Category Archives: Very not pale’n’oppy

Val-de-ree!

It’s the time of year when Manchester CAMRA branches do their bit for the licensed trade by encouraging members to set out on a “Winter Warmer Wander”, thus bolstering pub receipts at this difficult time of year. (Note to CAMRA people reading this: hi John! Also, why is it in December? Wouldn’t January make more sense?)

Rather than separate posts for different areas, I’m going to post a quick round-up with subheadings.

The Good Ones

Last December Wine and Wallop had RedWillow Thoughtless on when I called. Alas, not this time – but they did have the chocolate stout Heartless, which is always welcome and was in very good nick. I was equally impressed with Magic Rock Punchline – a chipotle porter – at Brink. I like Brink a lot but never seem to spend any time there; I would have rectified the omission this time, but the place was packed out (I think there were as many as 30 people there).

Less stellar but decent were Gloucester Six Malt Porter at Pie and Ale and Manchester Brewing Pick Me Up in the Paramount (JDW), a coffee porter which was fine but a bit tired. The Paramount was every bit as full as Brink, which is to say that there were about 300 people in there. (On the same day, incidentally, I looked in at the Waterhouse (JDW), but thought better of it when I saw that the crowd at the bar was three deep.)

The Near Misses

Ashover Liquorice, in the Castle, was probably a really good liquorice stout. It certainly tasted strongly of liquorice – much more so than Ticketybrew‘s Invalid Stout, which was made with tons of the stuff. It’s a near miss for me because I don’t actually like liquorice, or not when it dominates the flavour as it did here.

Origami Mullered (Crown and Kettle) is the only old ale I’ve had this year – if we’re being picky, the only actual winter warmer – and it was really good. It would just have been even better if they’d had the courage of their ‘old ale’ convictions and not added ‘seasonal’ cake spices. Similarly, Ridgeside Kodiak – one of the adventurous choices on the bar at Reasons to be Cheerful – struck me as a hottish, slightly over-cranked porter, and only lost points when I learned that it was a “maple and pecan” porter. (I had it on keg later the same week; it didn’t taste so ‘hot’, oddly enough, but I still wasn’t getting the crunchy nut cornflake effect.) R2BC, like Brink, is a small, friendly bar with an excellent range of beer, and I always want to spend a bit more time there. This time was no exception. I dashed out to get my bus – after debating whether to wait fifteen minutes for the next one, and chance it on being home when I’d said I would – and ended up waiting the full fifteen minutes at the bus stop. (And I was home in time.)

Not Actually Dark

Hyde’s and their pubs aren’t really getting into the spirit of the WWW this year. I’ve had a couple of their “Beer Studio” beers: Mahogany Summit in the Fletcher Moss and oddly, the Ford Madox Brown (JDW); Yankee Pumpkin Ale in the Vic. They’re both basically darkish mid-strength bitters, although the Mahogany Summit does have an interesting ‘roasty’ finish; you could just about imagine you were drinking a stout if you didn’t look at it. There were also no dark beers at the Gateway (JDW) – I had hopes of Kelham Island Smoke on the Water, but it turned out to be a smoked pale beer; or at the Red Lion, where the Marston’s name over the door is as much a guarantee of bland predictability as it once was of quality (I had Snecklifter); or at the Smithfield (Kennet & Avon Caen Hill Hop), or the Great Central (JDW) (Brightside Topaz); or at the Friendship, where I havered between Hyde’s Lowry and someone-or-other’s Fireside Ale, unable to read the a.b.v. on either of the pump clips, and eventually jumped the wrong way. (The Internet tells me that Lowry is actually over the magic number of 4.5%, and that the Fireside Ale is under – and that it’s brewed by Greene King, although they keep very quiet about it.)

Not Actually Qualifying (plus Not Actually On The List)

None of the eight pubs in the previous paragraph had any dark beers on (let alone old ales), and most of them only had the one beer over 4.5%. After less than satisfactory encounters at the Vic and the Red Lion, I was in the mood for something dark – and it had been a long time since that Heartless at Wine and Wallop – so I bobbed into the Turnpike for a half of Samuel Smith’s Extra Stout. It was on keg, of course – Sam’s stout isn’t available on cask anywhere (unless you know better…) – but it was fine; if it was sold more widely, and if people bought keg stout for the taste, I could see it taking market share from Guinness. (Of course they don’t, and it never will, so the point’s academic.) Elsewhere, the Arndale Micro Bar, last time I passed, was listing three more beers than were actually on sale; this struck me as odd, given that they only had one pump idle at the time. One of the phantom beers was a draught stout, but none of the beers that were actually available was either dark or over 4.5%, so I passed. I was less scrupulous at the Crown (Northenden), having made a special trip out there; I had a pint of Weetwood Cheshire Cat, an unexceptional but agreeable golden ale, and found a corner to watch the match.

Are You Man U, You?

Watching the footie at the Crown was actually quite pleasant, which I fear doesn’t bode well for the pub – there were only about twice as many people in there as TV screens. Liverpool v Everton was still playing at the Red Lion and at the Vic; both of those were absolutely rammed, to the level where you have to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies to get from one side of the room to the other (“sorry… mind your backs… excuse me… coming through…”).

I made it to Fallowfield a bit later in the afternoon and decided to hit the Friendship before the Great Central, thinking that the latter wouldn’t have the game on and the former probably would – although I did also think that the Liverpool game would probably be over by this time. Good news: the Liverpool derby had indeed finished. Bad news: the Friendship was now showing the Manchester derby – Manchester United and the other lot – while also, apparently, trying for a world record for the number of people they could get into one room. I’d thought the Vic was busy, but this was something else. To get across the room – which included getting to the bar – you basically had to keep up a constant stream of warnings and apologies, and then push hard. You know when you’re at a gig, and there’s a support act on who nobody really cares about, but there are about eight rows of people at the front jealously guarding their positions for when the headliner comes on? Picture that, except that you need to get to the front of the stage in order to get served. My sticker-requesting technique – smile, make eye contact, ask directly and succinctly, say thankyou – was heavily tested today, never more than at the Friendship. (It worked, though – at least, nobody got at all narky about having to fossick around for a bit of sticky paper on one of the busiest days of the year. Which reminds me – why do we do this in December?)

The Scores

Everton equalised, apparently; I don’t know how they managed that. I don’t remember the score for the other match. As for the beers, in sixteen pubs I’ve had

1 old ale
4 porters
2 stouts
7 ‘other’ qualifying beers (>4.5%)
2 non-qualifying beers

7/16 – a bit on the low side, sadly.

The Twist Ending

After all that, I’m afraid I won’t be participating in the Winter Warmer Wander 2017, even though the sixteen pubs I’ve visited put me well on the way to a t-shirt to add to my collection. (Don’t knock it – my stash of CAMRA t-shirts and polo shirts makes packing for summer holidays much simpler.) At my first stop this afternoon, reaching for my sticker sheet, I found it wasn’t there; this didn’t worry me until I got home and found it wasn’t here either. So farewell then, my stickers for Brink, the Castle, the Crown and Kettle, the Fletcher Moss, the Ford Madox Brown, the Gateway, the Paramount, Pie and Ale, Reasons to be Cheerful and the Smithfield. As much as I like some of those places, I really don’t want to do all ten of them again – and I can’t see myself getting to 24 without them – so I think that’s going to have to be it for this year.

 

 

 

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Stout, stouter…

I’ve been buying some strong stouts and tasting them – well, drinking them, let’s be honest – in the hope of answering the two eternal questions about strong stouts. Firstly, do they have to be that strong? And secondly, are they actually any better than Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which is a lot cheaper and easier to come by than most of these? I’m drinking them in strength order, which means the beer I start with comes from none other than:

Guinness Antwerpen 8%
“Roasted malt, smoked wood and dark chocolate notes”
I got… that thing where front-of-mouth sweetness gradually and imperceptibly develops into a bitter finish, while at the same time the flavour of vanilla develops into aromatic bitter herbs. I never knew that was a thing, but apparently it is. This isn’t a multi-dimensional beer, and some might find it a bit straightforward and ‘clean’. It does what it does really well, though.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes. No. Not sure – I’d have to do another taste test. Put it this way, it’s definitely as good as Guinness FES.

Thornbridge Eldon 8%
“bourbon oak imperial stout … brewed with demerara sugar … chocolate, caramel and coffee notes and hints of vanilla” (Oddly, the ingredients list includes vanilla but makes no mention of sugar)
I got: whisky; lots and lots of whisky. The taste of a fairly basic and undistinguished porter was swamped almost immediately by whisky-toned full-bodied bitterness, whisky-edged sweetness and a finish dominated by whisky. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of Innis & Gunn. But to be fair, I’ve never had a whisky-aged beer that I liked – or that I didn’t think was too heavy on the whisky – so maybe it’s just not my thing.
Better than Guinness FES? No.

Anspach and Hobday The Stout Porter 8.5%
I got: something recognisable as a porter – more Soreen than burnt toast – but heavy and boozy: from the first taste you can’t miss the alcohol. It wears it surprisingly well, though. It’s something like eating liqueur chocolates, but made with a really good dark chocolate; there’s sweet coffee in there too and caramel (salted caramel?), before the soft landing of a charcoal finish. If you’d told me this one was aged in bourbon casks I’d have believed you.
Better than Guinness FES? Well, it’s certainly got more going on. But ultimately no – just a bit too boozy.

Saltaire XS Imperial Stout 8.9%
I forgot to write this up at the time, but what I remember is a big, smooth body with a charcoaly, moderately bitter finish, marred only by an insistent top-note of booziness. As I’ve said about strong pale beers before now, this tasted like a well-made mid-strength beer that had had a glass of tequila tipped into it.
Better than Guinness FES? No.

Buxton Subluminal Imperial Stout 10%
Getting nasty now, on the a.b.v. front at least. Surprisingly, this one isn’t at all boozy, despite being stronger than the last couple. It pours like ink, and the mouth-feel isn’t so much heavy as downright thick (although it’s not flat; there’s quite a pleasant prickle of carbonation). We’re in Soreen territory again, but now the malt and molasses are joined by something unmistakably savoury: an meaty note of Marmite umami. As it warms up the sweetness of the malt develops, building into something like a salted caramel effect. A bitter finish balances it out, but the bitterness is dialled down – not so much charcoal, more coffee grounds and dark chocolate. There’s no acetone overtone and not much alcohol heat, but it really drinks its strength; it’s a sipper, in a way that none of the others up to now have been. A mighty beer, really. Like all right-thinking beer drinkers, I’ve thought considerably worse of Buxton since they effectively got out of cask beer, but some of the stuff they do do they do rather well.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, yes, yes I said yes I will yes.

Blackjack Ace of Spades (red wine barrel) 10%
The Buxton beer impressed me, if anything, even more than the above review would suggest – it really felt like a milestone, one of those moments when my personal spectrum of excellence gets winched open to admit something new. So I came to this 10%er, 48 hours later, with high hopes. I’m afraid they were dashed almost immediately. Despite the strength, this is thinnish in texture. The initial flavour is all red wine; this is backed by a fairly heavy charcoal bitterness on the finish. And, er, that’s it. On the positive side, there’s no alcohol heat; it’s well put together in that respect. But it drinks like a cross between red wine and a lightish stout, with red wine predominating – and it is red wine rather than port, no density or sweetness to speak of. Disappointing.
Better than Guinness FES? Nope.

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 10%
If I describe the elements of this one it’ll sound a lot like the Anspach and Hobday. So you’ve got malt loaf to begin with, just edged with a brandyish heat; then you’ve got the build-up to a dark chocolate and coffee-grounds finish; this is lightened with airy notes of vanilla and another dash of brandy. Overall it’s another “liqueur chocolate” job. What’s hard to explain is how this one does it so much better. It’s not that it hides its strength – as well as the moments where you actually taste the alcohol, the whole thing tastes strong; there are some varied and interesting flavours, but you’re never in any doubt that they’re being delivered through the medium of strong beer. But maybe that’s the point: it tastes strong, but what it doesn’t taste is boozy. There’s a glimmer of pure alcohol at the start and finish, but in between the two this is just a great big beer.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes indeed.

De Molen Rasputin 10.4%
Something I’ve noticed in a lot of these beers – right from the Antwerpen – is a gradual transition from one set of flavours to another; I think it’s a trick that strong stouts pull off particularly well. This is a masterclass in flavour transitions. It opens with jammy forest fruits, transitioning almost immediately into chocolate milk shake. Then something happens; tobacco notes appear and grow stronger, building to a finish that’s all coffee grounds and charcoal, overlaid with an unobtrusive tinge of brandy heat. I’ve had some IPAs that seemed to go off like fireworks – it’s sharp! it’s smoky! it’s sweet! it’s bitter! – but this beer isn’t anything like that; the contrasts are just as extreme, but the smoothness of the transition is such that you don’t notice them unless you stop to think about it. The chocolate predominated as it warmed up, making the beer a bit less interesting – not so much jam/chocolate/tobacco/coffee/charcoal/brandy, more ‘alcoholic Nesquik’. Still powerful stuff, in more ways than one. Black as ink, thick as gravy, lightly carbonated, pretty damn good.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, but not a world-beater.

Marble Lost Your Marbles 10.4%
“Red wine barrel aged forest fruits”
This is a good beer to finish this series with, because it doesn’t do anything I haven’t already described; this suggests either that I’m running out of things to say or that I’ve pretty much got this sub-style nailed. (Or both.) So, this is also a masterclass in flavour transitions; this also begins with forest fruits, a big jammy blast of them (but then, from my reading of the label, forest fruits are actually added to this one); this jammy flavour is wrapped up in chocolate milkshake, like tasting a jam mini-roll from the inside out; and you then get dark chocolate and coffee grounds, predominating towards the end, lifted finally by a touch of vanilla. There are two main differences between this and the De Molen, which put this one ahead: no loss of balance and complexity as it warms up, and no alcohol heat; it doesn’t drink its strength in that sense at all. Having said that, you are aware from the start that you’re drinking a really big, complex beer. (My wife’s unprompted reaction: “Oh my God!” She didn’t mean that in a good way, but never mind.) It’s a really excellent beer; if I were ranking these I’d say it’s second only to the Buxton, with the De Molen and Brooklyn in third and fourth places respectively.
Better than Guinness FES? Yes, absolutely definitely; in a different league.

Nine beers; one more or less on a par with Guinness FES, four better and four not so good. My preconceptions about top-end strengths were well and truly challenged. On one hand, every one of the ‘good’ beers was 10% or above; on the other, only two of the nine tasted obtrusively ‘hot’ and boozy, and they were both below 9%. Results with regards to barrel-aging were more mixed; my prejudice against was confirmed by the Thornbridge and Blackjack beers (both of which, to me, tasted in their different ways of nothing but barrel) but strongly challenged by the Marble beer (which tasted of more or less everything under the sun).

Difficult to draw any broader conclusions. On one hand, there’s no guarantee that a strong stout, even from a brewery with a good name, will be worth splashing out on. On the other hand, sometimes the labels don’t lie, you certainly can’t assume that something with an a.b.v. in double figures will be a cranked-up ethanol monster. You pays your money and you takes your choice. (How much money? That’s another question.)

 

 

Ticketybrew tasting notes – 2

Jasmine Green Tea Pale 4.0% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, jasmine green tea, lemon rind, yeast 9/10
Pale yellow, clear, light but effective conditioning. A fresh-tasting golden ale with a bit of body; faint herbal overtones keep things interesting, and there’s a distinctive tannic bitterness on the finish. The overall effect is clean but slightly medicinal, in a good way: the first time I tasted this I was on my way home from a beer festival, and it felt like a healthy choice. (On the other hand, I was on my way home from a beer festival, so my judgment wasn’t perfect.) The bitterness builds: after a while I notice bitterness buzzing on the tip of my tongue between mouthfuls, as well as at the back of my mouth; as I get further down the glass I start to get bitterness at the edges of my tongue as well. A pleasantly bland golden ale in mid-mouth, surrounded on all sides by medicinal bitterness – it’s an interesting combination, and rather pleasant.

Before I go much further with this review of a series of beers with additions, I should say that in general I’m not a fan of beers with additions, particularly where the additions seem designed to replicate flavours that can be found in beers without them – look at all those Christmas beers with cake spices or soft fruit added for flavour, or BrewDog’s Elvis Juice (craft beer that tastes of grapefruit because it’s got grapefruit juice in). So the realisation that the green tea here is carrying some of the aroma and bittering duties that the hops ought to be doing should really put me off this beer. It doesn’t, though, because the beer works so well – really pleasant, drinkable without getting bland or boring. Perhaps they should go the whole hog and leave the hops out – anyone for a Green Tea Gruit?

Marmalade Pale 4% Malted barley, oranges, malted wheat, hops, ginger, spices, yeast 8.5/10
Amber, clear, decent conditioning. Fresh, mildly citric foretaste, building to a substantial sweetish body with a bitter finish. So far, so ‘best bitter’, but I should add that I got bitter oranges in the body and, in a more pronounced form, on the finish; after a while I could taste orange peel on my lips as well. In short, yes, I was tasting the pith.

What impressed me about this was its balance and drinkability. A marmalade beer sounds like a gimmick, and in many brewers’ hands it would be – it’d be a jangle of jammy sweetness, harsh bitterness and obtrusive orange flavouring. This doesn’t have any of those things – it drinks like a best bitter, but one that happens to take a lot its body and bitterness from bitter oranges. It’s a surprisingly unified and un-spiky flavour profile, and it goes down very easy.

Ginger Beer 4.1% No ingredient list (but presumably includes ginger); 500 ml bottle 9/10
Golden, clear, lively conditioning. An initial biscuity heaviness – with just a hint of sweetness – dries out rapidly to something more like a golden ale, with a touch of that ‘gassy’ mineral quality; there’s a bit of soapiness coming through from the ginger, too. A definite but not extreme bitter finish is rounded off very satisfactorily by ginger heat. The overall effect is of a three-way cross between old-school best bitter, pilsner and ginger beer – but a ginger beer that’s been left to ferment out, so that the sweetness has gone but the ginger remains.

I’ve got two touchstones for ginger beer – Marble‘s Ginger Marble and (a distant memory of) Brendan Dobbin’s West Coast alcoholic ginger beer. Neither of them is/was at all sweet, a test which most ‘ginger beer’s fail badly; the West Coast beer, in fact, tasted almost exactly like (an even more distant memory of) home-made ginger beer that had fermented in the bottle. The clean and dry flavours of these beers, backed by the ginger hit on the after-taste, make them serious thirst-quenchers. This one is worthy to stand alongside them.

Peach Iced Tea 4.6% Malted barley, peaches, malted wheat, sugar, hops, tea, yeast 7/10
Golden, slight haze, low but adequate conditioning. Peaches in the aroma, unquestionably; sweetness and fruit in the foretaste. Not sickly or heavy, but doesn’t open up or dry out very much in mid-mouth; becomes a bit fresher, but stays fruity. The bitterness at the end is all tannic, with a touch of herbal perfume (China tea?).

As with the Jasmine Green Tea Pale, my immediate reaction to this is that they’re using additions to get flavours that (with the right malt, the right hops and the right technique) could have been wrung out of malt and hops alone. But let’s park that and just ask whether the beer works. I suppose there are two questions to ask of any beer whose flavour profile is dominated by additions. One is whether you feel like you’re drinking something distinctive, or just a bland base beer with a bunch of flavours dropped on top of it; the other is whether you feel like you’re drinking beer, or the flavourings have taken over to the extent that it might as well be an alcoholic version of (whatever the flavour is). The first of these, the PIT passes with flying colours: it’s an interesting combination of flavours, well combined and none of them obtrusive. On the second I’m less sure; there wasn’t really enough hop character to keep it out of the ‘alco-pop’ zone. Nice stuff, though, and I was still smelling peaches half an hour later.

Summer Fruits Stout 4.6% No ingredient list, but includes raspberries, blackberries and vanilla; 500 ml bottle 9/10
Black, good conditioning. Opens with a sharp – raspberry-flavoured – sourness; as the flavour develops this is replaced by a mellow, dark chocolate bitterness, lightened with some sweetness and a distinct edge of vanilla.

I’m having to rethink my position on beers with additions. I think back to Titanic‘s Damson and Vanilla Stout; despite the obvious similarities, that was nothing remotely like this. The Titanic beer tasted like a stout, but also tasted of damsons – the fruit flavour emerged out of the flavour of the beer. What Ticketybrew seem to be doing with these beers is quite different. The ‘sharp opening, smooth bitter finish’ combo is very characteristic of stouts. What’s unusual about this one is that both the foretaste and the finish come from the additions – just as the sweetish ‘best bitter’ body of the Marmalade Pale comes from the oranges and the dry ‘pale ale’ finish of the Jasmine Green Tea Pale comes from the tea. These are Frankenstein beers, with hops-and-barley flavour profiles duplicated – and heightened – by the use of additions. It’s a really interesting approach, and mostly it seems to be working really well.

Rose Wheat 4.7% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast, rose water 8.5/10
Pale gold, clear, light carbonation. Sweetish foretaste, perhaps slightly heavier than most of these; develops to a light, fresh flavour with a bit of that lager-like ‘gassy’, almost menthol edge to it. No bitterness on the finish – just more of the same and a return of that (rose water?) sweetness.

Immediate reaction: “Goes down like an absolute dream, and I don’t even like it.” A beautiful beer, and very, very drinkable. I still feel vaguely as if I don’t like it (or maybe just that I ought not to like it?); it’s certainly sweeter than most things I drink, and the rose water addition is the kind of thing you get in those made-up beers marketed at women from time to time. But you can’t argue with an empty glass. It’s just a really nice beer – and I think it is definitely a beer, not an alcoholic carbonated rose water drink. Incidentally, I’m sure I remember an earlier version of this one having more additions – ginger comes to mind – but I’ve got to say it works fine as it is.

Coffee Anise Porter 5.1% Malted barley, malted rye, coffee, hops, star anise, yeast. 8/10
Mahogany brown, nearly opaque, very light but adequate carbonation. A surprisingly straightforward beer, despite the unusual ingredient list (malted rye and all). It starts out like a heavy-ish, dark-ish brown bitter – not much bitterness or overt sweetness – before an aftertaste dominated by the titular coffee and star anise. And repeat – like so many beers on this list, this is a beer that goes down surprisingly easily. The flavours are quite distinctive and wouldn’t automatically combine to make a good beer – in fact the first time I tasted this, on draught, I found the star anise a bit overpowering – but here they work together well. As so often, the secret is balance.

Salted Caramel Coffee Porter 5.4% Malted barley, lactose sugar, malted wheat, coffee, cocoa nibs, hops, yeast, salt. 7.5/10
Mahogany brown, opaque, very light but adequate carbonation (i.e. not flat). Heavy, with both sweetness and salt on the foretaste; doesn’t lighten much but builds to a rich malt-loaf flavour, finishing with bitterness (and a definite hit of coffee), together with a brief return of that salt/sweet combination. Grew on me as I got down the glass; there are some strong and definite flavours bumping into each other here, and the combination initially tasted a bit in-your-face and medicinal. By the end, though, it tastes like itself and nothing but.

Quite full-on, this one – it drinks its strength and then some. I’m not sure I’m really on board with the recent rediscovery of lactose, ‘breakfast stouts’ and all; I feel about this one rather as I felt about Wild‘s Millionaire, that the fact that you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. It’s different, though, and it certainly tastes like you’d expect a salted caramel coffee porter to taste. More to the point, it passes both the tests I mentioned earlier on – it’s a distinctive flavour combination, and there is recognisably a beer underneath it all (the Wild beer didn’t really pass this second test, as I remember). It’s not quite as seamlessly put together as some of the beers here, though.

Summer IPA 6% Malted barley, malted wheat, pineapple, mango, hops, spices, yeast 8.5/10
Pale yellow, hazy, good condition. A sweetish foretaste gives way to spiky and aromatic fruit flavours; thins out a little – to something like home-made lemonade – before a buzzingly intense bitter finish. You’d swear there was grapefruit in there.

Drinking this straight after the Spring IPA (see previous post) was interesting. Of the two, this is much more successful as a beer. I still can’t help feeling I’d rather be drinking an IPA that had got pineapple and mango flavours out of hops and malt – rather than out of pineapples and mangoes – but this is a very well put-together beer. So often, flavour additions swamp a beer and turn it into a novelty (looking at you, Marble Mango). This one has certainly got fruit flavours in it, but they don’t overpower the beer at all. (And the bitter finish is presumably just from the hops.)

Minor update 13/8. Seen on a shelf (in Whitby): Tea and Biscuits Mild 3.5% Malted barley, lactose sugar, malted wheat, tea, hops, yeast. BB March ’18, so presumably knocking on a bit. Although I’m an inveterate Ticketybrew-spotter, I didn’t buy it; this was partly because I was about to head off on a walk but mainly because the shop was charging £3 for it (as they were for just about everything else on the shelves). I’m used to paying over £2 for Tb’s small bottles (although it’s always nice when you can get them for under £2), but £3 – for a 3.5%er – was a step too far. Possibly the good people of Whitby felt similarly, which is why those bottles were still on the shelf.

Ticketybrew tasting notes – 1

Munchner 4.5% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 7.5/10
Amber, clear, good conditioning; developed quite a satisfactory fountain of foam from the bottom of the glass. It’s a curious and distinctive-tasting beer; opens with bready malt (toasty, to be precise) and finishes with something similar; no sweetness (and definitely no caramel), but no bitterness either, even by the standards of a brown bitter. And I keep thinking of toast: both the foretaste and the aftertaste are strongly reminiscent of toasted brown bread, maybe toasted granary even. Between the two the flavour opens up into something fresh and citric, a clean taste with a subtle bitter edge that’s strongly reminiscent of German lager. I’m trying to specify that specific bitter edge more precisely, but my mental flavourbank is only coming up with ‘gas pipes’. It’s bitter, but it’s not caramel or burnt toast or charcoal or tobacco or woodsmoke or cloves or bitter herbs; it’s a clean, mineral bitterness, with an almost menthol quality, that tastes a bit like the smell of cooking gas. (So basically, if you’ve ever toasted brown bread over a gas ring, you’ve tasted this beer.)

I have to confess, I don’t entirely like this one, but I still go back to it – I buy a bottle from time to time to see if I’ve changed my mind. It’s certainly distinctive, interesting and well put together – and for all I know it’s true to style (if a Munchner is an unusually malty German lager).

American Hopfen Weisse 5.1% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 8/10
Pale gold, clear, good conditioning. A sharp citric foretaste, opening out to big fruit-salad flavours; smoky, herbal and musty overtones give a slight medicinal bitterness, which grows to dominate the aftertaste.

I’m not sure what a ‘hopfen weisse’ is, or what this beer is supposed to taste like. It’s not obviously a wheat beer, and it certainly isn’t a witbier. It does have a family resemblance to Duvel Tripel Hop – both of them taste like a base beer with an absolute ton of smoky American hops piled into it, which I guess is what they are. It’s good, that’s the main thing. In particular, it’s well balanced – the fruit is never bland, nor the bitterness harsh.

East India Porter 5.3% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 8/10
Dark brown, clear, slightly excessive conditioning – the (500 ml) bottle was a bit of a gusher. Begins like a stout, with those slightly sour ‘roast’ flavours; develops like a stout as well, on the full-bodied espresso/dark chocolate end of the spectrum, although not excessively heavy. The finish, particularly apparent at the front of the mouth, is an intransigent, tarry bitterness.

Is this a black IPA? I wouldn’t say so. The aromatic dryness that ‘East India’ might seem to promise only really develops in that tongue-scouring aftertaste – and even that wouldn’t be out of place in a stout. You don’t really look to Ticketybrew for hop-led beers, though. Considered as a stout – or as a porter if you’d rather – this works rather well.

Pale 5.5% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 9/10
Amber, clear, good conditioning. Sweetish, biscuity malt to begin with, opening out into… well, into more malt, to be honest; even the finish has a malty sweetness with a burnt-sugar bitter edge. But it’s not at all a heavy or cloying beer; the bitter finish builds steeply, drying out the flavour and rounding it off nicely. It’s a really interesting beer, doing something most new-wave beers don’t even attempt; it reminds me of old-school best bitters, but only the really good ones (Harvey’s Sussex Bitter, or Landlord at a pinch).

I go back quite a long way with the Pale; it’s not the first Ticketybrew beer I tasted, but it’s the first I fell in love with. These days it doesn’t have quite the endless depth and complexity it did back then – not in bottle, at any rate – but what’s there is still really good.

Blonde 5.8% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 9.5/10
Gold, clear, lively conditioning. Just a touch of citrus on the foretaste, but the main flavour is a smooth, almost creamy cleanness, with a slight herbal edge and a definite touch of that ‘gas pipe’ bitterness (I’ve got to find a better word for this). The finish: still clean, still creamy, just a little bit of bitterness to dry things off. The overall effect is French or even Belgian; if you tasted this blind and somebody told you it was from Huyghe, say, you wouldn’t argue.

Like the Pale, the Blonde has traded a bit of edgy complexity for stability and consistency, but tasting it now it’s hard to find anything to regret. When a beer really impresses me I sometimes catch myself just looking at it, partway down the glass, as if it could give me clues – what’s this, then? how do you do that? I did that with this one just now. It’s not the most complex flavour profile, but it works so well.

Spring IPA 6% Malted barley, malted wheat, hops, yeast 7/10
Dark amber, hazy and over-conditioned – an uncontrollable gusher, frankly. Surprisingly fruity; the citric foretaste opens up into apples and peaches, with a slight medicinal edge. Doesn’t really ‘dry out’ at all; even the finish is more burnt sugar than clove oil or charcoal.

My difficulty getting the beer into the glass – and its unattractive appearance when I did – didn’t do this one any favours. But the actual flavour profile is similar to what I remember tasting when Ticketybrew had a keg IPA available; indeed, given that that one was also 6%, it may well be the same beer. In terms of contemporary style expectations, it’s an odd one: the fruity flavour isn’t tempered by that drying bitterness you tend to expect from an old-school IPA, but neither is it as aromatic and flowery as you’d expect a ‘craft’ pale ale to be. More than anything, it put me more in mind of a ‘fruity’ strong bitter like Wobbly Bob.

Dubbel 6.5% Malted barley, candy syrup, malted wheat, hops, yeast 9.5/10
Dark amber, slight haze, good conditioning. Flavour-wise it’s oddly difficult to describe: begins with heavy sweetness, developing into sweet heaviness before a finish which is, um, not light or lacking in sweetness…  The flavour does develop, though, even if it’s basically variations on a theme: the initial sweetness gives way to a full body with some fruitcake complexity, with herbal aromas developing before a burnt-caramel bitterness rounds it off. Heavy but not dense, sweet but never cloying; it’s a really well-balanced beer.

Beers put together as well as this can seem simple and unchallenging, particularly if they’re outside the hop-led mainstream. I’ve underrated this one in the past; I saw the error of my ways when I drank a Westmalle Dubbel and discovered that the Ticketybrew version stood up rather well in comparison. A beautiful beer.

 

Strong and stable

I’m returning to Ticketybrew, and in particular to my plan from a while back to write a comprehensive run-down of their beers. I’ve been a bit less ambitious this time and confined myself to beers that you can get hold of in bottle – so no Invalid Stout, no Manchester Tart and no Grodziskie.

But why am I doing all this again, having devoted several posts to the brewery last September? One word: stability. The first time I tasted Ticketybrew Pale, I was knocked out by the ramifying depths of the flavour, which belied an initial sweetness. I went back the next night and was bowled over once again, but surprised by the initial sourness. The next time I tried it, I thought for a moment it was on the turn, before ‘tuning in’ and recognising the same massive, complex beer. The fourth time we were back to sweetness; I was surprised, but I wasn’t complaining. Something similar happened when I first had the Blonde on draught, or rather the first and second times I had the Blonde on draught; later, I had a similar “was it sour like this last time?” moment with the Golden Bitter, and then with the Summer Porter.

It’s obvious now what was happening: those beers were in fact going sour in the cask, quickly enough to be noticeable but slowly enough for the beer to remain drinkable. So far, so bearable; the Golden Bitter was nicer when it was new, but the Pale and the Blonde really seemed to thrive on a bit of staling. Then I started getting beers that were starting to go sour in bottle, and sometimes not just starting: I had to tell myself to ignore that initial citric edge in quite a few different beers (although never the really pale ones, like the IPAs or the Jasmine Green Tea Pale).

So stability was a problem for Ticketybrew, as Keri wrote on the brewery’s blog last November – but the issues were eventually tracked down to a persistent and hard-to-fix lactobacillus problem. Hard, but not impossible: since the beginning of this year, to my certain knowledge, the problem has been fixed. These are new beers: if you’ve ever drunk Ticketybrew beers before now, you owe it to yourself to try them again. (And if you haven’t, where have you been?)

Over the next couple of posts I’m going to review everything that’s currently available in bottle, tackling first the ‘standard’ beers and then the ones reliant on additions – from Marmalade Pale to Coffee Anise Porter. Duncan and Keri, and their ever-expanding team, are doing some really interesting things up in Stalybridge – and you can rely on these beers to taste like they’re supposed to. (And if some of us rather miss the unreformed, unstabilised Blonde and Pale, with their dirty edges and scary depths… well, some of us are awkward so-and-so’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.

A session of three halves

I’ve been in a few bars recently where a wide range of beers belied a decidedly narrow range of styles, strengths or – in the worst case – both. Not stocking anything over (say) 5% seems particularly regrettable. I know that cask beer doesn’t keep forever, so that any unfamiliar beer is a bit of a gamble for the bar stocking it – and a beer that people are likely to drink in halves is twice as much of a gamble – but there should be a bit more room for manoeuvre with keg beers, surely.

Fortunately, a Half of Something Silly is still available in some places. The newly-opened Keg & Cask (a successor of sorts to De Nada and occupying the same premises) included in its opening keg lineup Alphabet Flat White, an amber 7.2% number confusingly described as a ‘white breakfast stout’. First impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine. Second impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine with coffee and perhaps some sweetness from lactose. Overall impression: a decent mid-strength barley wine, which could probably have done without the coffee and the lactose. Call me a traditionalist, but I won’t mind, because I am. (What do I make of K&C? Early days – and I remember my first impressions of the (Chorlton) Font as ‘a big draughty barn with leather sofas dotted about & a scary man on the door’, which isn’t really the case now. What I will say about K&C is that the posing tables & high stools aren’t really for me – when I’m drinking I like to take the weight off my feet, sit back & lose myself in what I’m reading (and drinking), and being unable to do the first two makes the third a lot harder. The metal chairs on the astroturf ‘lawn’ outside were a lot more satisfactory.)

Somewhere that fits a lot of normally-sized seats – including bench seating – into a small space is the Marble Beerhouse, where I headed next. They had – and (as I’m writing) probably still have – Marble Portent of Usher on cask. This is a 9% imperial stout, and it’s worth seeking out: it’s ‘big’ and heavy without being hot, it’s sweet without being syrupy, it’s got depth and complexity without being hard to drink… all in all I don’t remember very much about it, except that it definitely didn’t not work; there are lots of ways to mess up with a 9% stout, and this one didn’t put a foot wrong. Perhaps my only worry is whether a beer so big should be quite so smooth or go down quite so easily.

Anyway, I had time for another half, and I was pleased to see Marble Assisi on keg. This is a dubbel – brewed in collaboration with the Gorton Monastery of St Francis – although it’s relatively light for the style, at least in colour and strength (6.5%). Having recently enjoyed a bottle of Ticketybrew Dubbel, I was initially somewhat taken aback by the Assisi, inasmuch as my first impression was that it was even better. On further reflection (and further drinking) I demoted it to ‘as good, but different’. It’s on the ‘strong bitter’ end of the dubbel style rather than the ‘dark mild’ end, put it that way: definitely a paler shade of malt loaf.

I called it a day then, or to be more precise went home for my tea. Three halves, then, with an average strength of 7.6% – which is to say, the equivalent of three pints at 3.8%. I don’t think I’ll do many sessions on halves – I do like the volume of a pint; in future I’ll at least alternate with something a bit less rocket-fuel-like. Good to have the option, though.

 

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.)

Stocport and elsewhere

This is another Winter Warmer Wander roundup, covering pubs I’ve visited (a) in Stockport (six of them) and (b) elsewhere (another five). (NB I know about the misspelling.)

There’s a lot of pub-crawl potential in this year’s WWW, but only in Manchester and Stockport; elsewhere the pickings are a bit slim. In Chorlton, which you would have thought fairly target-rich, only one pub is listed: the Sedge Lynn (JDW). Here I had a choice between Phoenix Wobbly Bob – a perennial presence at the Sedge Lynn – and Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime. I wasn’t entirely sure if the latter would qualify – or what style it actually is – but a quick google while I was waiting to be served satisfied me that Ratebeer, at least, call it a porter, so that’s what I ordered. I’d reckoned without the manager, who intervened – midway through the predictable hunt for the sticker sheet – to tell her staff (and me) that Brodie’s Prime didn’t count for the WWW. Not feeling entirely sure on the style point, I said something about strength, to which she replied “Yes, it’s got to be 5% or over”. We got it sorted out in the end – at least, I let her know that the cutoff was 4.5% and I duly got a sticker – but things were surprisingly combative for a while there. I guess the Sedge Lynn doesn’t feel any need to drum up custom.

There were three pubs on the Fallowfield/Didsbury route, but you wouldn’t want to walk between them. Down at Parrs Wood, the Gateway was serving Stockport Ebeernezer, which looked like the most interesting option of two or three beers that qualified on strength only; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t a vaguely Christmassy dark ale but a porter. Up the (tram) line at Wine and Wallop, there were a couple of good options and one excellent one: RedWillow Thoughtless, a 9.4% imperial stout, which (predictably) was very nice indeed. More cask stout at the Friendship in Fallowfield, and a bit of local brewery news (news to me at least): as well as the Beer Studio range, a couple of the Hyde’s pumps were dispensing beers under the “Provenance” label. I may be doing Hyde’s a disservice, but if this means anything it seems to mean “in the style of beers from region X”, which is more or less the opposite of what the word ‘provenance’ generally means. Anyway, my Hyde’s Dublin stout was a nice enough beer – a light-bodied, dryish, easy-drinking stout.

Then there was Urmston. Earlier in the WWW, the Prairie Schooner had had a Winter Warmer from Ticketybrew on, but sadly this had gone by the time I got there. Tatton Yeti only really qualified on strength, but it was a very nice beer. I didn’t go anywhere else in Urmston – the Hop House already had the shutters down – and it was a bit of an excursion for the sake of a half. I liked the look of the Prairie Schooner a great deal, though; at first blush it looks like a small bar/bottle shop of the Heaton Hops ilk, but there’s a more comfortable seating area behind the bar, going back quite a long way. Like the Sip Club in Stretford, it’s one of those places I shall be sure to visit the next time I’m visiting that part of Manchester; unfortunately, like Stretford, Urmston is a part of Manchester I hardly ever do visit. Speaking of Stretford, I got accent-checked by the driver of the bus I got home – Sorry, where? “Chorlton”. Oh, right, Chorlton! (Twenty minutes from here, mate. Also, printed on your timetable.) Admittedly I am a Southerner by origin, but that hasn’t happened to me in thirty years. But then, I don’t go west of the A56 that often.

As for Stockport, I saved it this year till I only had six slots left to fill & could do it in a day. (If six sounds unambitious, read on – & note the a.b.v.s.) Coincidentally my local CAMRA branch had a Stockport crawl planned; I was hoping to join it, but on the day we had something else booked. So it was as a solo drinker that I hit town and went straight to the Swan with Two Necks for a half of – inevitably – Robinson’s Old Tom. It was on hand pump, it was in good nick, it was big, malty and 8.5%, and by the time the bartender had got round to signing my sheet it was almost all gone. Shame – that snug looked very comfortable. From there I headed to the (Portwood) Railway, where I’d ordered a half of Rossendale Pitch Porter – an old friend – before noticing that the Phoenix pump was dispensing a 7% beer called Humbug. (The Rossendale beers have had a redesign, incidentally, and look rather good. They’re also insanely cheap if my half was anything to go by (£1.25!) – although this may just be the Railway, and/or my Chorlton expectations colliding with Stockport.) Anyway, I can report that Phoenix Humbug is terrific – a pale barley wine, sweet all the way down but without ever becoming cloying. My second ‘old ale’ of the Wander, and one to put alongside Old Tom.

Back to town then, where the Baker’s Vaults presented me with a similar multiple-qualifer challenge: Old Tom or Titanic Plum Porter Special Reserve? Well, Old Tom obviously, but I was curious enough about the PPSR to ask for a taster. (It was fine.) Then a couple of new venues, at least to me. The Remedy Bar and Brewhouse is every bit as ‘craft’ as that sounds – bare brick, railway-sleeper benches, big steel vessels, that style of thing. On the bar I couldn’t see any of their own stuff, but they did have a (I’m sighing as I type this) Bad Seed/Trembling Madness collab called Descent into Madness. It was a 7% imperial stout and it was fine. On to the Petersgate Tap; also a very un-pub-like venue, but considerably less rock’n’roll and more cafe-bar, as compared to Remedy, and a lot more to my taste. There was a choice here: Elland 1872 or Liverpool Organic Kitty Wilkinson stout. I’m a confirmed fan of the Elland, but it is 6.5%, and by this stage I fancied easing off a bit. So Kitty it was (4.5% chocolate & vanilla stout, well kept, very drinkable).

On past WWW Stockport trips I’ve finished up at the Crown, but on my last couple of visits I’ve found it hard – despite the huge range of beer they offer – to find one that really called to me. This time I headed to the Magnet. Cryptic Round One stout was 4.9% and fine (I know, but you try remembering what the beer actually tasted like at the back end of a session like this). I finished off with a half of evil keg. RedWillow, like Marble, seem to have got a bit of a new lease of life recently; the Perceptionless “New England IPA” was terrific (and not particularly hazy, for what that’s worth).

Counting one beer per venue (in other words, not counting the Pitch Porter) and adding in the details from the previous post, that stacks up as follows:

Central Manchester and Salford
Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2
No qualifying beers: 1

Stockport
Stout: 3
Porter: 0
Old ale: 3

Everywhere else
Stout: 2
Porter: 2
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 1

Total
Stout: 10
Porter: 7
Old ale: 3
Other >4.5%: 3 (Prairie Schooner, Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

Compared to previous years, cask porter has held very steady, and cask stout has grown and grown – if there’s one tangible success the WWW can point to, it’s that. Old ales, barley wines and winter warmers, though – where are they? Setting aside Robinson’s and Phoenix – both of whom, interestingly, brew a strong ale all year round – the breweries just didn’t seem to be trying this year. On the bright side, the number of pubs not actually putting the right kind of beers on – either not understanding the point of the Wander or just not bothering – has fallen dramatically; as recently as 2014 there were almost as many strength-only beers on my list as the rest put together. Overall, this year’s Wander has to be counted as a success; congratulations and thanks to the organisers.

Maximum darkness

Time for this year’s Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Winter Warmer Wander.  The point of the Wander is to get round as many as possible of the nominated pubs and bars (40 this year), and – most importantly – to have a “cask conditioned stout, porter, old ale or barley wine (or if none available, any other premium beer 4.5% or over”) in each one.

In this, the first of two posts, I’ll focus on my experiences in the town centre pubs included – quite a lot of them this year.

I was in both the Micro Bar and Cafe Beermoth the day after the WWW began this year; this wasn’t me being quick off the mark, though, as I’d forgotten all about it and consequently didn’t tick them off. I went back to both the following week to do it properly. Nothing looked like qualifying at the Micro Bar – no Boggart Rum Porter in sight this year; they had Titanic Cherry Dark on, but this is variously described as a ‘fruit beer’ and a ‘black bitter'(!), and is in any case only 4.2%. I had Kelham Island Riders on the Storm, a perfectly pleasant hoppy brown bitter which (just) qualified on strength at 4.5%. Pickings were on the slim side at Cafe Beermoth, too; several of their keg lines had high-to-silly a.b.v.s, but only two of the cask beers qualified. I asked after the 6%er, but this turned out to be an IPA; so, Okell’s St Nick it was. This is a “full-bodied, dark-coloured beer with an aroma of fruit and malt” to quote the brewer; it’s 4.5%, and it was fine.

Incidentally, Cafe Beermoth have an infuriating system of listing all their beers in a standard format in a row of plain signs above the taps on the back wall – a standard format which includes a.b.v., brewery and town of origin, but not style. Given that they tend to stock beers that are off the beaten track this inevitably results (for me at least) in an extended conversation with the bar staff, something like this:

What can I get you?
– Er… what kind of a beer is Drummond’s Deplorability?
That’s an IPA.
– Oh, OK. What’s the, er, Flintlock Don’t Come The Raw Prune?
That’s a plum porter. Would you like a taster?
damn, plum, I could have guessed that… No, I’m fine. What’s the JSD Chasmatic?
[sigh] …And that’s a stout. Is it a dark beer you’re after?

It’s a lose-lose situation – the person behind the bar obviously thinks I’m a timewaster, and I end up giving in and getting a pint of the second or third thing they mention, whatever it is, just so as not to prolong the embarrassment. Memo to Cafe B: styles, please! (They surely can’t make a living selling exclusively to people who already know every beer they sell… can they?)

Elsewhere in town it was dark beers all the way. Well, almost; the Terrace had Titanic Plum Porter on keg, but nothing at all that qualified on cask. Howard Town Super Fortress, a 4.4% ‘ruby ale’, was both the darkest and the strongest thing going. Another couple of places that didn’t make much impression on me either way were the Town Hall Tavern (the aforementioned Titanic Plum Porter – fine, albeit dearer than I’ve had it elsewhere) and Pie and Ale (Sonnet 43 Create Those Moments, a “spiced pear and brandy porter” which worked far better than I expected it to). The Castle has in the past been somewhere to linger, but Christmas party season seems to have started particularly early this year; it was standing room only when I called, so I drank my Saltaire Triple Chocoholic and got out. (No sign of Old Tom at the Castle, incidentally; I haven’t seen it there since this time in 2012. Shame.)

Two of the city centre’s four Wetherspoons’ – the Paramount and the Waterhouse – are on the WWW trail. Digressing slightly, I was pleasantly surprised to see that both of them had Ticketybrew bottles in the fridge; rather excitingly, the Waterhouse also had a keg font for the 6% Ticketybrew IPA. This was a fine beer when I had it in an unlabelled bottle a few months back, but I’ve never seen it since; sadly it was off at the Waterhouse, so the wait will have to continue. Great to see Duncan & Keri getting a bit more exposure. As far as the WWW goes, it was Brightside Season Four stout at the Waterhouse and Stockport Stockporter at the Paramount – both rather good and well-kept. (The Paramount actually had four different qualifying beers on, including the Elland 1872 porter which was their house beer for a while (as ‘Paramount Porter’). I’m guessing the regulars really like their dark beers.)

eggsDown on Bridge Street, Brink had a small but well-chosen range of beers, including Squawk Porter – really excellent, one of my beers-of-the-Wander. The landlord commented that mine was only the third sticker he’d given out, and admitted to feeling a bit let down by CAMRA’s promises of extra custom; I said that the bar’s non-standard opening hours had probably knocked it off some people’s lists. Be that as it may, I’d recommend anyone to get down there – it’s a really nice little dive bar with excellent beer at decent prices. Anyone concerned about the War on Christmas will also be glad to learn that Brink appears to be resisting the politically-correct orthodoxy of the so-called ‘Scotch’ egg.

Carry on down Bridge Street and you leave Manchester altogether, but since there’s only one Salford pub in the WWW I’ll include it here. The New Oxford is an old-style ‘beer exhibition’ pub: one of those places with 10+ handpumps, mostly dispensing beers from local-ish breweries which don’t have much of a profile. It’s the kind of pub that seems designed to attract CAMRA members and tickers, in other words, and like others of the same type (the Magnet or the Portwood Railway) it’s built up a regular clientele who aren’t either of those things, but live nearby and fancy a drink from time to time. I guess you’ve got to make a living. Anyway, the beer of choice at the Oxford this time was Empire Porter. (Empire: a small brewery in Slaithwaite. You live and learn.) Perfectly decent porter, even if the name’s about as appealing to some of us as “Colony Gin” – and well-kept, not that I’d expect anything else at the Oxford.

That just leaves three local beer institutions. The youngest of the three, the Smithfield, is my favourite Manchester pub bar none. You can find as good a beer range in a few other places – including the Paramount, if my last visit is anything to go by – but none of those has the atmosphere of the Smithfield, which I’d characterise as classic pub ambience with a bit of ‘bar’ to lift it (pale walls, unmatched sofas instead of bench seating – that kind of thing). They had two stouts on, one at 5% and one at a rather fearsome 10% – and both at recognisably beer-like prices (none of that “£6 for 2/3” caper). I considered the silly-o-clock option but wimped out and got the 5%er, viz. Blackjack Stout – and very good it was too. My visit to the Piccadilly Tap was less successful; they had some good stuff on, but the Exit 33 stout I went for was a bit puny, tasting to me more like a rather tame dark mild with a bit of added roastiness (a ‘black mild’?).

And finally Esther, the Marble Arch. Time for a quick confession. The Marble Beerhouse was my local as soon as it opened (1999?), and I’ve been a loyal and mostly enthusiastic drinker of their beers ever since then – even though for most of that time I would have killed for a brown malty bitter. Round about 2011 I had a lightbulb moment – triggered, appropriately enough, by a Marble beer – and ‘got’ the pale hoppy beers the cool kids were all talking about (and which, of course, Marble had been brewing all along). And I haven’t really had a bad word to say about Marble since then. But I confess that, between 2011 and 2015, Marble’s beers weren’t always as interesting, or as solidly accomplished, as I might have liked.

Now, though – blimey, as they say, Charlie. Marble’s current range includes several beers, particularly in the 5.5%-7.5% range, which are really excellent. Earl Grey IPA, Damage Plan, Built to Fall and Extra Porter are all absolutely superb beers; Damage Plan in particular is a beer to dream about. I had a half of Built to Fall on cask at the Marble Arch when I visited; it’s great on keg, but the lighter carbonation and more rough-edged flavour profile of cask really brings out the character and complexity of this beer. (I suspect the same wouldn’t be true of Damage Plan, but I’d love to find out.) It’s not a ‘winter warmer’, mind you, so I preceded it with a half of Magic Rock Dark Arts – which was also very good. (Just not quite that good. Marble really are on a roll at the moment.)

Thirteen pubs, thirteen winter warmers? Not quite, I’m afraid:

Stout: 5
Porter: 5
Old ale: 0
Other >4.5%: 2 (Micro Bar, Cafe Beermoth)
No qualifying beers: 1 (Terrace)

I noticed last year that old ales were thin on the ground compared to porters and stouts; the trend’s clearly continued, sadly. Let’s see if the news is any better when I hit Stockport.