Category Archives: Travels with beer

Spontaneous similitude

As a footnote to the previous post, here’s something I noticed about the pricing of cask and keg beers in two bars I’ve visited within the last 48 hours.

The Library in Durham is a nice, laid-back bar, appealing (as far as I can tell) equally to students and locals. They have two beer blackboards, one labelled ‘cask’ and the other ‘craft’. They’re certainly not pitching to the cognoscenti, but it’s interesting that they think it’s worthwhile to offer a range of keg beers that they can call ‘craft’. The keg beers are fairly wide-ranging – I’ve seen Guinness on a ‘craft’ tap before now – but generally include something from BD (5 am Saint today). They also have a cask offering which is generally just on the interesting side of mainstream – Landlord, Bishop’s Finger and Black Sheep today – plus a cider on handpull. (It was a still cider today (rather a nice one from Cornish Orchards); there was a sign on the bar saying that if anyone wanted a head on their cider they’d be happy to knock one up with the steam arm from the coffee machine. We didn’t take them up on the offer.) The food’s good, incidentally – and served on metal trays, which are at least more practical than boards.

The Font in Chorlton – what can I tell you about the Font, other than that we refer to it in our house as TumbleTots? There were, unusually, no families with pre-school children in when I visited last night; I’d say the average age must have been right up in the mid-20s. (Yes, it was a Saturday night, and yes, that was unusual.) Anyway, they have eight cask beers and no fewer than sixteen keg taps; even allowing for a few, mostly rather uninspiring regulars – Flensburger pilsener, a keg cider – that generally makes for an impressive range of ‘craft keg’ options. Plus a 25% CAMRA discount, no less, although obviously this only applies to cask.

What struck me in both places was the pricing, which displayed a definite uniformity. A couple of years ago, there was a period when the Font’s keg board routinely listed prices for halves and even thirds, on the basis that (a) the price for a pint would just be too scary (b) you wouldn’t actually want a pint or (c) both. Cask beers were going for £3.20-£3.80 a pint, but a good half of the keg options were up in the £8-9 region; very nice some of them were too, but the disjuncture was a bit glaring. Then there was a period when the two sets of prices seemed to be converging – if the cheapest ‘craft keg’ option was under £5 and the dearest real ale was £4, surely it couldn’t be long before we were looking at one range of prices rather than two.

Or so I thought – but then they diverged again. With the exception of Magic Rock Cannonball – a fixture alongside Camden Ink – the really spendy big hitters seem to be a thing of the past: I’m no longer getting my late-night half of something silly from the Font. What’s happened now is that the keg beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in one price range, and the cask beers (mostly in the 4-6% a.b.v. range, mostly pale) have settled in another. I first took note of this yesterday because the ranges in question are both on the high side: £3.80-£4.90 for cask, £5.60-£7.20 for keg.

Meanwhile back in Durham, the Library has implemented a similar price standardisation policy, also with two price ranges – or rather price points: you could pay £3.35 for a pint of Landlord or Bishop’s Finger or that still cider from Cornwall, or £4.70 for a pint of something ‘craft’. The really daft part of it is that the ‘craft’ range included König Ludwig Weissbier and Grimbergen Blonde – the latter of which (coming in at 6.7%) is surely worth £4.70 of anyone’s money (even at Durham prices). 5 a.m. Saint, maybe not. (It used to be fantastic on cask, though. Trust me on this.)

The point of all this is that, when we talk about beer pricing, we’ve tended to look at it from the point of view of brewers. (For reference, here are the points of view of Cloudwater, HardKnott, Beer Nouveau and Siren.) It’s understandable that we should be sympathetic with brewers’ point of view – by and large, we’d like them to stay in business, after all. But that can easily slip into seeing the world (of beer) in brewer-centric terms, as if the problem of pricing was one that they could solve by gently pushing their trade price up a bit and (in the words of the Siren blog) “educating the market”, building a following of people willing to pay that bit more for beer from Siren (and other comparable breweries).

What both my recent blackboard encounters suggest is that it isn’t going to work like that. Until quite recently you wouldn’t have seen any cask beers at the Font above the £4 mark; those prices have gone up, no question. But the point is, they’ve all gone up – and the prices of the keg beers have gone up accordingly. Has every single brewery supplying the Font been pushing for prices in the £4+ range? Come to that, have Grimbergen, König Ludwig and BrewDog had a meeting and resolved not to supply the Library unless bar prices were pegged above £4.50? Obviously not. The bars have set their prices – partly in line with what their suppliers are asking for, certainly, but mainly in line with what the market will bear. (Both bars were buzzing, I should say.)

Bars will set prices where they can – they’ll set them as high as the market will bear, but no higher. Supply beer that usually goes for £2.50 a pint – and has a wholesale price set accordingly – to a bar where everything’s £4 or above, and it’s not likely to go on at £2.50. On the other hand, try and supply beer that usually goes for £4.50 a pint to a bar where everything’s £3 or under, and it’s not likely to go on at all. What you’re never likely to see is a £2.50 cask beer alongside a £4.50, or a bar selling beers at a whole range of price points from ‘cheap’ up to ‘scary’. (A range of price points from ‘expensive’ up to ‘scary’ is another matter – see under ‘craft keg’; although if the Font’s anything to go by this may also be a hard sell.)

Bars set price ranges, based on the costs they have to cover and what their own particular market will bear; where cask beer is concerned, by and large what they set is a single price range, the price range for ‘cask beer’. Changing that assumption – and turning the cask beer list on a pub’s blackboard into something more like a restaurant wine list – may be even harder than cultivating the perception that the beer from this or that brewery is worth a bit extra.

Deutsches Bier

2015-08-21 16.21.31

To you, six quid the lot

Just got back from a holiday in Germany. It was a two-centre holiday of sorts – we had a week in Wiek, a fairly remote Baltic coast resort, and three days in Berlin. The bottles in the picture above were bought in Wiek, at the local supermarket; one of them cost €1.45, but the remainder were between 88c and €1.15 including bottle deposit.

So that’s one of my impressions of Germany: good beer, and local beer – and if you’re lucky good local beer – is readily available in supermarkets & the like. (Above: seven beers from three nationally-distributed breweries and three locals – Rostock, Störtebeker, Vielanker. I could have bought fifteen or twenty different beers at that supermarket, about half of them brewed relatively locally. The rough British equivalent would be a Mace in the depths of Pembrokeshire or Cornwall.) Also, it’s insanely cheap. The strength of the £ helped – we bought our euros at €1.40 – but even at euro/pound parity this stuff would be… well, insanely cheap. Bar and restaurant prices, interestingly enough, were much closer to the British norm – usually €3 or above for half a litre of anything decent.

What else did I have? The rest of my beer drinking was done in cafes and restaurants: this was very much a family holiday with no bar-crawling element. On the plus side, this didn’t hold me back. “I can’t get over how you can drink, like, everywhere,” I overhead an American saying to another at Mauerpark (a park on land formerly occupied by the Berlin Wall, where a huge antiques fair/fleamarket/craft fair/mini-festival takes place every Sunday) – and you could certainly get decent beer pretty much everywhere, whether you were getting pizzas in a tourist restaurant, taking the weight off your feet at a beach-front cafe or getting a sandwich at the zoo. In ten days, in two different regions, I think we only went into one cafe that wasn’t serving beer – and not once was I reduced to ordering Carlsberg or Heineken, or even Beck’s. As well as the obligatory Berliner Weiss (brewery not specified), I had Bitburger, Lübzer and Berliner Pilsner, Köstritzer Kellerbier and Dunkel, Hefeweizen from Erdinger, Schöfferhofer and Memminger, a Memminger Kellerbier and a few others whose names I’ve forgotten. I also ordered something called Alsterwasser, which turns out to be what you or I would call a lager shandy, and tried to order a Fassbrause, which is an apple-flavoured lemonade (the barmaid kindly warned me off). (NB a Diesel is beer and coke, and a Potsdamer is beer and Fassbrause… we think.)

What was it like? Here’s where the good news gets a bit more qualified. With hardly any exceptions – one, to be precise – these beers were fine; clean-tasting, well-balanced, seemed like good examples of their style, etc, etc. The dud was the Störtebeker “Hanse-Porter”: sweet, heavy and strongly reminiscent of Coca-Cola; it got a bit better when I told myself to think of it as a Dunkelweizen rather than a porter, but only a bit. (The same brewery’s (helles) Hefeweizen was… well, fine.) And with only a handful of exceptions, they were no more than fine: 3s or 3.5s on a 5-point scale. The good ones were the Jever (natürlich); the Rostock Bock Dunkel, which (uniquely out of the beers I drank on the trip) was over 6%, and had the big, enveloping quality of a dark old ale; and a Memminger Kellerbier that I had on tap at a restaurant in Berlin. This was a fresh, aromatic, hoppy number that caught my attention straight away; it was the only beer I had in Germany that made me feel I was drinking something interesting.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t come across German craft beer – I wasn’t exactly seeking it out. (Family holiday, etc.) What is surprising is quite what a broad range of good, locally-produced beer I did find. My ideal for beer in England – the goal that I think CAMRA should work towards above all others – is a situation where locally-produced beer produced using traditional methods is available in every pub you walk into; whether any of those pubs would be serving beer in a multitude of different styles, or even beer from very far away, is secondary. In Berlin and on the Baltic coast, at least, it looks as if this ideal was realised long ago – if anything, it’s been realised in bars and then rolled out to cafes, petrol stations, roadside sausage vendors etc. And all this without blowing anybody’s tastebuds off or turning bars into multi-coloured beer style swap shops.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed that Memminger Kellerbier – and, after ten days of beer that was fine, but rarely any more than fine, I did start to hanker for a hoppy taste-bomb or two. I guess I’m living with the curse of sophistication.

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.

‘And yet, Lady Alice, even pigs have feelings.’

Quick bleg: That London.

Yes, I know it’s a big place (see above). But for this trip, just to make things more interesting, I’m working under a set of arbitrarily-imposed* constraints, viz. and to wit:

  1. Nowhere that doesn’t serve cask, I don’t care who you are.
  2. And I’m not going to bloody Hoxton. (Let’s face it, I wouldn’t like it, it wouldn’t like me.)
  3. In fact, let’s think central. Bloomsbury, West End, South Bank, that kind of manor.
  4. Only not the City. Tried drinking in the City. Didn’t like it. (Great scrums of Agent Smiths outside every single pub.) Ended up in a Spoons.
  5. Oh, and (IMPORTANT) I’ll have three non- or occasional drinkers in tow, one of whom is aged 14 & gets uncomfortable in predominantly male environments (see previous).
  6. And (ALSO IMPORTANT) we’ll be looking for food, more often than not.
  7. And we don’t want to end up in Spoons, again.

Have at it in comments, you who know these things.

*Not really.

Update We’re back. Where did we get to? Glad you asked. We got to

The Holborn Whippet. Wow. Saved the best for, er, first. I had a fair-to-middling winter ale whose name I forget and a Redemption Trinity, which was fab. This was from a choice of eight cask and as many keg beers, which I could have happily worked my way through had time allowed. We were there for lunch & had a 16″ pizza and a plate of chips between the three of us; it was all good. Great beer, great food – reasonably priced, too (the beer was cheaper than at some of the pubs in Chorlton, which is quite something for central London). I’ll go there again as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Many thanks to Reading Tom in comments for this recommendation.

The Grafton Arms was the next day’s lunchtime destination, chosen (a) because it was there and (b) because it didn’t look rammed (a cursory search for pubs on Tottenham Court Road had been called off the previous night for lack of (b) qualifiers). The food came 35 minutes after ordering – not particularly remarkable, except that we’d been warned that it would take an hour; not sure if this was inefficiency or cunning expectations management. I had Portobello Star, which was fine if not especially memorable, and Meantime Pale (keg), which was a bit thin (and fizzy). The food was good and, again, cheaper than we’d expected. (The G. A. is a Taylor Walker pub; not a chain I’d seen before, but there seem to be a few of them in That London, complete with identical food menus. I think you could do a lot worse.)

The next day’s early-afternoon stop was the Elgin, which is now run by a chain called Geronimo, although at one time (according to Somebody On The Net) it was “the second dodgiest pub in Ladbroke Grove”. Whatever – it’s a big place with what look like some genuinely old fixtures and fittings; the overall effect is somewhere between a junkshop and a small stately home. We weren’t lunching that day (two words: Premier Inn), but I had a Young’s Special, which once again has failed to make any noticeable imprint on my memory (I ought to make notes, really).

And then there was the near-obligatory station stop, which in our case means the Doric Arch. Bengal Lancer was on draught, and very nice it was too.

Summing up: some nice pubs, some good food, some oddly unmemorable beers. And the Holborn Whippet.

All the good people know

In the unlikely event anyone was wondering about it, here’s what I made of those bottles I brought back from Belgium.

THE POSSIBLE DUD

I was quite keen on Fort Lapin Tripel when I had it on tap; I noted at the time that it had a bit of bitterness to it, unusually for a tripel. I don’t know why there should be a big difference between the keg and the bottle, but a big difference there was. No bitterness at all, and rather a lot of sweetness. It wasn’t sweet enough to get cloying, but it was a lot sweeter than I’d expect a tripel to be; fruity, in fact, and not in a good way. By halfway down I was tiring of it, not least because it had started to remind me vividly of… something else. Something other than beer. As I finished the glass it came back to me: Fort Lapin Tripel, or at least that bottle of it, tasted exactly like perry – and a sweetish perry at that. Disappointing and rather odd.

(That’s almost certainly going to be the fullest review of any of these beers. Unfortunately, disappointment makes better copy.)

THE MERELY LOVELY

I don’t need to tell you about Westmalle Dubbel. It’s a Trappist dubbel and it’s lovely. Big, dark, malty, but very drinkable.

Rochefort 8 is in a similar area. Big and fruity – prune-and-rhubarby, really – but light enough to go down easily.

Kwak… well, you know Kwak. (Not one of my purchases, in fact – my son bought me a bottle and a glass, complete with wooden stand, as a birthday present.)

THE VERY LOVELY INDEED

Rochefort 6, for me, worked a lot better than the 8. The 8 tasted a bit like a watered-down version of the 10; although the 6 was lighter in alcohol, I thought it had a more interesting flavour and less thinness on the palate. Slightly less sweet than the 8, and malty more than fruity; a fairly complex taste that developed nicely.

Fort Lapin Quadrupel made up for the Tripel and then some. Black, sweet and intense, but without the stewed fruit and cake spice overtones of a lot of Belgians; it reminded me more of an Old Tom or Owd Roger, if you can imagine one of those brewed to 10% a.b.v.

THE EVEN BETTER THAN THAT

Duvel Tripel Hop is being imported, or at least has been imported. Get it if you see it – it’s a bit special. It doesn’t have the distinctive (and deceptive) smoothness of Duvel, but it does have an awful lot of hops. It’s a surprisingly good combination.

Rochefort 10 is a world classic and I don’t care who says otherwise. (Probably nobody, but you never know.) It’s 11% a.b.v. and tastes of prunes, which should make for a cherry-brandy-like novelty nightcap; it’s so much better than that, though. It’s as if a crack team of monks had set out to make a distinctively Belgian take on your favourite old ale, but finished early and spent the rest of the day making it twice as good as that. Then come back the next day, doubled its strength (possibly through the power of prayer), and then stayed late to make it twice as good again. It’s a very, very lovely beer, I bought it in a supermarket where it cost me the euro equivalent of £2 exactly (including bottle deposit), and I want another one right now.

Bah.

Saving the rarest (and biggest) till last: Mont Des Cats produces one beer, which I spotted in ‘t Bierpaleis in a 75 cl bottle, going for €7.50 (about £6.40). (I don’t know if they bottle it in any more user-friendly sizes; that was the only bottle I saw.) I bought it, I took it home and – some time later when I had a free afternoon – I drank it. It’s a darkish, coppery tripel: full-bodied, herby, not too sweet, and all in all not a million miles from Orval. Very nice indeed, although I’d recommend whacking straight through the whole bottle if you do get a big one – I left mine standing half-full for a couple of hours, and the condition suffered quite badly (should have put a teaspoon in the bottle).

Mmm, Belgian beer. Very lovely and all gone. Actually not quite all – I’ve still got one bottle left: an Orval, which (having had it ‘young’ in Bruges) I’m leaving to age in the bottle for six months. Roll on February!

(It’s in Belgium)

We had a long weekend in Bruges a bit back. Bruges is as beautiful as you’ve heard it is, and very nearly as beautiful as it looks in the film (and if you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favour and seek it out pronto). The beer was pretty good, too. Here are the tasting notes I jotted down on my iPod, with added commentary.

Brugse tripel (Palm)

This was at a bar called De Gilde in Oude Burg, a street which seemed to be on the way to (or back from) most places we went – we walked down it about three times every day. I ordered it under the impression it was a local beer (what with the name) & was disappointed to find it was one of Palm’s. It was fine, though.

Leffe Radieuse: fruity, surprisingly hoppy

There were a few Leffes we don’t get over here. Radieuse is marketed as “Leffe goes hoppy”, and it was, a bit. I had this with dinner the first night. Mmm, Flemish beef stew.

The next few are from what’s probably my favourite bar of the trip, ‘t Brugs Bieratelier. (Thanks to Chris M for tipping me off to this – although, as it was two doors down from our hotel, I probably would have found my way there eventually.) The Bieratelier specialises in draught – which is to say, keg – as distinct from the massive bottle menus offered by most places. I had two lots of three small beers – 100 ml? 200? I’ve no idea how much I was actually getting, which is a disadvantage of beer from the tap – at least, it is in a country which hasn’t gone through the kind of standardisation we take for granted in the UK. Anyway, you got three beers for €8 (plus complementary peanuts) which was basically fine by me. It was a quiet, laid-back weekday late night, which meant there were only a handful of English people ordering pints of lager (in English) and only one stag party (from Holland). But, in all seriousness, it was a quiet, laid-back place – the atmosphere was so relaxed that it seemed to soak up the rowdier elements without being affected by them. The quiet soundtrack of Dylan album tracks may have helped.

Anyway, here are my six beers:

Guldenberg tripel

Fort Lapin: pale and interesting

St Bernardus: mmm

Gouden Carolus dubbel

Timmermans lambic: aargh!

Novice black tripel (???): extra f’in ordinary

Fort Lapin (“strong rabbit”?) was a new name to me; their tripel was rather nice & a few steps away from the usual “pale, strong, a bit fruity, a bit herby” template. There were hops there, I’ll be bound. I’ve been slightly sniffy about St Bernardus before, what with them not being Trappists, but the dubbel was extraordinary (it knocked the Gouden Carolus into a cocked hat). Not as extraordinary as Landtsheer Novice “black tripel”, though. It was basically what you’d get if you spliced the genetic material of a tripel with a black IPA. Very hoppy, very roasty, very Belgian – quite unusual!

As for the lambic, I have drunk it before – some years ago, when the relative strength of the pound made Belgian imports a regular buy – but it was a bit of a shock to the system coming in among those dubbels and tripels. I think getting properly into lambic would take an evening of its own, or possibly a trip of its own. The barman saw the face I made after my first swallow and apologised – “It’s not very sour, is it? That’s the only lambic we can get in a keg – the good ones are only available in bottle.” Let’s just say that the problem I’d had with it wasn’t a lack of sourness.

The next day we stopped around 12.00 for a portion of chips (with mayonnaise), accompanied by

Hoegaarden inna can

for about 50p. (The Belgians never got the memo about minimum pricing.) Having noticed a distinct groundswell of English people ordering in English, I was determined to use what little Flemish I had. (Belgium is bilingual, but Bruges – which we should call Brugge really – is deep in Flanders; French is about as useful there as Spanish.) “Drie groote frites, alstublieft”, I said to the guy behind the counter. “Three large chips – what would you like on those?” he replied, not missing a beat.

We stopped for a proper lunch later on, with a

Maes pils

for what that’s worth. That night we had an Italian meal at a rather fine restaurant called La Riva del Sole (very nice zabaglione); I know I had something with it, but what it was, my iPod and I cannot tell you.

Another late-evening outing took me to De Garre. Among others, Beersay‘s writeup had raised my expectations somewhat:

Dating back to the 1700′s, De Garre is one of those places where the gentle atmosphere and ambience has your mind wondering how many people have sat here before you. What joys, tragedies, laughter, crimes or drunken buffoonery have these four walls witnessed in their lifetime?

The Tripel arrived in two large goldfish bowl like glasses, with the thick white creamy head massively outweighing the liquid content by about three parts to one, there being only approximately three quarters of an inch of beer sitting at the base. Either by sensing our unconscious looks of disappointment or by the daily experiences of newcomers to his bar, the barman softly whispered “wait, it will come”.

Each tray of beer is served with a small portion of chopped cheese, which I’m led to believe is a compatible match for most Belgian beer, it was soft, creamy and when finally, patience rewarded we got to taste the Garre Tripel went perfectly with the beer.

Here’s my writeup:

De Garre tripel: not brilliant and much too strong

I arrived to find a tiny and brightly-lit bar with every table taken. (No standing at the bar in Belgian bars.) The barman caught my eye, held up one finger and pointed upstairs, then shouted something indistinct which I (correctly) interpreted as “you want the Tripel?” Upstairs was a slightly larger but even more brightly-lit bar with every table taken but one, right in the far corner, directly under a couple of halogen lamps. I manoeuvred the furniture around until I could get behind the table. The barman brought my drink. (It came with peanuts, and soft whispering was not involved.) I tried to concentrate on (a) my beer and (b) my paper but found I was fighting a losing battle with (c) the glare and (d) the noise of what appeared to be 300 English and American beer geeks having animated conversations all around me (“as for what I’m thinking, nobody has the RIGHT to censor what’s in my MIND“.) I got to the bottom of the glass sooner than I expected and looked up to see the barman standing over me. “ANOTHER!” he enquired. I shook my head and got my purse out. And that was about it for De Garre. As for the beer, it was a very heavy tripel; it would have been pretty nice but for an unpleasantly strong flavour of alcohol. Basically it tasted like a tripel which had had a tequila dropped in it. I was seriously considering going into the Bier Bistro on Oude Burg on the way home for something more palatable in a more relaxed atmosphere, but the atmosphere that night was a bit too relaxed – by the time I passed it was shut.

There wasn’t any daytime drinking the next day. In the evening I had the bright idea of going out before dinner instead of last thing at night, and found my way to bar #2 on my hitlist: ‘t Brugs Beertje. It was rammed – so much so that I had to share a table – and absolutely everyone was speaking English, but somehow the atmosphere was much more laid-back than it had been in De Garre. And the beer was great.

Pannepot: a vision of Virol loveliness

Orval (young): interesting but too young

That’s De Struise Pannepot, De Struise being a newish local brewer (est’d 2001). I’m not sure how you’d classify Pannepot: it’s very dark, very strong and made with spices. Possibly a Quadrupel? It was very nice indeed, whatever it was. Very malty, as my tasting notes suggest (Virol was a ‘malt extract’ given to babies; I was once found, aged two or three, eating it out of the jar). As for the Orval, the Beertje will serve you a young Orval for €2 or one that’s been aged in the bottle for six months for €2.50. I guessed, rightly as it turned out, that the ‘aged’ variety would be what I’d had before, and ordered the ‘young’. It was… interesting. Much lighter than the Orval we know and love (although presumably it’s just as strong); I was reminded of ginger beer. I wish I could have followed it with an ‘aged’ bottle, to compare and contrast, but I had to get back to base camp.

That evening we ate at a really superb restaurant called De Schilder, where (with my rabbit) I had a

Bourgogne des Flandres: good but too light (5%) for its fruitiness

and followed it with a

Westmalle tripel: stern but beautiful

Can’t improve on that, except to say that drinking a Westmalle tripel out of a Westmalle glass really does feel special.

Lastly, with a sandwich lunch on the final day, I had a

Brugse Zot: light, refreshing, aromatic 6%er

Regrets, I’ve got a few. I didn’t get around to the Halve Maan brewery tour, which famously concludes with a freebie Zot; I didn’t get to the Bier Bistro, Cambrinus, the Café Rose Red or the Trappiste; and, of course, I barely scratched the surface at ‘t Brugs Beertje. My son, who recently turned 18, was less enthusiastic about the drinking than I’d hoped; he’s decided he’s into cider, which wasn’t a big feature of the local bars. Another time.

Also, beers – I’ve got a few of them, too. There are tourist-oriented bottle shops all over Bruges; in one of them I saw, and declined to buy, all three of the Westvleteren beers (semi-illegal and at ridiculous markups). But really there are only three places to buy beer, and two of them are supermarkets. Here’s my till receipt from the Carrefour near our hotel.

Receipt

Mmm, Rochefort

“Leeggoed” = bottle deposit; in effect everything came out 10c dearer than it looked (or 50c in a few cases, such as Delirium Tremens). But the selection was frankly extraordinary, and the prices were mind-boggling. That €1.09 for Westmalle Dubbel isn’t unusual; the Rocheforts and the Duvel (Tripel Hop) were the pricey ones. (And the prices went down if you bought a six-pack. Six-packs of Trappist beers in the equivalent of Tesco Express – what a country!) The bottle shops were all selling these same beers for €2.50 and €3.50; they could actually stock up in Carrefour and still make a profit.

As for the third place to buy beer, it’s called the Bierpaleis or Beer Palace, and it puts the rest of the bottle shops to shame. It was there that I bought a couple of Fort Lapins (tripel and quadrupel) as well as the find of the trip, a big bottle of Mont des Cats – the Trappist beer that isn’t (it’s brewed by Trappist monks, but on the Chimay brewkit rather than within their own abbey). In all I came home with nine bottles, of which I’ve drunk two (the Westmalle and the Tripel Hop); they didn’t disappoint. I’m looking forward to working my way through the rest. Also looking forward to another trip to Bruges…

In Bruges (shortly)

Title says it all.

Except for the inevitable question: where’s good in Bruges (Brugge if you prefer)? No, I mean, where’s really good? And – just as importantly – where’s actually not that good?

I shall be travelling with two non-enthusiasts and one non-drinker, so being non-beer-fanatic-friendly (and e.g. serving food) will be a definite plus.

So, who’s been to Bruges, and where would they like to be back right now? I know, Martyn‘s done this one already, and it’s not hard to find bar reviews online. But I thought I’d ask anyway.

My my, hey hey

Here’s a puzzle for you. A nationally renowned brewpub opens a sister pub, supplying the same unique range of distinctive beers as the mothership. One or two of these beers are regular guests at a few pubs in the region, but this is the only other place where you can regularly find the full range. In other words, the number of pubs serving these rare and desirable beers has just increased by 100% – and the new pub is in a tourist town.

Yet, when I was in there the other night, there was nobody there but a handful of locals; apart from me, there were no avid tickers, no curious tourists. What’s more, I don’t expect this situation will change very much. I think they’ll do all right, but they will be catering mainly to the local trade: very few tickers are going to beat a path to their door, and they may struggle to raise much tourist custom.

What is this paradoxical establishment? It’s called Out of the Blue, which I guess marks it out as a bar rather than a pub – at least, all the other pubs in town have names including the words ‘The’ and ‘Inn’. It’s in Porthleven, where we’ve just stayed for a week; Porthleven is in Cornwall, or more specifically on the west coast of the Lizard (the bunion of Cornwall’s foot). To be precise, it’s in the old Porthleven AFC Social Club – if you put ‘Porthleven AFC’ into Google Maps you can see the location & indeed the building (although it’s since been done up). It’s roomy, as befits its former use. The thatched bar is partitioned off from the rest of the room, and most of the other punters had gathered on a little row of seating opposite. I went for the rather cavernous main room – I had a comfortable chair and something to read (and several beers to sample), so I was fine.

But what of the beer? As you may have guessed by now, the pub that the beer comes from is the Blue Anchor in Helston (hence “out of…”); the beer range, apart from a few keg taps for people who insist on that sort of thing, consists of the renowned Spingo ales. There were four on that night: Middle (5%), Special (6.6%), Ben’s Stout (4.8%) and Flora Daze (4%). This was only the second time I’d tasted Middle and Special; the first time was before my hop epiphany, so I was a bit concerned that they might strike me as a bit sweet and under-hopped. I needn’t have worried. What did I write last time?

[Middle is] a dark bitter with a rich, malty flavour touched with sourness and sweetness. It’s a deep flavour, that seems to develop and unfold as you drink it. It’s got the richness of an old ale without the alcoholic clout; the attack of a Wobbly Bob with the mellowness of a mild. It’s very, very nice. [Special is] a darker, heavier, stronger (6.6%) version of Middle … a beer to quietly sink into (and come up tasting of honey). Stood comparison with some of the darker abbey beers. … It reminded me a bit of the first time I tasted Marston’s Owd Roger, only better.

I’d endorse all of that, except to dial down some of the ‘sweet’ comments – there’s sweetness in there, but you could say the same of the red and blue Chimay. These are balanced, complex flavours, the Special in particular. Terrific beers.

The other two weren’t in quite as good nick, sad to say. I’m reserving judgment on Ben’s Stout until I get the chance to taste it again; there was a distinct sourness to the initial flavour, which I wasn’t sure was supposed to be there. Interesting and drinkable, but I think it could have been better. If the stout had suffered in that way, Flora Daze hadn’t – it was a bit flabby and lacking in condition, but flavourwise it was excellent. You could call it a lighter, more drinkable version of Middle, but with a herby, aromatic hop character which is all its own. Perhaps nothing startling within the contemporary brewing landscape, but I’d have it again; in fact, I think it joins Middle and Special in the ranks of beers I’d go some distance to drink again.

Not all the way to Porthleven, though. I didn’t know about Out of the Blue when we planned our holiday, but drinking Spingo beer was very much on my itinerary; the Blue Anchor is in Helston, and Helston is two miles from Porthleven. It’s ten minutes on the bus, or (I imagine) a leisurely 45-minute stagger if the last bus has gone: it’s very reachable. And, of course, there’s nothing on the far side of Porthleven but sea. Hence the apparent paradox I started with. As well as increasing pub choice in Porthleven by a third, Out of the Blue effectively doubles the Spingo estate; but anyone in search of Spingo is still going to head for Helston, unless they’re actually starting in Porthleven. As for the tourist trade, all the other pubs in town are big on dining and sea views – two of them overlook the harbour; precious few visitors to Porthleven are going to find their way to a former social club set back from the road out of town.

Verdict: amazing beers, curious pub, bizarre location. (When you think what they could have done with an offshoot in Exeter or even Truro…) I can only think the idea is to have a Porthleven pub for Porthleven people – all those people who don’t much care for views of the harbour, what with seeing it every day anyway, and who go to pubs for beer rather than beer-battered squid. I hope it does well, even if it’s not got much to offer incomers and tickers like what I am.

One final puzzle: if you look at the Street View image of the old Porthleven AFC Social Club, “Jolly’s Beers” are prominently advertised. Jolly’s sponsor the league in which Porthleven AFC play. Googling tells me that they’re a drinks company based in Redruth, but I can’t find any reference to brewing – and in my experience “drinks company” tends to mean distribution, with perhaps a sideline in own-brand soft drinks. So what did you get when you ordered a pint of one of Jolly’s beers? It’s a mystery.

(Bet it wasn’t as good as Spingo, though.)

Swish and flick

Or: why I still don’t get kegging.

I tried BD’s Zeitgeist on keg a while back and was deeply disappointed. On cask, at cellar temp, Zeitgeist was a superb beer – really memorable. In bottle, well, not so much. On keg, even worse – I couldn’t taste the damn thing. All I could tell was that I was drinking something very cold, very fizzy and vaguely in the dark lager area; it was quite pleasant and thirst-quenching, but no more than that. So, halfway down, I swilled it around the glass a bit to knock some of the gas out and let it warm up a degree or two. It was an absolute revelation – the aroma and the flavour burst into life. It still wasn’t as good as the cask, but it was a very nice beer – and it was still cold enough (and carbonated enough) to be pleasantly drinkable. So there you go: I can honestly say that Zeitgeist on keg, once I’d drunk half of it and given the other half a swish, was almost as nice as the cask version, and only about 50% more expensive.

Red Willow Soulless on keg tasted great to begin with, and equally great after the swish-and-flick treatment; degassing it a bit helped a bit, but there was nothing wrong with the flavour and aroma to begin with. I reckon the cask would have been even better, but the cask wasn’t on offer. This was definitely the best ‘craft keg’ I’ve had.

Magic Rock Cannonball was a disappointment, though. The Magic Rock beers I’d had before had been a pretty good match to their pump-clips – beautifully executed and insane(ly hoppy) – so I was hoping for great things from this one. And it was… OK. It wasn’t quite as chilled or as carbonated as the Zeitgeist had been, so I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma. Mmm, nice… I think.

I’m old enough to remember when keg bitter ruled the land (just about), and I did once drink bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel. (At least, I think it was Red Barrel – somebody else was buying, I wasn’t even 18 at the time. Actually, I don’t think I was 16 at the time.) I’ve never forgotten what it tastes like: it was cold, it was stomach-bloatingly fizzy and it tasted the same all the way through. We had a Sodastream machine at home at the time, and that was what it reminded me of – it was as if somebody had brought out a ‘beer’ flavour and mixed it into chilled soda water. My next half – some months later – was cask bitter, and it did that thing cask beer so consistently does, of presenting different aspects of its flavour in shifting combinations as you work your way down the glass; by the time I got to the bottom I was hooked for life.

Clearly, craft keg isn’t Red Barrel, but equally clearly it’s still cold and fizzy – and too much so for me. But maybe I’m missing something. Certainly that’s the impression I get when I see Rich from Magic Rock explaining (when I asked) why they put Cannonball on keg

As well as intensity of flavour/aroma we’re looking for drinkability, and temperature and carbonation help to make big hoppy beers lighter in mouth feel, they also accentuate hop aroma and clean the pallet of big flavours.

or when the Beer Nut raves about a keg IPA with (among much else) “a big carbonic bite from the incredibly busy fizz, putting yet more of an edge on it”. But it seems to me that the “carbonic bite” of pressurised CO2 has about as much to do with the flavour of the beer as the distinctive flavour of skunking (some people like that, too) – and what Rich is talking about essentially sounds like dialling down the flavour for drinkability. (The first half of that Zeitgeist was very drinkable – positively quaffable, you could knock it back no bother. I don’t know why you’d want to, though, unless you were just drinking it for the sake of the name or to look cool or something. Crazy idea, I know.)

As for the single-flavour “beer essence” effect, that has changed – I suspect it was an effect of pasteurisation, or just of Grotney’s quality control. (Grotney’s! Happy days.) Some keg beers – that Zeitgeist included – have quite big, complex flavours. They’re complex in a particular way, though. Back when I was keeping up tasting notes, I had a third of a (cask) beer from Oakham called Rollercoaster and wrote this:

An initial impression of sourness gives way to a Marble-ish aromatic hop attack, which gives way in turn to malt and caramel, before a big bitter hop finish. (Hence the name, I guess.)

That’s quite an unusual effect in a cask beer, but it seems more common in craft keg – BD’s 5 a.m. Saint on keg did almost exactly that (contrasting with cask Saint, which did the slow-developing flavour-soup thing and did it rather well). You get quite a lot going on, but you get it going on in every mouthful – which, I guess, makes it less essential to drink the beer in decent-sized measures.

So, my experiences of craft keg to date have told me that: it’s sometimes served so cold you can’t taste what you’re drinking; it’s sometimes so fizzy that you can taste the carbonic acid; it’s sometimes got strong and interesting flavours; it’s sometimes got significantly less strong and interesting flavours than cask equivalents or near-equivalents; and the flavours, however good they are, don’t develop in the same way as they do with cask. (Then there’s the price thing, obviously.)

But while they keep turning it out, I guess I’ll keep trying it.

The Bradford of the North

Quick bleg: where’s good in Leeds?

To put it another way: where’s excellent-to-unmissable, in the centre of Leeds, more or less in between the University of Leeds and the railway station? Pubs, mainly. I hear there is a particularly good offie in the town, but it’s a couple of miles too far out of the centre for me to fit it in this time out.

Suggestions in comments please!

Update: well, I’m back. I made it to Mr Foley’s (Red Willow Endless & Smokeless, Thornbridge Pollards) and, more briefly, North Bar (Kirkstall Aquitaine), where I spotted Zak at the bar and said hello. Unfortunately it wasn’t Zak. Oh well.

Mr Foley’s is a big town-centre pub with very comfortable seating and a lot of different areas; the only thing letting it down is the huge number of TV screens beaming Sky Sports in all directions. (It would be nice to have some acknowledgment that not everyone wants to watch rugby with their pint. And Wales lost.) The Smokeless (a smoked porter) was fab, one of those beers where the added flavour really blends with the underlying character of the beer. As for Endless, I commented the other day at Tandleman’s that Red Willow are stronger on sweeter and darker beers, and that what they really need to bring out is a really pale, hoppy beer. Well, Endless is that beer, but I’m afraid it confirms my impression that RW aren’t quite there yet; it’s a fine beer with a big hop attack, but there is just a touch of that characteristic Red Willow sweet heaviness in mid-mouth, which lets it down a bit. As for Pollards – a “coffee milk stout” – I didn’t really like it at all; far too sweet and very little beer character, more like a cold Irish coffee than a stout.

Later I headed out to North Bar, humming fragments of Armenian as I went. It’s a short walk from Mr Foley’s but a very different area – it looks as if the rents are lower, put it that way. The bar itself is a very different proposition: a long narrow room running back from the street, with a bar down one side and tables and chairs along the opposite wall. Four handpumps and a forest of keg fonts, all of which I overlooked in favour of the cask Aquitaine – an 8% old ale aged in wine casks. (I was tempted by the Magic Rock Curious, but I could only stop for a half so I wanted something a bit stronger.) It was only after I’d got my beer that I took a proper look at the beers on keg, which were quite remarkable – Odell’s, Flying Dog, Nøgne Ø, BrewDog, Thornbridge, Magic Rock… I really should have gone for some of that there craft keg, if only to continue my investigation of whether any of it is ever any good. (Results so far: not sure.) The BrewDog, incidentally, was something called “Everything in its right place” – a response to Simon? As for the Aquitaine, much as I love old ales, I don’t know if ageing in wine casks is a good idea; the beer was both sweeter and sharper than I expected, as well as having a kind of ‘meaty’ red wine quality. It was an odd combination which would take a bit of getting used to.

So that was Leeds. Then I came home and had yet another Red Willow (Heartless dark chocolate stout, another example of how to do beer-with-additives properly) and a Buxton (Bitter, a full-flavoured amber bitter but with that distinctive Buxton help-there’s-a-hop-teabag-on-my-tongue front-of-mouth attack). Good beer day.