t been factored in. I got a drink (Stockport First Gold) and mulled over what to do. While I was mulling I overheard somebody telling somebody else that Edward II were going to do a set at Band on the Wall instead, and that there was a “scratch acoustic thing” going on upstairs. I headed upstairs, to find – not a scratch anything, but – the estimable Mark Dowding and Chris Harvey, who recorded an album of Manchester Victorian broadsides ten years ago. Still nowhere to sit, though. I stood through “Manchester’s improving daily” (none other) and then decided to go somewhere else to take the weight off.

The particular somewhere else I had in mind was the Smithfield – a pub I’ve always rather liked, though it’s never been the most opulent of drinking experiences. It’s recently started a new lease of life as a joint venture between Blackjack and an independent beer distributor. It’s also practically next door to the Band on the Wall, so it seemed like the ideal place to pass the time until Edward II were ready. I ended up having three Blackjack beers – You Bet, Jabberwocky and Full House – and an Alechemy Citra Burst. Three pale ales and one tripel, two on keg (You Bet and Full House), two on cask. They were all terrific; I started with You Bet but thought Jabberwocky shaded it in terms of complexity and interestingness – although I did catch myself thinking, heretically, that it would have been nicer just a bit colder. (It was a hot day.) And Full House, at 9.2%, was just superb.

As for Edward II, when I went to the Band on the Wall they had a sign up saying that they weren’t going to play after all, but ‘events’ would continue at the Angel. I shlepped back to the Angel and found no events going on, so I went home. An hour later – by which time it was a pleasant, sunny evening – a note appeared on Facebook to the effect that they were going to play after all, at the Angel. Blast! But then, if I’d hung around at the Angel – or in the Smithfield – for another hour I’m not sure I’d have been able to stand, let alone dance.

And the moral of that story – well, it’s a bit like the story of Trillian’s contact lenses in one of the later Hitchhiker books. The moral is that if you go home you miss out, sometimes, and if you stay out it’s a waste of time, sometimes. The trick is knowing which is which.

Spoonage

First of July, and we’re into another Spoons Token Quarter – which means that I’m no longer burdened, as I have been for the last few weeks, with the question how many have I still got left? I got rid of them all in the end, but it involved a few JDW-related detours, in one case involving a bus journey. This, admittedly, stretches the notion of saving money to breaking point and probably beyond. But it’s the principle of the thing (the principle being ‘I really hate getting stuck with money-off tokens which have expired’).

Anyway, I’ve spent more time in JDW’s over the last couple of weeks than I usually do, and I’ve accumulated a few tasting notes & other comments. So here goes.

That London
Staying one night at a Travelodge in Tower Hill, as you do, I went on a half-hearted quest for a decent pub to get something to eat (half-hearted because I didn’t fancy going back on the Tube & I could tell there was stuff-all around there). The Minories, next door to the Travelodge, looked like a fine olde Londone Pubbe and had a decent food menu; pressing my nose to the glass I could see a row of handpumps, too. But a familiar St George’s Cross emblem caught my eye and I looked closer: yes, it was Bombardier, accompanied by Doom Bar, Deuchar’s IPA, Spitfire… There were six pumps in all, and every one of them dispensing one of the dullest, blandest nationally available real ales on the market.

So I went to the ominously named Potter’s FieldGoodman’s Field (JDW) – which, of course, had the same food menu as any other Spoons, but at least they had a decent choice of beer. Well, sort of. Yeastie Boys/Wadworth Golden Perch was golden, all right; it was also hazy and flattish, and tasted sharp – too sharp. If it had been a familiar beer I would have taken it back, but I thought I should give it the benefit of the doubt – who knows, maybe that’s how they like it in New Zealand… (Later experience of the same beer in another Spoons’ confirms that it was off.) By the Horns London Porter, on the other hand, was stone solid magnificent. (Yes, By the Horns are supplying Wetherspoons.) An interesting food menu in an unspoilt pub interior washed down with Shep’s dishwater, or the same old burger, served in an under-lit hotel lounge, with a classic beer from a well-regarded local brewery? I think I made the right choice.

Something’s Gone Wrong Again
Thanks to Spoons’ wifi, I spent an informative few minutes in the Ford Madox Brown recently learning about fusels – the ‘other’ alcohols that you shouldn’t really get in beer, and which lead to the beer tasting or smelling like nail-polish remover. The reason, sad to say, was Ilkley Lotus IPA, which I’ve had before and enjoyed; this batch, though… not so much. I followed it with a Phoenix West Coast IPA, which was considerably less ‘chewy’ and interesting, but didn’t make me think of acetone; it aimed lower but didn’t fall as short.

Another time, in another Spoons’, I had a beer from an independent brewery which I’m actually not going to name – other than to say I’ve never written about the brewery on this blog; all the more reason not to start with this beer. I’m pretty sure the beer was in decent condition, but it was really foul. And foul in an unusual way: for the first third of the pint I was thinking alternately “this is odd – I guess I’ll get used to it” and “it definitely reminds me of something…”. Then I got it. You know that sharp citric bite that pale ales often have? And that fug of smokey aroma that hoppy ales often have, with just a hint of burnt rubber? And that bland, even slightly sweet quality that sessionable golden ales have? OK, hold all of those in your mind. Now: you know the smell of urine, particularly old urine – an unflushed toilet or a well-used urinal? I put it to you that a certain combination of sweet/sharp/smoky evokes exactly that smell. And if you think that’s bad, picture me with two-thirds of a pint left to get through.

Moving along…

Craft Works?
Not sure what’s going on on the ‘craft’ front; certainly they seem to be dumping the BrewDog lager. I have seen Thwaites’ Thirteen Guns on keg in a Spoons, though. I’ve also seen the ‘Manager’s Special’ sign Matthew mentioned – offering cut prices on the Adnam’s Jack Brand beer as well as Vedett and one of the Sixpoint cans, among others; however, I’ve seen the same sign quite recently in two separate pubs, which runs counter to Matthew’s argument that it was just a question of overstocking. On the other hand, the Ford Madox Brown‘s fridge – although not the menu – offers both Negra Modelo and (drumroll please) Duvel, in what’s almost certainly the cheapest deal on an 8.5% Dutch pale ale anywhere in Manchester.

So that’s JDW’s for you; love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t spend your CAMRA tokens anywhere else. All in all I wouldn’t be without them. While I was in London I also went to the Rake, but I’ll talk about that another time.

The question answered

Here are a couple of recent comments from Boak & Bailey’s blog, both from readers based in the US:

A North American observer will be struck by what seem uniformly low ABV in the blackboard menu [which advertised beers ranging from 3.6% to 4%]. Curious if you ran into any beers of 5% or more.

I’m looking forward to [Moor Beers] being more generally available here (especially given how difficult it can be to find anything under 6% locally – the tasty Old Freddy Walker notwithstanding)

And here’s a handy ready-reckoner. (Wot no ‘insert table’ widget? HTML view here I come. This may take some time…)

P (I) 16 (US) 12 (US)
3.2 2.7 2
4 3.3 2.5
4.8 4 3
5.6 4.7 3.5
6.4 5.3 4
7.2 6 4.5
8 6.7 5
8.8 7.3 5.5
9.6 8 6
10.4 8.7 6.5

What’s that? That, dear reader, is the question answered: the question being, why is (typical) American beer so much stronger than (typical) British beer? To be more precise, that’s a comparison of the amount of alcohol delivered by an imperial pint, a US (16-oz) pint and a US 12-oz measure, using the Imperial pint as the standard of comparison. In the US they have a sixteen-ounce pint, but with different-sized ounces. Two standard glass sizes are a US pint (5/6 of an imperial pint) and 12 US fluid ounces – 2/3 of a US pint, or 355 ml, or 5/8 of an imperial pint. (This is also the standard size of a bottle of beer.)

I don’t know about you, but when I order a pint it’s not because I think twenty fluid ounces (imperial) is just the right amount – eighteen wouldn’t hit the spot, twenty-two would be excessive… I order beer in pints because that’s what you do: “a beer”, if you’re an adult male, will almost invariably mean “a pint of beer”. (My OH and I used to talk about going for “a swift half”; even then I’d order pints.) So, when I think of three or four beers I’m thinking of three or four pints – and when I think of a session beer, I’m thinking of a beer I could drink three or four pints of without regretting it, which realistically means nothing very much over 4%.

What that table tells you is what you get, relative to an imperial pint, in a given ABV at 16 or 12 US fluid ounces: so a 4.8% beer is the 16-oz equivalent of a pint at 4%, or the 12-oz equivalent of a pint at 3%. See where I’m going? If your idea of a ‘session beer’ is one that leaves you comfortably merry, but not downright palatic, after four beers – and if your idea of “a beer” is 5/8 of an imperial pint – then a 4% beer is going to be no good to you at all: you’ll want a 6.4% beer to get the same effect as an imperial pint at 4%. Even if 16-oz measures are standard (see comments), you’ll be looking for 4.8% minimum.

Just on the basis of a 16-ounce glass, we’d expect US ‘session beers’ to range between 4.2% and 5.4%, for exactly the same reason that British session beers generally range between 3.5% and 4.5%. And we’d expect US brewers to have little or no interest in anything below 3.6%, for exactly the same reason that British brewers don’t tend to do much below 3%. On the other hand, we’d expect US beer drinkers to treat beer strengths up to 8% as perfectly normal, for exactly the same reason that British drinkers are happy going up to 6-6.5% (e.g. Wobby Bob, Elland Porter).

Then again, on the basis of a twelve-ounce glass (bottle; bottle, glass) you’d expect session beers between 5% and 7%, a ‘floor’ of 4.8% and a ‘ceiling’ of 10% – which not only makes a better story but seems more in line with complaints about ABV-crazy brewing, misunderstandings of ‘session beer’, etc, etc. Perhaps bottle sizes are more influential than glass sizes. Or perhaps it’s not all in the glassware!

In comments: a recent visitor to the US necessitates extensive modification to the original version of this theory by revealing that 16 oz glassware is in fact standard. Cheers, Ron!

News in brief

A few quick thoughts that don’t quite merit a post each.

“I Like This One More Than That One” – Local Man’s Shock Claim

A couple of cask/keg comparisons. The other day I had the opportunity to try Magic Rock High Wire on both cask and keg. The cask beer opened with an intriguing herby smokiness, which died away as I got further down; by the bottom of the glass it was just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. (I prefer Curious.) This raised my hopes for the keg – if they’d managed to, as it were, freeze-dry the initial hoppy attack so that it ran right through the beer, that would be rather special. I tasted it and it was… just a light, rather sharp-tasting golden ale, perfectly drinkable but nothing outstanding. My “Mysteries of Magic Rock Kegging” file gets longer.

A while ago I had Marble‘s Earl Grey IPA on cask & was rather impressed with it – more so than I remember being when they first brewed it. The keg comparison was unavoidable. I was startled to find that, as good as the cask was, the keg version was… hold on, I need to take a few deep breaths… the keg was… there’s no other way to put this, the keg was even better. Yes, it’s finally happened: I’ve found a beer that works better on keg than on cask (although the cask is really good). It’s the ‘Earl Grey’ aroma that tips the balance – in the keg version it comes through that much more clearly; it seems to hang over the surface of the beer as you’re drinking it.

As for Holt’s/Marble/Blackjack/Runaway Green Quarter IPA, I haven’t tracked it down on cask yet so can’t compare. The keg was pretty damn good, though. (Colder than it needed to be and gassier than it need to be, natürlich, but other than that it was excellent.)

Drinking keg and liking it – oh, the shame!

In Descending Order Of…

For a while now I’ve had my bottled beers arranged (under the stairs) in strength order – 3.8s and 4.1s at the front, 7s and 8s at the back. I decided a while ago that, rather than replacing bottles in ones and twos, I would drink my way through the entire stash (fourteen bottles at the time) in strength order. Not that I’d work my way through them all in one go, you understand, just that every time I fancied a beer I’d go for the strongest thing that was left. I thought this might be an interesting experience and that there might be a blog post in it. I’m now just over halfway through, and – while it has been interesting – there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say about it, except:

There’s a surprising number of ‘Burtons’ out there

McEwan’s Champion, Lees’ Moonraker and Manchester Star, Fuller’s 1845 and (perhaps) ESB, Marston’s Owd Roger, Robinson’s Old Tom… One of these things is not like the others, sadly. Owd Roger is a shadow of its former self: sweet and syrupy with a tell-tale whiff of alcohol on the finish. The rest are all good stuff, whether they put you in mind of a spiked fruit compote (McEwan’s Champion), malt extract off a spoon (Lees’ Manchester Star), or – somehow – both of the above (Old Tom, which really is the business).

In supermarkets, dark=strong and strong=dark

When I was growing up & first discovering beer, bitter was pretty much all there was; a dark beer would generally be sweetish, heavyish and at least half as strong again as the usual (think Bruce’s Dogbolter). That world’s long gone from pubs and bars, but it seems to be hanging on in the supermarket shelves: apart from Tesco’s BrewDog double IPA (which I didn’t have in when I started this), very few supermarket beers are both strong and pale. Instead, I worked my way through a succession of 6+% dark beers – those listed above plus a Robinson’s chocolate porter (from M&S) and Ridgeway Bad King John. (And what an odd beer that is: not a stout, not a porter, not an old ale or a Burton. By analogy with the way that two different flavour profiles come together in a black IPA, I think you could call BKJ a ‘black bitter’. Can’t think of another beer quite like it.) Shortly below 6%, though, I hit a turning-point: 5.9 was ESB, 5.5 was St Austell Proper Job. From here on it’s pale or amber beers all the way down. Watch this space.

Bester Festertester

When I got home from the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival I was in no state to be allowed on the Internet, and by the time I sobered up the moment had gone rather. To the best of my recollection it was a terrific festival. I wasn’t there on the last day, but from my personal perspective the policy of putting everything available on from the start worked superbly well; I’d rapidly built up a want-list including twice as many beers as I could actually hope to drink. Many difficult decisions, reluctant substitutions and spur-of-the-moment decisions later, here’s what I ended up drinking:

Cryptic 1049 Dead 4.9% [a mild I’d enjoyed at the Spinning Top]
Ticketybrew Coffee Anise Porter 4.9% [hmm – not sure the flavour combination quite worked]
Ticketybrew Black IPA 5.9% [this, on the other hand, was terrific]
Outstanding M 10% [a beautiful barleywine, perhaps just slightly overclocked on the alcohol front – an 8% version would be blinding]
Blackjack Dragon’s Tears 5.2% [“Dragon’s Tears”? I drank a beer called “Dragon’s Tears”? It’s a saison, apparently.]
Cryptic 1049 Grey 4.9% [dark mild flavoured with Earl Grey – two totally different flavours, which worked together surprisingly well]
Runaway Hopfenweisse 5.2% [identifiably a weissbier but hopped to the max]
Quantum Mandarina Bavaria 4.5% [my first exposure to the eponymous hop; it was terrific]
Buxton Pomperipossa 6% [sour cherry stout – rather good]
Squawk Espresso Stout 6.5%
Northern Monk Chennai 5.4%
Fool Hardy Renowned Ginger 4.4%

My recollections of the last few are a bit sketchy.

Looking down the list now, I’m struck by just how local those breweries are – three of them are actually based in Stockport, and most of the rest are within a ten-mile radius; the very furthest afield is Northern Monk in Leeds. Hand on heart, I had no idea of this when I was choosing beers; I genuinely picked these beers because I liked the look of them. In the words of the song, Manchester’s improving daily – and Stockport’s not doing too badly (on the beer front at least!).

Mildly interesting

A few last words on Mild Magic 2015.

Good beer
Brightside MMM, Cryptic 1049 Dead, Dunham Light, Moorhouse Black Cat, Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best, Titanic Nautical Mild and Wentworth Black Diamond were excellent. So were Adnams/Sixpoint Make It Rain, Blackjack Solitaire, Dunham Gold, Howard Town Hope, Marble Brew 900, Partners Tabatha and Rossendale Hameldon, which I had as substitutes or second halves.

Good pubs
The Crown and Kettle, Fred’s Ale House, the Harewood Arms, the Jack in the Box, Live Stockport, the Spinning Top and the Sportsman will all be worth a detour in future.

What do points mean?
What points mean, this year at least, is that low-scoring pubs are a lot less attractive. So some very familiar pubs got omitted, including some which are only really familiar from CAMRA crawls – no sticker this year from the New Oxford or the Knott Bar, or in Stockport from the George, the Crown or the (Portwood) Railway. On the other hand, it was good to be motivated to seek out new and interesting venues, a category which for me included most of the places I listed above.

How did it go?
Pretty well, all in all. Eight pubs (out of 48) didn’t have any qualifying beers on; three of those had either had a mild on or had one on order. Very few places failed to supply a sticker, and in at least one case (the Spinning Top) it was because they’d run out. Only one place (Wine and Wallop) claimed not to have had the stickers, and nobody denied all knowledge of MM; in both respects this is an improvement on previous years.

The light and the dark
As my last post indicated, light mild is really on the ropes; I only had fourthree (as against 21 dark milds), and one of them may have been one of the other three under another name (see comments). I guess the underlying problem is the dreaded M-word: ‘mild’ got a name as an old men’s drink forty-odd years ago and it still has it, despite the fact that a lot of the people who turned their noses up at it back then are old men now. If you make a dark, sweetish, lowish-strength beer but don’t call it ‘mild’ – as Hyde’s, Lees and Thwaites’ don’t (and Robinson’s didn’t) – in a sense there’s no harm done: it’s still going to sell to the kind of people who like that kind of beer. A pale session-strength beer, though, will struggle to differentiate itself from pale session-strength bitters – I’d been drinking Golden Best for years before I realised it was a light mild. (And it’ll struggle all the more if the brewery puts the word ‘bitter’ on the pump clip, as Hyde’s have done with 1863.)

Mild oddity
What is “Hyde’s Light Mild”, as served at the Plough in Ashton on Mersey? I’ve had it twice now – both times at the Plough – & liked it a lot. Is it just 1863 (of which I’m not a huge fan) plus auto-suggestion?

Discoveries made
One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s no substitute for an A-Z; the map on my iPod got me thoroughly lost in Stalybridge, and very nearly did the same in Broadbottom. Another is that you need to cut your coat according to your cloth: if you don’t think you’re going to have time for pubs 7-9, stop at 6 and go home. (On reflection this isn’t so much a new discovery as something I knew all along and forgot in the, er, heat of the moment.) Lastly, I made the surprising – but perhaps predictable – discovery that pub lunches are basically a thing of the past: there are Spoons and there are high-end bars serving equally high-end food, but in between, and outside the city centre, there’s pretty much nothing. I guess that workplace puritanism has grown, and lunchtime drinking declined, to the point where serving actual lunches no longer makes sense for most places; the cheap and cheerful pub meal has gone the way of the cloche of curling sandwiches or the jar of pickled eggs.

And finally,

Free beer
As well as looking forward to picking up a Mild Magic sweatshirt (no polo shirt for me!), I am now the proud owner of eight – count ’em – tokens, each exchangeable for a half of mild at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. I’m heading over there tomorrow evening. Obviously(?) I’m not planning to put away four pints of mild, so free halves will be available on request to anyone who knows me (and isn’t also walking around with a pocketful of tokens). First come, first served.

Mildly interesting (6)

This is the sixth and last post documenting my wanders around Manchester and environs in search of mild, as part of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA’s annual Mild Magic promotion.

This year’s MM augmented the sticker-collecting routine with a points system, with far-flung and little-visited pubs getting three points, busy and accessible pubs getting one and the rest getting two. What this meant in practice was that I avoided some pubs I’d usually have gone to and sought out some I’d never set foot in. While this was probably a good thing on balance, it did mean skipping some pubs I like a lot. By this stage, though, I’d built up a bit of a bank of points & could afford to go to some one-pointers, which I duly included on a couple of final crawls around town.

Manchester city centre’s first Wetherspoon’s, the hopefully-named Moon Under Water, had Beartown Black Bear on. I’m not a huge fan of Beartown – in the past I’ve found their beers to err on the side of bland and sweet – but this, to my surprise, was rather good. The venue, though… There are three kinds of Spoons, in my experience: there are the kind that actually look like a pub (very rare); then there are the kind that, while undeniably looking like a giant shed, nevertheless have a bit of a pub ambiance and are quite a pleasant place to while away half an hour. Then there are the rest. I drank up and moved on.

The Rising Sun has been a decent real ale pub for as long as I can remember; it had a Moorhouse’s tie (or something very like one) for a while. No Black Cat this time, though; in fact no mild at all. I contented myself with Howard Town Hope, a grapefruity blighter of a pale ale – a pleasant surprise from a fairly traditional local brewery.

My next stop was in the (Gay) Village. I was drinking in the Village when there barely even was a Village; when Manto on Canal Street first opened in the early 90s I used to go there quite a lot, mainly on Saturday afternoons. They had Pedigree on draught, and I liked the café-bar ambience (all terra cotta and hard chairs). Plus, while I’m not gay myself, I actually rather liked the ‘mixed’ atmosphere of the place, the sense that nobody walking in was going to be assumed to be straight (or assumed to be gay); it made for a relaxed atmosphere, something you can’t always rely on in pubs on a Saturday afternoon.

Since then, of course, Canal Street and the wider Village have got a good deal less ‘mixed’; if you stand at the Princess Street end of Canal Street now and look towards what used to be Manto, all you can see is a huge sign reading “G A Y”. And so to the Molly House, which is a sort of anti-Manto: on one hand it’s a snug, pubby-looking pub, all dark wood and plush upholstery, with an excellent range of beer on draught; on the other, it’s very gay. (Try googling the origins of the name.) A nice enough place to visit, for the heterosexual beer tourist, but it doesn’t have that chilled “hey, why should we define ourselves by our sexuality?” air about it. (And I doubt that anywhere does, these days; the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ vibe of the early days of Manto was probably just a phase, which passed when the scene got better established.) Anyway, back to the beer – which was terrific. It was a Brightside dark mild which I hadn’t seen before, called MMM; mid-brown in colour with a real depth of flavour, not unlike the Titanic Nautical Mild.

Another lunchtime trip took me to the Marble Arch, which – unusually – was serving food; I couldn’t bring myself to pay £11 for a burger, though. I wouldn’t usually start a mild session with the equivalent of a pint at 7%, but the nearest thing they had to a mild was Chocolate Marble – and they had Brew 900 on keg. What else was I going to do? Second acquaintance with Brew 900 confirms that it’s a really nice tripel, with that delicate sweetness that comes in at the end without being cloying. The Chocolate was pretty good too.

The Castle on Oldham St is a Robinson’s house and hence a go-to pub on Winter Warmer Wanders. For mild, these days, not so much. They did, however, have Titanic Mild on – not the Nautical Mild, but a 3.8% dark mild, which (as you’d expect) was similar but a bit less substantial. Up the road, the Smithfield was unexpectedly shut – through the window I could see where they’d stashed their A-boards, one of them reading ‘Open daily 12-7’; for points-related reasons, this led to an unexpected detour to the Bull’s Head. After my experience at the Red Lion I wasn’t enthused about doing a solid ten-minute walk to get to a Marston’s pub, but it wasn’t too bad; in fact Banks’s Mild was surprisingly good.

Finally, for my very last sticker of Mild Magic 2015, I schlepped back to the Crown and Kettle, where I had… um. I followed it with Ticketybrew Table IPA, that I do know, but as for the mild itself (and I know there was a mild)… nope. Like the first mild I had this year, the last one has slipped my mind. A dark mild, and one I hadn’t had before; that’s all I can remember.

48 pubs down (and 100 points amassed), how’s it all stack up?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 33 (21 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 8
Breweries: 30 (22 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 6
Pubs worth going back to: 17
Once-a-year pubs: 25

Mildly interesting (5)

I went a bit further afield for this one, by rail, tram and bus.

In Stalybridge, the Station Buffet Bar was a one-pointer, but I couldn’t reasonably pass it by. Moorhouse’s Black Cat was excellent – so too was the selection, but I wasn’t stopping. The bar doesn’t seem to do food any more, which is a shame (at least, it didn’t that day); as on the previous trip, I spent rather a long time on this trip in search of pub food. The decline of lunchtime drinking has a lot to answer for.

Passing by the Q Inn – famous (or so it claims) for having the shortest name of any pub in the country – I headed to the White House, where a blackboard assured me that ‘ale trails’ were catered for. Hyde’s, so Owd Oak – fine, if a bit undistinguished.

At the Society Rooms (JDW) I waited while an unsuspecting punter attempted to order a gin and tonic. “Which gin would you like?” said the woman serving – several times; the idea of a choice of gin clearly did not compute. Once over that hurdle (“Have you got Gordon’s?”) the poor guy had to decide whether to have slimline tonic or not, and then whether to have a single or a double. The joys of customer choice! Me, I had a half of Peerless Dark Arts and averted my eyes from the food menu. Around the corner from the Society Rooms, in the marketplace, I bumped into the local leg of the Tameside Food Festival; I was on the point of ordering something in a nan bread when I had a vision of meat juices and yogurt dripping down my arm and onto my shirt. The other main alternatives – burgers and hot dogs – also lost their appeal at this point, for the same reasons. A sit-down meal, I thought to myself slightly grumpily, that shouldn’t be too much to ask at lunchtime. Only not Spoons’, obviously. Something else I didn’t spend money on at this stage was beer: there was a stall from the Tweed brewery, dispensing an IPA and a stout. I talked to the stallholder, who told me Tweed was the only brewery in Hyde (it sounded more impressive at the time). The beer looked great, but I had places to go and ticks to tick, so I moved on.

Some time later I discovered the key disadvantage of trying to map-read on a phone-sized screen: the phone doesn’t tell you whether you’ve got the map the right way up or not. (This should be just as much of an issue with a printed map, but in practice it isn’t; I think if you’ve got a decent-sized map you register more of the surrounding area without thinking about it. Also, if you’re map-reading on a phone you can’t actually turn the map upside down, which is often handy with a printed map.) Finding the next venue took me as much time as visiting the first three. In the end I tracked down the Stalybridge Labour Club, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t have to show anything to get in. It wasn’t the most exciting tick in the world; if you’ve drunk in anywhere with ‘club’ in the name, or in a purpose-built estate pub, you’ll know the kind of place. Sadly the milds – plural; they had had two on, the landlady told me – had gone; I had a half of Stockport Brewing Company Crown Best Bitter, which was fine.

This was turning out to be another day when non-Wetherspoon outlets had collectively decided that serving food at lunchtime wasn’t worth the effort – and my next stop was a bus ride away. So I worked my way back to the marketplace, to find the food festival winding down and nothing much still being cooked. The paella man had a huge pan of unsold paella, so I went for that – a choice I immediately had misgivings about when I realised that the gas had gone out under the pan some time ago, and the guy was now proposing to bring cold cooked rice back up to heat, in the open air. What, health and safety-wise, could possibly go wrong? To be fair, the paella was very nice & didn’t disagree with me at all, but it did give me a nervous couple of hours. (If I could have the day over again I think I’d just get the thing in the nan & be careful how I ate it – that, and try one of the Tweed beers; I’ve seen them all over the place since.)

The bus took me to Hyde and the Cotton Bale (JDW), which was entirely mildless; I had Bank Top Bad To The Bone, which was pale and invigoratingly sproingy. Then on to the Queens (sic; plural, no apostrophe), which is a Holt’s house serving that 3.2% dark mild to which I’ve referred earlier.

A rather more substantial walk from there took me to the Sportsman. The last time I was in there – for 2013’s MM – the place was deserted. Not only was there only one other drinker in there, there was nobody behind the bar (one of those double-sided bars serving two separate rooms); in fact there was nobody in the place at all, apart from some people in the back kitchen preparing food and chatting in Spanish. (I got someone to serve me eventually, but it was a struggle.) It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant. This year, the balance between the two was a bit more even; the place was buzzing, in fact. Sadly there wasn’t a Rossendale mild on, so I had Thwaites Nutty Black. Since I was in a brewery tap, I followed it with Rossendale Hameldon bitter, a dark brown bitter with an uncompromisingly bitter flavour – a bit like Holt’s bitter used to be, as I remember it.

At this point it seemed like a good idea to get clever with my route planning. From the Sportsman it was a short… well, short-ish… it was a manageable walk to Newton for Hyde railway station, from where I could get a train to Broadbottom; coming back from Broadbottom I could stay on the train as far as Guide Bridge, and from there I could get a bus to Ashton-under-Lyne. Ashton had a two-point Spoons (the Ash Tree) and a tram stop from which I could get home; if I had a bit of time in hand I could even get off the tram halfway and tick off the Strawberry Duck in Clayton. That was the plan.

The train to Broadbottom went fine, although it was a bit of a slog to get to the station at Newton. In Broadbottom I found my way to the Harewood Arms – although not before getting the map the wrong way up and striking off in the wrong direction – and found it a comfortable, pubby pub which I had altogether too little time to enjoy. Although the pub is the Green Mill tap, there wasn’t a Green Mill mild on; I had Wentworth Black Diamond, which would probably draw with the Black Cat for the title of ‘best mild of the day’.

The rest of the journey I should probably draw a veil over. I just missed a bus in Guide Bridge and had to wait far too long for the next one; when I got to Ashton I decided I couldn’t afford the detour to the Ash Tree and would get the tram and go to the Strawberry Duck en route for home; I then just missed a tram and, facing a 12-minute wait for the next one, decided to go straight home. All of which meant that the detour to Ashton was a complete waste of time – I could have stayed on the train from Broadbottom and got home about an hour sooner. Oh well.

PS The following day, feeling that a score needed to be settled, I got the bus out of town to the Strawberry Duck – basically an estate pub with an unusual canalside location – and had another Moorhouse’s Black Cat, which was very nice. They didn’t have any food on, though (when will I learn?).

The doors, the scores:

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 27 (16 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 7
Breweries: 25 (18 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 14
Once-a-year pubs: 22

Mildly interesting (4)

Another Mild Magic round-up, this one covering a few separate trips around Chorlton and Didsbury.

I’m perversely fond of the Sedge Lynn (JDW), and they didn’t let the side down; Peerless Dark Arts was rather good. Down at the Chorlton Green end of town, the Beech has Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best as a regular beer; they had Rudgate Ruby Mild as well, but GB was fine for me. Further along Beech Road, the Parlour – a nice relaxed bar, one of those places I always think I should go to more often – had Moorhouse’s Black Cat, also in good nick.

(SCRUPULOUS HONESTY UPDATE: if I’m scrupulously honest I don’t actually remember what I had at the Sedge Lynn – it was my first tick of this year’s MM, and is some time ago now. But it was a dark mild; the chances seem pretty good that it was one of the three dark milds I’ve had at other Spoons; and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t either of the other two. It was pleasant and well-kept, that I do remember.)

A trip to Didsbury started (thanks to the tram) at the Railway, a pleasant and welcoming Holt’s house serving (alas) the brewery’s weak and uninteresting dark mild. Down the road at Wine and Wallop, the staff claimed never to have had their MM stickers; this didn’t seem very likely to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. The W&W is a smart, attractive bar with a good range of beers, albeit with only one mild: a second appearance for Titanic Nautical Mild. (Something not quite right on the condition front, sadly; it was in better nick at the Bishop Blaize.) The sign board features a quote from 1984 supporting their contention that ‘wallop’ means ‘beer’; interestingly enough, the quote actually defines ‘wallop’ specifically as mild ale. They missed a trick there – or perhaps not.

Some way further down the road (I can be less precise) I arrived at the Parrswood Hotel, a JW Lees‘ house serving their (unexciting but perfectly serviceable) Brewers’ Dark. When I opened the door I thought I’d stepped back in time; the first thing I saw was a hippieish-looking old bloke standing at the bar wreathed in smoke. It was an e-cig, obviously, but he’d clearly found the ‘produce maximum vapour’ setting and given it some welly. He engaged me in conversation, which was sadly rather one-sided; all I could make out was that he’d worked for forty years and didn’t want to pay any more taxes (well, who does?). I’m a confirmed fan of Lees’ MPA, so I ordered a half of that too; sadly it had gone off. Not being a fan of Lees’ ordinary bitter, I did something I’d never done before in a pub and requested a refund instead of a replacement. I soon regretted it, though: the young lad serving had to go off to find somebody more senior, after which the two of them spent the next five minutes entering menu options and authorisation codes on a touch screen at the back of the bar.

Another Didsbury trip began up in Rusholme at the Ford Madox Brown (JDW), where Arundel Black Stallion was flanked (as I noted at the time) by no fewer than four beers I would have preferred; Moorhouse’s Farmhouse was particularly intriguing. Hopefully another time. Back on the bus and down to the Victoria in Withington, for the first (and very nearly the last) sighting this time round of Hyde’s Owd Oak, which was fine. I should say at this point that this was a lunchtime trip, and one of my resolutions when I left (along with “stick to the half of mild to begin with” and “have another half in the last pub or two, if there’s anything interesting”) was “get something to eat, only not in Spoons“: it takes the shine off trying new and interesting pubs if you end up ordering off the same menu they have in umpty-three other pubs. The Vic was one of the pubs I was hoping might be offering food, but no such luck.

The next pub on the list – the Red Lion – did have food on; it was clearly a chain menu, but at least it wasn’t the same chain menu I would have faced at a Spoons’. The trouble here, ironically, was the beer. When I lived in Withington the Red Lion was a bit of a cut above – it served Marston’s! On this visit they had quite the range: beers from Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood as well as the Marston’s mothership. I had a half of Ringwood Boondoggle – Jennings’ Mild had just gone off – which was… fine. No, it wasn’t fine: it was mediocre. It wasn’t actively bad – if it had been a mild it would have been Holt’s rather than Coach House, put it that way – but it was bland. It struck me then that this is what Marston’s do, these days – they make bland brown bitter (Pedigree), alternating with bland malty brown bitter (Cumberland), bland dark brown bitter (Hobgoblin) and bland yellowish bitter (Boondoggle). And now they’ve got Wainwright too. Yippee. CAMRA still have a job to do – there’s plenty of ale out there that still needs revitalising, and breweries that (sadly) aren’t helping.

Anyway, I had to force the half down – which is an awful thing to have to say of a beer under the Ringwood name – and there was no way I was staying for another, of anything. So it was ho forth to the Dog and Partridge, where they had a couple of signs up suggesting food, but no sign of a menu. (To be fair, there was no sign of anything much – I was the only customer.) I consoled myself with a Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best and headed for my next and final stop… the nearest Spoons’. The Milson Rhodes (JDW) had an extensive (if familiar) food menu; they also had some really rather excellent beer. I ordered some food and had it with halves of Peerless Dark Arts and Partners Tabatha (a 6% tripel). More messing about with technology here, rather more successfully than at the Parrswood: it turns out that the JDW till’s meal-anna-pint discount system can’t handle a meal and two halves, but that it can be induced to price up a meal-anna-half-anna-nother-half for less than the meal and the two halves would have been separately. (This has just taken longer to explain than it took the woman behind the bar to process.) I then finished off with the Adnams/Sixpoint collab Make It Rain, an IPA-ish golden ale that gave new meaning to the word ‘sproingy’. There was never a better illustration of why I tag posts “Love/hate relationship with JDW’s”.

But soft, what scores are those on yonder doors?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 20 (14 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 5
Breweries: 21 (16 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 11
Once-a-year pubs: 16

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