Monthly Archives: January 2015

Embarrassed

For some reason, our French teacher at school was particularly keen to teach us the phrase l’embarras de choix – “having too many to choose from”. I remember my friend saying that grammar tests were going to start taking a different format – “I will have had too many to choose from; you (singular) will have had too many to choose from; he or she will have had too many to choose from” et ainsi de suite. Well, it was funny at the time.

The phrase has never left me, though, and I was forcibly reminded of it when I visited the Velopark for the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival. Last year I arrived on the last day, when beer was getting thin on the ground, and still had an excellent session. This year, arriving much earlier on, I had… what’s the phrase I’m looking for…? My usual routine at a beer festival is to get a half of the first thing that catches my eye, then do a quick circuit of the bars, see if anything else catches my eye, and sit down and work my way through the programme. This year I hardly looked at the programme – I didn’t need to: by the time I’d been once round the bars in the centre of the arena I had an absolute must-have wish-list five beers long (Magic Rock! Ticketybrew! St Feuillien!). And then there were the bars on the concourse, which I only reached later on (Conwy! Fuller’s!).

The beer list was, frankly, stupendous. Tremendously varied, too – when I did take a look at the programme I noticed that the style key included a number of abbreviations I hadn’t seen before: alongside the familiar ‘Sp’ (special, which can mean just about anything) were ‘Sa’ (saison) and ‘So’ (sour). There were quite a few of my favourite styles, too – BW, OA and SM (strong mild) – and when I say ‘quite a few’ I mean ‘too many’. At least, too many to choose from. My only regret is not being able to have another session there and work my way through some of the obscurer beers & breweries – there was that much good stuff, I couldn’t fit many new discoveries in.

Lessons had been learnt from last year, particularly on the seating front – the organisers had bowed to the inevitable and put out quite a lot of chairs and tables in the centre, while also diverting traffic onto the concourse by locating some of the bars up there. It worked: things were getting fairly busy by the time I left, but I don’t recall seeing anyone sitting on the floor. There were some changes on the food front, as well; I was a bit disappointed when I first realised that there wasn’t a summat-and-chips option, but the Japanese noodle bar rose to the occasion by selling portions of sauté potatoes. Which were very nice – as, indeed, were the noodles.

TastingDrinking notes

Ilkley Mary Jane 3.5
Magic Rock Punchline chocolate chipotle porter 5.4 (couldn’t taste the chocolate, the chilli was unmissable though)
Timothy Taylor Ram Tam 4.1 (Ram Tam! We meet at last! Never had this before. Didn’t disappoint, either.)
Ticketybrew Pale Ale 4.3 (a short-run version of their wonderful Pale Ale, brewed a bit lighter; just as wonderful)
Bad Co Comfortably Numb 3.8 (fruity hops coming out of your ears)
Conwy Telford Porter 5.6 (mmm, Conwy…. mmm, porter)
Fuller’s Past Masters 7.3 (an interesting one, this – like cranking up a strong bitter almost to the point of being a barley wine)
Marble 125 10.7 (This was perhaps a teensy bit expensive at £3 a third – but come on, it’s the 125 barley wine on draught, when are you going to see that again? Perhaps a bit on the hot-and-heavy side, but good stuff.)
Red Willow Soulless black IPA 6.5 (six and a half? blimey, that’s drinkable)
St Feuillien/Green Flash Belgian Coast IPA 7 (keg, alas – when will the Belgians go back to our brewing traditions? – but absolutely superb; the tripel/IPA combo works better than you could imagine)
Alphabet Space Invader 6 (A saison made with grapefruit, pink peppercorns and tarragon. Hmm. Tasted like something made with grapefruit, pink peppercorns and tarragon, but I stress the word ‘something’ – as in, not necessarily a beer.)
Ringway Best Bitter 4.2 (get ’em before they’re gone – and a lightish, brownish BB seemed like a good way to finish)

If I had a complaint, it would be… no, I can’t think of anything. It was all good, pretty much.

Great venue, great beer, brilliant festival. If you missed it, you missed a good ‘un.

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Money Saving Expert

I went to the Font the other night. For those not familiar with the Font, it’s a double-fronted bar, extending a long way back from the street. It’s a fairly big, cavernous place without much in the way of internal divisions, furnished with an assortment of sofas, hard chairs, coffee tables and dining tables. The night I went it was rather dark and very busy – I couldn’t find a table and ended up perched at the bar, although given the lighting (and given that I’d brought a paper to read) this was probably my best bet anyway. About half the clientele seemed to be under-30s in groups, with the remainder dividing between youngish couples and youngish families; I estimated that my arrival had raised the average age by about six months. I didn’t see anyone I knew and didn’t really expect to.

As for the beer, they had eight hand pumps and sixteen keg taps; I had a pint of (cask) Magic Rock High Wire, which was superb. I made a few free-associative tasting notes, from which I remember “smokily aromatic”, “stern and unforgiving” and “creamy beast”. (After my thought processes had thrown out “creamy beast” I got a bit self-conscious about the whole thing.) A really lovely beer, anyway. After claiming my CAMRA discount I paid £3.15 for it, a saving of £1.05.

I also went to the Sedge Lynn the other night. For those not familiar with the Sedge Lynn, it’s a converted snooker hall. It’s a hangar-like space with a high, vaulted roof, extending a long way back from the street without any internal divisions; there are a few booths with upholstered bench seating, but the furniture consists mostly of hard chairs and small round tables. The night I went it was very busy and (as usual) very well lit; I couldn’t find anywhere comfortable to sit but did get a small round table to myself. About half the clientele was made up of groups of middle-aged men, with the remainder dividing between middle-aged couples, middle-aged men on their own and fairly young families; I estimate that my entrance had precisely no effect on the average age. I saw two people I knew and had a chat with one of them.

On the beer front, they had ten hand pumps and seven keg taps; I had a pint of (cask) Acorn Rakau IPA. This was a very nice NZ-hopped IPA; quite light and drinkable but with a definite fruity hop character, backed by a bitter finish which built over the length of the pint. After using a CAMRA token I paid £1.75 for it, a saving of 50p.

The Sedge Lynn, of course, is a Spoon’s – and as such you don’t expect to be entirely comfortable there, just as you don’t expect to be getting the best beer in the universe. (This, of course, explains the consternation which was felt last year when, probably due to an administrative error, Spoon’s briefly started serving the best beer in the universe.) As it goes, on the night I felt a lot more comfortable in the Sedge Lynn than I had been at the Font. (Although, to be fair, the Font is great if you can get there early doors and bag a sofa.) As for the beer, that Acorn IPA was a very nice beer. The High Wire was better, but I paid nearly twice as much for it (80% more, in fact) – and, hand on heart, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it was that much better. Is it worth £3.15? Definitely – in fact I’d say it’s a bargain at that money. Is it worth £4.20? Only in the sense that if I did pay that much for it – which I’d only do if everything else was even dearer – I wouldn’t feel too badly ripped off. Is the Acorn IPA too cheap at £1.75, or even at £2.25? Sorry, don’t understand the question.

It’s horses for courses: if you want to drink truly excellent beer at a good price, while feeling physically uncomfortable and socially out of place, the Font on a Saturday night is the place for you. If, on the other hand, you’d rather drink good beer at an excellent price, while feeling only mildly physically uncomfortable and socially awkward, you’d be better off with the Sedge Lynn.

(Either way, you’d be mad not to join CAMRA.)

Underneath the arches

I had dreamt of finally filling the Winter Warmer card this year, but that thought evaporated after my pavement encounter. But I didn’t want to leave it there, particularly when – on checking my personal WWW map – I realised that I’d ticked off all but four of the pubs inside the M60. A route was planned.

And so it was that I found my way to the Hind’s Head. Not the easiest pub to get to from Chorlton – I can’t see it being exactly handy from Stockport, for that matter – but needs must. Not for the first time on a WWW, I had a half of Hobgoblin and was pleasantly surprised; it’s not so much an old ale as an old-ale-style beer product, but kept well it’s really rather good.

I walked from there to the Nursery; well, somebody’s got to. My twenty minutes of urban orienteering – in the rain – were rewarded by absolutely zilch in the way of dark or wintry beers. I had a pint of Manchester’s Finest (or Hyde’s bitter to you and me) which isn’t really a qualifying beer – although at 4.5% I guess it just about qualifies on strength. I also had quite a nice lunch, although it was disturbed by a family on the other side of the room whose youngest child had just reached the Exorcist stage of endless hwagh! hwagh!ing. I never have this trouble in Spoons’.

Outside it was still raining, and it took longer than seemed entirely reasonable to get back to civilisationthe main road. Once there I doubled back a bit to the Hope. Sadly not one of the panoply of their own (Fool Hardy) beers was dark, so I had a guest – Pin Up milk stout; it was fine. Then down the slope to the Magnet, a multi-ale free house which I think I’ve underrated a bit in the past, possibly thanks to its rather hotel lounge-ish decor. The Rat brewery’s Workhouse Rat (“Victorian smoked porter”) was excellent, and I couldn’t resist topping it off with a half of SWB Diablo IPA (6%, didn’t taste it).

And finally Esther, the Crown. It is, and remains, a lovely pub with a remarkable range of beer – as ever, they had umpty-tiddly-three beers on from almost as many breweries. But (you could tell there was a ‘but’ coming) it wasn’t quite hitting the spot for me. Perhaps it was because the breweries were just too small – with the exception of Pictish and Facer’s, I hadn’t heard of any of the breweries there. I had a Rockin’ Robin from Bluestone, which – despite the awful name – was a pretty serviceable ginger porter. I wasn’t really in the mood for collecting ticks, though, so I left it at that.

In terms of beer, what I suppose we can call the northern outskirts of Stockport are looking better than the centre. For the final summing-up, we’ve got:

Stout: 5 + 1 = 6
Porter: 3 + 2 = 5
Old ale: 7
Not quite old ale: 6 + 1 = 7
No qualifying beers: 7 + 1 = 8

And the pubs:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 12 + 3 = 15
PIROTGIMO: 9 + 2 = 11

Eighteen qualifiers, eight non-qualifiers and seven borderline cases – could be a lot worse. And eleven, count ’em, pubs I really ought to go in more often. Perhaps that should be another resolution, along with the session bitter.

Many thanks to the organisers of the Winter Warmer Wander 2014, and to all the pubs who got into the spirit of it – it’s been a lot of fun.

Golden wossnames

I can’t really be bothered doing a full-on Golden Pints for 2014, not least because I’ve no idea what I’d put in most of the categories. (Best bottled beer? I did have a Rochefort 10 over Christmas, but was it my peak bottled beer experience? Set and setting…) Anyway, here are some random thoughts about last year, jammed awkwardly into an ‘awards’ format. It is, after all, only blogging.

Cask Beer Of The Year Spingo Middle. No, Special. No, Middle. I think. Or maybe the Special. (When can we go to Cornwall again?) Runner-up: about half the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Keg Beer Of The Year Electrik/Blackjack LFO (and not only because I was muttering “Ell, Eff, Oh” for the rest of the evening). Runner-up: Wild Fresh.

Worst Cask Beer Of The Year Wild Evolver, which looked and tasted almost exactly like an off pint from the bottom of the barrel. (For all I know it may actually have been off – how would I know? come to that, how would the bar staff know?) Runner-up: the other half of the Blackjack beers I had this year.

Most overrated and overpriced beer Of The Year, probably Wild Wildebeest, which was insanely strong, Tarquin Fintimlinbinwhinbimlim Bus Stop F’tang F’tang Olé Biscuit Barrel expensive and tasted, well, kind of like a chocolate stout. Except for about every third mouthful, when it somehow changed into a monster of enveloping gorgeousness and almost persuaded me it was worth the money. Only then it changed back again. Runner-up: Magic Rock Cannonball. (OK, it’s not the beer, it’s me – I still don’t get it, though. It’s so… moderate.)

Disappointment Of The Year Unreliable breweries. See also TwIshhpOTY, below.

Actually reliable (and consistently interesting) brewery Of The Year Ticketybrew. I can’t believe nobody else is raving about these people yet – I’ve never had a duff beer from them, and when they’re good they’re superb.

Pub/Bar Of The Year I’ll stick my neck out a bit on this one. OK, it’s a bit cavernous and lacking in atmosphere, like others in the same chain – it could certainly never be mistaken for a traditional pub. And OK, the clientele isn’t necessarily composed of people I’d choose to mix with. But the service is civil and efficient – even if there is a bit of a wait sometimes – and there’s always something decent on one or more of the hand pumps. All that and money off for CAMRA members – what’s not to like? So my vote for this year goes to the Font, Chorlton.

Trend which I haven’t quite caught up with yet Of The Year Sours. Well, I say sours – I like saisons, and I was drinking Rodenbach years ago. Full-on bretty ex-bitters, though… I’m not really there for them.

Trend which I sincerely hope has peaked Of The Year I’ve called it ‘poker dice’ brewing in the past, but on reflection ‘fruit machine’ brewing is probably a better label. Pull the handle (showing my age, I know), set the reels spinning and see where they stop: red… imperial… bourbon cask… pilsner! I first started noticing beers that couldn’t be named in fewer than three words around the start of this year (they’ve probably been doing it for ages in that London); I’ve had a few, but I’m struggling to think of one that I really liked. (Hang on – Ticketybrew Jasmine Green Tea pale ale. So there’s one.) The problem with this sort of multiple-compound-style brewing, it seems to me, is that neither you nor the people drinking the beer can really know whether you’ve got it right, or got it as good as it could be. (And quite often, in my experience, it’s not – this year I loved Blackjack’s Stout and White IPA, but hated their Orange Cream Ale and Belgian Honey Porter.) There’s a craft to making a good bitter (or pale ale, or stout, or porter, or mild, or…) and a fair amount of trial and error; comparing batches of what’s essentially the same beer, and tweaking the recipe to include the best bits of different batches, is quite a big part of my idea of being a brewer. So you’ve made a hickory-smoked cranberry porter: I’m sure the smoke and the berries come through loud and clear, but is it a decent porter? Can you tell? And, more importantly, are you going to hang around to find out – or are you already busy on your imperial white IPA? I was pleased to see Pete inveighing against craft neophilia the other day; perhaps one day we’ll look back at fruit-machine styles and think “that’s so 2014…“.

Book Of The Year Although the cynical young pups obstinately refuse to acknowledge that the foundation of CAMRA was a Very Good Thing, this was without doubt the year of Boak and Bailey and Brew Britannia (my review is hereabouts). Other beer books are available, but I bet they’re not as good.

Spectacularly Unmet Resolution Of The Year Looking at my Golden Pints for 2013, I didn’t do too badly on I will try and stop going on about ‘craft beer’; or I will stop going on about my experience of ‘craft keg’ beers, unless it changes interestingly (e.g. I find one I really like); or even I will remember that this stuff is supposed to be fun. The one resolution I really fell down on was the one that was beer- rather than blogging-related: I will drink more session bitter. That went out the window very early on, with results which – as you’ve just seen – weren’t entirely satisfactory. Maybe in 2015.

More wanderings

My next trip out – to Stockport – was overshadowed by how it ended, with a bleeding forehead and an incipient black eye. A rash decision to run for a bus, across an unsuspectedly muddy patch of grass, led to me becoming rather suddenly and intimately acquainted with the pavement. (There was no blacking-out, confusion or lost time – if anything I was rather more alert after the accident than I had been before – so I’m not concerned that I did myself any serious damage. I’ve got a hell of a shiner, though.) On the off chance that anyone in the group of people who helped me afterwards reads this, many thanks – you made a nasty experience much more manageable.

Stockport, anyway… Going round the pubs of Stockport wasn’t a nasty experience, but it was a bit disappointing. At the Swan with Two Necks, the first thing I saw when I went in was the Old Tom pump clip. I duly ordered a half, to be told it was off. “And that one [Trooper] is off as well, and the cider.” I didn’t bother asking why the pump clips weren’t turned round. I settled for a half of 1892 Dark, which it was good to renew my acquaintance with – a really nice, lightish dark mild. Not actually a qualifying beer, but I wasn’t going to leave the pub without asking for a sticker. The drought continued at the Calvert’s Court (JDW): they had plenty of beers on, but every one of them seemed to be a pale bitter. Reduced to asking for the darkest thing they had on, I had a half of Cheshire Brew Brothers Kings Tower Tawny (and breathe). Which was fine – and qualified on strength grounds – but wasn’t very dark at all. (Also, no stickers.)

This wasn’t how I’d seen my trip to Stockport developing at all. Fortunately the revamped Bakers Vaults – which, unlike any of the other pubs I went in on the day, was humming – had Old Tom on, in all its sparkled glory. It really is a mighty beer. Revived and encouraged, I headed for the Cocked Hat. The only other time I’ve been in there – round about this time last year – I picked up a bit of a League of Gentlemen vibe: it seemed like a friendly and welcoming pub as long as you were already there. This time the regulars were less obtrusive, but I got into an argument with the woman serving – at least, she pulled me a pint instead of a half, then flatly denied that I’d ordered a half. Also, no stickers (apparently they’d run out). The half, as it goes, was of Millstone IPA; there wasn’t anything that qualified on style, with the dubious exception of the Cheshire Brewers… Cheshire Brother Brewers… the beer with the long name I’d had at Spoons’. I felt, again, that I was in ‘sup up and move on’ territory.

I moved on to the Arden Arms for my second half of Old Tom, this time on gravity. As such it was a bit slack and gravyish, but it was thoroughly enjoyable for all that. Plus it’s a nice pub; perhaps not one to seek out, but a good place to just sit and occupy a corner. As is my final stop of the day, the Railway in Portwood, where I had a Jaipur of all things – they had the usual outstanding selection of beers on, but not one of them was both dark and strong. (The Dunham Chocolate Cherry Mild was very nice, but that’s for another month.)

I make that Old Tom 2, Rest of the World nil. More precisely:

Stout: 5
Porter: 3
Old ale: 5 + 2 = 7
Not quite old ale: 6
No qualifying beers: 3 + 4 = 7

And the pubs:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 8 + 4 = 12
PIROTGIMO: 7 + 2 = 9