Category Archives: Best of the rest of the fests

Roll up! Roll up!

All the fun of the festival! Yes, it’s another beer festival – Chorlton this time.

I’ve been to Chorlton Beer Festival, held every year in the outbuildings and grounds of St Clement’s Church, most years since it started in 2005; I’ve still got fond memories of the BrewDog Zeitgeist black lager I had there once (and that’ll be at least ten years ago now). So the lineup of attractions this year wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. In rough order of appearance, there was:

The Hip One (On Cask!)
Always nice to see a cask beer from a fashionable brewery who you don’t always see cask beers from, if that’s grammar. Cloudwater Mr Green’s Bouffant is a strongish pale ale, and it was pretty nice. (It’s no Zeitgeist, but what is?)

The One With The Flavourings
I couldn’t say no to RedWillow‘s pink peppercorn saison (a Faithless), particularly when there was a gap in the bar between me and it. I realised afterwards I’d been at the keg bar – and I do hold to the general position that any given beer is almost always better on cask – but they didn’t have this one on cask, so never mind. Anyway, the carbonation and chill didn’t seem to do it any harm (and it was a warm night).

The Crush At The Bar
Or, as it turned out, not. I wimped out of volunteering this year, as indeed I have ever since my rather strenuous – and very dry – experience at the festival in 2015. But the bars seemed to be much better arranged this year; I don’t think I ever noticed a bar that was two deep along its full length, let alone three. Maybe next year. (If they’ll have me – if they’ll let me back in, come to that. But more on that later.)

The Other One With The Flavourings
I was a bit disappointed by Stockport‘s Raspberry Porter, having really liked the brewery (and indeed their porter) before now. You know how in Sam Smith’s raspberry beer you can actually taste raspberries, it’s not just a syrup flavour? Not like that, sadly. (But Stockporter’s still ace.)

The Seating Situation (featuring Staring At Strangers)
I believe there were enough chairs, and to spare. It’s just that it’s not always easy to get at the one empty chair halfway down a long table (backing onto another long table); and it’s not easy (in another sense) to sit yourself down, as a lone punter, in one of the two empty chairs in between two groups of six, which was generally what was left by mid-evening. (Were they even empty? Were they keeping them for their friends?) So I spent a fair amount of time leaning against the church or perched on various bits of wall that shelved outwards, sometimes directing hard stares at people who seemed to be particularly profligate in their use of seating. (The three people chatting, standing up, in the middle of a cluster of eight empty chairs – I saw you.)

The Murky One
Track Helios – a Stockport Beer Festival home-brew competition winner – was everything you’d expect from a New England IPA: it was fruity, it was creamy, it was zingy, it was… completely opaque, and frankly rather unattractive to look at. So I drank it without looking at it. But it is a great-tasting beer.

The Food Situation
Having eaten before I came out, I wasn’t in the market for a full meal, but after a few beers you always fancy something… But what? I’d scouted out a couple of food stalls where everything seemed to be large-ish and priced around the £8 mark, and was musing grumpily on how this was Not what I wanted At All, when I caught sight of the answer to my prayers: a stall selling pork pies. Lots of pork pies. All different. A couple of different vegetarian options even. I bought one – £3, for a proper handful – and was well pleased. Festivals everywhere please copy.

The Cold Fizzy One
So there was this keg bar, and some of them were only on keg, and it was a warm night, and… What can I say, Beatnikz Republic/Atom Blanc Atomium (white IPA) is a really nice beer.

The Advancing Inebriation (also featuring Staring At Strangers)
No thirds at Chorlton, and some of these beers were rather strong (although I regretfully decided to swerve the Cloudwater Human Meanings at 8.5%). Rather sooner than anticipated I found myself sitting with my back to the church, gazing vaguely ahead of me and thinking rather slowly. I remember noticing a very tall woman who looked a bit like Thom Yorke, and wondering if she found that difficult. On getting up to go for another drink, I realised I’d been looking at a fairly tall man who looked a bit like Thom Yorke.

The One You Don’t Remember Afterwards
A classic sign of actually getting drunk at a beer festival is that, even though you’ve made a list, when you look at it later you’ve got no idea what the last beer on the list was like. (Or sometimes the last two or even three beers.) Blackedge Porter falls into that category this time. I do remember the guy serving me recommending a different porter, which – unlike this one – was on cask; I didn’t go for it, though, possibly because it was the Stockport and definitely because he’d already started pouring this one. I’m pretty sure this one wasn’t bad, anyway – I’d have remembered that.

Then there was a feature you don’t get at most festivals:

The Argument With A Clergyman
Chorlton BF runs on tokens, sold in sheets of £10 a go; this is on top of an entry fee, which also gets you a programme and a (non-returnable) glass. Partly-used sheets of tokens can be refunded on the way out. Some years ago, the organisers caused a bit of a row – literally on the night(s) and figuratively afterwards – by implementing a policy of not refunding partial sheets and holding on to the difference, for the benefit of the church. This is not something CAMRA approves (and the festival is sponsored by CAMRA), so they’d promptly stopped doing it. However, subsequent festivals have featured signs at the refund desk, asking visitors to consider not getting a refund and donating the value of their unused tokens to the church. Now, I don’t have many issues with the Church of England in general – and I dare say St Clement’s in particular could make good use of my money – but I have got a bit of a thing about making conscious choices: when I donate money, it’s because I’m choosing to donate money. Rattle a tin and I’ll often choose to put money in it; sell me a programme and I’ll usually choose to buy it; just don’t borrow money from me and then say, hey, here’s a thing, how about we keep it? This kind of ‘nudge’ technique, extracting the cash by replacing a deliberate donation with an unthinking default, is something that annoys me intensely whenever I see it (and I’ve seen it in lots of places beside St Clement’s, of course).

I’d seen the sign as I came through the churchyard on the way in, I knew where I stood, and by the time I was leaving I’d had plenty of time to think about it all. Asking at the tokens stall, I was redirected to the refunds stall, which was staffed – probably not coincidentally – by a man in a clerical collar. When he asked if I’d consider donating the money that was left on my card, I declined, giving him a polite but firm prepared statement: No issues with the church… like what you’re doing here… when I donate… choose to donate… so yes, thanks all the same, but I would like my money back. He wasn’t best pleased, and reacted as if I was the first person to be so awkward all evening (and, to be fair, I probably was the first person to make a speech about it). But he turned to his cashbox, and I prepared to take my £4.40 and leave with a good grace, feeling slightly ungenerous but satisfied that I’d made my point.

Then he took £4 out of the cashbox and explained that he was only giving me back the whole pounds. I did not have a line prepared for this – and I was, as I may have mentioned, quite drunk at this point. I don’t think I swore, but I certainly expressed some surprise and disappointment. His response, rather to my surprise, was not to try and mollify the ranting drunkard who’d just appeared in front of him, but to explain that this was in fact the festival’s policy, and even to indicate the small print on the sheet of tokens which had (apparently) notified me of this. (The chance of my reading any of the said small print was non-existent – I’d already handed the sheet over by this time, and in any case it was 10.00 at night.) Outmanoeuvred and out-documented, I turned to go – but then remembered CAMRA’s previously-expressed policy on the non-refund thing, and turned back to advise my new friend that he was in breach of this policy. He got quite flustered (I suspect I was getting rather loud by now, which I do regret) and offered me 50p, “if it matters so much to you”. But the money, of course, didn’t matter to me – and I certainly wasn’t going to take any money off him that wasn’t mine – so I left it and walked away, highly disgruntled.

It’s a shame; it was a bad note to end the evening on. (To clarify, I wasn’t involved in the planning, so I don’t know if the ‘whole pounds’ thing is covered by the festival’s arrangement with CAMRA or not. It doesn’t strike me as particularly good practice, though.)

Conclusion: The Negatives
As I’ve said, there were no delays getting served and no trouble finding affordable food. There was live music, but it was kept to a level where it was no nuisance to anyone who wasn’t in the mood; there were no queues for the loo, either, although as a man I was well provided-for. (None of the portaloos dotted about seemed to be designated for women only, while men had the added benefit of a block of urinals. This may be one for the organisers to keep an eye on.) More importantly, none of the beers I liked the look of had run out (and I was there on the second night); none of the beers I had was in poor condition; and I did not regret having any of them. Overall, it was not a bad little festival, and I would not rule out going again this time next year – as long as I’m not barred.

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Mild by Northwest 4

Final scores

About 2/3 of the pubs I went to had a mild on (although in a couple of cases this took multiple visits). 32 out of 48 is lower than in previous years, but there does seem to have been a bit of a timing clash, and perhaps some miscommunication, on the Spoons front. Also, I have been a bit more selective in some areas – I visited fewer Hyde’s pubs than usual and only two Holt’s.

Dark mild: some good stuff from Brightside, Dunham, Moorhouse, Poynton, Salopian, Stockport, Tweed and a couple of less familiar breweries, as well as old friends from Hyde’s and Holt’s; Moorhouse and Tweed were probably the best of the bunch. Not so many actually labelled as ‘mild’, though.

Light mild: just the one, from Hyde’s – and the pump clip calls it a ‘session ale’. (Which, for once, is probably an improvement on calling it a bitter.) If mild’s endangered, light mild should be on a watchlist.

State Of Pub-Going: generally seemed fine, to be honest; there were a few tumbleweed venues, but much fewer than on my last round of MM outings, particularly at weekends. Perhaps it was just something about 2018.

Pubs where I was sorry not to be stopping for more than a half: Briton’s, Four Kings, Jake’s

Pubs where a half was plenty: Cocked Hat, Oxnoble

Old favourites: Petersgate Tap, Stockport Arch 14

New favourite: Reasons to be Cheerful, Tweed Equinox

Rediscovered old favourites: Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, Moorhouse’s Black Cat

The pay-off

All this boozing earned me – what else – beer tokens, for use at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival; enough for six halves, in fact. Since they weren’t restricted to the purchase of mild, I decided to spend them each on a different style of beer – subject to a strength limit of 5%, which ruled out going for a swift half of a 12% barrel-aged imperial stout. In the end I had:

Boudicca Spiral (stout)
Five Points Railway Porter (really good)
Stockport/Bar Nouveau Mild Mannered Victorian (mild; it was good, but how did they miss the obvious name?)
Twisted WTF (bitter; supposedly a biscuity old-school bitter with masses of hops, but I wasn’t sure about the hops)
Thirst Class You can call me Hal (pale)
Moorhouse M/44 (saison; really nice)

After that, I spent my own money on some >5% beers (in thirds):

Marble Different Dobber (nice, but I’d need to taste them side by side to verify the ‘different’ part)
Lacon’s Audit Ale (recommended by Dave Pennington, to whom many thanks; a terrific old-school barley wine)
Serious Gold Rush (a golden ale with Belgian yeast)
Cloudwater Henry’s Last Call (a cask pale from Cloudwater, got to be worth a bash – and it was)

The Lacon’s was my beer of the festival, although – slightly to my surprise – that Moorhouse saison wasn’t far behind. Great festival, great beers.

Many thanks to everyone who gave up their time to organise both the Mild Magic trail and the Festival; your work is really appreciated, at least by this punter.

Not the festival report

I realised the other day that I hadn’t written anything about this year’s Stockport Beer and Cider Festival. Thinking about it now, my memories are distinctly lacking in things to write about. I didn’t go in for Mild Magic this year, so I didn’t pitch up at the festival with unfeasibly large numbers of mild tokens to spend. I didn’t wander around muttering “had that… had that… seen that in Chorlton…” – the range was brilliant. It was in the usual large, light, airy, well-seated and bicycle-free venue of Edgeley Park, so I didn’t have anything to complainwrite about on that front. The place wasn’t uncomfortably hot and crowded, even though I went on a sunny Saturday – and, although the festival had been on since Thursday, most of the beers I was interested in were still on, so I didn’t end up with a long list of might-have-beens. All very negative – no wrecks and nobody drownded… I didn’t even win anything on the tombola.

I had a really nice afternoon, though, and drank some excellent beers. Here’s what I had, complete with contemporaneous tasting notes in italics.

Conwy Rampart 4.5% bloody lovely mun
A dark malty south Welsh bitter, tasting just like it did when I was sixteen (thanks, Dad). Wonderful stuff – 5/5.
Robinson’s Yippee IPA 5% perfectly fine
One of Robbies’ ‘white label’ beers. Great name; the beer was, well, perfectly fine. Say 3.5.
Quantum Bolo Ligo 6.4% odd but good
A wheat beer flavoured with blueberry (I think) and liquorice. I’m not crazy about strong fruit flavours and I’ve never liked liquorice, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one – 4.
Otherton Pointu 3.9% dubbel mild
A dark mild brewed with Belgian yeast, done exceptionally well – another 5. (I understand Otherton have knocked it on the head – shame if so, and I hope they find a way to get back into it. Beers like this are too good to lose.)
Quantum American Light 3.6% v nice
I got this on impulse after hearing one of the volunteers raving about its aromas. It was a very big, hoppy light ale – astonishingly big for its strength. I had a half (I was on thirds for everything else except the Rampart) and drank it with my lunch. I’d give it 4.5.
Runaway Caller the Smaller 9.5% everything everything
At this point my tasting notes are entering their impressionistic phase. But when I have a really good old ale or barleywine, that is what I feel like I’m getting – just everything a beer has to offer, all at once. Amazing to think this was brewed by a home brewer – more please! Another definite 5.
Fool Hardy Ritca 6% almost there (EG)
What my tasting notes are saying here is that this was an Earl Grey IPA, and it fell a bit short of Marble’s ditto. 3.5.
Tango 0%
Time for a palate reset and a bit of hydration.
RedWillow Imperial Smokeless 9.2% oh my (bit sweet tho)
An ‘imperial’ version of RW’s smoked porter; perhaps a bit too treacly for its own good, but definitely a 4.
Quantum Sourdough 3.6% yeah but
Third Quantum beer of the festival, and the only one that verged on being a dud – it’s a sour, and that was about it for me; 3.
Leatherbritches Smoky Lapsang 4.7% impressed but not entirely condensed
“I’m not convinced!”, my Senior Analyst used to say to us when we hadn’t made our case clearly or logically enough. Then we had to revise the argument and frame it logically until he was convinced. Well, it kept us busy. One day someone on another team listened patiently to an argument and then interjected “I’m not condensed!”, which promptly entered the language. (That’s the thing with office humour, it’s never worth the trouble of explaining.) Anyway, this was a pale ale flavoured with the slightly madey-uppy smoked Chinese tea Lapsang Souchong, and it was… interesting. Say 3.5.
Thirst Class Cloak and Stagger 6.8% generally wow
Another home brew competition winner – an ‘American porter’ – and, well, wow. Apparently it’s heavily hopped, but the hops didn’t work against the big malty depth of a strong porter, in the way that they sometimes do; if anything they enhanced it, the same way that a bit of sugar can heighten salty flavours. Great stuff, and once again I hope we see more from the brewer; 5.
Neepsend Osiris 4.2% whack whack whack
Can’t say fairer than that. A pale ale from a brewery I’d never heard of, recommended to me by John Clarke. And rightly so – 4.

If my arithmetic’s right that’s an average score of 4 and a bit – and a median of 4 – with four out of the twelve being 5-star worldbeaters (all of them dark in one way or another, I notice). Great beers, great festival.

FOTY

IMG_0919

Like this, only bigger

 

At least, if this wasn’t the beer festival of the year, the one that is will be really something.

I’m speaking of the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, which this year was held at the old Central Station (or G-Mex as I still think of it; stupid name, but it stuck). This had quite a few advantages over its previous location:

  1. Lots of space – trade shows tend to partition G-Mex to bits, but you can also just use it as one very, very large room
  2. Lots of seating
  3. No stairs
  4. Central Station is about right; the place could hardly be more central

The disadvantages were minor in comparison:

  1. No serendipitous discoveries of extra bars hidden away in rooms on another level, which you only stumble upon while looking for something else (usually the loos)
  2. No cyclists to watch
  3. It got a bit draughty down at the door end
  4. That’s it

As for the beer… let me tell you about the beer.

My established routine at fests is to get the first thing I fancy, then do a circuit of the bars & get the best thing I see, then sit down and have a look at the programme. The first thing I saw when I came in was the Blackjack brewery bar. I started on their Snip Snap Snorum, which was a fine, herby, tobacco-y pale ale. Then a circuit of the room, and what should I find but Bathams Best Bitter. Bathams! After having it on home turf I came away with the conviction that its reputation is well-deserved; it’s a light, sweet-tasting pale bitter – almost a light mild – but one that develops enormously over the course of a pint, finishing dry and aromatic. I’ve likened it to a ‘session tripel’ before now. A half confirmed that I wasn’t wrong – it’s a lovely beer, and one that I never thought I’d see in Manchester. (Now, if only I knew for certain how to pronounce the brewer – BAT-ums? BAY-thums? Bat Hams?)

Like most CAMRA people I know, I was pleased that the festival had a key keg bar; one of the brewery bars (Runaway) was also KK-only. There was a distinct crush at the KK bar; as I approached I could practically feel the average age dropping (and the beard quotient rising). As it goes, I didn’t fancy any of the beers they had on that night. I did like the look of the Schlenkerla Marzen on the Bières Sans Frontières bar next door, though, and very nice it was too.

Then three in a row from the back end of the alphabet. Waen Snowball is a strong stout (7%); to be more precise, it’s a strong chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout. On the plus side, the flavour combination does work; on the minus side, it doesn’t work quite well enough to answer the question “why am I drinking a 7% chocolate, vanilla and coconut stout?”. Vocation Heart and Soul was terrific – I’ve yet to have a beer from Vocation that isn’t – but I chose it partly as a palate-cleanser between two stouts. The second was the Ticketybrew/Quantum Marmite Stout, which – slightly to my surprise – worked a lot better than the Waen had. I think the key is that it’s a sweet stout; Ticketybrew’s Stout is made with treacle, and I suspect this is too. As a result the Marmite flavour (which is unmissable) has sweetness to play off rather than burnt-grain bitterness; it works really well.

It was time to get some food. I ended up with a pulled pork brioche bun (très craft) and a half of Holden’s Mild. At first taste I badly underestimated this beer: it was a thinnish, sweet dark mild, it was a bit lacking in condition, and I could see myself knocking it back to wash the food down. How wrong you can be. Although it was only 3.7%, the beer had an astonishing depth and complexity; I found myself thinking of dense, malty porters, then of rich, sweet dubbels, then of strong dark bitters. Lovely stuff, and – against strong competition – my beer of the fest.

Then it was back on the hard stuff. I was quite excited to see Moor‘s old ale Old Freddy Walker, and it didn’t disappoint: sweet, heavy and strong, it drank like a throwback to the Burtons of old. The Faithless series apart, it’s not often I see a RedWillow beer I haven’ t tried, so I had to try Thoughtless from their brewery bar; it’s a 9.4% imperial stout, and it’s terrific.

The units were stacking up by this point, and I was planning to get something from the Conwy brewery bar and then call it a night. Conwy make a couple of tremendous dark, malty bitters, neither of which they’d brought along; they seem to be making a fairly concerted assault on the pale’n’oppy market. Sadly, their bar wasn’t at all busy (you couldn’t get near the Cloudwater bar…); perhaps they’re falling between two stools. Not that I personally helped matters, having decided at the last moment not to give them any custom myself. The problem was that I’d just remembered that Fuller’s Past Masters 1914 was on. It’s a fantastic beer, which somehow managed to find the mid-point between an old ale and a best bitter; although both were 7.3%, it seemed to be half as heavy as the Moor old ale and twice as drinkable.

Then I thought I might as well just revisit Bathams on the way out and had another third of the BB. This, I think, was a mistake – going for the third, that is: the first mouthful just tasted like sugar water, and it was only really starting to show itself as I drained the glass. But I’d had the rough equivalent of five and a half ‘normal’ pints by this stage, and that seemed like plenty. I got home without incident, drank a coffee and a pint of water, slept well and got up without any noticeable hangover.

What else did I do while I was there? Not a lot. I bumped into several people I knew – not only through CAMRA – most of whom were behind a bar, slightly to my embarrassment. The pulled pork bun was excellent; the choice of food was pretty good, too, although nothing was dirt cheap. I have fond memories of the Winter Ales fest which, as well as a full-dress food counter, had a stall selling plates of chips for a pound; very welcome in mid-evening, that was. More in the way of soft drinks might have been good; that Winter Ales bash also had apple juice and dandelion & burdock(!) on hand pump, which was a nice way to get a bit of hydration in between beers. As for the merchandise, some familiar stalls were present, and some other familiar stalls conspicuously weren’t – the laddishness (and worse) which has marred some merchandise stalls in the past was nowhere to be seen, as far as I could tell. But the stalls – even the food stalls – were secondary; this festival was there for the beer (and cider), and so was I (apart from the cider). And what very fine beer it was.

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.

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!).

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.

To you it may be taboo

I’m afraid I won’t be going to the Independent Manchester Beer Convention. Or rather, I didn’t go (it was this weekend). Having missed the first one last yearthe first two (h/t Tyson in comments – time flies eh?), I wrote off this year’s IMBC when ‘sold out’ messages started appearing, several months in advance of the event itself. However, not all the advance tickets got used – as is bound to happen when tickets go on sale with a lot of time to spare – and a few were being touted around on Twitter as late as Friday.

So I did have the choice whether or not to go, and in the end I chose not.

REASONS FOR GOING TO IMBC 2014

  1. Lots of interesting beers from cutting-edge brewers.
  2. The food sounded pretty good too.
  3. And it was in Victoria Baths, which would be unusual if nothing else.
  4. So, really, whatever the beer was like, it would have been an interesting experience and made a good blog post (as long as I hadn’t got too drunk to remember anything).
  5. (Even if I didn’t much enjoy it, it would have been an interesting experience.)

REASONS FOR NOT GOING TO IMBC 2014

  1. It was £13 to get in. For that (according to the Website) you got a glass, a programme and er. Making it approximately £10 dearer than most CAMRA beer festivals.
  2. If last year was anything to go by, the beer would have been fairly pricey, too.
  3. Not to mention the food.
  4. More to the point, about 3/4 of the beer (at least, for the session I checked) was keg.
  5. I didn’t want to go and then spend the evening roaming the halls disconsolately looking for cask beers that (a) were on (b) looked interesting and (c) I hadn’t had.
  6. Nor did I want to spend it trying keg beers and hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. Because I do keep trying them and I do keep being disappointed – not every time, but definitely most times.
  7. And I certainly didn’t want to be the old bloke leaning accusingly on the Magic Rock bar and saying “Got any real ale, young man? No? Aye, well, think on.”
  8. In terms of interesting experiences, the last three possibilities wouldn’t have been very interesting – and “man who doesn’t like craft keg tries craft keg, doesn’t like it” doesn’t make a very good blog post.
  9. I know, I’ve written it.
  10. More than once.
  11. Most importantly, and setting aside any consideration of beard length –
  12. (May I point out at this point that I’ve recently gone clean-shaven myself, and am confident this will be the next trend. At least, I hope it is. I cannot be doing with those Iain-from-Bake Off full beards that the real hipsters seem to be sporting these days.
  13. I saw a little short bearded guy unlocking his bike from the railing of a bar down the road the other week – 5′ 4″ at most, long shorts, full beard. Not many things make me stare, but I could not stop staring at that guy. I think my subconscious must have taken him for a gnome.)
  14. Anyway, the point is that there’s a selection effect here. An event like IMBC, with lots of fanfare about its general awesomeness and cutting-edge-icity, will attract a lot of people who like the idea of going to an awesome cutting-edge event. (And I’m willing to bet that a lot of them will have full beards, but that’s not important right now.)
  15. And an event with what I imagine to be expensive beer and food, and what I know to be expensive admission tickets, will attract people who don’t mind paying a lot for their beer festival experience.
  16. Also, and most obviously, an event where 3/4 of the beer is keg will attract people who (at the very least) don’t mind that.
  17. In short, if I had gone I strongly suspect I would have been surrounded by well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers.
  18. I’ve got nothing against well-heeled trend-following keg-drinkers, but they are not my people.
  19. (I mean, the guy with the ponytail and the Hobgoblin shirt drinking a pint of Old Tom from his own pewter tankard isn’t exactly my soul-mate, but I’d much, much rather be surrounded by people like that. Really much rather.)
  20. Also, the festival glass is a third of a pint. And serving bitter in thirds is just wrong.

So that’s five reasons in favour, twenty reasons against. The result was a foregone conclusion. To me the IMBC is – still – something to say ta-ta to.

(H/t John Hegley.)

…thou art my darling

Here are my tasting notes from the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival, as composed at the time (mostly).

Conwy/Dobbin Yakima Grande **** 5=7.5 Oh yes. Very bitter indeed, in a good way.

Red Bank Crackin’ Pear Perry ** 6.5 -> 14 Yeah but no but… Bit on the sour side.

Red Willow Faithless XXXII ***** 6 -> 20 The good stuff has arrived. An IPA only more so; one to explore.

Bootleg The Real McCoy *** 9.2 >> 29.2 A decent barley wine, which is a good thing.

Buxton Moor Top *** 3.6 = 5.4 >> 34.6 Very very dry, not much more.

Squawk Pomegranate Porter **** 3.7 >> 38.3 Does exactly what it says.

Ticketybrew Black IPA **** as ever 5.5 >> 43.8 Weirdly, not much like a black IPA – more like a dubbel porter. V drinkable.

Nook Liquor-ish Stout 5.2 >> 49 **** Rich, fruity, a bit mad.

Alechemy 10 Storey Malt Bomb *** 4.5 >> 53.5 OK but not as brilliant as it would like to be.

Day’s Cottage Butt perry ??? 7.5 >> 61 Insanely cloudy, sweet attack, v v dry finish. Also strong.

Blackjack Farmhouse Brown *** 4.8 >> 66 Good but not actually likeable.

Kirkstall Dissolution *** 5 >> 71 = just under 6 pints. Very nice but really quite drunk now.

The numbers, if you’re interested, were my way of keeping track of how much I’d had; add up the a.b.v. of each third of a pint and divide by 12 for the equivalent number of pints at 4% (my personal ‘reference pint’). (A couple of them are multiplied by 1.5, because in those cases I had a half rather than a third.)

So, how was it? The beer was generally good, and some of it was very good indeed. I missed out on a few beers which had gone off, hadn’t gone on yet or (in one case) had never arrived, but – possibly because I was there on Friday evening – fewer than on some past occasions. In any case, the big question in these situations isn’t what’s not on but what is, and in this case there was more than enough. I went straight for the much-trailed Yakima Grande Pale Ale, which was reassuringly superb. While I’ve got fond memories of some West Coast beers, I don’t remember ever having the original version of this one, so I can’t judge it on that basis. But any concerns that it might seem a bit tame by 2014 standards weren’t borne out; it was very hoppy. For me, though, the beer of the festival was another pale ale, Red Willow’s latest Faithless: a really complex beer, in the sense of having a flavour that develops the more you drink (rather than in the sense of having multiple flavours thrown together).

This year saw the introduction of Bar Nouveau, a bar serving beers which had never been on sale before. This calls for a brief digression about the layout at Stockport. The beer, the cider and most of the other stalls are set up in a long, narrow concourse (a broad corridor, really) running behind the main stand. Seating is in the main stand itself, while food, entertainment and the bottle bar are in a function room on ground level. It’s a bit of a walk from the concourse to the stand; from the top end of the concourse to the stand is about twice as far as you’d take your drink even in a large pub. It’s not that far, and there are only a few steps to deal with, but it’s a big enough disincentive to produce a lot of milling around and standing around – particularly when you’ve only got a third in your glass and you think you’ll be getting another in a couple of minutes anyway. By 7.00 on the Friday the concourse was heaving. I took my half of Moor Top downstairs to get some food, and while I was down there I made the acquaintance of the aforementioned Bar Nouveau. As you can see from the list above, I had five four- or five-star beers on Friday, and three of the five (from Squawk, the ever-reliable Ticketybrew and Nook) were on at Bar Nouveau. Very fine beers, the Ticketybrew in particular. The arrangement also meant I could drink my beer while sitting at a table and listening to a covers band, which isn’t a bad way to do it.

A word about the perry. I hadn’t had any cider or perry at Stockport for a few years, but I decided to branch out this time – not entirely successfully. My first visit to the cider & perry end of the room was early doors, while business was still slow, and the volunteer I spoke to gave me three samples before I settled on one; even then I was the one who called a halt (I think he would have been happy to carry on until I found one that was just right). The whole thing made me feel a bit like Goldilocks, rejecting one for being too sour and one for being too sweet; the one I settled on wasn’t that great, either (not too sour, but still basically a sour flavour). The second perry I had, much later in the evening, carried a hand-written label saying “Cloudy. Very cloudy”, and it was; in fact it was opaque. Flavour-wise it was an odd combination of a heavy, honeyed sweetness on the lips and a harsh, screamingly sour finish. I think it was probably meant to taste like that; not sure it was meant to look like that, though. What I was really looking for was something light and floral, and not really on the sweet/sour continuum at all – although, on consulting some ancient tasting notes, this seems to be an effect you’re more likely to get from cider than perry. Anyway, it was interesting, and I’m sure I’ll be back.

Afterwards, finally, I didn’t really feel all that drunk. Six pints (equivalent) is a lot for me; I think my all-time giddy limit is seven, and I’ve been properly drunk on less than that. But I wasn’t falling-down drunk on Friday night – or throwing-up drunk, or world-going-round-and-round drunk, or falling-asleep-on-the-bus drunk or even having-difficulty-focusing drunk. I was quite poorly the next day, on the other hand – although this may have something to do with mixing beer and perry. Opaque perry in particular, perhaps – although I can’t say I wasn’t warned!

It’s a cold place in winter

…is old Hartlepool. It’s not so warm in April, either.

I spent the weekend in the oldest part of Hartlepool, for the Headland Folk Festival. Organised by esteemed folk trio the Young ‘Uns, the Headland FF didn’t aspire to be a competitor to Cambridge or the Green Man – no James Yorkstons or Ukulele Orchestras here. There were concerts – Polish shanty singers Brasy were particularly memorable – but the main business of the weekend was the singarounds. In my memory the weekend is already blurring into one continuous singaround, from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon (when the Young ‘Uns and the Wilsons led everyone who was still there in a mass rendition of… Sea Coal, what else.)

Anyway, over the weekend I spent a fair amount of time in pubs, and here’s what I saw. And drank.

The rather ironically-named Cosmopolitan had one handpump, offering Hobgoblin. I swerved it and looked in the beer fridge, which had some passable supermarket-ish bottles (Maxim, Marston’s EPA, that kind of thing) – including one from a brewery I’d never heard of. Local speciality ahoy! I ordered that one and turned it round to check the details of the brewery on the label. The details of the brewery on the label began with the word “Lidl”. (The beer wasn’t great either.) To be fair, I never saw that beer again – and I checked that fridge every time I went in the Cos, what with not really fancying the Hobgoblin. Next time I was in, the most interesting thing I could see in the fridge was the Maxim, which I duly asked for; the barman said it had only just gone in the fridge and would I prefer Newcastle Brown. “I’ll have the Maxim,” I said. “Right, Newcastle Brown,” he said. (I don’t think he was doing it deliberately – I had terrible trouble making myself understood the whole time I was there. Simple things like asking a bus driver for a £1.70 fare – my whole intonation was off, somehow.) Anyway, I had the Newkie Brown, which was… well, what do you want, it was Newkie Brown; it was OK. What I will say for the Cos was that they did a very nice roast meat bun with chips and gravy (even if the barman tended to hear the word ‘pork’ as ‘beef’); they also hosted quite a few acts over the weekend, including the self-explanatory women’s vocal group She Shanties. Nice pub, shame about the beer, basically.

The programme for the Folk Festival listed one venue as Harbour of Refuge (Pothouse); I assumed this was a pub called the Pothouse which the organisers had romantically designated the Harbour of Refuge for festival-goers. It’s actually a pub called the Harbour of Refuge, which everybody calls the Pothouse – or rather, the pub management call it the Pothouse (it’s even on their beermats), and everybody else calls it the Pot. They had two handpumps, serving Jennings’ Cumberland and Cameron’s Strongarm; I naturally went for the latter, only to find it was just going off. I had a genuinely local bottle, Lion’s Den Headland Bitter, which unfortunately didn’t appeal to me at all (can’t remember why, but I don’t think it was an interestingly strong flavour of any description – I think it was just rather insipid). The next time I was in I noticed a barmaid pulling half-pints of Strongarm with enormous frothy heads into pint glasses, then stashing them carefully in the beer fridge; I took this as a hint that there was still something wrong with the Strongarm and had a bottle of Black Sheep. When I finally got a pint of Strongarm at the Pot it was pretty good – a red-brown bitter, with a big, densely malty flavour.

Having half an hour to kill one morning I wandered into the Globe. The Globe is an unpretentious boozer, which hosted acts and sessions during the weekend but on that particular morning hosted nobody but a bunch of regulars and me. The landlady clocked me as a folkie the moment I walked in and asked, “Are you going to be entertaining us?” Er, no, I muttered – to which one of the old boys standing around said, “Ah, but y’already are.” Cheers. My pint of Strongarm was served with the biggest head I’ve ever seen – a massive Mr Whippy thing, standing two or three inches proud of the top of the glass and making the beer quite difficult to drink (what are you supposed to do with it?). (This may also explain the thing with the half pints at the Pot.) The beer, when I got to it, was rather good – it was very cold and bordering on flat (unsurprisingly) but somehow both of those things worked in its favour. The flavour was better than it had been at the Pot and quite distinctive – a dark, woody maltiness, not at all sweet. Cheap, too. The prices at the Cos, the Pot and the Fish (see below) were at what I think of as Stockport rather than Manchester levels – £2.50-90 rather than £3.20-60. The Strongarm at the Globe was going for £2 flat.

Leaving the best of the Headland to last, I can’t think of anything bad to say about the Fisherman’s Inn, except that it’s carpeted throughout. This is a disadvantage because it means that when a group of rapper dancers turn up to do their thing (after making themselves the bare minimum of room in the midst of a crowd of shanty singers) you can’t actually hear their feet on the boards, which in turn means that seeing it from two feet away is merely gobsmacking rather than outright incredible. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Fish (they don’t have much truck with long pub names in Hartlepool) is a lovely little pub with a great atmosphere; it’s also got great beer and some appreciative punters, judging from how quickly the guest beers turned over in the course of the weekend. I had Wold Top Headland Red (a mildly hoppy variant on the local dark bitter style), Bradfield Farmer’s Bitter and Stout, and Burton Bridge Porter; nothing outlandish (and certainly nothing pale’n’oppy), but all good solid beers and all in good nick. They also do pork pies for £1 – sadly, I never got round to checking them out. Should fate for any reason guide your steps to the Headland, get yourself down there; I’d even say it’s worth the detour from Hartlepool proper (10-15 minutes on the bus, don’t try walking it unless you absolutely have to). And if, like me, you get the chance to push your way into the pub while it’s crammed to capacity with people singing shanties very loudly, don’t miss it. I was hoarse the next day, but it was worth it.

A pound, or even a guinea (£1.05), won’t buy you a lot of beer these days. In a Spoons on a Monday, I’ve had a £1.99 pint knocked down to £1.49 with a token, but that’s the absolute limit – or so I’d have said. I’d come to Hartlepool with a walletful of Spoons tokens, and back in Hartlepool proper on the Sunday I found myself with half an hour to kill before my train at the Ward Jackson, one of Hartlepool’s two JDWs. At the Fish I’d been intrigued by some old pump clips above the bar from Black Paw brewery – a micro down the road in Bishop Auckland, it turns out; when I saw Black Paw Bishop’s Best on the bar at the Ward Jackson, I had to go for it. Another brown, malty, not particularly sweet, vaguely woody-tasting beer; it reminded me of the way Holt’s bitter used to taste. On form it would have been really interesting, if a bit challenging (i.e. it would have taken me two or three pints of the stuff to actually get to like it – another similarity with old-style Holt’s). Unfortunately the pint I had was rather noticeably lacking in condition, either because it was ready to go off or because sparkling those enormous heads had sucked all the CO2 out of the cask (Are you sure about this? Zymurgy Ed.) Not at all dislikeable – I’d have it again – and at least it didn’t break the bank. At my local Spoons, the session-strength guest beers are priced up at £2.25; at the Ward Jackson they were £1.55. With the beard voucher, that made it £1.05. Not all the prices were affected; they were offering two cans of Sixpoint for a fiver, same as in town.

I didn’t go into the Ship; as a bloke I met on the bus put it, “A lot of people won’t go in there, they think it’s a bit rough… well, it is rough…” Then there was the bizarrely polysyllabic Gaietys, which looked closed every time I passed; from the outside it somehow managed to combine the dourness of a Scottish back street boozer with the teenage tackiness of a 70s sports pub (“that’s more of a modern place” – bloke on the bus). After the Globe I was in no mood for mingling with the locals, or not without a bit of folkie backup. I somehow doubt I missed much in the way of beer. (I saw lots of Whitbread Trophy, incidentally – on keg it’s still big in the north-east, apparently.)

I was ready for a pale bitter by the end of the weekend – but then, by the end of the weekend I was ready for a number of things, including a good night’s sleep. By Sunday evening I’d been to two concerts, sung eight songs at seven sessions (two at the Fish, the rest at the Pot), drunk thirteen pints in five pubs, and slept for about twelve hours. It was a good weekend.