Category Archives: Free as in beer

So much to answer for

There’s only one thing you really need to know about the launch event I went to the other week for JW Lees’ Manchester Pale Ale – a busy evening full of sarcastic MCing, warm men in suits, spaced-out DJing, tiny canapes, local legendry, munificent swag and much free beer – and that’s the amount of MPA I put away. Bear in mind that this was a weeknight, and that my ideal beer is something brown and malty – I ‘got’ pale beers a couple of years ago, but they don’t usually make me want to go back for more. Especially not on a weeknight.

Unless they’re really good, that is.

And the answer is: five pints. (Well, four and two halves.) It’s a very fine beer. No prizes for guessing what area of the style palette they’re going for: William Lees-Jones introduced it by saying, inter alia, that they thought they’d succeeded in putting the cream back into Manchester – “and by ‘eck, it’s gorgeous”. (This is probably a reference that’s best kept for the trade, sadly – there must be an awful lot of beer drinkers out there who miss the old Boddington’s bitter, but anyone who’s drinking what goes by that name now won’t be attracted by a much stronger-tasting newcomer.) So it’s a light, sessionable golden ale, but with enough hop character and aroma to earn the ‘pale ale’ tag; it’s got that ‘refreshingly bitter’ quality, particularly on the finish. It doesn’t have the aggressive hopping of a Marble or Titanic, or the smoky aromatic quality of an IPA (or Marston’s EPA); but it has got enough hopping to keep it interesting, and avoid the blandness of so many golden and blonde ales. On a cool evening it was very drinkable indeed; I can only imagine what it would be like on a warm day.

All this and… bloggers! (Well, Tand and Marv.) Bez, being Bez! Radio’s Mark Radcliffe, to whom I would like to apologise for the amount of time I spent hovering six feet away from his table without ever actually approaching! (Mark: sorry. It was late and I was drunk. Might I also mention that my folk music Web site is very good?) The smallest canapes you have ever seen (although, fair play, there were plenty of them)! Free bottles of beer, one of which I swiped for later, before discovering that the goodie bag pressed on us at the end contained a bottle of beer! An amateur photography exhibition curated by the great Kevin Cummins – something of a hero of mine – whom I also didn’t manage to say hello to! (What can I say, I wasn’t 100% sure it was him, and I didn’t want to risk asking some random stranger if he was Kevin Cummins. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this journalism lark.)

And lots and lots of men in suits. (I think I even spotted Richard Leese.) There was an odd sort of two-way disjuncture built in to the event, I felt. On one hand, here was a brewer staking a claim to contemporary relevance, breaking away from the past and making for the cutting edge, and they accompany it with music and visuals that evoke a period 20-30 years in the past. On the other, here were Bez! and Mark Radcliffe!! and Kevin Cummins!!! doing their thing – but they were doing it for an audience of, well, men in suits: Lees’ tenants and managers, most of whom looked as if they’d have been happier with Justin Moorhouse and “Hi Ho Silver Lining”. Perhaps it’s like time travel – Lees’ are collectively travelling forward to the present, but they’re doing it slowly. Next year: the Poll Tax, John Major and “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You”.

As for Manchester Pale Ale, I’d recommend it to anyone except the most hardened neophiles and hop-monsters. The bottled version (at 4.1%) is good, but for my money cask (at a mere 3.7%) is where it really scores. At present you’ll need to seek it out in a Lees’ pub, but I think the plan is to sell it into the chain ‘guest’ market (alongside the Deuchars IPAs and Cumberland Ales of this world); I hope it works out.

I was invited to the launch of MPA by the nice people at Tangerine PR and plied with booze and canapes by Lees themselves. Free or not, if I hadn’t liked the beer I wouldn’t have carried on drinking it.

Likewise a bottle of the very best…

Oak table: model's own

Oak table: model’s own

Courtesy of Aldi, I recently took delivery of one of these (the one on the left, unfortunately). Apparently Bateman’s discontinued their ‘BBB’ barleywine in 1977, but not before George Bateman, the then MD, had put aside four cases for his son Stuart’s 21st. For whatever reason the cases got lost, and they were only rediscovered in 2011. The beer was still drinkable, and the current MD – Stuart Bateman – decided to recreate it. “Over the course of six months, Stuart and the master brewer matched the flavours perfectly using old brew records and multiple tastings.” The result is Bateman’s Vintage Ale, a 7.5% barley wine, now on sale at a pretty reasonable price (and in a rather fetching presentation box) at an Aldi near you.

So what’s the beer like? It’s good; it’s got a heavy body lifted by fairly lively carbonation (although it’s not bottle-conditioned), and a smooth, rounded flavour, malty but not over-sweet. It’s quite a big, assertive flavour, with notes of apple, tannin and cough-mixture blending into a very drinkable whole. As barley wines go, it’s a good, enjoyable example of the style. Alternatively, if you think of Wobbly Bob but with more malt and more alcohol, or imagine a lighter, less sweet version of McEwan’s Champion, you won’t be far off.

The only slight disappointment is that it doesn’t quite live up to its back-story. It’s a fine beer, but it’s not a world-beater – it stands comparison with Wobbly Bob, but not with Coniston No. 9 Barley Wine, say. From that point of view it may be a victim of its advance publicity – a story like that is going to raise expectations which the beer won’t necessarily fulfil. Best to take it for what it is: a rich, satisfying and well-balanced barley wine, well worth what you’ll pay for it at Aldi. It’s also, ironically, an interesting new departure for Bateman’s; I wonder if they found anything else interesting when they were looking at those old brew records? Forward to the past!

Sinking in the waters green

The Ghost Ship

haunts the sea

When I lived in the south-east Adnam’s was one of the names you’d regularly see on bars, along with Tolly Cobbold and Greene King. Before too long one of them was no more, while one had morphed into a weird kind of junior Whitbread, destroyer of breweries. And Adnam’s? I hadn’t paid them any mind until a few months ago, when I was in a London pub offering Adnam’s Broadside, Shep’s Spitfire and, er, that’s it. I had a couple of pints of Broadside and really enjoyed it; so much for the myth of the conservative regional brewers and their boring brown bitter, I thought, and ordered a pint of Spitfire. Ah. Oh well. Never mind.

So Adnam’s have a pretty good name hereabouts, and I was pleased to be offered a sample of Ghost Ship – a beer they’ve been running for a while as a seasonal, which is going to be a permanent feature of their bottled range. Apart from anything else, it’s nice when PR companies recognise that not everyone can attend press launches on the other side of the country – although Adnam’s event was in Southwold rather than the more usual choice of That London, which may be why their PR was more geographically aware.

The bottle arrived, anyway – a standard 500 ml bottle (I did wonder a bit when they talked about ‘samples’) – and I drank it. Very nice it was too, and actually quite interesting, in a sessionable kind of way. It’s a crisp pale beer, with plenty of Citra in the mix, but there’s a bit more than that going on. It’s not malty by any means, but it’s not thin and astringent in the way that many hoppy yellow beers are; it’s genuinely balanced, to use an over-used term, in a way that makes it all the more drinkable (unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool hop-monster). At the same time, there’s another layer of hop in the aroma, which is smoky and herbal in the best “hop-forward” style. All in all it’s a very drinkable light summer beer, but with some subtleties that emerge gradually over the course of a bottle; not hoppy exactly, but certainly post-hoppy. I’ve raved in the past about low-strength IPAs from St Austell and Holt’s, and there’s something similar – and perhaps more complex – going on here.

Many thanks to the people at Adnam’s; feel free to keep them coming, and I’ll keep on saying what I think.

Coincidentally, this song, which appeared on my folk song blog last week, is sometimes catalogued as “The ghost ship”; my source – more prosaically and more accurately – called it “The ghost song”. (There is a ship, and there’s a ghost on the ship, but it’s not a ghost ship.) My original plan was also to record Robyn Hitchcock’s song (which is called) “The ghost ship”, but midway through practising I got bored with it. Which is why I mostly do folk songs – they don’t wear out so quickly.

Review – Croglin Vampire, Hardknott Dark Energy

Picture borrowed from Andy at
Free beer! What a beautiful phrase that is.

Like several other beer bloggers, when I heard that Cumberland Legendary Ales were offering review bottles of their ‘doppelbock’ Croglin Vampire I put my name down sharpish. The goods arrived a week or so ago, and after allowing a decent interval for the beer to recover from its journey I, well, drank it.

It was nice. (Will this do?)

OK, a bit more detail. It’s a brown beer; no head to speak of but there was a frosting of bubbles on the inside of the glass. As for the flavour, it’s… a big flavour. I was expecting something rich and malty, and I wasn’t disappointed. I can see why Barm mentioned caramel, but that wasn’t what came to my mind; if anything I was surprised how sweet it wasn’t, if you follow. If some beers are hop-bombs, Croglin Vampire is a malt-bomb: rich and fruity without being sweet, with malty aroma at the front of the mouth, a full malty body and a bitter malty finish. It’s a dense and complex flavour, which plays a lot of different variations on that theme of malt – from dark-chocolate bitterness all the way through to a light, banana-like top-note. Not sweet, though, and not at all cloying. At 8%, it doesn’t really drink its strength, except in a certain heaviness in the mouth; there’s certainly no alcohol flavour, and none of the rather treacly malt-extract quality of some strong dark beers. Despite the heaviness, it leaves your palate clear – given a clear enough diary I could easily imagine drinking two or even three of these.

My second free beer (I could get to like this beer-blogging lark) was one of the bottles of Dark Energy distributed at the Twissup by the estimable Dave Bailey. I’ve read since that DE is classed as a stout, or possibly that it was originally intended as a stout; all I knew about it when I drank it was that it was 4.9% and it was dark (well, black) in colour. I never would have labelled it as a stout: it certainly has an edge of uncompromising burnt-grain bitterness, but to me that wasn’t the core of the flavour. If pushed I’d have called it an old ale or possibly a mild, but with an odd lightness to the flavour – there’s plenty of malt there but no fruitiness, let alone sweetness – and then that big stout finish. It’s an unusual combination, but it works remarkably well. The only thing I can really liken it to is the cask version of BrewDog’s black lager Zeitgeist (the bottled Zeitgeist is thoroughly inferior).

Dark Energy confirmed the impression I’d formed after a half of Infra Red: Hardknott are doing some really interesting things, without much respect for style labels. (Apparently Infra Red is classed as an IPA, but I wouldn’t let that sway you one way or the other – I mean, it’s about as much an IPA as Dark Energy is a stout. They’re both much more distinctive than that.) The two beers don’t taste at all alike, but they both give the impression of someone intent on putting the pedal to the metal – or rather (the metaphor breaks down here) putting two different pedals to the metal and seeing what happens. Why not have a big malty bitter that’s also a big hoppy bitter? Why not have a strong light mild stout?

Very nice beers; I would happily pay money for either of these if I saw it on sale, and would encourage anyone who isn’t an incurable hophead to do likewise.

PS The Croglin Vampire picture was borrowed from Andy at Beer Reviews – many thanks.

Review: Howard Town

Howard Town are currently sponsoring the “Your Taste” reader-submitted restaurant review feature in the Manchester Evening News. And so it was that a write-up of the Nawaab in Levenshulme led to the delivery of twelve (count ’em) bottles of beer. Reviewing the beer seemed like the least I could do. (And if anyone from the Nawaab is reading this… No? Suit yourselves.)

Pale, hoppy, with one of those long, smooth, straw-and-smoke flavours.

Dark Peak
Would have got a review any day of the week, freebies or no freebies. A terrific beer: a rum porter, and an absolute classic of the style.

Dinting Arches
Malty and fruity; one of those apple-tasting beers.

Longdendale Lights
Dry, with a sour edge. Lots of yeast in there.

Mill Town
A fruity, malty mild; dark but light, if you see what I mean. Very drinkable.

Snake Ale
A lighter version of Dinting Arches, a bit sourer and more hoppy.