Category Archives: Love/hate relationship with JDW’s

Brighton by the pint

I was in Brighton for three days last week. My parents lived there for the last twenty-odd years of their lives, so I knew the city quite well for a while, and still know my way around without needing to think about it. Naturally, I planned to spend my free time (a) walking along the seafront (b) walking around town and (c) drinking beer, particularly beer I couldn’t get at home and particularly particularly Harvey’s Sussex Best. The last time I spent any time in Brighton was before the ‘craft’ thing got started – before this blog got started, come to that – but I had some distinct beer memories. There was the range of interesting stuff they used to have (on draught) at the Quadrant and (in bottle) at an offie further up Queens Road; there were the Dark Star beers up at the Evening Star, near the station. Above all, there was the Harvey’s Sussex Best and all the unassuming little pubs that served it – there seemed to be one round every street corner. Walking, drinking, more walking, more drinking, that was the plan for my leisure hours – and heavy on the Harvey’s Sussex Best.

Well, you know about best-laid plans. The first thing I realised when I arrived in Brighton was that the new shoes I was wearing – perfectly comfortable up to then – had given me blisters on both ankles, making the prospect of walking anywhere a lot less attractive. The next thing was that some of my beer memories badly needed updating. The offie with the interesting beer? Gone (or possibly converted to an offie without interesting beer, it’s hard to be sure.) An interesting range of beers at the Quad? Not so as you’d notice. As for all those unassuming little pubs serving Harvey’s, I scoured the centre of town looking for them, as far as my ankles would permit; eventually I gave up and downloaded the brewery’s pub-finder app (which I recommend if you’re ever down there). Some of the specific pubs I remembered weren’t there any more; one had closed, but two had turned into something… different. You’ll look in vain for the Princess Victoria on North Road: it’s the Craft Beer Co now (with, to be fair, some very reasonable prices on cask beers, a phrase which here means ‘under £4’). As for the Prince Arthur, that’s now the… brace yourself… Brighton Beer Dispensary. I only stuck my head in there briefly, so my fleeting impression of the BBD – which involved Edison lightbulbs, furniture made from railway sleepers and £5 portions of chips – may have been misleading. I didn’t fancy stopping, I’ll say that. (The Arthur was a lovely little pub, too. O tempura, O morays.)

Mmm, murk…

My visit to the Arthur-as-was was on my first evening in Brighton, spent mainly wandering around the centre disconsolately, looking for something to drink that was (a) decent and (b) local. After I’d done this for a while I realised it was 9.00 and went for a meal. So it was that my first beer in Brighton was a bottle of Chang lager, which was pretty awful (the mussaman curry was excellent, though). But I went for a drink afterwards in the Spoons by where I was staying, where I had a pint of (Sussex-based) Firebird Parody IPA. It was seriously cloudy – not something you often see in a Spoons – and my first impression was that it was just plain off. The sharpness I tasted at first modulated into an apple-y fruitiness, which wasn’t at all unpleasant; I guess you’d call it juicy. On the other hand, none of the pictures of this beer on Untappd show any haze – let alone the floc party that was going on in my glass – so maybe it was just a badly-kept pint. I’d already taken against that Spoons after I ordered something different (something else from Firebird) only to be told, with a wave at a whole bank of pumps, “all of these are off”. I told the guy that if that was the case he should turn the clips round, but apparently that would be too much trouble. (Also, their wifi was off every time I went in there. Decent breakfasts, though.)

The next day, on a lunchtime trip to the Dorset in the North Laines, I was finally reunited with Harvey’s Sussex Best. If I say that my first impressions were ‘sweet and heavy’, that will probably give you completely the wrong idea. There is a lot of malt there, in the old-school heavy mouth-filling style, but this isn’t a sweet or heavy beer; it’s not hard to drink and it’s certainly not bland. There’s a tannic bitterness running right through it, building to a really clean, refreshing finish – like every good session beer, it’s decidedly moreish. Nice to see you again, HSB.

My next beer, though, was another meal accompaniment, and a bit of a bad choice on my part. Manju’s is a rather fine Gujarati vegetarian restaurant, with – unusually – a fairly extensive beer list; I was tempted by the beers from Hepworth’s, a local brewery specialising in gluten-free beers (for what that’s worth). Greed got the better of me, though; I noticed that the standard Indian lagers were priced up at £2.50, and that the table next to mine had a 650 ml bottle of Kingfisher. Bargain, I thought, and duly ordered a bottle of Kingfisher. “Small or large bottle?” asked the waiter; yes, the £2.50 price was for the 330 ml bottle. I was too British to backpedal and order something else, so 650 ml of Kingfisher – which turned out to be £4.50 – it was. Still, the food was excellent. Afterwards I made my way to the nearest Harvey’s pub – the Lord Nelson, a spit from the station and a fair old hike from the seafront (as my ankles reminded me). I had a pint of Sussex Best and one of Harvey’s Armada; not a hop bomb by any means, but a bit lighter and more aromatic than the Sussex Best. Harvey’s brew an extraordinary range of beers, mostly for bottling, and the bar had rows of 275 ml bottles on display (not in the fridge, as far as I could see). I bought a bottle of the Elizabethan Ale; I was initially intending to drink it there, but the place was empty and the landlady clearly wanted to call it a night, so I took it away with me.

IMG_1554

Ironically, a sure sign of what it isn’t

The next evening I went, again, in search of unassuming, ordinary pubs in the centre. I fetched up in a tarted-up Nicholson’s gastro-pub with bulls-eye glass in the windows; really not quite what I had in mind. (Not the one with the sign pictured here, though – I have got some standards.) Anyway, they had Dark Star Hophead on, and it was very welcome. It was about as different from the Harvey’s beers as it could be – pale yellow, with a loose, soapy head, and hoppy; really very hoppy. Then I headed stationwards again, to check out the Evening Star. Dark Star Six Hop was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment – it’s 6.5% and tastes like it, in the sense that it tastes like they were trying to make Hophead (a) even hoppier and (b) nearly twice as strong. Effortful, really, which is rarely a good look. (What with Hophead, Magic Rock Ringmaster and Marble Pint, I’m starting to think that 3.8% is actually the sweet spot for pale’n’oppy beers.) On keg they had – among much else – Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour and Lost and Grounded Apophenia. I can report that the Tzatziki Sour actually does taste of cucumber, and that L&G may not be quite there yet on the tripel front, that being what Apophenia is: there was an initial sweet heaviness, that didn’t dissipate but combined with the herbal notes that come in later, to produce a kind of beer equivalent of winter mixture. I had a third, and it took a while to get through.

After this slightly disappointing session I looked for something to eat, although – being, on a rough count, four pints down – I was seriously considering having a soft drink with it. Nu Posto, a vaguely crafty pizza place, surprised me with another interesting beer list, including a couple from Hepworth’s. I went for a bottle of their Gold pale ale, which frankly tasted of very little – as golden ales go it was less Summer Lightning, more Rolling Rock – but did have an extraordinary aroma. I’ve never known a beer like it – I put my nose over the bottle and I was getting freshly-baked bread, cut with something sharp and herbal, perhaps sage or thyme. Then I actually tasted it and it was… fine. (And no, it wasn’t the garlic bread I could smell.) Back in my room, it was getting late, I was already pretty drunk and I didn’t really have anything to stay up for, but what can I say, the Harvey’s Elizabethan Ale was calling to me. It’s a big, dark, strong, sweet beer, tasting exactly like I’d expect an old-fashioned beer to taste. Very nice indeed, and easily my beer of the evening.

At close of play the next day I was heading home, but before I trudged up the hill to the station – again – I wanted to have at least one drink in a nice, ordinary pub that I remembered from my previous trips to Brighton. Eventually I managed to locate the Lion and Lobster in Hove – probably not a very long-established pub (or not under that name), but old enough for me. And they had… Dark Star Hophead! Harvey’s Sussex Best (with the old ‘barrel’ pump clip)! Dark Star APA! Old Dairy Blue Top! I was very tempted by… well, everything: the first two for obvious reasons, the third because it’s possibly even hoppier than Hophead and the fourth because it comes from Ed‘s old gaff. But I was still feeling a bit worse for wear from the previous day, and wanted to dial the a.b.v. right down, so Hophead it was: pale yellow, loose, soapy head, hoppy as a very hoppy thing. And that – apart from an Oakham Citra IPA from the M&S at the station – was it for Brighton.

Overall impressions: Brighton’s changed a surprising amount in ten years. Almost everywhere seemed solidly geared to a specific, high-spending clientele: tourists, stags & hens… hipsters. I’m sorry I didn’t go back to the Craft Beer Co – I think I could have had quite a pleasant session there, even if most of the beers were from that London – but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending any time in the Brighton Beer Dispensary; the vibe I picked up wasn’t just hipper-than-thou, it was considerably-more-hip-than-yow. (I may be doing the place a disservice; I was in a foul mood that evening and looking for a very different kind of pub.) Ordinary little pubs round the corner seem to be in very short supply. On the plus side, it’s a lot easier to get decent beer with a meal than it used to be. What’s more, Harvey’s beers are still there if you look, and both HSB and Dark Star Hophead are as good as they ever were. The beer abides.

There’s a B in both

We spent a weekend in Exeter recently. We stayed in a Premier Inn just opposite the main station; handy as far as it goes, although we soon discovered that getting anywhere at all from there (e.g. the city centre or the university) involved climbing a steep hill. Visitors beware!

At the top of that hill, though, you’ll find the Imperial, a huge and rather extraordinary Wetherspoons; you can read about the history of the building here. Rather than pay Premier Inn rates, we had our breakfast there; to be more precise, we took our breakfasts in the Orangery. There, indeed, is posh. We also went there one evening, and it’s actually the beer I had then that I want to write about: an American Pale Ale from Long Man (a Sussex brewery named after the nearby hill figure). What was interesting about this was both what it was and what it wasn’t. For a start, it wasn’t yellow, or even a pale amber; it may have been a ‘pale ale’ in style terms, but it certainly wasn’t an ale that was pale. It wasn’t particularly bitter, and it certainly wasn’t a hop-bomb. With a dense, almost chewy body, it was well adrift of Gazza Prescott’s ‘mid-Atlantic‘ style guidelines (“The malt is here to give body, alcohol and a suggestion of flavour and not to balance the hops; if you have balance then there’s something wrong!”). On the other hand, it wasn’t just a brown English bitter with a misleading name: there were (aroma) hops in there, making fruity and herby patterns above the luxuriant ground-level maltiness. I enjoyed it.

The following night we were down on the Exeter waterfront – a hip and happening location which, unless I missed something, offers 3 (three) different places to eat and drink. We ate at the Humbledy Ha Hum… a pub of which I remember very little other than that it had a commendably short food menu and advertised itself as part of the Heaviside layer chain. I do remember the beer, though, which was Otter OPA. As the initialism implies, this was another pale ale; it was also amber rather than gold and light rather than bitter, and it also featured aroma hops doing their thing on a malt crashmat.

Well, that’s the South-West for you, you might say; craft hasn’t really made it that far down the M5, you might say. And I might agree with you, if – returning to Manchester – I hadn’t tried Marble‘s new Tuckerlovsky Session IPA. What’s that I can taste? Fruity aroma hops. What’s that I can’t taste? Marble‘s usual, tonsil-scouring, bitter finish; all very light in that respect. And what else is that I can taste? Yes, it’s malt; it’s a big, malty body, of just the kind I always looked for when I first came up here. (Course, I’ve acquired the taste for the big golden hop-monsters now. Too late now.)

Two’s coincidence, three – in different parts of the country – starts to look like a trend. What’s up, then? Is it something to do with the rumoured hop shortage – are people being forced to ring some changes on styles with a reduced hop bill? Or is brown (but hoppy) bitter coming back into fashion? If so, I promise not to go around saying I was into it before it was cool. (I totally was, though.)

Choice

I’ve noticed an odd tendency recently in some of the more ‘craft’ places where I drink; a tendency towards differentiation and homogenisation, you could say. If you wanted to be less pretentious about it, you could also call it the development of two different ideas of ‘craft’: one that’s mainly focused on a ‘craft’ style of beer (viz. IPAs and PAs), and one that’s focused on variety and innovation.

On the ‘variety’ front, take the Dulcimer in Chorlton (four pumps, one reserved for Wainwright) and the Gaslamp in Manchester (four pumps, one or two usually off). The last few times I’ve been in each of those places, it’s been quite hard to get anything closely resembling a pint of beer. The odd, innovative and interesting are heavily represented – and sometimes they’re very good – but brown bitters, or even golden bitters, are conspicuous by their absence. I became aware of this at the Dulcimer when I overheard an anxious conversation elsewhere in my group: the Wainwright had run off, so what were they actually going to drink? The 6% stout? The smoked porter? The red rye IPA, 7.5% and a bargain at £4 a pint?

On the other hand, I was at the Font in Chorlton earlier today, where I was greatly impressed with the range of breweries on the bar (RedWillow! Magic Rock! Dark Star! Steel City! Buxton! hey, Buxton, we’re going to miss you!). The range of styles and strengths? Not so much. There was a pale ale, another pale ale, another pale ale… in fact there were eight pumps and eight pale ales. Strengths ran from 3.6% to 5.2%; four were below 4% and only two were 5% or above. I’m guessing there was some weird and interesting stuff on the keg taps, but as far as the cask range went you could basically have a sessionable pale ale or a slightly less sessionable pale ale.

For a third data point, this contrasts oddly with the local Spoons, which – despite fridges now boasting Lagunitas Flying Dog Erdinger Duvel ect ect – is not what most people would call a craft beer bar. Seven pumps were on the last time I was in there, offering two golden ales, three bitters, an old ale and a porter; strengths ranged from 3.7% to 6%, with only one beer below 4%. The breweries weren’t as exciting as those at the Font: two pumps were occupied by Ruddles and Abbott, two more by Moorhouse’s Blond Witch and Phoenix Wobbly Bob (both more or less permanent ‘guests’); the remaining beers came from Phoenix (again), Elland and Blakemere, none of which is likely to be on the front cover of CRAFT any time soon. But a bar serving that range of styles looks more like my idea of a decent pub selection than the Font‘s. (The pub itself looks nothing like my idea of a decent pub, admittedly, but the Font’s not much better.)

Anyone else noticed this tendency for craft beer bars to develop either into a dedicated weirdie showcase or into a Pub With No Beer (Except The Pale Grapefruity Kind)? Or is it just a Chorlton thing?

Spoonage

First of July, and we’re into another Spoons Token Quarter – which means that I’m no longer burdened, as I have been for the last few weeks, with the question how many have I still got left? I got rid of them all in the end, but it involved a few JDW-related detours, in one case involving a bus journey. This, admittedly, stretches the notion of saving money to breaking point and probably beyond. But it’s the principle of the thing (the principle being ‘I really hate getting stuck with money-off tokens which have expired’).

Anyway, I’ve spent more time in JDW’s over the last couple of weeks than I usually do, and I’ve accumulated a few tasting notes & other comments. So here goes.

That London
Staying one night at a Travelodge in Tower Hill, as you do, I went on a half-hearted quest for a decent pub to get something to eat (half-hearted because I didn’t fancy going back on the Tube & I could tell there was stuff-all around there). The Minories, next door to the Travelodge, looked like a fine olde Londone Pubbe and had a decent food menu; pressing my nose to the glass I could see a row of handpumps, too. But a familiar St George’s Cross emblem caught my eye and I looked closer: yes, it was Bombardier, accompanied by Doom Bar, Deuchar’s IPA, Spitfire… There were six pumps in all, and every one of them dispensing one of the dullest, blandest nationally available real ales on the market.

So I went to the ominously named Potter’s FieldGoodman’s Field (JDW) – which, of course, had the same food menu as any other Spoons, but at least they had a decent choice of beer. Well, sort of. Yeastie Boys/Wadworth Golden Perch was golden, all right; it was also hazy and flattish, and tasted sharp – too sharp. If it had been a familiar beer I would have taken it back, but I thought I should give it the benefit of the doubt – who knows, maybe that’s how they like it in New Zealand… (Later experience of the same beer in another Spoons’ confirms that it was off.) By the Horns London Porter, on the other hand, was stone solid magnificent. (Yes, By the Horns are supplying Wetherspoons.) An interesting food menu in an unspoilt pub interior washed down with Shep’s dishwater, or the same old burger, served in an under-lit hotel lounge, with a classic beer from a well-regarded local brewery? I think I made the right choice.

Something’s Gone Wrong Again
Thanks to Spoons’ wifi, I spent an informative few minutes in the Ford Madox Brown recently learning about fusels – the ‘other’ alcohols that you shouldn’t really get in beer, and which lead to the beer tasting or smelling like nail-polish remover. The reason, sad to say, was Ilkley Lotus IPA, which I’ve had before and enjoyed; this batch, though… not so much. I followed it with a Phoenix West Coast IPA, which was considerably less ‘chewy’ and interesting, but didn’t make me think of acetone; it aimed lower but didn’t fall as short.

Another time, in another Spoons’, I had a beer from an independent brewery which I’m actually not going to name – other than to say I’ve never written about the brewery on this blog; all the more reason not to start with this beer. I’m pretty sure the beer was in decent condition, but it was really foul. And foul in an unusual way: for the first third of the pint I was thinking alternately “this is odd – I guess I’ll get used to it” and “it definitely reminds me of something…”. Then I got it. You know that sharp citric bite that pale ales often have? And that fug of smokey aroma that hoppy ales often have, with just a hint of burnt rubber? And that bland, even slightly sweet quality that sessionable golden ales have? OK, hold all of those in your mind. Now: you know the smell of urine, particularly old urine – an unflushed toilet or a well-used urinal? I put it to you that a certain combination of sweet/sharp/smoky evokes exactly that smell. And if you think that’s bad, picture me with two-thirds of a pint left to get through.

Moving along…

Craft Works?
Not sure what’s going on on the ‘craft’ front; certainly they seem to be dumping the BrewDog lager. I have seen Thwaites’ Thirteen Guns on keg in a Spoons, though. I’ve also seen the ‘Manager’s Special’ sign Matthew mentioned – offering cut prices on the Adnam’s Jack Brand beer as well as Vedett and one of the Sixpoint cans, among others; however, I’ve seen the same sign quite recently in two separate pubs, which runs counter to Matthew’s argument that it was just a question of overstocking. On the other hand, the Ford Madox Brown‘s fridge – although not the menu – offers both Negra Modelo and (drumroll please) Duvel, in what’s almost certainly the cheapest deal on an 8.5% Dutch pale ale anywhere in Manchester.

So that’s JDW’s for you; love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t spend your CAMRA tokens anywhere else. All in all I wouldn’t be without them. While I was in London I also went to the Rake, but I’ll talk about that another time.

Mildly interesting (4)

Another Mild Magic round-up, this one covering a few separate trips around Chorlton and Didsbury.

I’m perversely fond of the Sedge Lynn (JDW), and they didn’t let the side down; Peerless Dark Arts was rather good. Down at the Chorlton Green end of town, the Beech has Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best as a regular beer; they had Rudgate Ruby Mild as well, but GB was fine for me. Further along Beech Road, the Parlour – a nice relaxed bar, one of those places I always think I should go to more often – had Moorhouse’s Black Cat, also in good nick.

(SCRUPULOUS HONESTY UPDATE: if I’m scrupulously honest I don’t actually remember what I had at the Sedge Lynn – it was my first tick of this year’s MM, and is some time ago now. But it was a dark mild; the chances seem pretty good that it was one of the three dark milds I’ve had at other Spoons; and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t either of the other two. It was pleasant and well-kept, that I do remember.)

A trip to Didsbury started (thanks to the tram) at the Railway, a pleasant and welcoming Holt’s house serving (alas) the brewery’s weak and uninteresting dark mild. Down the road at Wine and Wallop, the staff claimed never to have had their MM stickers; this didn’t seem very likely to me, but I wasn’t going to argue. The W&W is a smart, attractive bar with a good range of beers, albeit with only one mild: a second appearance for Titanic Nautical Mild. (Something not quite right on the condition front, sadly; it was in better nick at the Bishop Blaize.) The sign board features a quote from 1984 supporting their contention that ‘wallop’ means ‘beer’; interestingly enough, the quote actually defines ‘wallop’ specifically as mild ale. They missed a trick there – or perhaps not.

Some way further down the road (I can be less precise) I arrived at the Parrswood Hotel, a JW Lees‘ house serving their (unexciting but perfectly serviceable) Brewers’ Dark. When I opened the door I thought I’d stepped back in time; the first thing I saw was a hippieish-looking old bloke standing at the bar wreathed in smoke. It was an e-cig, obviously, but he’d clearly found the ‘produce maximum vapour’ setting and given it some welly. He engaged me in conversation, which was sadly rather one-sided; all I could make out was that he’d worked for forty years and didn’t want to pay any more taxes (well, who does?). I’m a confirmed fan of Lees’ MPA, so I ordered a half of that too; sadly it had gone off. Not being a fan of Lees’ ordinary bitter, I did something I’d never done before in a pub and requested a refund instead of a replacement. I soon regretted it, though: the young lad serving had to go off to find somebody more senior, after which the two of them spent the next five minutes entering menu options and authorisation codes on a touch screen at the back of the bar.

Another Didsbury trip began up in Rusholme at the Ford Madox Brown (JDW), where Arundel Black Stallion was flanked (as I noted at the time) by no fewer than four beers I would have preferred; Moorhouse’s Farmhouse was particularly intriguing. Hopefully another time. Back on the bus and down to the Victoria in Withington, for the first (and very nearly the last) sighting this time round of Hyde’s Owd Oak, which was fine. I should say at this point that this was a lunchtime trip, and one of my resolutions when I left (along with “stick to the half of mild to begin with” and “have another half in the last pub or two, if there’s anything interesting”) was “get something to eat, only not in Spoons“: it takes the shine off trying new and interesting pubs if you end up ordering off the same menu they have in umpty-three other pubs. The Vic was one of the pubs I was hoping might be offering food, but no such luck.

The next pub on the list – the Red Lion – did have food on; it was clearly a chain menu, but at least it wasn’t the same chain menu I would have faced at a Spoons’. The trouble here, ironically, was the beer. When I lived in Withington the Red Lion was a bit of a cut above – it served Marston’s! On this visit they had quite the range: beers from Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood as well as the Marston’s mothership. I had a half of Ringwood Boondoggle – Jennings’ Mild had just gone off – which was… fine. No, it wasn’t fine: it was mediocre. It wasn’t actively bad – if it had been a mild it would have been Holt’s rather than Coach House, put it that way – but it was bland. It struck me then that this is what Marston’s do, these days – they make bland brown bitter (Pedigree), alternating with bland malty brown bitter (Cumberland), bland dark brown bitter (Hobgoblin) and bland yellowish bitter (Boondoggle). And now they’ve got Wainwright too. Yippee. CAMRA still have a job to do – there’s plenty of ale out there that still needs revitalising, and breweries that (sadly) aren’t helping.

Anyway, I had to force the half down – which is an awful thing to have to say of a beer under the Ringwood name – and there was no way I was staying for another, of anything. So it was ho forth to the Dog and Partridge, where they had a couple of signs up suggesting food, but no sign of a menu. (To be fair, there was no sign of anything much – I was the only customer.) I consoled myself with a Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best and headed for my next and final stop… the nearest Spoons’. The Milson Rhodes (JDW) had an extensive (if familiar) food menu; they also had some really rather excellent beer. I ordered some food and had it with halves of Peerless Dark Arts and Partners Tabatha (a 6% tripel). More messing about with technology here, rather more successfully than at the Parrswood: it turns out that the JDW till’s meal-anna-pint discount system can’t handle a meal and two halves, but that it can be induced to price up a meal-anna-half-anna-nother-half for less than the meal and the two halves would have been separately. (This has just taken longer to explain than it took the woman behind the bar to process.) I then finished off with the Adnams/Sixpoint collab Make It Rain, an IPA-ish golden ale that gave new meaning to the word ‘sproingy’. There was never a better illustration of why I tag posts “Love/hate relationship with JDW’s”.

But soft, what scores are those on yonder doors?

Light mild: 7 (4 different beers)
Dark mild: 20 (14 different beers)
No qualifying beers: 5
Breweries: 21 (16 producing mild)

Pubs I go to anyway: 5
Pubs worth going back to: 11
Once-a-year pubs: 16

PIROTGIMOs and others

Interim report on the Winter Warmer Wander 2014

Doing the WWW for the fourth year running – on top of several Mild Magics and (this year) a foray into the Cider Circuit – reinforced my impression that there are three categories of pubs involved: the pubs I go to anyway; the ones I only go in when there’s a sticker to be collected, and don’t much miss the rest of the year; and (most importantly) the Pubs I Really Ought To Go In More Often, or PIROTGIMOs. (“Pirr-O-jim-oh”? I’m sure I thought of a much better acronym – one you can actually pronounce – on my way home from one crawl, but by the time I got up the next day I’d forgotten it.)

In Chorlton, I’ve already mentioned my slightly unsatisfactory encounters with Oddest and the Marble Beerhouse; I should add that this was early on in the WWW, and the last time I was in the Beerhouse they were serving the celebrated ‘Stouter’ Stout. What I had in the Font escapes me; the last time I was in there, on the other hand, I had Ticketybrew‘s odd but successful Mint Choc Stout, which would certainly qualify. The Sedge Lynn (JDW) had Theakston’s Old Peculier, a beer of which I’ve yet to get tired. No problems on the sticker front except for the Sedge Lynn, where the server managed to find the WWW pack but no stickers.

No stickers could be found at the Paramount (JDW) in town, although to be fair the place was heaving; I thought the server deserved credit for looking at all. Otherwise the only places in town which couldn’t find me a sticker were the Wharf (who, I’m fairly sure, have been reminded about their participation in the WWW already this year) and Bar Fringe (who, er, aren’t in it – but did serve me a very nice half of Facer’s porter). The beer at the Paramount was – as ever – the rather wonderful Elland 1872 Porter, at its full strength of 6.5% and a distinctly un-Spoons-like price of £3.19. The beer at the Wharf was a dark bitter nudging into old ale territory – as was the beer at the Smithfield (although the latter was quite a lot cheaper).

Another few in town: what the Castle were serving I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure it was a stout; certainly this year’s Old Tom n’est pas arrivé. The Waterhouse (JDW) didn’t have anything particularly dark, but they did have Phoenix Wobbly Bob, and if that’s not an old ale I don’t want to know about it. The Marble Arch had Chocolate Marble, which I reckon can pass for a stout; the Knott Bar and the Crown and Kettle had two of my very favourite dark beers, Red Willow Smokeless (porter) and Ticketybrew Stout, respectively.

Another few pubs dotted about the place: in Rusholme the Ford Madox Brown (JDW) had Full Sail Wassail, a stonking old ale brewed, rather surprisingly, by a brewer from Oregon. Down the road in Fallowfield, the darkest thing the Friendship was serving was Fireside Ale from “Westgate Brewery” (Greene King); the Hyde’s Beer Studio beers looked far more interesting, but paler. What I had in the Great Central (JDW) across the road I couldn’t tell you, although I suspect it was something in the “not quite old ale” category. In Salford, lastly, the New Oxford served… um… a cask stout from a brewery I hadn’t heard of. It was nice, that I can tell you.

That’s sixteen pubs (seventeen with Bar Fringe!), and the beers lined up as follows:

Stout: 5
Porter: 3
Old ale: 3
Not quite old ale: 4
No qualifying beers: 2

Generally there’s a much higher level of ‘compliant’ beers available. The last category but one, above, is perhaps a bit over-critical on my part. I’m not talking about the “Santa’s Drawers” variety of novelty Christmas beers (which I have been reduced to occasionally in past years); all the beers in this category were genuinely darker, spicier and heftier than your average brown bitter. It’s just that, next to something like the Full Sail beer – or Old Peculier, for that matter – they don’t really stand up as capital O, capital A Old Ales. All three of the beers in that category were served in JDW’s, interestingly enough.

As for the pubs, one of the reasons I enjoy these crawls is the feeling of settling down with a beer, looking around and thinking, I really ought to come in here more often. When I get that at two pubs in a row, that’s a good crawl. But then, the pubs I go to anyway are home turf, and as for the once-a-year pubs – well, I can always move on.

So far this year it’s roughly:

Pubs I go to anyway: 7
Once-a-year pubs: 5
PIROTGIMO: 5

Let’s hear it for the Crown and Kettle and Bar Fringe (what a beer range! what a cider range! what great, atmospheric, welcoming pubs); for the New Oxford (I’ll get round to the bottles one of these days); for the Knott, the only bar I know where you can be guaranteed to spot a beer you really fancy immediately after you’ve ordered; and, of course, for the Marble Arch.

Next: Stockport. All those places with an SK postcode – they’ll basically be within walking distance, won’t they?

They’ll like us next year

Two recent pints got me thinking about the craft tsunami which is seemingly about to engulf us.

I was drinking in a group at Dulcimer (a bar in Chorlton) when one of my friends suddenly called out, “Can we have a vote on Phil’s pint?” He got me to hold it up and asked the room in general, “Does that look right to you?” Explanations were required. I was drinking Wild‘s Evolver (“Hops+Brett+Hops”) and, yes, it did look almost exactly like a bad, end-of-barrel pint: almost completely flat; heavy-looking somehow; and cloudy without being turbid, as if every drop of the beer itself was a bit less than clear. Not only that, but it tasted almost exactly like a bad, end-of-barrel pint – i.e. sour. It was quite an interesting and complex sour flavour, I’ve got to give them that, but it got to be hard going – just a bit too sour, and flat, and, well, off-tasting. (On a side note, more recently I had Wild‘s Fresh on keg and was musing on how drinkable the cold fizziness made it, when it struck me – anything is more drinkable if it’s cold and fizzy; with a mouth full of froth the beer just slips down, and if it’s cold enough you barely taste or smell it anyway. So all credit to Wild for putting Evolver under the more unforgiving spotlight of cask.)

On another occasion I was in a Spoons’ and happened to spot their Alchemist collaboration, made by a legendary brewer who is so modest that nobody knows his name. I’ve seen this beer described as an ‘American brown ale’; I’d call it a black IPA from the colour and the pineyness. I had a pint – £1.85 with my beard token – but by the end I would have been glad of a smaller measure. What that beer does it does extremely well, but the thing it does is so full-on – I can practically taste those resiny hops even now. It was nowhere near as much of a slog as the Wild beer, but it was a slog.

I seem to be getting out-geeked all round; it looks as if rampant craft-driven extremophilia has landed, both at Dulcimer (a bar with three handpumps, one of them usually devoted to Wainwright) and, er, at JDW’s. Craft beer may not exist, but it’s arrived.

 

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.

Condition, condition, condition

I never used to care about condition in cask beer. I think this is because I never used to get served beer in poor condition; occasionally you’d get a pint that was downright sour and have an interesting conversation with the barman, but flabby, lifeless, borderline-flat beer has always been a rarity in my experience. (At least, for beer out of a pump; with beers on gravity you take your chances.)

As noted a couple of posts ago, I had a pint of Dark Star‘s eponymous Dark Star a couple of weekends ago which looked like flat Coke; some vigorous pump-jockeying produced a bit of a head, but the effect was cosmetic – there was little if any carbonation left in the beer. And now this (a record of a weekend’s drinking):

Sedge Lynn (JDW)
Wicked Weed Sir Ryan the Pounder. Nice APA, in good nick.
Adnam’s Broadside. Big heavy dark bitter. Tired and flabby.

Beagle
Milestone Welsh Dragon. Decent best bitter. Very tired, almost flat.

Milson Rhodes (JDW)
Kelham Island Zombies of the Stratosphere. Hoppy pale ale. Tasted fine, but almost completely flat – no condition at all. Seriously considered taking it back.
Adnam’s Broadside. In good nick (about time!).

Gaslamp
Blackjack The River. Weird-tasting brown ale; will give benefit of doubt (brown ale). In good nick.
Coastal Hopmonster. Pleasant light golden ale (not a hopmonster!). In good nick.

This may not mean anything – apart from suggesting that the Gaslamp’s policy of only having two cask ales on (at most) isn’t entirely a bad thing. I may just have been unlucky in those three beers (or four, if we count the Dark Star the other week). But if condition problems are surfacing in outlets as diverse as the Font and the Beagle, on one hand, and two separate Spoons’ on the other, I do wonder if it’s a sign of something else – the most obvious candidate being over-supply, meaning that pubs can’t shift all the beer they have on before it gets tired. Just as ‘craft’ (or the idea of ‘craft’) goes mainstream, are we hitting Peak Beer – or Peak Bar?

No, I don’t want a cup of tea

A few quick pub updates from recent wanderings.

When the rumour went round that the Salutation was going to be closed down by its owner, Manchester Metropolitan University (which I should note is my employer), I resisted the general doom and gloom; I had already heard that the pub was staying open, and that it would be run by the Students’ Union. Obviously it would change, a bit, but I was hopeful that the Sal would retain its character – and its excellent beer range. I stuck my head in the other day and found that, of the four hand pumps, only one was in action – the (Pennine Brewery) house bitter. There were a couple of those small blackboard-on-menu-holder arrangements on the bar, advertising Gaymer’s (keg) cider and Jeremiah Weed. Things may change when term starts in a couple of weeks; I’ll reserve judgment till then.

Another pub with a house beer is the (JDW’s) Sedge Lynn in Chorlton. Their arrangement with Brightside has yielded the interesting experiment of a house dark mild (which I foolishly never got round to trying) and – on now – a house golden ale. It’s very light – not-touching-the-sides light – but pleasant in its way. Last time I was in they also had Mordue Belma Red, which puts up a bit more of a fight. Not the prickliest red ale I’ve ever had, but worth £1.80 of any CAMRA member’s money. Some Spoons’ do put some good stuff on. On a couple of occasions recently I’ve seen the same beer on at the Sedge Lynn and Pi or De Nada, both of which obviously charge considerably more – I wonder how the breweries make it pay.

From house beers to house breweries: for me there’s been a small question mark over the beer range at the Horse and Jockey since its takeover by Holt’s. Taking on the Horse – complete with the Bootleg brewery – seemed downright bizarre at the time, although it now looks more like an early sign of Joeys’ new direction. When I looked in the other day they had seven beers on: three Holt’s (Bitter, IPA and the golden ale Two Hoots), two from Bootleg and two guests, from Beartown and Conwy. It’s not the kind of range the Horse had before the takeover, but it’s not bad (I’m a bit of a fan of Conwy).

A couple of doors down from the Horse, the Beech continues to plough its own furrow: lots of Timothy Taylor Landlord and Golden Best, supplemented by three or four guests, some adventurous (Oakham, Salamander) but most not (Hobgoblin, Ruddles). The other night I thought I saw Pedigree on the bar; I looked again and realised it was Pedigree New World, a special using the Pedigree recipe with (you’re ahead of me) New World hops. It was OK, but after one pint I went back to the Landlord.

Electrik have a few distinctions in the crowded Chorlton bar scene: one is having three of their own beers (brewed at Happy Valley), another is having a free jukebox of high quality, while a third is having a wide range of comfortable-looking seats on which it’s actually impossible to get comfortable. When I’m there I’m looking for a chair I can lean back in, with enough light to read by and no draught on my neck; the combination is hard to find, and I usually end up shifting between two or three different seats. I keep going back, though. Last night both their own Bright Spark and the rum stout Black Out were on (I had the latter, which was excellent) as well as the very welcome sight of Ticketybrew Pale Ale. It was, once again, a fantastic beer – and keenly priced at £3.40 a pint.

Lastly, a weekend note. I’ve got a long-established Saturday routine, involving going out early doors for a couple of pints with something to read. It’s a habit I got into when I didn’t know many people in the area, and I’m reluctant to break it now, although I’m conscious it may sometimes make me look anti-social. Last Saturday I divided my time between the Marble Beerhouse and De Nada. I hadn’t had a drink in the Marble for months, & I was very pleased to see that the framed posters which graced the walls for years have been put back up: two of Brendan Dobbin’s unique West Coast Brewery posters, a Thirsty Moon, a Wobbly Bob… They didn’t have any of those beers on, mind you – in fact, they only had one guest (from Marble offshoot Blackjack), although I think another had just gone off. There were five Marble beers, though, and – sign of the times – a guest keg font (Magic Rock High Wire). Sitting on an upholstered bench next to a sleeping cat, reading my paper by the light of the fading evening sun, in complete silence but for the sound of conversations from the far end of the room, I had a pint of Marble Lagonda. And what a mighty beer that is – a full-on pale ale, but with a fruity body in comparison with the more astringent likes of Dobber.

Then, up the road at De Nada, I had an XT 4, which was pleasant if unspectacular; I drank it in between eating the complimentary nibbles, while sitting in a leather armchair, reading by the wall light, listening to a hum of conversation all around me and enjoying the sound of the jukebox (when did you last see a jukebox with Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”?) As a way to spend half an hour it was rather fine.

Getting philosophical for a moment, it struck me afterwards that in those two Saturday pints I’d experienced the difference between a pub and a bar. With the sounds, the nibbles and the dim light, De Nada had a real buzz about it; I really enjoyed being there. With the natural light, the quiet and the cat, the Marble had absolutely no buzz at all – and I really enjoyed being there, but in a different way. It would be pushing it, to say the least, to say that that’s what pubs are like – that’s not even what the Marble’s like when it gets busy. But I do think that experience – “take your beer, sit down, now we’ll leave you to your own thoughts for the next hour or two” – is something you’re much more likely to get in a pub than in a bar; just as the more ‘buzzy’ experience – “enjoy your beer, try some nibbles, do you remember this one? this is cool, isn’t it?” – is very bar-like. I wouldn’t be without either of them.