Category Archives: Very not pale’n’oppy

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.

O dark, dark, dark

Martyn waxes lyrical about old ales and Burtons, singling out Young’s Winter Warmer, Marston’s Owd Roger, McEwan’s Champion and Theakston’s Old Peculier. I’ve long been a fan of these styles & others in the same neighbourhood (e.g. dark barley wines, dubbels & ‘quadrupel’s). I’m a particular fan of one that Martyn didn’t mention, Robinson’s Old Tom, which for several years now I’ve regarded as one of the best beers in the world.

I’ve drunk all these beers & many similar ones, on draught as well as in bottle; I even did a comparison of several of them over a few weeks a while ago. What I’ve never done – for obvious reasons – is compare them on the spot, by drinking (say) an Old Tom followed by an Owd Roger and an Old Peculier. The one-shot nature of these beers, whose strengths range from 6.6% (Old Peculier, 500 ml bottle) up to 8.5% (Old Tom, 330 ml), makes it difficult to compare and contrast in this way. But where there’s a will there’s a way. With the aid of six small glasses – and a stash of 330 ml plastic bottles to hold the ‘excess’ – I’ve just done a blind taste test of some widely-available old ales and Burtons. I chose five – the Marston’s, McEwan’s, Theakston’s and Robinsons’s beers mentioned above, plus JW Lees’ Manchester Star – and rounded off the set with Chimay Blue. I was interested to see if the Trappist ale leapt out of the pack; if Old Tom lived up to my estimation; and if a couple of the others – Owd Roger in particular – lived down to past experience.

The procedure: I labelled six glasses, and drew off enough of the beer so that around 1/6 of a litre remained in each bottle. (This gives a total of 7.7 units, if you’re interested. Hey, it’s the weekend – and I usually keep Monday dry.) My OH then poured out the bottles into the labelled glasses and labelled each bottle to match its respective glass. I tasted them in order and made some initial notes, trying to be fairly systematic about colour, aroma etc, giving them an initial rating and having a guess at which beer was which. I then tasted them again in ascending order of my initial ratings, made some more impressionistic notes, and guessed again what I was drinking. Two beers I was certain I recognised, but for the other four I guessed differently each time – so between the six beers I made a total of ten guesses. (You may like to pause here and estimate how many of them were right.)

Here are my notes.

Beer 1
Mid-brown, translucent
Aroma: malt loaf
Big malt extract, caramel bitterness, slight metallic edge. 7
Second take: Malt party. Big dark bittersweet flavours, caramel and cake spices. Burnt sugar finish, but not just on the finish. 8.5

Beer 2
Brown-black, opaque
Aroma: not much; bonfire toffee?
Fruity dark bitter with burnt-sugar bitterness; a bit thin. 6
Second take: Quite an austere full-on malt character – fruity but not sweet. Some caramel but consistent throughout, not just on the finish. 7

Beer 3
Very dark brown, not quite opaque
Dark bitter backed up by caramel bitterness, plus a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: A nice dark bitter, made to seem more interesting by a big burnt-sugar finish. 6.5

Beer 4
Black, opaque
Sweet, very slightly bitter; a lot like Coke. 4
Second take: Very strongly carbonated; not much flavour mid-mouth apart from sweetness; caramel-bitter finish masks the alcohol. Quite fun but a bit one-dimensional and too much upfront sweetness. 6

Beer 5
Black
Aroma: malt extract
Heavy, sweet, Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite. 5.5
Second take: Very like a less successful version of beer #4 – less carbonated, possibly a hint of acetone. 5.5

Beer 6
Dark brown
Aroma: bready malt
Heavy, thick-tasting, malt plus. 7.5
Very sweet but very interesting with it – odd floral and herbal notes. No bitterness at all – the flavour just develops then fades. Bitterness builds down the glass, though. Sophisticated stuff. 8.5

So the beers fell into three groups: big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’ or similar malt-driven style, done well (1 and 6); dark fruity old ale with strong burnt-sugar notes (2 and 3); big fruit-loaf ‘Burton’, done not so well (4 and 5). Combining my two scores, my ranking was 1, 6, 2, 3, 5, 4. I was convinced that 1 & 6 were Old Tom and Chimay, respectively. My four guesses for 2 & 3 included Old Peculier, Champion and Manchester Star, while my four guesses for 4 & 5 included Owd Roger, Champion and Manchester Star.

3 was indeed Old Peculier, and 5 was Manchester Star. The rest of my guesses… not so good.

Here are the beers behind those numbers. To say I was surprised when I discovered what I’d been drinking would be a sizeable understatement. (In fact ‘sizeable’ is a sizeable understatement.)

1: McEwan’s Champion
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier
4: Chimay Blue
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star
6: Marston’s Owd Roger

Or, in judging order,

1: McEwan’s Champion (good Burton, 16 – “caramel and cake spices”)
6: Marston’s Owd Roger (good Burton, 15.5 – “Sophisticated stuff”)
2: Robinsons’s Old Tom (old ale, 13 – “austere full-on malt character”)
3: Theakston’s Old Peculier (old ale, 12 – “A nice dark bitter”)
5: JW Lees’ Manchester Star (poor Burton, 11 – “Coke-ish but with malt and a bit of Marmite”)
4: Chimay Blue (poor Burton(!), 10 – “fun but a bit one-dimensional”)

A couple of shocks on that list, that last entry most of all. (To be fair to the Trappists, Chimay Blue does age particularly well, and there’s got to be a fair bit of sugar there for the yeast to keep working over an extended period; perhaps that’s how we should treat fresh bottles, as being best laid down for a few years.) It looks as if I can recommend McEwan’s Champion (stocked by Sainsbury’s) and Marston’s Owd Roger (which I found in B&M Bargains) every bit as strongly as Old Tom, and rather more so than Manchester Star (of which I’m rather fond).

One final note. If you take a particularly keen interest in the mechanics of blind tastings, you may have spotted an anomaly in my description of the set-up for this one. Pour 2/3rds of a 500 ml bottle into a resealable 330 ml bottle and drink the other 1/3rd, fair enough – you were probably thinking – but what have you done with the Old Tom and the Chimay (both of which are sold in 330 ml bottles)? If you’ve stashed half-full plastic bottles of these two, they’re not going to be in very good nick when you go back to them. Very good point – which is why I’ve poured them both into one bottle. Yes, I’ve got a bottle of Old Tom mixed with Chimay Blue – the bottle-conditioned Trappist sharing a bottle with the brewery-conditioned Stopfordian, the bland sweetness mingling with the austere malt. I’m guessing it’ll either be brilliant or terrible; I’ll let you know when I find out.

The very cheese-oh

What shall we say about Ticketybrew? The first thing I want to say is that they’re making some of the best beers around at the moment, particularly on cask. If I see one of their distinctive pump clips I invariably make a bee-line for it; I’ve very rarely been disappointed, and I’m often genuinely impressed.

So: if the beer’s that good, what’s standing between Ticketybrew and the big time? Why aren’t we hearing their name bandied about alongside Blackjack and RedWillow, or Cloudwater at a pinch? Why, not to put too fine a point on it, aren’t they hip? There are three reasons, I think. One, I’m afraid, is the name; the design is brilliant, but the name is just a bit naff. The beer would gain credibility overnight if they changed the brewery’s name to something resonant and mysterious (“Liquid Void”, “GreenRail”…) – or even something plain like ‘Ticket’.

The second problem is the sheer hyperactive sprawl of the beer range. I’m in two minds about this – I’ve got fond memories of the Marmite Stout and the Rhubarb Berliner Weiss – but I can’t help feeling, as I said of Blackjack two years ago, that Ticketybrew could do with just slowing down. In peak condition, the Dubbel, the Tripel, the Pale, the Blonde, the Stout, the Golden Bitter and that double-hopped pale ale I had the other night are all absolutely stunning beers; how many more new and interesting fruit-machine combinations does the world need? At the end of the day, nobody likes a novelty merchant.

The third reason has to do with consistency. Consistency isn’t an issue for all of these beers – every Jasmine Green Tea Pale I’ve had, on bottle or cask, has had just the same light, flinty dryness. Even where it is an issue it’s not necessarily a problem; there’s a definite variability to most of their cask beers, I’ve found, but not in a bad way. Where the Pale and the Blonde are concerned, being slightly different every time even makes the beers more interesting. But for some beers, in bottle in particular, it is a problem – and that means it’s a problem Ticketybrew are going to have to surmount. If you look at Cloudwater, for instance, they’ve made their name on a few good beers and striking label designs, but also by getting consistency nailed: you may not know what a particular experimental hop pale ale will taste like, but you know that if you have it twice you’ll get the same again. As much as I love their best beers, Ticketybrew aren’t there yet, not for all of their beers – bottled beers in particular.

Overall I’d score Ticketybrew’s beer range something like this (with some double-counting for beers I’ve tasted in different conditions):

Superb Good Hmm
Cask 8 8
Keg 1 2
Bottle 8 8 6

The figures in the left-hand column are pretty impressive – that’s eight cask beers (plus the Tripel on keg) which are worth travelling across town for. I know that Ticketybrew are expanding; perhaps this is also an opportunity to get the consistency of their bottled beers sorted, whatever that actually involves (automated bottling? filter and re-seed? bottle in a cleanroom?). If they can pull that off, they could be world-beaters. Especially if they can slow down a bit on the fruit-machine style-ninja front – and maybe, just possibly, think about a name change? (“Thirsty Void”, there’s one nobody’s using. “Dark River”, “Electric Chill”, “BlueWindow”… Or maybe something plain like “Ticket”.)

HOPEFUL UPDATE 6/10 Had a bottle of the Blonde this evening; it was in better condition than I’ve ever tasted it in bottle, mellow and fruity without even a hint of sharpness. If this is how it’s going to be from now on – and I do hope it is – I’ll be recommending Ticketybrew beers in any format and without any qualification. (Even if they keep the name.)