Monthly Archives: June 2011

Strange town

I’m travelling a lot over the next few days. I won’t have the chance to do much exploring of any of the places I’m visiting, but I will be taking the opportunity to fit in a swift half or two on the way back to my train.

So, where’s a good place to drink – in easy striking distance of the station – in…

  • York?
  • Newcastle?
  • Liverpool?

Suggestions in comments please!

Update I’m back in Manchester now, and not planning any more beer tourism. If I were, though, it would probably be in York. The Brigantes had a terrific beer range (I had York Guzzler), although the pub itself was a bit city-centre-gastro and not too comfortable for a lone drinker. The Ackhorne was more pub-like and had an equally impressive range (Rooster’s Yankee for me). ‘Ackhorne’, incidentally, is a medieval variant spelling of ‘Acorn’, which was the name of the old pub which was gutted to make way for this one. There’s logic there somewhere. Later, I found my way to the Maltings, which might as well have had a sign saying “tickers, CAMRA members and visiting Twissups this way”. In fact, larky signage is a feature of the pub, mostly featuring what you could call Pub Landlord Humour – a combination of hearty welcome, assertive jokiness and veiled menace. (“Be warned: our CHILLI will cure your CONSTIPATION!” “We don’t serve children, so DON’T ASK FOR ONE!”) If you like that kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like. If you don’t, you can always ignore the signs. Either way, this is a really great pub – basic but comfortable surroundings, a fantastic range of beers and a landlord who knows his stuff. I had Magic Rock Curious (“I hope you like hoppy beer! For a 3.8% beer, this is… bob-on.”) and SWB Nerotype #4 Herkules (“Hoppy beers all the way!”) Both were very nice indeed. The Nerotype black IPA was probably the best of the style I’ve had; as full-on as Buxton Black Rocks, but more subtle (more Thornbridge than Marble, you could say). It was also fairly lively; I was struck by the way it seemed to clear downwards, like Guinness. The Curious was… bob-on. There was a time when I wouldn’t have liked it at all – not so much “hop-forward in the modern style” as “hops smacking you about the face, in the style of a demented alcoholic Tango advert” – but fortunately my tastes have evolved.

I didn’t have much drinking time in Newcastle – just a swift one in the station bar, otherwise known as the Centurion. Just a few handpumps, overshadowed by a forest of keg fonts (nothing ‘interesting’, though; the one logo I didn’t immediately recognise turned out to be Woodpecker cider!) While I’m moaning, my pint was nothing special either – the CO2 was all in the head. But the pub itself is something else: every surface is tiled, with richly coloured and moulded tilework, and the space is approximately the size and shape of an aircraft hangar. Never mind the (beer) quality, feel the architecture.

Liverpool took me to the Swan, the Belvedere, ye Crack [sic] and the Dispensary. The Swan is a long single-fronted room stretching back from the street, with no natural light once you get about three feet over the threshold. It reminded me of bars in Edinburgh; in fact I don’t think I’ve seen this kind of pub anywhere else in England. Two more pale ones – Hopping Mad Brainstorm and Liverpool Organic Shipwreck IPA. Despite being 6%, the Shipwreck struck me as a light, easy-drinking IPA; not much more assertive than the Hopping Mad, and much less so than the Magic Rock. I know the Belvedere has its fans, but it hasn’t left much of a trace in my memory other than being a small back-street boozer where your choices are to listen to the conversation at the bar or to join it. The beer was pale, hoppy and I think it was another Liverpool Organic, but don’t quote me on that. Ye Crack, a name which is just dying to be asked about, is a multi-room pub with a big “local artists” thing going on and a substantial “we knew the Beatles before you did” thing to go with it. This wasn’t entirely my scene either, but the Gertie Sweet Dusky Maiden stout was very nice. By the time I got to the Dispensary I was jonesing for a dark bitter; I ordered George Wright Mark’s Mild, only to realise a minute later that I’d overlooked the pump serving Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. There was only one thing for it (although I did only have a half). The mild was good stuff, but it was overshadowed by the Hawkshead beer, which is… what? A light-drinking strong porter? A black old ale? Whatever it is (and it’s in an area where beer taxonomies are having a lot of trouble at the moment), it’s very nice indeed.

Then back to Manchester, and straight to a beer festival. It’s a hard life.

By Guinness and strong ale

Following on from my last post: I’m still in search of a workable definition of ‘keg’.

Let’s say you’ve kept your beer conditioning at the brewery until it’s more or less ready to go; the yeast is dropping out of the liquid and sticking to the bottom of its own accord. What happens next?

You could pasteurise it; this will kill any remaining yeast and give you flat beer. You could filter it; this will remove any remaining yeast and also give you flat beer. If you do either of these things, you’re going to need to carbonate, and sticking the beer in a sealed container that’s pressurised with CO2 will let you kill two birds with one stone. I can’t see any obvious reason why you would also have to chill it, but that seems to come with the territory.

Alternatively, you could take the view that if it’s dropping bright it’s ready to go, and stick it in a keg without any further ado; the keg is basically just a large bottle, only with some gas in to make it easier to serve. Better still, you could stick it in a key keg, which really is just a large (collapsible) bottle inside a pressurised container. And you could chill it if you wanted to – but again, I can’t see any reason why you would have to.

Unfiltered, unpasteurised, uncarbonated, brewery-conditioned beer isn’t cask, and as such I guess it’s not Real Ale. But the differences between this kind of beer and pasteurised, carbonated keg seem far more significant than the similarities – and the similarities to cask are, potentially at least, more significant than the differences.

Which raises two questions. Firstly, is CAMRA’s definition of ‘keg’ still fit for purpose, or is it a relic of the old battles? Should the line be drawn differently – are today’s ‘smooth’ bitters even made the same way as the Watney’s and Double Diamonds of my youth? Secondly, it baffles me that ‘craft keg’ advocates so often stress how different those beers are from cask real ale, and how similar they are to the old keg offerings – they’re cold! they’re fizzy! they’re expensive! The question is, why do they do this? What’s good about keg 5 a.m. Saint is mostly that it’s 5 a.m. Saint; if it didn’t have the extra carbonation and it was served a bit closer to cellar temperature – key-kegged, for example – it’d be a bit less like keg lager, but it’d be a lot nicer.

Or am I missing something?

Specify type of goat

Dave makes an interesting point:

I noticed in The Cask Report the following definition;

“Keg beer:
Beer that has been pasteurized and/or filtered to remove any yeast, before being sealed in a pressurized container.
It is then dispensed with the aide of CO2, nitrogen or a mix of the two to give fizz or ‘smoothflow’ texture.”

Shame the definition is wrong, my keg beer is neither filtered nor pasteurised.

Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool cask bigot, I’m intrigued by this. My knowledge of brewing is pretty limited, but my understanding of the difference between cask and keg is something like this.

1. At the brewery, magic happens. However, this magic does not result in beer that is ready to drink. It results in beer that is ready to go into a cask and sit there for a while, preferably in a pub cellar.
2. The beer sits in a barrel in a pub cellar. This beer is not an inert substance like the multi-flavoured fizzy water they get out of that hose thing, oh no. This beer is a living thing, maturing, developing and quietly humming to itself in the dark. This is not hyperbole or metaphor; it is not synecdoche or zeugma, for that matter. This beer is a living, breathing, sentient creature, which can be taught to answer its name and complete a simple sudoku. It is truly a wonder of the brewer’s art.
3. But it’s not ready to drink.
4. No, I lied, it’s had long enough now. (Knowing exactly when it’s had long enough is a wonder of the cellarperson’s art.) Now it can be drawn from the cellar through a hand-pump. The fact that it’s in a cask, which has a hole in (I think), has something to do with why you use a hand-pump. The fact that it’s got bubbles in from the yeast doing its living and breathing thing may have something to do with it too. Only you never usually get the actual yeast coming out of the hand-pump, which is because it’s stuck to the bottom of the cask (I think), which is something to do with the beer being ready to drink. It’s all very complicated.

Keg is quite different.
1. At the brewery, magic happens. This magic is allowed to continue to happen until the beer is ready to drink. Larger breweries employ special accelerated magic which does the job in half an hour or so, while spreading a distinctive magical smell throughout the surrounding area. (Actually the smell isn’t magical, and it’s not terribly nice either. But it is distinctive.)
2. The beer that is ready to drink has all its yeast killed, actually killed dead, by a man with a big stick and a very good aim, or possibly by boiling it to death (only without boiling the actual beer presumably, not sure about this). Then it’s cooled down till it’s nearly freezing. Seriously, John Barleycorn had it easy compared with this.
3. The cold flat dead beer is made fizzy again with a very large Sodastream machine, or something like that.
4. The cold dead fizzy beer is put into a tin and dispensed from a tap, not a hand-pump. The fact that it’s in a tin, which doesn’t have a hole in but does have lots of extra CO2 in case the fizz it’s got in already runs out (I think), has something to do with why you get it out of a tap. Probably.

Well, you get the idea. It seems pretty fundamental to keg, at least as I understand it, that the bubbles in the beer have been forcibly introduced to it and that there’s no secondary fermentation going on – indeed, that the beer’s actually been treated to prevent secondary fermentation. Keg beer, dead beer. So if a “keg beer” hasn’t been filtered or pasteurised, what’s the process that made it keg? And (I hate to say this, but if I don’t somebody else will) is that process as objectionable – or even as distinct from cask – as the process that produced the Watney’s of my youth, or the one that produces the Foster’s currently stinking out Moss Side?

The Session #52: Beer collectibles

Here, slightly late, is my contribution to this month’s Session: beer collectibles.

But what do we mean by ‘collectibles’? It’s a bit of an ambiguous word – does it mean “stuff that can be collected” or “stuff that is worth collecting”? I’ve got little or no interest in the latter – boasting about your rare and interesting bottle-top is next door to boasting about the fact that you’ve drunk a rare and interesting beer, and that’s the kind of thing that encourages tulipomaniac tendencies. But if “collectibles” are things you can collect – bottles, beermats, fortune cookie mottoes, bus tickets – I’m right there. Sometimes it just seems like a good idea not to chuck stuff out.

Stuff I haven’t chucked out includes a couple of Felinfoel beermats (self-explanatory) and a couple for Caraca, a Brazilian ‘cane beer’ that was unsuccessfully launched here in the 1990s. (As far as I remember the beer was pretty revolting, but they distributed some unusually solid beermats – coasters, really – two of which I’m still using.) I used to have a double-sided Orval beermat, that I’d made myself by gluing two single-sided ones together, but I had to throw it out after my son chewed the edges off in idle moments. My bottle collection used to be more extensive than it is; I kept a Hobec bottle (with the weird screw-in stopper) for several years, not because Hobec was particularly special (it was an Allied Breweries brand) but because it reminded me of going to a pub after work and putting “The Only One I Know” on the juke box. I have kept one empty bottle (Marble Decadence, the original bottling; 330 ml with painted-on label) and two cans (D&G Crucial Brew and Newton and Ridley bitter, a real beer from a fictional brewery).

And then there are the bottle-tops. Although I’ve been a CAMRA fellow-traveller since before I could drink legally, I’ve only got seriously into tasting and comparing real ales in the last decade (roughly as long as I’ve been drinking at the Marble Beer House, not at all coincidentally). I drank a fair few posey imports in the decade before that (the likes of Red Stripe and Sol, not to mention Caraca and Hobec) and even when I was drinking proper beer I was mostly into European stuff – where by ‘European’ I mean ‘mostly Belgian’. (Again not very coincidentally, this was also roughly the decade before the euro took all the fun out of buying European beer.) And if, thanks to Carrington’s or the Belgian Belly, you’ve got your hands on a Sloeber or a Rochefort 6, you’re not just going to chuck the cap in the bin afterwards. Well, I’m not. So I started keeping interesting and unusual bottletops in a bowl, along with old badges and other small metallic odds and ends. Over time they migrated to a larger bowl, then to a bowl with a lid (not my idea) and finally to an old coffee jar, where they’re reasonably visible but don’t collect dust (this is what’s known as a compromise solution). When the jar started filling up I dug out another one and split the collection into British and foreign; the British collection is still pretty paltry by comparison with the ROTW, but it’s gaining.

Jake Thackray used to introduce a religious song by saying “This is a song of which I’m not very… ashamed.” Well, I’m not very ashamed to have a bottle-top collection – they’re not things of any value, but they’re mildly interesting, they don’t take up much space, and why not? Or perhaps I should say, I’m not very ashamed…

Some folks like radishes

Since I work part-time, I’m heading to the lunchtime session at Stockport Beer (And Cider) Festival tomorrow (Friday). Much beer will be sampled, including at least four milds (Mild Magic having left me with four bona fide beer tokens, redeemable only against mild (and only up to 5% a.b.v. at that, so no Well Cut for me)). Padding is important at these sessions, so I’m hoping the food will be up to scratch.

Anyone who’s going to be there and knows me, I’ll see you there! Anyone who’s going to be there and doesn’t know me, I should be easy to spot – I’ll be the middle-aged guy with a beard and a bit of a beer gut. I should stick out a mile.