Monthly Archives: December 2013

Golden Pints

What’s been good in 2013? Here’s my ‘Golden Pints’ post. I’ve dropped all the categories I’m not interested in – and added a couple of my own, with a view to making it a record of my experiences rather than just a list of beers I like.

Best UK Cask Beer

I called this one a while back. It has to be Ticketybrew Pale Ale. Very variable, but actually not in a bad way. A mighty beer.

Best UK Keg Beer

I’ll say Marble Vuur & Vlam, of which I had a third one night on my way home from the Beech. Also a mighty beer, and I guess there’s no point complaining that it would have been mightier still on cask.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer

I was very impressed with Harbour IPA.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer

That would be De Struise Pannepot.

Best Overall Beer

I guess this should be one of the above category winners, but (SPOILER) I don’t want to give everything to Ticketybrew. I’ve been really impressed by JW Lees’ Manchester Star, both in bottle and (more recently) on draught – a proper stonking old Burton. Plus if you drew a line between Pannepot and Ticketybrew Pale Ale, it would definitely be somewhere in the middle.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label

Ticketybrew (by a short head from Red Willow) – elegant, immediately visible on the bar and always nice to see.

Best UK Brewery

I quite like the look of what JW Lees are doing at the moment, especially when free beer is involved. But the prize goes, after some consideration, to Ticketybrew. They’re new, their range is quite narrow and in a few years’ time they may just look a bit one-note. I don’t think so, though – I think they’re on the verge of great things.

Best Overseas Brewery

Rochefort (but ask me again in a month’s time; the Orval I bought on holiday is still aging).

Pub/Bar of the Year

Last year I nominated Pi, with De Nada close behind. A year on and I’ve more or less stopped going to Pi – my main haunts are De Nada and Font, unless I’ve got Spoons’ tokens to spend. But I’ll be perverse again and nominate another pub entirely: the Beech, a proper old pub which seems to have cracked the virtuous circle of beer quality and demand (as I hoped it would when I wrote the linked post), with a range that always includes Landlord and usually includes something from Salamander or Oakham. Busy Suburban Pub Serves Decent Beer Shock.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013

The Font Chorlton, which opened last March, has given me some of my peak beer experiences of the year, but I don’t much like it as a bar – it’s not the most relaxing environment. (It’s possible that 50-year-old solitary drinkers aren’t their core demographic.) So I’ll give it to the only other bar I’m aware of that opened this year – Out of the Blue. Well worth the detour, as long as the length of the detour is two miles or less; otherwise, perhaps not so much.

Supermarket of the Year

Definitely Carrefour. Over here, Sainsbury’s have their Great British Beer Hunt, even if the execution is rather variable; Tesco have a surprisingly good American range; and Morrison’s four-for-£5 deal across all their bottled ales is very hard to beat. (I don’t know if it’s a permanent thing, but it certainly seems to be on whenever I go into Morrison’s.) But I might never have encountered the Harbour IPA but for the GBBH, so I’ll nominate Sainsbury’s.

Independent Retailer of the Year

Chorlton is bizarrely over-supplied with beer shops – it seems as if the tiniest, grottiest off-licence will sell you a Summer Lightning or a Bengal Lancer, and for the more upmarket ones the sky’s the limit: can of Hitachino Nest with your Mars bar, sir? I don’t frequent any of them much – I have a strong psychological resistance to paying a great deal more than supermarket prices for beer that probably won’t be a great deal better. But I do like Tiny’s Tipple, despite the awful name. (While I do like small dogs – and Tiny seems to be a very nice small dog – I’m not really thinking ‘dog’ when I’m in the market for beer. Besides, it’s not his tipple, is it? At least, I hope not, for the sake of his tiny weeny canine liver. H’mph.)

Best Beer Blog or Website

I was actually in the queue to throw plaudits at the feet of Boak & Bailey (assuming that’s what you do with plaudits), when it struck me that there’s a beer blog I’ve enjoyed even more than theirs this year: Pete’s. Pete spruced up his blog towards the end of the year, and the new look seems to go along with a change in style – his writing voice seems clearer now (if that makes any sense at all), as well as being more forthright and, frankly, more grumpy. It works for me, and I hope he carries on in the same vein. He also gave us the best description I’ve read in a long time of getting drunk on cider.

Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (of the Year)

Back in 2009 I bought a bottle each of Marble Decadence and Special, followed in fairly short order by bottles of the raspberry (lambic) and cherry (kriek) versions of Decadence. (Then they carried on producing specials – some less affordable than others – and I stopped trying to keep up.) Since the blighters only bottle their specials in 750 ml – and I’m the only serious beer drinker in this house – all four bottles stayed unopened until I could find an occasion both special enough to justify opening a tenner’s worth of bottle and relaxed enough for me to drink fairly hefty amounts of very strong beer. This Christmas it was finally the turn of the last of the four – the Special, a 10.7% barleywine. And it was… fine. OK, it was better than fine – rich, heavy, herby, complex, undertones of hop bitterness, lots of generally good stuff going on; it just wasn’t much better. I could taste the heat of the alcohol, for one thing, which didn’t seem right – least of all after four years in bottle. So farewell then, socking great bottles of short-run beers with double-figure price tags. It’s been fun… just not that much fun.

Disappointment of the Year

De Garre and the eponymous tripel, in Bruges. Shorter: the bar was uncomfortably brightly-lit, uncomfortably noisy and uncomfortably packed with loud beer geeks, and the beer was just disappointing – very heavy, very ‘hot’, and very much as if somebody had brewed a half-decent tripel and then decided to up the ABV to 11% (perhaps in a spirit of juvenile competition with Het Taktikel Nukleare Pinguïn down the road).

Discovery of the Year

I was lucky enough this year to taste two of the more localised famous beers of Britain, in one case for the first time. The Blue Anchor Spingo ales I had in August were very nice – especially the Flora Daze, and especially especially the, er, Special – but the real eye-opener of this year was Batham’s Bitter. (As recommended by Pete. Great minds…) What’s it like? Well, you know how it tasted, the first time you drank a pint of beer and really enjoyed it? It’s like that. You know the way that a pint of good old-school brown bitter – Woodforde’s Wherry, say, or Harvey’s HSB – you know the way it builds and develops as you get down the glass, till when you drain it you just fancy another one? It’s very like that. You know the flowery delicacy of an abbey tripel or a really good perry? It’s surprisingly like that. And you know how sometimes a pint of 3.8% bitter is just the best thing you could possibly have – even, or especially, after you’ve been drinking big stouts or IPAs? It’s exactly like that. (Batham’s is actually 4.3%, but doesn’t drink even that much strength.) It’s light, it’s thin, it’s sweet (it’s made with actual sugar, purity freaks) – and it’s beautiful.

Blogging Resolutions for Next Year

I will drink more session bitter. (I’m defining ‘session’ as ‘<4.5%’; apologies to Ding, but if Batham’s Bitter isn’t a session beer I don’t know what is.)

I will not mention that the keg version of a beer was inferior to the cask (or speculate that it would have been if I’d had the cask). More generally, I will stop going on about my experience of ‘craft keg’ beers, unless it changes interestingly (e.g. I find one I really like.)

I will try and stop going on about ‘craft beer’. Really. (But note the word ‘try’!)

And above all: I will remember that this stuff is supposed to be fun.

Happy New Year!

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As I was a-wandering (2 of 4)

WWW 2013 part 2: Manchester (and Salford)

This year there are eleven participating pubs in the city centre (and Salford). Here’s what I found there.

The Marble Arch were offering a twelve-months-aged version of Chocolate Marble, and very nice it was too – more of the stout character I remember of old than I’d tasted in the ‘fresh’ version (the mild version, I suppose I ought to say).

There wasn’t anything very wintry on the bar at the Lower Turks Head. Brightside Amarillo would have qualified on strength grounds, but on an impulse I went for Hobgoblin (which was 4.5% so just qualified). I hadn’t had this in a while (as you can imagine), and I was quite pleasantly surprised – well kept, it’s really not a bad beer.

Over at 57 Thomas St there wasn’t anything dark on draught, but they did have the Marble/Emelisse Earl Grey IPA – a stunning beer, a smooth and mellow combination far greater than the sum of its parts. My only complaint would be that the alcohol is too well hidden – it’s really dangerously drinkable for its 6.8%.

The Castle, to my chagrin, didn’t have Old Tom on when I called. I can’t remember what I settled for, although I’m pretty sure it was a stout. (I draw a stout-coloured blank at the Waterhouse (JDW), too.)

Over in Salford, the New Oxford had Lees‘ Manchester Star on draught – something I’d never seen before; considering that the strength was dialled down to 6.5% from the bottle’s 7.5, I wondered if it was actually a rebadged Moonraker. Not that it matters – it was a fantastic beer either way; rich and dark, with those odd edge-flavours you get in a Burton-style ale (treacly malt, metallic malt, savoury malt…)

Up the road at the Mark Addy I saw the familiar and welcome sight of a Ticketybrew pump clip. Unfortunately it was the Pale Ale – which would have qualified on strength, but since they had Black Edge Stout on I felt duty bound to have that as well. Not a world-beater but a good solid stout, heavy and bitter without any sourness.

At the Bull’s Head near Piccadilly there was nothing that qualified on style, and only one beer – Jennings’ Snecklifter – that qualified on strength. I really didn’t fancy that, so I went for Wychwood Bah! Humbug – which is currently being sold at 4.3% on draught, but used to be much stronger. And that’s what it tastes like, too – a spiced bitter (mostly cinnamon), with some old ale character, but with the strength dialled right down.

The Paramount (JDW) had two or three qualifying beers on, but the standout – and, bizarrely, something of a house beer at this vertical-drinking-oriented city-centre Spoons’ – was Elland 1872 Porter. What a very fine beer that is.

The Deansgate Tavern had a rather fine tiled exterior, a small and uninspiring selection of beers (none of which qualified), a full complement of pre-Christmas boozehounds, a thermostat set on high and two or more people fighting over the music behind the scenes – insipid Christmas hits were replaced abruptly by “Teenage Dirtbag”, which itself was interrupted two minutes in. Not my favourite. I had quite a nice half of Thwaites‘ Lancaster Bomber, though.

Lastly, the Wharf – tucked away behind Deansgate, a mere ten minutes away down alleys, along paths and over canal bridges. Black Hole Brewery‘s Starry Night stout was more than palatable.

So where does that leave us?

This area Total
Old ale / Barley wine 1 2
Porter / stout 6 10
Others (4.5% and over) 2 3
Others (non-qualifying) 2 2

So, more of a Stout Wander so far. Let’s see if Stockport helps matters.

As I was a-wandering (1 of 4)

Time once again for the Winter Warmer Wander, Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA’s annual effort to promote ‘winter warmers’ (with some support from neighbouring branches such as my own). Forty participating pubs or bars this year: eleven in the city centre or Salford, six in Chorlton, seven on the Rusholme/Fallowfield/Withington/Didsbury trail and fourteen in Stockport, plus one further down the A6 in Hazel Grove and one solitary pub out in Hyde. The idea, as ever, is to drink a half (or more) of an old ale/barleywine/winter warmer or porter/stout, or failing that any cask ale of 4.5% or above.

Here’s how Chorlton looked:

Font wasn’t the greatest start. Font were in a low-strength pale-and-hoppy mood the night I called in; there were only a couple of cask beers above 4.5% on the bar, neither of them dark or particularly strong. I had… something from Anarchy Brew Co; something pale, hoppy and around 5.5% (can’t remember what it was, or work it out from their Web site).

Marble Beerhouse were serving the eponymous Chocolate Marble, and very nice it was too – except that it was very smooth and chocolatey, to the point of sweetness. In fact it tasted more like a chocolate dark mild than the chocolate stout I remember having before.

At the Sedge Lynn (JDW) I had Bath Ales‘ Festivity: a smooth but rich and complex porter, which put Bath – a brewery I’d always rather overlooked – up several notches in my estimation.

Oddest had just been having a winter beer fest when I called; they had six beers on, every one of them a stout or porter except for one old ale. I was tempted by the old ale (from the very reliable Brightside) but as soon as I saw the Ticketybrew pump clip there was only one choice. Ticketybrew Stout was rich, smooth and generally superb. Those people are going from strength to strength.

At Electrik I passed over their own (very good) Blackout XO in favour of Black Jack Honeytrap porter. It wasn’t great, sadly – a bit thin, a bit sharp. But my expectations may have been partly to blame. I’m sure Martyn‘s right when he says that stout and porter are historically the same thing – and can’t be consistently distinguished from each other even in revival forms. Still, my expectation from a porter is of something malty and mellow, in contrast to the sour roastiness of many stouts. This particular porter was (according to my personal tasting map) much more of a light stout; not much honey discernable, either.

Finally I made it to the Parlour, who – just as they did last year – were serving Robinson’s Old Tom, albeit at a hair-raising price. It wasn’t the only potential qualifier, but it was the only old ale – and besides, it was Old Tom. Fantastic beer – like alcoholic malt extract, only better.

How’s it looking so far, then?

Old ale: 1
Stout/porter: 4
Other >4.5%: 1