Category Archives: Very not pale’n’oppy

Disappearing beers

This isn’t a lockdown post, except in the sense that lockdown has reacquainted me with The Bathams’ – which turns out to be a lot easier to get hold of in bottle than Pete suggested a few years ago. And Bathams’ bitter is a rare beast: it’s a disappearing beer. Not in the sense that it’s getting harder to find (see links above), but in the sense that it disappears; it goes beyond being drinkable, into a zone where the beer seems to drink itself. Essentially, if you buy a pint, take it back to your table, sit down, then look round a minute later to find the first half’s gone – that’s a disappearing beer.

Not all good beers are disappearing beers, by any means. I grew up on darkish, chewy bitters – sweet and fruity (Buckley’s) or dry and tannic (Harvey’s) – and I’m a huge fan of old ales and big stouts; some of my favourite beers are beers that you can’t knock back, or not without a conscious effort.

Come to that, being ‘smashable’ isn’t really the point either. Boak and Bailey wrote the other day in praise of Fyne Ales Jarl:

For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

I’d agree with that; Jarl’s a properly sessionable beer, and there are other beers I’d put alongside it – Marble Pint, Redemption Trinity, Magic Rock Ringmaster (although in its heyday (as Curious) it was arguably a bit too hoppy to be really sessionable). But even Pint doesn’t quite soak itself up the way that a true disappearing beer does.

If I’m not talking about style or flavour, and I’m not talking about sessionability, what am I on about? Is there really such a thing as an über-drinkable beer? Am I perhaps over-generalising from a beer that I happened to drink when I was thirsty? Yes, there is, and no, I’m not. Evidence: my 2018 visit to Prague, where the bars serve very little else: světlý ležák is the epitome of the disappearing beer. I had some interestingly diverse beers while I was in Prague, but I also had four pale lagers at 11 or 12°, from four different breweries, all of which threw themselves down my throat at a slightly alarming rate. “I sat down, I looked at the food menu, I looked at my glass – 2/3 empty.”

To sum up: my list of disappearing beers doesn’t include any sessionable hoppy bangers – even they require a bit too much effort to qualify as disappearing of their own accord – but does include

  1. Many (most?) Czech světlý ležák in the 10-12° range
  2. The Bathams’
  3. er, that’s it

On which note I’ll throw it open to the floor. What do you think? Am I right about the Bathams’… what kind of question is that, of course I am… How about the světlý ležák – was I just thirsty all the time I was in Prague? And what beers have taken you by surprise, by apparently drinking themselves and confronting you with a half-empty glass?

“Time in lockdown behaves slowly”, I wrote at the top of my last post. Evidence: this post, which (at the time) I was planning on writing the following day or maybe the one after that. Nine days later, here we are.

Lockdown beers

Time in lockdown behaves strangely. I was about to write “I remember the early days of lockdown” but then felt ridiculous – of course I remember the early days of lockdown, it was less than two months ago!

Things did feel very different, though. The first Saturday of lockdown, I remember we ordered a pizza instead of the usual Chinese takeaway, then had to wait two and a half hours for it to arrive. (I even chased them up.) The worst of it wasn’t the wait, but the sinking feeling that this was what it was going to be like from now on. Similarly with beer; after watching my under-stairs stash dwindling for a while, I took the plunge and ordered a case from Thirst Class and a mixed case of nip bottles from Harvey’s (of which more another time). When those started to go down, I looked at the breweries’ Web sites and found, to my mounting horror, that Thirst Class’s range had been greatly reduced since I’d ordered, and Harvey’s – although the Web site did say they were continuing to brew, to give their yeast strain something to do – had nothing at all on sale. Was this what it was going to be like? Were breweries going to stop brewing, one after another – then run down their existing stock, one after another – and then there would be no more beer? Was I going to have to start drinking gin?

Happily, I can report that Thirst Class currently has an extraordinary range of beer on sale – quite a lot of it isn’t their own, so presumably there has been some running down of stock, but it’s still a very fine range. As for Harvey’s, I don’t know why absolutely everything was marked as ‘sold out’ on that one alarming evening, but it certainly isn’t now; either they’ve been re-brewing quite a few of the weird and wonderful beers in their range, or they’ve found a lot of bottles somewhere (pub cellars, possibly) and assigned them to the Web shop.

So that’s the first effect, or the first two effects, of lockdown on my beer drinking habits: 1. buying in bulk and 2. panicking periodically. (Mind you, 2. is so familiar a feature of lockdown in general that it hardly deserves its own ‘beer’ sub-heading.)

My bulk buys to date are:

  • 12 assorted bottles from Thirst Class (free delivery)
  • mixed case of nip bottles (3 x Imperial Extra Double Stout, 3 x Christmas Ale, 3 x Elizabethan Ale, 3 x Tom Paine) from Harvey’s (courier)
  • 12 bottles of the Batham’s plus 3 x Enville Ale from The Wine Press of Stourbridge (courier) (hat tip to the Pub Curmudgeon)
  • a case (12 nip bottles) each of Imperial Extra Double Stout and Elizabethan Ale from Harvey’s
  • a case (12 33cl cans) of Jaipur and a mixed case of 12 bottles and cans from Thornbridge (free delivery on orders over £30, but orders by the case only)
  • 6 bottles of Orval and 12 other mixed Trappist and Trappist-ish beers from biere-speciale.be (international delivery, but bottle prices low enough to make orders of 10+ bottles cheaper than buying them locally)

The first Harvey’s case is long gone, as are the Envilles and all but one of the Thirst Class (you need to pick the right moment for a 9% black IPA); most of the Orvals and the IEDSs are for ageing, or at least that’s the plan. The rest should keep me going for another few weeks.

Or perhaps for longer than that, considering another effect of lockdown: 3. reduced consumption. I was never a huge pub-goer, but in the average month I’d probably fit in

  • 8 swift ones after work (15 minutes, 1 pint)
  • 4 trips to the pub to order the takeaway (30 minutes, 2-3 pints)
  • 2 folk sessions (2-3 hours, 3-4 pints)
  • 1 pub quiz (2 hours, 2 pints)

On one hand, when I stop work these days it’s because it’s time for tea (or to make tea), and it’s hard to fit in the swiftest of beers on my way from one room to another. On the other, following one beer with another beer – let alone following that one with a third – seems like a much bigger deal at home than it does in the pub. When – the week before lockdown – we switched to ordering the Saturday takeaway for delivery, I tried to make the effort to have two drinks in the half-hour before it came, but an effort is what it was. One beer in an evening – even one 33 cl bottle or can, which generally packs less of a punch than the weediest of pints – is not at all unusual these days; and the more I get out of the habit of session-style boozing, the less I’ve got the capacity for it. I hardly ever have an even moderately heavy session now; on the other hand, I also have fewer completely dry days – not least because I’m hardly ever hung over. It’ll be interesting to see whether I go back to how things were, whenever this thing is finally over.

Note I’ve been disinclined to write on this blog lately – along with most other things – but I’m planning to crank it up again. I’ve currently got another three posts planned; hopefully inspiration will strike again after that.

 

 

 

Times change

A bit less than eight years ago, I visited a new bar and came away with a substantial list of grievances. I didn’t have any problems with the beer I tried: it was an interesting beer with a big, complex flavour – at least, it was once I’d let [it] warm up and got rid of some of the CO2. But, as well as over-carbonating and over-chilling their beer, this bar had a number of disqualifying features, which I documented in some detail; an edited extract from the original post follows.

  1. High prices for ordinary beers: say 25% higher than I’d expect to pay anywhere else in Manchester for the entry-level draught beer, and 100% higher than you’d pay in some places.
  2. Very, very high prices for mildly unusual beers
  3. Ridiculously, insultingly high prices for really unusual beers [was that really three separate points? Ed.]
  4. Overpriced halves [half of £3.95 ’rounded up’ to £2.15]
  5. Short measures … 2mm of froth below the line in my glass
  6. Obtrusive branding: your average pub doesn’t brand every visible surface with the same company image.

More trivial annoyances included chalking up the most expensive beers with an even higher price than the price in the printed menu (which was already insanely high) and giving the cheapest beer on the board a deliberately off-putting name (an annoying little trick, familiar from the wine lists of restaurants with a student clientele).

Which might suggest that the same chain’s newest ahem ‘outpost’ is a venue that I wouldn’t have set foot in – and not that it would become a regular after-work hangout and a bar I spent more time in than any other, over the four or five weeks up to and including last Monday.

Well, we can all change our minds; for one thing, I no longer read nefarious intentions into getting a price wrong on the menu, or naming a beer “Dead Pony Club”. (Apparently it was originally “Grateful Dead Pony Club”. Yeah, well… exits muttering…) Another thing that’s changed over the last eight years is my employment contract & consequent spending power – points 1-3 don’t bug me the way they used to. The prices were still high – all the pints were priced in the £5-6 range, and so were the beers advertised in smaller measures (2/3, a half or even a third, depending on strength). Point 3 above continued to irk me for a lot longer than 1 and 2, but I got over it; in the end I was a lot more bothered by the thought of a beer being priced at eighteen quid a pint!!! than I was by actually paying £6 for a third of something unusual (and very strong).

The changes weren’t all on my side, either. No short measure that I noticed, and no price-gouging on the change front; with halves, thirds and 2/3s on sale, opportunities for creative ’rounding’ abounded, but I never saw a price rounded up further than the nearest 5p. Even the company branding had calmed down a bit, although what you could call a broader ‘hipster hangout’ branding was in full effect – if you don’t like huge railway-sleeper refectory tables in pubs, or posing tables with high spindly chairs, you wouldn’t have liked the seating options in this place, which consisted mainly of posing refectory tables. (Who knew there was such a thing?)

And the beer? Well, it wasn’t excessively cold and fizzy – another change for the better. They even had a cask tap for a while – and served some very nice porter from it – although they’d quietly discontinued that a couple of weeks ago. That cask porter aside, I will say that it wasn’t really a place to go for a pint; the only time I wasn’t crazy about the beer was when I went for a full pint of 5 a.m. Saint. Don’t get me wrong, it was good – not as good as the cask version I tasted once, but there we go – but at about the 2/3 point it did cross my mind that it had cost about the same as two pints of Landlord I’d had the previous night. Not one but two pints of Landlord is a high bar for any beer to meet. The up side was considerable, though; further off the beaten track – on the ‘guest’ side of the board, out among the bretted beers and imperial stouts – they served some of the best and most memorable beers I’ve had in a very long time; I always looked forward to what I was going to try next, and I was very rarely disappointed.

And that’s how I made my peace with BrewDog – at least with the BrewDog Outpost – and even became a bit of a fan (again). Memorable is what those beers are going to have to be, of course – what with one thing and another – and possibly for a very long time. But I’m already looking forward to going back. Perching on a high chair holding a funny-shaped glass containing less than half a pint of something smelling of blackcurrant and old socks probably sounds like a vision of hell to some of my fellow beer bloggers, but – to my surprise – I found it could be a lot of fun.

Bah, humbug!

CAMRA’s Winter Warmer Wander is going to have to manage without me this year. I got off to a reasonable, if rather belated, start – the Winter Warmer Wander seems to come round earlier every year…! In Manchester town centre I picked up stickers for Titanic Plum Porter at the Paramount, a chocolate and vanilla stout at the Castle and a chilli stout at the Crown and Kettle; a visit to the Petersgate Tap also let me tick off Ashover‘s uncompromisingly-named Liquorice, which I can honestly say is the most liquorice-tasting beer I’ve ever drunk. It’s only a pity I can’t stand liquorice. (Fortunately it didn’t have the (ahem) medicinal effects that I remember from Ticketybrew‘s liquorice-infused Invalid Stout – but then, I did have multiple pints of that.)

After that I was a bit busy for the first half of December, and then I caught my usual pre-Christmas cold, and then there was really no time to fit in enough beers for the 24 stickers I’d usually aim for. I thought I might be able to manage the 12, though, and headed Stockportwards.

The Wine & Wallop had a better dark beer selection than I’ve seen there sometimes, with two to choose from; Yeovil Yeo Ho Ho was a rather nice hoppy stout. From there it was a short – well, no, quite a long – walk to my current favourite bar, Burnage’s Reasons to be Cheerful. I never have a beer in Reasons without seeing one or two others I’d like to try, and this time it was more like five or six.

Stockport was calling, though. A bus journey and short walk later, I was in the Crown on Heaton Lane. I’ve seen pubs in decline before; generally the symptoms include a severely truncated beer range, dilapidated fixtures and fittings, and a pervasive smell of bleach. The Crown looked – and smelt – immaculate: heavy wood furniture, buttoned leather bench seating, etched mirrors and windows, even bellpushes in the panelling; a better example of the old-school multi-room pub you couldn’t hope to find. The beer range had been reduced since the last time I was in, but six handpumps – mostly serving well-respected local breweries – is still more than most pubs can boast. But the heart seemed to have gone out of the place, and the customers seemed to have followed; on a fine Saturday afternoon, the barman and I were the only people in the place. The only dark beer on was Titanic Plum Porter; it’s a good beer when it’s kept well, and it was here.

One of the nice things about coming to Stockport for the Wander is getting the chance to drink Old Tom on draught; there was a time when Robbie’s pubs in Manchester would have a pin of Old Tom on the go at this time of year, but I haven’t seen it outside Stockport in a long time. So I made a beeline for the Swan With Two Necks, where I had a half of Old Tom and eavesdropped on a late entry for Scariest Conversation of 2019: what initially sounded like somebody describing a film (“so he reckoned he had to get his revenge on the drug lord who killed his brother”), but then didn’t (“so I said, I’m not going out there for the funeral, I’m not going anywhere near it – my uncle went in the end, and even he was shit-scared”). Stockport, eh?

One of the really nice things about coming to Stockport for the Wander is getting the chance to drink two halves of Old Tom on draught in succession. The Baker’s Vaults isn’t a pub I’ve warmed to since its refurb – perhaps it’s just me, perhaps it’s just the circumstances in which I usually see it, but it has that indefinable “not entirely welcoming to solitary middle-aged men well on their way to getting thoroughly drunk” air about it. At least since the last time I was there they’ve put in some chairs at floor level, if you see what I mean. Anyway, I was mildly tempted by the 6.5% ‘special reserve’ version of Titanic Plum Porter, but they had Old Tom on – there was no real competition. (It cost about half as much again as it did in the Swan, incidentally.)

I said earlier on that Reasons to be Cheerful is currently my favourite bar; I think it’s because it gets the basics right and doesn’t really bother about anything else. R2BC doesn’t look “craft”, or look anything in particular; it’s a reasonably nice-looking space, with reasonably comfortable seating, and the range and quality of the beer is consistently excellent. Remedy, on the other hand, is quite a lot about the look of the thing; I’ve never actually been to an Edison lightbulb showroom, but I think it would look a great deal like that. I plonked myself down on a railway sleeper and had one of their own beers – Missing Slippers, a 5.5% “marshmallow stout” – which was fine.

And that – apart from an obligatory scoop at the Petersgate Tap (a third of Ashover Moscow, a 9.5% imperial stout) – was it for Stockport. Sadly, with only ten stickers I was obliged to… what’s that, Sooty? I could get the last two tomorrow? I could have gone out today? Yes, well. Even more sadly, the location of those ten stickers is currently not known to me; somewhere between Remedy and Chorlton, the sheet they’re attached to went missing. So I’m back down to zero, with far too little time to get to 12. So long, WWW 2019.

I am going to spin part of it out for a bit longer, though. When planning my 6- to 8-pub route, I did feel a pang for all the further-flung pubs I would normally have tried to fit in – Poynton! Romiley! Stalybridge! So I’m going to hang on to the list and make a personal challenge of it: I’ll tick off all 45 of them, at least once, before WWW 2020 comes round. Watch this space…

Farewell to a friend

The Dubbel, approaching its BBE date, poured without any problems, with a decent amount of condition but no head. Mouthfeel was light, even thin, and the flavours were unchallenging with no noticeable alcohol heat; no way did this drink its strength (6.5%). A light fruitiness at the front of the mouth gives way to a finish which I could only describe as “aromatic caramel”. There’s treacle and cake spices in there – I was reminded of gingerbread, and of speculoos in particular – plus a buzzing top note of raw ginger, or perhaps even of sulphur, to keep it interesting. The whole experience is a bit like taking a pinch of snuff, then eating a plum coated in dark chocolate followed immediately by a shot of brandy. (Those of you without experience of the poor man’s cocaine may substitute sniffing pepper. Those of you with experience of the rich man’s cocaine may want to keep quiet about it.) I’ve had a few Dubbels over the years, but I can’t think of one I’d definitely say was better than this one.

We shall not see their like again. Apart from the Pale bottle, I’m keeping that one.

The Blonde has caused me trouble in the past, on one memorable occasion in particular. I was at a fairly staid social gathering, where I’d been advised to bring my own beer but hadn’t been warned that I might be the only one drinking. (There were two of us in the end, to be fair, but still.) I sloped off to the kitchen mid-evening, already feeling like a conspicuous reprobate, and took the top off a bottle of the Blonde – which gushed. O, how it gushed. Once I’d poured out what remained in the bottle and mopped both the floor and the worktop – no easy task in a strange kitchen – it was a simple matter of waiting for the beer to settle in the glass. And waiting. And waiting. I watched a churning, peaty liquid, with great globs of yeast being hoisted up on bubbles of gas and then dropping to the bottom of the glass again, for what seemed like half an hour, before realising that it wasn’t going to get any better (and that my hosts would be wondering what the boozehound was up to out there). Reader, I poured it, and opened the bottle which (luckily) I had in reserve.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened this, my last bottle of Blonde (over a year past its BBE date). I needn’t have worried. It’s true that a collar of foam formed in the bottle the moment the edge of the crown cork lifted, and stood half an inch proud of the bottle by the time I could start pouring; it’s also true that the beer was a bit on the cloudy side, and that the carbonation was strong enough to give the aftertaste a distinct carbonic edge. As over-primed beer goes, though, this really wasn’t. Nor did it have any of the faults which have sometimes beset the Blonde. It’s hard to say much about the flavours, though, other than that it was a really good blonde; I had a St Feuillien Blonde a while ago, and this could stand alongside it without any trouble. It’s got a light texture, offset by an odd, creamy density – a bit like golden ale crossed with cream soda; it’s got a witbier’s topnotes of coriander and creme caramel, together with the throw-it-down drinkability of a Czech lager. I remember its cask incarnation, which – if memory serves – was slightly less strong (5.5% as against 5.8%), but had a sharpness which gave it a rough, rangy edge; I remember getting through three pints of it one night with a friend, finishing off with a bottle of Köstritzer Dunkel. Alas, while the bar still serves Köstritzer Dunkel, my friend’s gone back to Germany, and this bottle was the last time I’ll taste the Blonde. (There’s always St Feuillien.)

As for the Pale… I was particularly hesitant about opening this bottle; the Pale and I have some serious history. The first time I tasted it – and the second, and the third – I unhesitatingly named it my beer of the year: the way the beer unfolded seemingly endless depths of flavour, while recognisably working in the style of a traditional English strong bitter, struck me as unique and fascinating. But the second time I tasted it wasn’t quite the same as the first, and the third was different again. The sharpness I would later detect in the draught Blonde was there, and it grew stronger day by day (and I know, because I went back day after day).

Here’s the thing, though: that sharp edge – which almost certainly shouldn’t have been there, in either the Pale or the Blonde – didn’t spoil the beer; if anything it gave another side to what was already a multi-dimensioned flavour profile. That was on draught, though; the bottles weren’t always so fortunate. Overall it was a fault, and it had to be fixed – and it was; from the outside it looked as if the brewery had a bright future. But what would this last bottle – possibly the last bottle of Pale anywhere – taste like? Now cleaned up, and after ageing in bottle, would it be a pale shadow (no pun intended) of its mighty but problematic former self? There was only one way to find out.

Also over a year past its BBE date, this bottle was even more lively than the Blonde, but poured pleasantly clear. The flavour profile is – still – an absolutely outstanding combination of delicacy and depth. Although I’ve drunk these beers in descending strength order – the Pale comes in at a mere 5.6% – this is by far the most complex of the three, and evokes aspects of both of the other two. It opens light and fruity, developing briefly into a banana-tinged sweetness, which leads into a malty, tannic finish with just enough bitterness to back it up. That finish would be strongly reminiscent of an old-school brown bitter, if it wasn’t for the lightness of the malt body and the aromatic notes which – as in the Dubbel – come in right at the end: is that sage, or even mint? It’s a walloping great conundrum of a beer – like the Dubbel – with session-worthy drinkability – like the Blonde; the balance of all these different elements, and their delivery in a beer that’s crying out to be drunk by the pint, is truly extraordinary.

And now it’s gone.

So, farewell then, my last three Ticketybrew beers. You never got the appreciation you deserved, even though there’s nothing out there quite like you. I’ll miss you.

PS It’s longer than I realised since I last updated this blog; not sure what happened there, although I suppose the subject of my last post offers one suggestion. Fanboy or no, I hope not to leave it anywhere near this long before blogging again. In the mean time,

Not a fan

I realised the other day that I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean that in the usual sense, as an elaborate way to say you don’t much like something – although I’m sure I could reel off as many dislikes and prejudices as the next blogger. I’m not a fan of beer you can’t see through, for example, and I still haven’t managed to get into sours; in my experience Wild‘s beers need to be approached with caution, and Omnipollo‘s are rarely worth the trouble (and expense) of approaching at all.

But that’s by the way. The point is, when it comes to beer I’m not a fan – of anyone or anything (any brewery, any style, any beer).

(OK, I’m already thinking of exceptions. But let’s pursue this melancholy line of thought a bit further.)

What’s happened? How did the decades-long journey of discovery – starting out with one big, explosive discovery (beer!!!) and continuing through the smaller explosions of other discoveries (old ale! abbey beers! Weizen! Dunkelweizen! porter! imperial stout! really really really pale hoppy beers!) – how did it wash up in my current state of vague yeah it’s all right I suppose not-a-fandom?

The short answer is that things change. The long answer is the same, but in four parts.

1. Breweries Close

Yes, I’m going to mention TicketyBrew again. I was a huge fan of Duncan Barton’s beers; I’ve still got a few in the garage, but when they’re gone I’m really going to miss them. If I knew a bar nearby had one of their beers on I’d always check it out, even if it meant making a special trip later – and I was very rarely disappointed when I did. I only really discovered how big a fan I’d been after the brewery closed, when I realised that I’d stopped peering in at the windows of local bars as I passed. If I already knew I wasn’t going to see one of TicketyBrew’s instantly identifiable zigzag pump clips… well, what was the point? There are a few other breweries in the “always check out” category – Batham’s, Holden’s, Harvey’s, Dark Star – but three of those are very rarely available around here, and as for the fourth…

2. Breweries Change

For a long time I felt like I ought to be a fan of Marble, what with the eponymous Beerhouse basically being my local, and for a long time I didn’t really get their beers. I don’t think it was entirely me, either; some of them were a bit rough round the edges, particularly in the period when they were using that one hop that smells like vomit. (That’s not just me, is it?) Anyway, breweries change – sometimes for the better – and, while James Kemp was head brewer, Marble produced two superb pale ales, the beast that was Built to Fall and the crystalline perfection of Damage Plan. Kemp, with Joe Ince, followed up with the Gothic Series, a range of barrel-aged old ales and imperial stouts, which were equally brilliant. I bought one of everything and started making notes towards what would have been a big (and favourable) review of Marble Beers In General. Then things changed; James Kemp moved on (to Yeastie Boys); the bottles started going out of stock and the beers weren’t re-brewed. There have been a few new barrel-aged beers from Marble, but Ince’s interests seem to lie more in pales and sours. (So, am I a fan of Marble? No. Yes. Which Marble?)

3. Fashions Change

When I first got into beer there was a simple rule of thumb; beer in general was brown, malty and traditional, quite easy to find but not very strong; good beer was very brown, very malty, very traditional, quite hard to find and very strong (a phrase which here means ‘over 4.9%’). I had Young’s Winter Warmer at a beer festival once and for a moment had to restrain myself from shouting Yes! That’s it! (“Est, est, est!” “Tell them I am drinking stars, although by ‘stars’ I mean ‘memories of under-age drinking in South London’!”)

Anyway, one taste I’ve preserved from that period is a taste for old ales and barley wines. But can you get them? I realise that 8%ers on cask are a tall order, but you’d think that the ‘craft keg’ scene – with its tolerance for high strength and high price, and its endemic competition for stylistic niches – would have been ideal territory for a revival of these types of beer. (And you can always bottle them – see above.) Strong pales we get; strong stouts, we get; strong sweet stouts, even. Old ales and barley wines, dubbels, tripels, doppelbocks – not so much. It must just be fashion. I guess barley wines will come back round again – everything comes back round again eventually; I just hope it doesn’t take too long.

4. Tastes Change

This last point, though, is the real shocker. I cut my teeth on the brown, malty beers characteristic of the London area and South Wales – and Sussex, and rural Yorkshire, and the South-West, and the North-East, and East Anglia, and Scotland… – and for a long time I was a staunch partisan of those styles, despite them not being the thing around here (or in south Lancs and west Yorks generally).

After several years of more or less forced exposure to them, eight years ago I made the happy discovery that pale’n’oppy beers are actually quite nice. But I retained my appreciation of the good old brown-and-malty, if done properly – as in, Adnams’ Broadside or Fuller’s ESB rather than Sheps’ Spitfire – and would always make a beeline for beers from those few contemporary breweries that were still turning them out. They were often Welsh; Conwy was a favourite for a while, and I was over the moon when I realised that Evan Evans was a direct continuation of Buckley’s, whose bitter was the one of the first I ever loved.

Then, just a few weeks ago, I had a half of Evan Evans’ uncompromisingly-titled Cwrw in a Spoons’ in Urmston (of all places), and it was… fine. Well, barely that. I mean, the beer itself was absolutely fine – good example of the style, well kept and in good nick, I could tell that it was doing what it was supposed to do. It was just… a bit on the sweet side, if I’m honest; a bit too big and mouth-filling for my liking. Results from a subsequent tasting of Fuller’s ESB were similarly disappointing. It’s a good beer, it’s just… it’s not really my thing, any more.

But if I haven’t got a brewery to be a fan of, and I haven’t got a style to be a fan of – except breweries and styles that you basically can’t get – what does that leave?

5. Found in the Supermarket

A bottle of Landlord, the other week, absolutely knocked my socks off – it was every bit as good as it is on cask, when it’s been cellared properly and allowed to dry out a bit. A can (it’s what all the cool kids are drinking these days) of Rooster’s Yankee was terrific; I was genuinely surprised at how fruity and how bitter it was. The whole thing was so well done, it really seemed to make sense of the pale’n’oppy style (which can be as ho-hum as any other). A bottle of Proper Job delivered something similar but in heavier boots; that’s a big pale hoppy beer.

So there’s that; the classics are still classics, at least some of them. And, going back to the first couple of points, it’s worth noting that these are all quite long-established beers from independent breweries that are still trading (and still independent). Maybe that’s something I am a fan of: independent breweries (so that the brewer is close enough to the top of the organisation to guarantee quality) making styles they’ve been brewing for a few years (so that they’ve had time to get them right). Same thing I’ve been a fan of since the 1970s, really.

Mild by Northwest 4

Final scores

About 2/3 of the pubs I went to had a mild on (although in a couple of cases this took multiple visits). 32 out of 48 is lower than in previous years, but there does seem to have been a bit of a timing clash, and perhaps some miscommunication, on the Spoons front. Also, I have been a bit more selective in some areas – I visited fewer Hyde’s pubs than usual and only two Holt’s.

Dark mild: some good stuff from Brightside, Dunham, Moorhouse, Poynton, Salopian, Stockport, Tweed and a couple of less familiar breweries, as well as old friends from Hyde’s and Holt’s; Moorhouse and Tweed were probably the best of the bunch. Not so many actually labelled as ‘mild’, though.

Light mild: just the one, from Hyde’s – and the pump clip calls it a ‘session ale’. (Which, for once, is probably an improvement on calling it a bitter.) If mild’s endangered, light mild should be on a watchlist.

State Of Pub-Going: generally seemed fine, to be honest; there were a few tumbleweed venues, but much fewer than on my last round of MM outings, particularly at weekends. Perhaps it was just something about 2018.

Pubs where I was sorry not to be stopping for more than a half: Briton’s, Four Kings, Jake’s

Pubs where a half was plenty: Cocked Hat, Oxnoble

Old favourites: Petersgate Tap, Stockport Arch 14

New favourite: Reasons to be Cheerful, Tweed Equinox

Rediscovered old favourites: Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar, Moorhouse’s Black Cat

The pay-off

All this boozing earned me – what else – beer tokens, for use at the Stockport Beer and Cider Festival; enough for six halves, in fact. Since they weren’t restricted to the purchase of mild, I decided to spend them each on a different style of beer – subject to a strength limit of 5%, which ruled out going for a swift half of a 12% barrel-aged imperial stout. In the end I had:

Boudicca Spiral (stout)
Five Points Railway Porter (really good)
Stockport/Bar Nouveau Mild Mannered Victorian (mild; it was good, but how did they miss the obvious name?)
Twisted WTF (bitter; supposedly a biscuity old-school bitter with masses of hops, but I wasn’t sure about the hops)
Thirst Class You can call me Hal (pale)
Moorhouse M/44 (saison; really nice)

After that, I spent my own money on some >5% beers (in thirds):

Marble Different Dobber (nice, but I’d need to taste them side by side to verify the ‘different’ part)
Lacon’s Audit Ale (recommended by Dave Pennington, to whom many thanks; a terrific old-school barley wine)
Serious Gold Rush (a golden ale with Belgian yeast)
Cloudwater Henry’s Last Call (a cask pale from Cloudwater, got to be worth a bash – and it was)

The Lacon’s was my beer of the festival, although – slightly to my surprise – that Moorhouse saison wasn’t far behind. Great festival, great beers.

Many thanks to everyone who gave up their time to organise both the Mild Magic trail and the Festival; your work is really appreciated, at least by this punter.

Mild by Northwest 3 – Way Out East

Mild Magic 2019: the Eastern leg

The ups…

I’d been to Marple before, albeit only in search of beer and quite briefly at that; train in, head for the Samuel Oldknow, bus out. I saw a bit more of it this time, for two reasons. One was that Marple as a destination had been joined on the Mild Magic map by Marple Bridge, itself divided into ‘North’ and ‘South’ areas. The other was that I got the wrong train. The map on my phone suggested to me that Rose Hill Marple was only a little way out of town; I was impatient to get going, so I caught that train rather than hang around for the Marple (proper) service a quarter of an hour later.

This turned out to be a bad idea. I’m not one of life’s ramblers, but if there’s a hill to be climbed I’ll climb it without complaint. A long and gentle uphill slope, though – particularly one that continues uninterrupted for the best part of a mile – is not my idea of fun. This, though, is what lies between Rose Hill and the centre of Marple. At least it gave me plenty of opportunities to look at Marple. I concluded that Marple – like so many other places – is coming up in the world, not least because – like so many other places – it now supports at least three different craft beer outlets (including one that also specialises in craft gin). The longest-established is the Samuel Oldknow, an unassuming shop-front bar with hidden depths; I had Stockport Arch 14 mild, which was rather good (although admittedly I was thirsty by this stage).

Next, I headed for Marple Bridge, which to my surprise turned out to be at the bottom of a very steep hill, with Marple Station halfway down. (I guess bridges go over rivers, and they tend to be in valleys… Perhaps I’ve been a townie too long.) The mild on offer at the Norfolk Arms – a big old-style pub at the foot of the hill was 4 Ts Old School; the main thing I remember about it is that, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with stickers, I took it and sat down without paying. I reckon I could have got away with it, too, if I’d thrown it back and legged it, but honesty got the better of me.

Further out of Marple Bridge – strung out on the northbound road out of town, in fact – were the Spring Gardens and Northumberland Arms, two more big ‘roadhouse’-type pubs. The Spring Gardens didn’t have a mild on, but I hadn’t seen Abbeydale Deception in yonks, so it was nice to reacquaint myself. The Northumberland Arms had Dunham Dark, a very decent mild & one of those local milds I’d expected to see more of in the free trade. From there I got the bus to Romiley, where the proprietor of Jake’s Ale House (Jake?) proudly exhibited his all-but-empty sticker sheet – “75 new customers!”. Quite how often I’ll be making the trip to Romiley between now and the next CAMRA crawl, I don’t know, but in principle that is very much the idea. (It’s a nice little bar, and the Poynton Dark Side was really good.)

According to my notes it was 40 minutes from Jake’s to my next stop, the Railway in Portwood (covered in the first of these posts); as I remember most of that was spent on a minuscule bus bobbling around through the estates of Romiley and Harrytown. (Yes, Harrytown. Whether there’s any reliable way to distinguish people who come from Harrytown in terms of their accoutrements, I don’t know.) From there it was on to the Petersgate Tap and home (NB two distinct places).

…and downs

Glossop – which is also very easy to reach by train from Manchester, public transport fans – is another place that’s coming up in the world, at least if its craft beer bar quota is anything to go by. After a mildly disappointing start at the local Spoons, I’m afraid I incommoded the proprietor of Bar 2 slightly by walking into the bar at 12.15, at which point he was (as he explained) not only still setting up but still waking up after a very late night and a short night’s sleep. (Sometimes I think how nice it would be to run a little bar, and then I think again.) But there was mild (Stockport Arch 14) and it was in good nick. Bar 2, incidentally, was Tweed 2 until a disagreement with the Tweed brewery over rates and availability; there were no Tweed beers at all on the bar when I went. Finally – for Glossop – Four Kings Cask and Kitchen didn’t have any mild on, but I could forgive them that for the quality of the Four Kings Porter. The food menu looked extraordinary, too, but nothing quite leapt out at me, so I moved on.

You know how places like Marple and Glossop are coming up in the world, proliferation of craft beer bars etc? (It’s not just the old country towns, either – look at Urmston. Even Stretford is loaded with ‘craft’ joints these days – Stretford!) OK, so: Hyde. The centre of Hyde is busy, you’ve got to give it that, and I didn’t notice many vacant sites – but you’d be looking at it for a long time before the phrase “up in the world” occurred to you. (Having a honking great motorway running – at best – right alongside the town can’t help matters.)

Where beer’s concerned Hyde sometimes means the Queens; not this time, though, I reckoned I’d had my quota of Joey’s pubs. But it always means the Tweed Tap, the Sportsman and the Cheshire Ring. The Tweed Tap somehow looks like a craft beer bar which has no intention of bringing the surrounding area up in the world; I’m not saying it’s rough, just a bit… spartan, inside as well as out. Tweed Equinox is badged up as an “English brown ale”; I suppose you could find some echoes of Newcastle’s finest in there if you thought about it, but it was basically a pleasantly complex light-ish dark mild. As for the Sportsman, there is, in all honesty, very little to say that I haven’t said before. Here’s what I said when I visited four years ago, with a bonus callback to two years before that:

The last time I was in there – for 2013’s MM – the place was deserted. Not only was there only one other drinker in there, there was nobody behind the bar … in fact there was nobody in the place at all, apart from some people in the back kitchen preparing food and chatting in Spanish. (I got someone to serve me eventually, but it was a struggle.) It’s an oddity, the Sportsman, as it doubles as the Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant.

It’s still a Rossendale brewery tap and a Latin American restaurant – with little or no signage outside indicating either of these things – and it’s still a bit challenging to get served; if you’ve ordered food, in particular, it’s handy to memorise phrases like “relaxed, unhurried service” and repeat them to yourself occasionally. (It’s good food, to be fair.) A vast array of Rossendale beers were on the bar – seriously, there must have been seven or eight of them – but none of them was a mild as far as I could tell.

As for the Cheshire Ring, I always vaguely think of it as a bikers’ pub; I’m sure it isn’t, but it’s got that combination of cheap – but good – beer and macho bonhomie that I remember from my few forays into bikers’ pubs, Back in the Day. (People didn’t even say ‘back in the day’ in those days, I’m talking properly way back…) Further investigation establishes that there is in fact a biker’s pub in Hyde, the uncompromisingly named Bike’n’Hound; perhaps I’ll investigate another time. Or perhaps not; either way, something tells me that my mental image of the b.’s p. (involving draught cider, pork scratchings and singles by Hawkwind on the jukebox) may not be entirely up to date.

Back at the Cheshire Ring, there was nothing dark on the bar except Beartown Crème Bearlee (which is a stout); not being the world’s biggest Beartown fan, I swerved this in favour of something light (Shardlow Narrow Boat, my notes say, but I couldn’t tell you more than that). When I asked for a sticker the barman gestured at the Beartown stout – You should have had that one! I demurred politely, pointing out that it wasn’t a mild. You’re all right, he replied. Trouble is, when we do have Quantock on, it goes in a flash! As an argument against stocking Beartown’s dark mild, I thought this lacked something.

Exactly what happened after the Cheshire Ring I’m not able to tell you (although my notes tell me that I was back in Stockport an hour later). Similar issues relating to alcohol and memory make me unable to say very much about another trip, which finished at the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar; there are pubs where I find it all but physically impossible to stop for just the one, and the Buffet Bar is definitely one of them.

Earlier that day, though, I definitely made a stop at Silly Country in Droylsden. There’s a distinct set of bars where I never do stop for more than one but invariably think I’d like to – Jake’s is one, and the Four Kings bar is heading that way; and Silly Country is on that list. On this occasion, though, one beer was plenty: they had an act on. There had been an act on at Platform 5 – or “the Holt’s pub with the flirty barman” as it is to me now – but that place is so big, they could set up a bowling alley if they moved a few tables; even with amplification, a full band off in the middle distance was no impediment to a quiet half. Not so Silly Country, which looks big-ish when it’s empty but looks – and sounds – decidedly bijou when it’s occupied by a dozen punters and a young man with an electric guitar. I say ‘young man’ – he can’t have been older than twelve. He was doing a decent job, accompanying himself through a series of hits – now the Beatles, now George Ezra – and he seemed to be collecting for a good cause. I didn’t feel like lingering, though. There no mild on offer, that day at least – I had a half of Stubborn Mule The Mandarin Candidate, an experimental-sounding IPA (Mandarina Bavaria hops plus actual mandarins). It worked, just about; awful name, though.

Next: final thoughts

Mild by Northwest 2 – Times Change

More on Mild Magic 2019

Times change
Ways change
Times change, people change
– Julian Cope

Didsbury and beyond
I haven’t been in many Hyde’s or Holt’s pubs for this year’s Mild Magic. But Hyde’s, in particular, is hard to avoid if you’re doing the Withington corridor, and one or other of 1863 and Old Indie was on offer at the Friendship, the Victoria, the Horse and Farrier (Gatley) and the Crown (Cheadle). The Vic was a bit dead when I called in, but the other three were all pleasantly busy – not something that’s always been true of the Friendship, in particular. (There have been fewer empty pubs across the board as compared to last year; it may not mean anything, but it does seem like a good sign.) I think 1863 is the only light mild I had this time round, if indeed it still is a light mild.

East Didsbury was more varied, in all senses of the word. I’ve never yet had a mild in Wine and Wallop (despite the name) and this year was no exception – although I gather that they did have a mild on for at least some of the Mild Magic period. My first visit to the Head of Steam also drew a blank, but when I returned a couple of weeks later they had Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild on. The last time I’d seen that beer it was on the bar at the George in Stockport, side by side with Golden Best and both going for £2 a pint – happy days. It wasn’t £2 a pint at the HoS – in fact it was very nearly £2 a half – and I guess trade hadn’t been brisk, as it was rather tired. Still, better that than the reliably awful Coach House Gunpowder Mild which was on at the Olde Cock. Up the road in Burnage, Reasons to be Cheerful had Salopian Divine Comedy, an excellent contemporary take on the dark mild style, along with much else; it’s one of those bars that I try to fit in last when I’m doing a crawl, because I know I won’t want to stick to the one half. I have to confess, the places in this category used to be old-style real ale ‘exhibition’ pubs – the Crown in Stockport, the Railway in Portwood, the New Oxford – but these days they’re more likely to be places with interesting keg as well as cask ranges: Reasons, Petersgate Tap, Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar. Times change, people change.

Urmston
I like Urmston, but next to Chorlton – next to Stockport, for that matter – it’s… odd. It has the unevenly-developed, up-and-coming quality of bits of the Northern Quarter (ever-shrinking bits), or of Beech Road in Chorlton about five years ago, but with the difference that in both those two cases a bohemian/foodie/’craft’ scene took root in the midst of urban decline. Urmston’s not quite like that, in that the ‘old’ – pre-hipster – Urmston is still right there and doing absolutely fine. Put it this way, there can’t be many other places in Manchester where you can walk out of a craft beer bar and come face to face with a poster advertising a 70s dinner-dance hosted by TV’s Stan Boardman.

I was there for the beer, starting with Holt’s dark mild at the Lord Nelson; I even went for a pint, on the basis that

  1. it had been off at Platform 5 in Cheadle Hulme, so I hadn’t had Holt’s mild yet
  2. it’s only 3.2%, and
  3. it seemed like the kind of pub where one orders pints

Nice pub, like a lot of Holt’s suburban pubs (the Griffin, the Park Inn) in being a massive, multi-roomed beer palace; hard to fill, but it was early in the evening when I was there and I got the sense it would get busier later. Perhaps it was just having a pint of mild in my hand, but it felt very much like proper old-school pubbing.

My other scheduled stop was the Tim Bobbin (JDW) for Lymestone Stonefish dark mild – and not Stella, as my order was initially misheard. (This seems to happen to me a lot in Urmston. I guess my accent still sounds a bit ‘southern’ – I’ve only been here since 1987, after all.) I also had a half of Evan Evans Cwrw; Evan Evans is the successor brewery to Buckley’s, whose bitter provided me with an unforgettable teenage beer epiphany. This time round… well, times change.

But I finished off at the Schooner, which wasn’t doing Mild Magic but would have been a sure-fire last-bar-on-the-route if it had been. The porter I started with was excellent; the arancini that were being prepared – one night only – on a stall outside made a great meal (and I’d been wanting to try arancini); and the second beer I had was the best of the night: it was dark, it was 7%, and it was an India Dark Ale. That’s right, it’s like an IPA only dark and stouty… It took me right back to when that piney/roasty combination was new – and “Cascadian Dark Ale” was being bandied about as an alternative title – and reminded me of what’s good about black IPAs, when they’re done well. It’s only a shame I can’t remember the brewer.

The Schooner also does off sales, and they had some beers reduced that night – including some that were up against the sell-by date and were reduced to £1. A recent Belgian beer tasting had introduced me to De Dochter van de Korenaar, so I was pleased to be able to pick up a bottle of their Beau Monde saison (brewed with bitter oranges and dry hopped). This is a daft recipe on paper, and it was an unprepossessing beer when I got round to opening it – it gushed enthusiastically and took about five minutes to transfer into a glass; how long it would have taken to settle I don’t know, as I wanted to drink it that evening. Still, sludge-brown and murky though it was, it was a terrific beer; the dry hopping and the oranges worked to blunt the rough edges of the saison style, and it all added up to a properly grown-up fruit beer.

Urmston took me back: back to the glory days of the late noughties when black IPAs were new, back to drinking malty Welsh bitter in my teens, back to the kind of pub that my Dad would have known his way around… (Not to mention taking me back to when I was new in Manchester and I was still getting accent-checked.) But the Schooner, at least, has one foot firmly in 2019. No mild, but nobody’s perfect.

Next: way out East.

Mild by Northwest

More observations on Mild Magic 2019.

Manchester
Pubs in and near the city centre did pretty well by Mild Magic this year. I had Brightside Ch-Ch-Cherry Mild at the City and an excellent Moorhouse’s Black Cat at the New Oxford (have Moorhouse’s changed the recipe? I’m sure it never used to be that good). The Briton’s Protection even had a house mild on (brewed by Beartown). I would have liked to stay longer at all of those, the Briton’s most of all – partly because they had an excellent beer range, partly because I’m not a huge Beartown fan and wouldn’t have minded moving on to something else, but mainly because I was the only person in, that Wednesday evening. Most of the pubs I went into on a weeknight were pretty quiet, but that was a low point. Of the town-centre Spoons’ – which weren’t quiet – the Moon Under Water and Paramount both had a mild or something similar (Pheasantry Mikado and Orkney Dark Isle respectively); the Waterhouse didn’t, although the porter I had instead was very good. The Oxnoble was (I think) new to Mild Magic this year, and (definitely) wasn’t really trying – only one hand pump on when I visited, and that one had Robinson’s Trooper on.

Stockport
I mentioned the Hope and the Remedy Bar in the previous post. The Petersgate Tap also had a ‘coffee mild’ on – North Riding Coffee Bean Mild – while the Railway had Howard Town Milltown. Less encouragingly, on my visit there was no mild at the Angel or at the Cocked Hat. I’d been encouraged to revisit the Cocked Hat by reading that it had reopened under new management, but I won’t be hurrying back. The main beers on the bar were a pale bitter called 28 Days Later and a darker bitter called One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, both from a brewery called RT about which I can find out precisely nothing (except that I don’t think they’re anything to do with RT Ales of Cardiff). I had the second of these, and it was really poor – somehow bland and unbalanced at the same time. As I was forming this opinion the song playing on the PA finished and another started – a cover version of the Steely Dan classic Do It Again, which had apparently been augmented by the bass and drums from Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. Recoiling from this travesty, I necked my beer as quickly as I could manage and moved on. Up the road, Heaton Hops wasn’t serving a mild (although the Siren Undercurrent was excellent). Normal mild service was restored – not before time – at Fred’s in Levenshulme, where I had my second half of Brightside Ch-Ch-Cherry Mild, to the accompaniment of the bar staff talking among themselves about how horrible it was.

– Have you tried that one? It’s… ugh…
“I’d be all right, I like anything with cherries in.”
– Well, I’m the same, that’s what I thought, until I actually tried it…

(Memo to Brightside: I don’t care what they say, I like it.)

Spoons’
Mild in Spoons’ pubs was patchy this year, possibly because the chain’s latest ‘beer festival’ had only just finished when Mild Magic started; the Sedge Lynn in Chorlton was still starting ‘festival’ beers two weeks later. Yes, there were milds at the Moon Under Water and Paramount – not to mention Tim Bobbin in Urmston (Lymestone Stonefish), the Great Central in Fallowfield and the Society Rooms in Stalybridge (both Leeds Midnight Bell) – but there were no milds at the Waterhouse, the Bishop Blaize, the Ash Tree, Ford Madox Brown or the Gateway. Part of this will just be down to when beers start and finish; I was told at the Gateway that they’d have a mild on the next day. On the other hand, the Smithy Fold in Glossop did have Beartown Brown Bear on, but it was off (and was exchanged without a fuss). The Sedge Lynn didn’t have a mild in the first week of Mild Magic, or the second, or the third; that said, when I went in the week after that they’d put two milds on to make up for lost time. (But no, I didn’t note either of them down.)

Next: Urmston, Didsbury and beyond…