Category Archives: Best of the rest of the fests

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.


Aye, dry

Retro-blogging* the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival 2014, Saturday daytime session
*A bit like live-blogging, only different.

11:00 MBCF opens. Planned to be there by now. Am just leaving house. In fact, no wait, did I get that… yes, I had it all along, but more to the point have I got my ticket? My free Winter Warmer Wander ticket which is one of the reasons I’m going on Saturday, as (a) I could have got in free anyway on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which would have been a waste of a freebie and (b) the ticket wasn’t valid on Friday night, which would (ditto) and also have cost money? Where did I put the damn ticket anyway?
11:something Find ticket. Remember something else. Tell self to stop faffing about. Leave house.
12:ish Arrive at Velopark tram stop. Having been sat with my back to the rest of the tram, I’d had the impression that it had emptied out at the previous stop, viz. the Etihad stadium. On leaving the tram I’m slightly surprised to realise that approx. 300 people have left with me & are now streaming – well, trudging – towards the Velodrome itself, which seems to be about ten minutes’ walk away. Start to wonder about the session possibly being a bit busy.
12:ish + ten minutes Reaching the Velodrome, the throng trudges patiently around the corner, between two parked cars and up some steps. (OK, not 300, but there must have been a good 40 or 50 of us.) We then queue to be let in. There are notices on the door saying that the event has been far more successful than expected, and that the entry price has been dropped accordingly. We’re encouraged to drink the Festival dry and then head back into Manchester. (Having just spent a not entirely comfortable half hour getting here from Manchester, I feel this last part could have been phrased better, or not at all.)
A bit later Hand over my ticket. Realise that the reduced entry price is £1 or £0 for CAMRA members, so having the ticket’s made no difference at all. (On reflection, the WWW/Mild Magic incentives are probably aimed more at ordinary punters than at the CAMRA hard core like what I am.)
nn:nn (subsequent timings approximate) Wander around vaguely. It seems a lot like any other arena – a long circular corridor with some stuff in the middle that’s curiously hard to get to. After a bit of trial and error, I find the steps to the stand. Realise that the stand overlooks the cycle track, and that there are no pedestrian crossings. After a bit more wandering I find the steps that lead under the stand and enable you to get at the beer. Five flights down, three flights up.
nn:nn Start with half a pint of Mallinson’s Simcoe. Rather fine. Realise that the notice outside wasn’t joking – there are big gaps in the lineup, several of which have been heroically plugged by late additions (a category which includes the Mallinson’s Simcoe). Do the catalogue-ticking short-listing thing, but make sure to cross-check with what’s actually on the bars as I go along (“Timothy Taylor, Tiny Rebel, Ulverston, Waen… oh, they’ve all gone. Never mind.”) I end up with a pretty decent list even so.
nn:nn Having worked my way along all three of the main bars, have a look at the brewery bars. Say Hi to a fellow CAMRA member working at one of them. Am keen to find out what’s on the other brewery bars, so walk on without stopping to chat. Then feel guilty about not stopping to chat. Then feel guilty about not being behind one of the bars myself. Decide to get another beer.
nn:nn Pleasantly surprised that Coniston No 9 Barley Wine is still on.
nn:nn So where are the loos? Oh, right, down three flights of steps and up five. Of course.
nn:nn Aghast to find that Red Willow Faithless XXX (the beetroot one) has gone off, although it was on when I arrived. This is a bad sign, I think (correctly).
nn:nn Take a third of Wells & Young’s Winter Warmer with me down three flights of steps and up five to find something to eat. Some nice-looking stuff has been laid on for the Festival – Mexican, Indian and, er, pies with gravy – but I end up with a burger and chips from the Velodrome’s cafe. Finish the Winter Warmer about half an hour after starting it, by which point it’s understandably getting a bit tired. (I mention this because this was the only time in the whole day that I had a beer in anything less than good nick.)
nn:nn Another casualty from my hit-list: Thwaites’ Fallen Nun has now gone off. On the plus side, Harbour #5 (one of the late substitutions) knocks my socks off: a really superb pale ale – fruity hops a-go-go. Really starting to hanker after somewhere to sit. Do a quick head-count of people sitting on the floor as I cross the bar area and get to 25 – fewer than the people with actual chairs and a lot fewer than those standing. There is, of course, ample seating in the stands – but, well, eight flights of steps.
nn:nn First Chop Syl – “black jaggery IPA” – is much better than it sounds, and almost as good as it wants to be. Sit on the floor for a bit. It’s not ideal.
nn:nn Next to go off before I get to it: Burton Bridge Old Expensive. (Who’s been drinking that? I’d never even heard of Burton Bridge Old Expensive before today. I’m not convinced I’d even heard of Burton Bridge.) Have a Blackjack King of Clubs (imperial stout). Not bad at all.
nn:nn Mid-afternoon and the beers are really starting to thin out. Drift past the brewery bars, which proportionally seem to have a lot more left on than the main bars. Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime Reserve (8.5%) is on. I admit defeat on the seating front, and take it to a seat in the stands. Rather a peculiar beer – can’t quite work out what style it is; a bit like a black IPA crossed with a Burton. (Update: after tasting some very similar flavours in a pint of Buxton RednikQuantum Fall-en House (which is a stoutporter), I’m going for “strong hoppy porter”. Unusual, almost medicinal tasting, but not at all bad.)
nn:nn What’s left on my list? Not much, and certainly not much that’s still on. The whole of the second bar is marked “no service here”, as there isn’t any beer left there to serve. Crossing the floor, take another quick head-count of people sitting on the floor; I get to 70. Note with some surprise that Coniston No 9 Barley Wine is still on – I guess the strength is putting people off. I go for Dent T’Owd Tup, which is rather good. Find an actual chair that nobody’s using. Hurrah!
16:00ish Eight beers down; less than three pints in total, but mostly strong and some very strong. Alcohol-wise, I’ve had the rough equivalent of four and a half pints of bitter now, and am feeling it. Was hoping to get a bit further before baling out, but body says otherwise. (Have had cold.) Wonder about finishing off with a return visit to Coniston No 9, seeing as it’s still there. Decide, regretfully, that this would be silly. Leave.
16:15ish On tram. Could really fancy a pork pie.
16:30ish Pitch up at the Arndale Market, where – surprise! – a beer festival is in full swing, courtesy of the Micro Bar. It would seem rude to pass by, so I finish my day’s drinking with a half of Ticketybrew’s Jasmine Green Tea special (seen subsequently on the bar at Font in Chorlton). It’s very nice. Then I go and get a pork pie. Then I go home.

On Twitter, Tandleman – who, under his secret true identity, is one of the key festival organisers – remarked that the Festival had ended for him on a low note, with disgruntled punters having a go. I can understand why people might be dissatisfied – the venue wasn’t ideal, and the beer obviously went down much quicker than planned; anyone turning up after 4.00 on Saturday will have had very slim pickings. But I wouldn’t want anyone to think the negatives outweighed the positives overall; I certainly wouldn’t have missed it. Even the heavily-depleted selection that faced me on Saturday morning was an amazing range of beers; just as importantly, every one of them (at least, every one I had) was in good condition. It’s not every festival where you can say you’re pleased with every beer you try. I’ve been to festivals where you have a choice of fifty different brown bitters from regional brewers, and this was nothing like that – come to that, I’ve been to festivals where the most interesting beers are things you’d see on the bar at the likes of Font or Pi, and this was nothing like that either.

This festival had its problems – most of them caused by its own popularity – but there was a huge range of interesting and well-chosen beers, at good prices and in good nick. When the post-mortems are being carried out, that’s the key point that needs to be remembered.

A ticker is born

Around the 27th Stockport Beer and Cider Festival in 20 beers, give or take a few:

1. Marble Barley Wine
2. Marble Emancipation
3. Red Willow Witless II
4. Fyne Ales Jarl
5. Marble Decadence
6. Red Willow Shameless
7. Bollington Goldenthal
8. Quantum SK2
9. Blackjack King of Clubs
10. Fyne Ales Sublime Stout
11. Marble Bennington
12. Worthington White Shield
13. Fuller’s London Porter
14. Happy Valley Dangerously Dark
15. Fuller’s ESB
16. Fyne Ales Bell Rock & Hop IPA
17. Ilkley Lotus IPA
18. Liverpool Organic Shipwreck IPA
19. Buxton Dark Knights
20. Okell Maclir
JW Lees Manchester Pale Ale
Worth Coppice
St Feuillien Grand Cru (bottle)

1-20: beers I picked out on the programme, in descending order of desirability
In bold: beers I ended up having
In italics: beers that weren’t on

You’ll notice a rather high level of italics, particularly towards the top of the list. I wasn’t entirely expecting all three of the strong Marble beers advertised to be available, but I didn’t expect that none of them would be. I’m gutted to have missed Witless on cask, too, and the Bollington and Quantum beers both sounded rather fine. Looking on the bright side, the top five beers I did have were all excellent; it was particularly good to make the acquaintance of Jarl after all this time, especially as it didn’t disappoint.

Not sure why I didn’t get to the Buxton or Okell beers. Worth Coppice used up a Mild Magic token, as did Marble Bennington. Those are the only two milds on the list, despite my having gone armed with four MM tokens; when you’ve seen 24 milds, you’ve pretty much seen them all. (Except Bennington, which was distinctive – as you’d expect from Marble – and rather fine.) I left my other two tokens lying around for a passing mildophile to snaffle. Lees’ MPA was on the festival charity stall, and it just spoke to me. As for the St Feuillien Grand Cru – which, at 9.5% over a 330ml bottle, was approximately four times as strong as the thirds I’d been drinking upstairs – it was excellent; one of only a handful of beers at the festival whose taste I can still bring to mind. I have to confess, I’d only turned up at the bottle bar in the first place because of a rumour going round that they were accepting MM tokens in exchange for British bottled beer. Not the case, sadly – somebody had got MM tokens confused with volunteers’ tokens. But I was feeling flush, and my tick-list was looking rather sparse – particularly in the skull-splitter department – so paying money for some Wallonian loopy juice seemed like a good idea. As, indeed, it turned out to be.

I’m not moaning about the lack of beers. (Well, maybe just a bit about the Marbles.) I’ve come to the conclusion – if I may address the Festival collectively for a moment – that it’s not you, it’s me. There was some terrific stuff on – as well as the beers I’ve mentioned already, there was Marble Pint, Red Willow Wreckless and Endless, Magic Rock High Wire and Curious, a Dark Star, a couple of Buxtons… I wasn’t tempted by any of it, though. This is partly because of where I live, and partly – I’m afraid to say – because I’m a ticker. And I’d never even realised. The evidence is there, though – the disregard for mild, the thirst for novelty, the disdain for established beers, even the St Feuillien Grand Cru. The shame of it.

What’s to become of me now? What shall I do? Where shall I go? Here, I suppose.

Twenty Twelve

Here are my best of the year, where I’ve got an opinion.

Draught Beer: Red Willow Remorseless. A mighty DIPA from a brewery that keeps getting better. Strong runner-up: Marble Magic, a collaboration with Magic Rock which was apparently the hoppiest thing they’ve ever brewed – it was certainly slap-in-the-face hoppy. It was also 3.3%(!) and very, very drinkable.

Bottled Beer: Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout. Just wow. The other Past Masters beer I’ve had didn’t knock me out, but this was extraordinary. I’ve got a bottle ageing as we speak.

Pump clip / Label design: Red Willow. Initially I wasn’t sure that the “-less” naming system was going to work, but I think it was a really good choice – memorable and distinctive. The ‘willow’ emblem is striking and rather beautiful, and the embossed bottle labels are class.

Pub / bar: I’m tempted to nominate local newcomer De Nada; they may still be finding their feet (and a clientele), but they serve some good beers in excellent condition (generally from Boggart, Lancaster and Brightside). Top jukebox, too. But for quality, consistency, variety, Red Willow beers, free peanuts and an excellent soundtrack, Pi takes the crown. (I hope I can give it to De Nada next year.)

Brewery: it has to be Red Willow. Early on, I had some worries about an old-school malty sweetness that seemed to be colouring a lot of their lighter beers, but I think that’s a thing of the past. Beers of real depth and subtlety, across the range from oyster stout to pale bitter.

Bloggers: the esteemed B&B, whose comment section is my blog-from-blog. Being based in Cornwall makes the blog particularly interesting – they even mention the Blue Anchor from time to time.

Festival: NWAF didn’t disappoint.

Open category: Best pub for playing music: the Beech, Chorlton. Followed by the Briton’s Protection (upstairs room) in central Manchester, and er. Hard to beat the Beech, really. A dishonourable mention to the Lloyd’s (Chorlton), where the following conversation took place, one quiet Saturday afternoon, between the barman and a friend of mine:

“Would you mind turning the music down a bit? A few of us have been busking and we’d just like to play for a bit in the corner, if that’s OK?”
Barman: Sorry, no, I can’t do that.
“Oh. Well, in that case, is it all right if we just get our instruments out anyway? We won’t be disturbing anyone.”
Barman: No, if you do that I’ll have to ask you to leave.


In 2013 I’d like to: meet some bloggers (again); review some more beer; avoid pointless arguments; not write about ‘craft beer’.

Careful with the Spoons

So, farewell then, another JDW ‘festival’, or in their own words The World’s Biggest Real Ale and Cider Festival. (Which, considering it featured 50 beers, 8 ciders and 2 (count ’em) perries, might be considered a bit cheeky. On the other hand, the overall total floorspace was massive.)

The last time round I worked my way through about half of the card and kept detailed notes, most of which (as I mentioned earlier) are now obsolete. I didn’t see that much of it this time, for a variety of reasons, and I can’t say my socks were knocked off by much that I did have. Generally the pale beers were more distinctive and more impressive than the dark – Brewster’s American Chopper, for instance, was a nice little hop-monster, and Everard’s Whakatu was worth checking out. I was pleasantly surprised by the draught Ginger Beard, as I said earlier; less so by the American ‘craft ales’ which were prominently featured. Kalamazoo Black Silk struck me as a rather laboured and unsuccessful attempt to do something different with porter, a style which can have tremendous depths of flavour if brewed without any messing about; Odell 90 Shilling was just a bit bland, and not believable for a moment as a “beyond eighty-shilling” dark beer. Bend Eclipse dark IPA (or Cascadian Dark Ale if you prefer) was good – although, again, it was a long way from being the most extreme or emphatic example of the style I’ve had, despite it being an ‘American’ style. (That would be Buxton Black Rocks. Mmm, Buxton.)

So far so lukewarm (figuratively, I hasten to add). But there was one beer I was seriously glad to encounter: Evan-Evans’ 1767. A brown, malty Welsh bitter, and a very fine example of the style* – also, a good example of the depth, richness and complexity that an ordinary brown session bitter can deliver, if done properly. On checking out Evan-Evans I discovered that its Chief Executive is none other than Simon Buckley, whose family produced the first real ale I ever had in a pub – and one of the standards by which I’ve judged beers ever since. Simon left Buckley’s in 1984, the last of the family to be involved in the business; the company was bought out by Brain’s in 1997 and the brewery closed the following year. Evan-Evans has been in business since 2003, but it hasn’t crossed my radar till now (possibly to do with the location of my radar in Saxon territory). Belatedly, welcome back to brewing, Buckley bach.

*Is it a style? Seems pretty distinctive to me – it would probably have its own encyclopedia entry in my ideal world (“historic brewers include Felinfoel, Brains, Buckley’s (until 1997); newcomers to the style include Evan-Evans, Conwy…”).

And speaking of encyclopedias… Actually I’ve got nothing to add to the great Oxford Companion controversy, except to say that Rule 1 of evaluating an encyclopedia (or any other wide-ranging work of reference) is check what you know. It’s not so much that finding errors in the parts you know about introduces the possibility that the rest of it may also contain errors; if there are errors you can identify, the question of whether the rest of it is any good doesn’t even arise, because you can’t afford to trust it. Entries on an area you don’t know may be the kind of Pattinsonian erudition you could stake money on, or they may be as mythical as the old three-threads story: you can’t know. Pace B&B, the errors identified by Martyn, Barm and others aren’t just individual errors in an otherwise trustworthy work – they make the volume as a whole impossible to trust. Which is tragic, and I hope that the reputation of the OCB will be salvaged in a future edition – although it has to be said that the initial reaction of the Companion‘s editor wasn’t particularly hopeful in that respect. Rule 1 of responding to criticism, incidentally, is to de-personalise wherever possible: if they read your book and call you an idiot, go to the bits they’ve quoted and show, politely and patiently, that they don’t support that conclusion. (If they haven’t quoted anything, point that out and let readers draw their own conclusion.) Sadly, Garrett Oliver’s response to Martyn’s criticisms – which focused entirely on the text of the OCB – took precisely the opposite tack: he inferred that only a dishonest idiot would make the kind of mistakes Martyn had pointed out and took umbrage at being called a dishonest idiot, before proceeding to attack Martyn personally. Really not useful.

Some folks like radishes

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

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

So near my nose

Q: Can you have too much of a good thing?
A: Well, I’m Spooned out. I had three this evening, three last night and three on Tuesday. Thirds, that is, in the current beer festival at the local JDW’s. (Plus another four and a half pints over the same period.) This isn’t a huge intake, but it is on the high side for me in a normal week – in particular, it’s unusual for me not to have a couple of dry nights in a week. More to the point, the novelty of those taster glasses has well and truly worn off, I’m finding it hard to remember what anything tasted like compared to anything else, and I’m feeling the need of a break from the Spoons – not the most relaxing place to drink at the best of times.

I missed the Ballast Point, which sounded like quite a beer – it was on when I stuck my nose in this afternoon but off by the time I got there this evening. Several beers didn’t really stand out, and some of those that did didn’t appeal – I found Hyde’s Plum Treat far too fruity and Oakham Taipan almost undrinkably piney. But there was some great stuff along the way. For example:

Bateman’s All Seasons: as Tandleman says, very much like any other Bateman’s bitter; I also agree with Tandleman that this is no bad thing.

Brains Milkwood: yes indeed. This is my kind of beer – a big darkish malty bitter in the South Walian style.

Conwy St David’s ale: not in the programme but labelled as a festival ale on the bar nevertheless. A whacking great malt-bomb (in the North Walian style), but with hop aroma in full effect. Big, rich, deep flavour. Never mind the thirds, I went straight for a pint, and I was glad I did. The best thing I’ve had from Conwy, against some strong competition.

Daleside White Bier: a big surprise, and a pleasant one. It actually is a witbier, or a very good imitation of one.

Freeminer Deep Shaft: #50 in the programme (ordered by strength), which consequently kept the best till last. A stunningly great 6.2% stout: big, thick, heavy, roasty and strong. Like being hit by a velvet steamroller.

Holden’s April Shower: I don’t remember anything about this, but I’m listing it here because I know I enjoyed it enough to order it twice.

Lodewijk’s Dutch Delight: a malty best bitter with some unexpected aromatic overtones – almost herby. Didn’t quite live up to the advance publicity, but interesting stuff.

Mauldon’s Blackberry Porter: I have a love-hate relationship with fruit-flavoured beers; love ’em when they’re balanced, hate ’em when all you can taste is the fruit. This was a ‘love’ – a porter with blackberry notes, as unlikely as that sounds.

Rooster’s Angry Yank IPA: a nice, light, easy-drinking beer in the APA style, rather like Holts IPA but less full-on. Not what I was expecting at all.

Titanic Tug Light: a very light mild (the colour of a pale bitter), but recognisably a mild: malty, sweetish, easy-drinking.

I’m up to 29 of the 50 festival ales – or 30 out of 51 counting the Conwy; and in that 30 there have been eight memorable discoveries and two solid classics. That’ll do me.

Getting warmer (3)

As I may have mentioned once or twice, my taste in beer has a definite tilt towards the tawny and malty end of things, so the National Winter Ales Festival was right up my alley. In fact, if I had any criticism of the range of beers on offer, it would be that it was too broad – a festival consisting entirely of best bitters, strong milds, old ales and barley wines would have suited me fine. But there was some very fine beer to be had all the same.

I’d be lying if I said I had a clear memory of my visit to the NWAF, but I have got several different clear memories. For example…

Not meeting Pete Brown. The very first person I saw when I reached the venue was the Famous Pete Brown!!!1! Wow, I thought, the bloggers are here tonight! Unfortunately I don’t actually know the Famous Pete Brown!!!1! to speak to, and I certainly wasn’t going to charge up to him and say “hey, you’re the Famous Pete Brown!!!1!”. (If I’d had more presence of mind I could have scribbled a quick comment on a post-it note and passed it to him – “Wot no keg??!? Just kidding! – Phil (Oh Good Ale)”.) And I don’t think the bloggers were out in force; at least, I didn’t see anyone I recognised, not even Tandleman. No matter, there was

Beer to sink (into). I drank my first half while doing a circuit of the venue, and my second while doing another circuit in search of somewhere a solitary drinker could sit down (it was busy). By this time I was losing my inhibitions with regard to plonking myself down in vacant seats – which was just as well because the third – Thornbridge Saint Petersburg – was not a beer to be knocked back or swigged while vertical. I settled down with my imperial stout and my LRB and let the world roll away. Memories of this part of the evening are particularly vague, but I do remember reading a piece about the photographer Francesca Woodman, who had an extraordinary career before she killed herself at the age of 22(!); I composed a poem on the spot about how unbearable it is to live in a world where talented people like Woodman, Nick Drake and Peter Bellamy commit suicide, and got slightly tearful thinking about it. What can I say, it was fun at the time (and alcohol is a depressant, after all).

Curry and chips. Don’t knock it, I say. After I’d drunk myself sober – or at least into a state where I wasn’t feeling maudlin any more – I hit the fixed-price hot buffet and worked my way through a plateful of onion bhajis, vegetable curry, lamb curry, pilau rice, chicken and mushroom pie and chips. (What was I meant to do, these people kept offering me food.) Very nice indeed. I think I’ve had a better lamb curry, but I don’t remember when. I also remember finding room for a plate of chips later on, and a bag of Seabrook’s after that. Disgusting, really, overdoing it like that – I’m sure I was way over my daily allowance of deep-fried food.

Cash to burn. I’m a sucker for a tombola; at past festivals I’ve come away with a pump clip (since sold on eBay) and a 2001 Stockport Beer and Cider Festival half-pint (still knocking about). This time round my luck was in, as I won twice in four tickets, which I reckon comes in at a probability of 64/625 or just over 1/10. The numbers secured me one(1) copy of Clive la Pensée and Roger Protz’s CAMRA-published Homebrew Classics: Stout and Porter, and one(1) bottle of beer: pick a bottle, any bottle, and never mind that they’re all six feet away at the back of the stall. I went for… er… that one, which turned out to be Liverpool Organic Brewery’s William Roscoe. It’s a light, floral pale ale, says the label; having drunk it (several days later, I hasten to add) I can confirm that if you like the kind of beer where the hops do a kind of gymnastic display using the malt as a mat, you’ll like this. (I don’t, particularly – which is why I was at the Winter Ales Festival in the first place – but it was a pretty good beer.) I didn’t initially take much interest in the book – I’ve never really fancied brewing my own – but on inspection I think it’s a bit of a find: Clive la Pensée (who wrote most of the book) appears to be Martyn Connell‘s evil twin, with an even greater appetite for historical brewing trivia and even stronger opinions, mostly about how brewing has gone to the dogs since the eighteenth century. The blurb on the back of the book promises that it gives “full instructions for brewing your own Stouts and Porters with modern ingredients”, but I think this is wishful thinking. A quick scan of the book reveals 27 different recipes, but out of these all 27(!) are labelled ‘historical’ and only three look at all followable – and those three are prefixed with comments like “now things go from bad to worse”. I think this is going to be my kind of beer book.

A plastic bag. I was now wandering around the festival carrying a half-pint glass, a programme, a London Review of Books, a book on porter and a 500 ml bottle of beer, a combination which you couldn’t call wieldy; in fact, I had the book and the bottle stashed in a jacket pocket, which even in my fairly advanced state of inebriation struck me as not a good look. So I joined CAMRA. I hasten to add, the fact that they were handing out sturdy plastic carrier bags wasn’t the only reason I signed up – I’d been thinking of joining for a while – but it was certainly a consideration. The bag contained a membership pack (including £20 worth of 50p JDW’s vouchers , which should nicely cover the first year’s membership fee) plus a copy of last year’s Good Beer Guide; I was also given a pint’s worth of beer tokens, which was nice. But mainly I was just glad to have somewhere to stash my book and my bottle.

Oh, and good ale. I had eleven different halves and thirds in the end; I kept count on the back of the programme, and if all the measures had been on the line I would have had the equivalent of half a pint at 49% – or five pints at 4.9%. (As most if not all of them were slightly over, we can call it a round 5%.) Say sixteen units (calculations here); on a week night, that was plenty for me. Here’s what I had and what I remember about it (if anything):

Dunham Massey Chocolate Cherry Mild was my first beer. The first time I had it, I got the impression of a really good beer that hadn’t quite come off. Unfortunately it was the same this time.
Robinson’s Ginger Tom (4.3%) was, I’m afraid, the dud of the evening for me. It’s not made with ginger but with Fentiman’s Ginger Beer, and it tasted it; the only contribution the Tom seemed to make was to make it even sweeter. I’ll look out for the 6% version all the same.
Thornbridge Saint Petersburg Oh my. A very fine – and very strong – imperial stout: black as ink, heavy as gravy, with a flavour that makes you take your time and an alcohol content that demands it. Lovely beer. I couldn’t drink a pint of it, though, or not without clearing the evening.
Coniston No 9 Barley Wine After that it got better. “Rich in fruit flavours with marzipan, herbal hoppiness and cognac overtones”, says the programme. Just next to that I felt moved to write my own notes, which said: “Genius beer”. Excellent stuff.
Allgates Mad Monk Oh blimey, not another imperial stout! I realised as soon as I’d paid for this that I’d been expecting an old ale, possibly influenced by Marston’s Merrie Monk. (The monk in this case is Rasputin.) It was good, I’ll give them that – not quite up there with Saint Petersburg, but good.
Otley O Garden This was a bit disappointing. I could tell what they were aiming for, but they weren’t really anywhere near; it reminded me more of Marble Ginger than anything.
Dunham Massey Winter Warmer This was more like it.
Round about this time I had a pint of Dandelion and Burdock (but draught Dandelion and Burdock, none of your bottled muck).
Then Saddleworth Shaftbender was off (at least, I don’t think it was supposed to taste sour), so I went for
Bragdy’r Nant Mwnci Nell; I had to have at least one Welsh beer. This one was… OK. Like Jerry, I was mostly relieved to find that it couldn’t taste the ‘roasty fishy notes’.
Hawkshead Red sounded like my sort of thing, as did
Exmoor Beast. My memory is not forthcoming with regard to these ones. This was around the time that I overheard a volunteer saying that all the people who’d got there at 5.00 when it opened would be “reaching capacity” about then. I got there at 5.15.
As for Fuller’s London Porter, I had no recollection of this being my last beer of the evening until I checked back through the programme just now. I’m sure it was very nice.

Good beers, including a couple of classics; good food, good venue, good volunteers. In short, a right good do.

Chorlton Beer Fest

I’m amazed to find that this year’s was the sixth Chorlton beer festival; it seems like only the other year that it kicked off (as the “ZestQuest Beer Fest”). This year it was on over Friday evening and Saturday; I went on the Saturday afternoon and was a bit boggled to see that about a third of the 50-odd beers had already run out. There were plenty left, though, and I spent a very pleasant couple of hours getting thoroughly plastered. (Five halves of beer & two halves of cider, which – allowing for the strength of the ciders & some of the beers, plus over-measures and tasters – added up to the equivalent of five pints of 4% bitter. Which, I find, is plenty – I’m still recovering twenty-four hours later.)

What I’ve never liked about this festival is the pricing system: beer tickets are available in sheets of £5, made up of varying amounts (two £1s, four 50ps, etc) which the staff cross off when you buy a drink. Yesterday most ciders were £1.50 a half, but the beers ranged from £1.50 down to £1.10. Unless you plan your drinks by price – and plan carefully at that – this system creates the annoyance of leaving 50p or 60p behind at the end of the evening, as well as creating substantial pressure to drink a whole sheet’s worth of beer rather than leave a whole drink’s worth of tokens behind. (I might have stopped at six halves myself if I hadn’t had tokens to spend. Then again, I might not have.)

I can understand the organisers wanting to avoid having volunteers handle money, but it would be much less hassle, and leave a better taste, if they adopted flat pricing – say £1.25 a half, with tickets on sale in blocks of two and four. I appreciate that it’s a fund-raising event, but this would surely not make a huge dent in profits, particularly given the £4 entry fee.

Still – nice event, nice day, nice beer.

Greater Manchester Real Ale Festival (part of Greater Manchester Food and Drink Festival), Spinningfields

No, I don’t know where Spinningfields is either. Well, I do now, but it wasn’t easy. It’s a new district, as far as I can tell – basically half of the city out of Blade Runner seems to have sprouted up in the angle between Bridge St and Deansgate. Very odd and rather disorientating. The festival, when I eventually found it, served some good beer in good condition (I particularly liked the Allgates porter and the Hornbeam IPA), and was staffed by CAMRA volunteers who didn’t try to get money off me there and then (mainly because it wasn’t actually a CAMRA event). What worked particularly well was the ticketing and payment system: everything was £1 a half, payment was by £1 tokens and admission was £5 including four tokens. The commitment to drinking four halves was neither hard to keep straight in my head nor hard to fulfil.