Monthly Archives: August 2013

(My) Pal Joey

We’re well-served for established family brewers in Manchester; some of us still miss Boddies’, but four out of five isn’t bad. In many parts of the city the tied estate model is still dominant, imposing the kind of local beer monoculture that used to be the rule. Fortunately all four of the big local brewers turn out a good pint – nobody needs to be stuck with something like the vinegary Hyde’s Anvil I was drinking in the 80s.

What’s been particularly interesting, over the past couple of years, has been to see all of the big four start to move with the times – some, it has to be said, more hesitantly than others. So JW Lees have supplemented some fine seasonals and specials with a collaboration with Marco Pierre White (for those who like that kind of thing) and, more recently, the launch of Manchester Pale Ale – a pale, dry, classic-Boddington-alike which the company hopes to sell into the pubcos, and which for my money deserves to do very well indeed. Robinson’s have made a feature of Old Tom (not before time) and spun off a couple of variants, as well as venturing into the weird and wonderful world of rock-star collaborations – an idea that does them credit, even if the resulting beers have both tasted almost, but not quite, entirely identical to Unicorn. Hyde’s, going through major changes, have launched an entire ‘craft beer’ operation under the ‘Beer Studio’ label. And Holt’s… well, Holt’s have supplemented the choice of Mild and Bitter with a low-strength, easy-drinking IPA. I like it a lot, as it happens – it’s got a lot more IPA character than something like Greene King’s – but at a sessionable 3.8% it’s not going to be making any waves on BeerAdvocate.

And, er, that was it – Holt’s seemed happy to plough the same old furrow. Or so I thought. An early sign that things might be shifting came with the company’s takeover of the Horse and Jockey in Chorlton, a multi-ale free house with in-house microbrewery. Early fears that the Horse’s sizeable range would be whittled down to three (all prefixed “Holt’s”) weren’t borne out, with the anecdotal exception of one particularly busy night when everything went off except the bitter and IPA. (But then, when the Horse gets busy it does get really busy; we can probably put this down to teething troubles.) The Horse settled down in its new incarnation, as a Holt’s pub with a permanent guest list.

And it wasn’t the last. Passing through West Didsbury yesterday, I noticed a blackboard outside the Railway announcing seven permanent cask ales. The last time I was in the Railway, the tally was the same as every other Holt’s pub I’d been in up to then (viz. 3), so this aroused my curiosity. (And it was a warm day, so what the hell.) On the bar I discovered the Holt’s threesome, plus – as advertised – four guest beers. It has to be said that the roster of guests wasn’t the most exciting: we’re not talking Summer Wine or Arbour here. We’re talking, in point of fact, Bombardier, Old Speckled Hen, Everard’s Tiger and Tetley’s Bitter (who even brews that these days?) I went for the IPA, of which (as I mentioned) I am rather fond.

Later I got talking with the landlady, who confirmed that this was a new regime for Holt’s pubs; they’re running several guest beers, changing monthly, from a list arranged by Holt’s on an exchange basis with southern breweries. The aim was to run three guests: the Tetley’s pump was a temporary replacement for a fourth Holt’s beer, a draught version of the golden ale Two Hoots, which has been selling particularly well – even rivalling the Bitter. Since tasters were on offer, I tried the Tiger, which was in good nick and tasted rather fine – on the sweet side for a pale bitter, but quite delicate and complex with it.

Rotating guests and a golden ale on draught: it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big change for a brewery which has been as conservative as Holt’s. Put it this way, it would have been a lot easier for them to carry on as before – apparently the guest beer deal took over a year to set up. It’s not a revolution, but it’s a step in the right direction, and I think Holt’s deserve some credit for taking it. (And the beer’s still cheap.)

In Bruges (shortly)

Title says it all.

Except for the inevitable question: where’s good in Bruges (Brugge if you prefer)? No, I mean, where’s really good? And – just as importantly – where’s actually not that good?

I shall be travelling with two non-enthusiasts and one non-drinker, so being non-beer-fanatic-friendly (and e.g. serving food) will be a definite plus.

So, who’s been to Bruges, and where would they like to be back right now? I know, Martyn‘s done this one already, and it’s not hard to find bar reviews online. But I thought I’d ask anyway.

My my, hey hey

Here’s a puzzle for you. A nationally renowned brewpub opens a sister pub, supplying the same unique range of distinctive beers as the mothership. One or two of these beers are regular guests at a few pubs in the region, but this is the only other place where you can regularly find the full range. In other words, the number of pubs serving these rare and desirable beers has just increased by 100% – and the new pub is in a tourist town.

Yet, when I was in there the other night, there was nobody there but a handful of locals; apart from me, there were no avid tickers, no curious tourists. What’s more, I don’t expect this situation will change very much. I think they’ll do all right, but they will be catering mainly to the local trade: very few tickers are going to beat a path to their door, and they may struggle to raise much tourist custom.

What is this paradoxical establishment? It’s called Out of the Blue, which I guess marks it out as a bar rather than a pub – at least, all the other pubs in town have names including the words ‘The’ and ‘Inn’. It’s in Porthleven, where we’ve just stayed for a week; Porthleven is in Cornwall, or more specifically on the west coast of the Lizard (the bunion of Cornwall’s foot). To be precise, it’s in the old Porthleven AFC Social Club – if you put ‘Porthleven AFC’ into Google Maps you can see the location & indeed the building (although it’s since been done up). It’s roomy, as befits its former use. The thatched bar is partitioned off from the rest of the room, and most of the other punters had gathered on a little row of seating opposite. I went for the rather cavernous main room – I had a comfortable chair and something to read (and several beers to sample), so I was fine.

But what of the beer? As you may have guessed by now, the pub that the beer comes from is the Blue Anchor in Helston (hence “out of…”); the beer range, apart from a few keg taps for people who insist on that sort of thing, consists of the renowned Spingo ales. There were four on that night: Middle (5%), Special (6.6%), Ben’s Stout (4.8%) and Flora Daze (4%). This was only the second time I’d tasted Middle and Special; the first time was before my hop epiphany, so I was a bit concerned that they might strike me as a bit sweet and under-hopped. I needn’t have worried. What did I write last time?

[Middle is] a dark bitter with a rich, malty flavour touched with sourness and sweetness. It’s a deep flavour, that seems to develop and unfold as you drink it. It’s got the richness of an old ale without the alcoholic clout; the attack of a Wobbly Bob with the mellowness of a mild. It’s very, very nice. [Special is] a darker, heavier, stronger (6.6%) version of Middle … a beer to quietly sink into (and come up tasting of honey). Stood comparison with some of the darker abbey beers. … It reminded me a bit of the first time I tasted Marston’s Owd Roger, only better.

I’d endorse all of that, except to dial down some of the ‘sweet’ comments – there’s sweetness in there, but you could say the same of the red and blue Chimay. These are balanced, complex flavours, the Special in particular. Terrific beers.

The other two weren’t in quite as good nick, sad to say. I’m reserving judgment on Ben’s Stout until I get the chance to taste it again; there was a distinct sourness to the initial flavour, which I wasn’t sure was supposed to be there. Interesting and drinkable, but I think it could have been better. If the stout had suffered in that way, Flora Daze hadn’t – it was a bit flabby and lacking in condition, but flavourwise it was excellent. You could call it a lighter, more drinkable version of Middle, but with a herby, aromatic hop character which is all its own. Perhaps nothing startling within the contemporary brewing landscape, but I’d have it again; in fact, I think it joins Middle and Special in the ranks of beers I’d go some distance to drink again.

Not all the way to Porthleven, though. I didn’t know about Out of the Blue when we planned our holiday, but drinking Spingo beer was very much on my itinerary; the Blue Anchor is in Helston, and Helston is two miles from Porthleven. It’s ten minutes on the bus, or (I imagine) a leisurely 45-minute stagger if the last bus has gone: it’s very reachable. And, of course, there’s nothing on the far side of Porthleven but sea. Hence the apparent paradox I started with. As well as increasing pub choice in Porthleven by a third, Out of the Blue effectively doubles the Spingo estate; but anyone in search of Spingo is still going to head for Helston, unless they’re actually starting in Porthleven. As for the tourist trade, all the other pubs in town are big on dining and sea views – two of them overlook the harbour; precious few visitors to Porthleven are going to find their way to a former social club set back from the road out of town.

Verdict: amazing beers, curious pub, bizarre location. (When you think what they could have done with an offshoot in Exeter or even Truro…) I can only think the idea is to have a Porthleven pub for Porthleven people – all those people who don’t much care for views of the harbour, what with seeing it every day anyway, and who go to pubs for beer rather than beer-battered squid. I hope it does well, even if it’s not got much to offer incomers and tickers like what I am.

One final puzzle: if you look at the Street View image of the old Porthleven AFC Social Club, “Jolly’s Beers” are prominently advertised. Jolly’s sponsor the league in which Porthleven AFC play. Googling tells me that they’re a drinks company based in Redruth, but I can’t find any reference to brewing – and in my experience “drinks company” tends to mean distribution, with perhaps a sideline in own-brand soft drinks. So what did you get when you ordered a pint of one of Jolly’s beers? It’s a mystery.

(Bet it wasn’t as good as Spingo, though.)