Monthly Archives: June 2014
Ah, Northern Monk Brew Co: yet another reason to love the wonderful city that is Leeds. Finally based in a proper home after months of being nomads, they’ve settled down to brew in an old flax mill near the train station. Soon, they’ll be opening up their tap room and bottle shop on site; when their doors open in the autumn, I will make the pilgrimage across the hills to drink their beer at the source. At the moment, the offering is still small but perfectly formed: New World IPA, at 6.2%, and Strannik, their 9% Imperial Stout.
I’d heard great things about Strannik, though I hadn’t yet managed to get my hands on a bottle, and when I heard that NMBCo had collaborated with Lauden Chocolate to create Strannik truffles, my mouth started watering. These were being sold, alongside the beer, at the Leeds Food Festival: always a fantastic event, which I was gutted to be missing. Imagine my delight when the babes at NMBCo and Lauden offered to send me over a little present so I could try out the pairing for myself!
Dark as Charlie Brooker’s humour, as the aroma from this thick, viscous beastie wafts up from the glass, you’re hit with big, boozy raisins and strong coffee; rum and raisin affogato. This alcohol-drenched dried fruit character continues as you sip, pursued by an insistent charred savouriness, and the rich bitter coffee is brightened by sour grape skins and hedgerow hops. Long, dry espresso lingers on the palate.
Paired with the suitably beery dark chocolate, the focus on Strannik’s hop profile sharpens, and as the rich creaminess of the truffles lingers on your tongue, the stout provides a deep, earthy counterpart, with hints of dark fruits. The intense dark chocolate truffle bitterness compliments the roasted coffee of the beer, with the fresh nettle hops cutting a swathe through the luxurious, silky mouthfeel to prevent this pairing from becoming cloying. It’s a decadent experience, and the two elements elevate each other. Apart, you have a magnificent Imperial Stout and some yummy chocolates, but together, they sing, hitting notes they couldn’t reach alone. A glorious collaboration, and one I hope to see repeated; it’d make a great gift set, and I know a number of people who deserve a bit of beery luxury! Thank you to Northern Monk Brew Co and Lauden Chocolate for sending these over for me to sample. Cheers.
On the first day of June, glorious sunshine beamed down on us, causing thoughts of beer gardens and country walks to embed themselves firmly in the front of our minds. As luck would have it, I was ideally placed to take advantage of such seasonal weather: I was staying near RSPB Minsmere on the Suffolk coast, some 250 miles from Manchester.
As a reserve, Minsmere covers an extensive area, encompassing woodland, reedy marshes full of booming bitterns, fields containing the ruins of an ancient chapel and roaming Konik ponies, a coast dotted with WWII anti-tank defences… It was a fascinating and beautiful place to spend a summers’ day, spotting newts, woolly bear caterpillars, and listening to birdsong, but once three o’clock hit, I started getting thirsty. The one drawback? You’ve guessed it – no beer. I know, I really should have packed a can or two of Founders All Day IPA in a cool box; an amateur mistake! Luckily my lack of foresight was not calamitous, as just down the road from the reserve, less than half an hour’s womble away along wooded lanes, lay a little Adnams pub: The Eels Foot Inn.
The Eels Foot is a proper traditional country pub, with Southwold Bitter, Ghost Ship, Broadside, Gunhill, and Fat Sprat gracing the hand pumps – the latter two, seasonal specials. The cider drinkers, or should I say, cyder drinkers, can go for locally produced Aspall. The floor is bare, and the walls are white, with a few old paintings and quirky touches – the Springwatch team, who adopted this as their local during their time at Minsmere, were invited to sign the ceiling. There is a telly in the pub, but, while we were there at least, it was showing the Springwatch camera feeds on the Red Button. Outside, the massive grassy garden area is dotted with benches, and patrolled by large fluffy chickens. On an afternoon when I had stopped off at the pub on the way to the reserve, alone, one of these large fluffy chickens decided that I looked lonely (or that I might have food), and took it upon itself to sit on the other side of the bench while I finished my pint.
Ah yes, my pint. I feel that at this point, I must put up my hands and admit that I didn’t have particularly high hopes. I had vague memories of trying an Adnams beer somewhere, years ago, and being unmoved. Despite the high praise in the Twittersphere for Ghost Ship, the prospect of a relatively traditional beer didn’t get me excited – after all, it won’t have 200,000 IBUs, be barrel-aged on Mars, or cause my face to pucker in on itself until I look like Homer Simpson eating the sourest sweet in the world.
But I’m always up for exploring local beer, and I love a good country pub, so The Eels Foot and Adnams it was. I plumped for a pint of the Fat Sprat, a 3.8% ‘amber’ summer special. Well, there was some wonderful citrus going on alongside a gorgeous, crisp, spicy vibe, and I fell in love a little, but I suspected that after an hour’s walk in the blazing sun along Suffolk B-roads, I might not be particularly objective. Who was it who said that the best beer in the world is the one in your hand? At any rate, recuperating in the shade of a bright blue Adnams umbrella, I finished that pint in roughly seven minutes, and followed it with a half of Ghost Ship – which, while nice enough, didn’t do it for me in the same way.
Returning to the pub at ten o’clock that night with my partner after filming (if you watched last Monday’s Springwatch Unsprung, you may have spotted a chubby pale figure in the audience, haunting the studio like the ghost of a hipster: my 15 seconds of fame!), some of the crew were already there, enjoying pints of Ghost Ship after a long day. I went back to the Fat Sprat, to see if it still tasted good to me. It did. That slight spice mingling with the light citrus made it relentlessly quaffable, and I’m rather tempted to order a ‘mini-cask’ of it for the summer evenings. Speaking of temptation, behind the bar there were Adnams spirits. I didn’t know that they had a distillery, but will take the next chance I get to sample some of their gins, although I’m not so sure that I’ll be trying ‘The Spirit of Broadside’, distilled from – well, what do you think? – Broadside! Beer-spirits have yet to convince me, though they might be better actually distilled than freeze-distilled; if the brewer isn’t concerned with it remaining a ‘beer’, they may have more scope.
The Eels Foot was lovely, but a bit far from our cottage to really be convenient for more than one pint. Fortunately, there was another Adnams pub which was a little easier for us to get to. To be more precise, it was a three minute stroll down the road… The Bell Inn stands near a church which tolls the hours out across the surrounding countryside. Another traditional building, this pub still has two doors, labelled ‘Public Bar’ and ‘Lounge Bar’. Although the ‘Lounge Bar’ door now leads to the pub’s little restaurant, the ‘Public Bar’ was everything I hoped it would be. Bare wooden floorboards, awards and local notices on the walls, and, charmingly, beer served via gravity dispense, something I haven’t seen outside of beer festivals for quite a while. There are also a few little metal plaques set into the floor, inscribed with names and dates. When I asked the landlord about them, he told us that they mark where regulars have fallen over. Ace.
I had chosen a half of Southwold Bitter to start on, but after sipping the half of Ghost Ship my partner had gone for, we both decided to move on to pints of the latter for the next round. Full of flavour and depth, I finally understood what the hype was about. I don’t know what was different about Ghost Ship at The Bell compared to at The Eels – perhaps it was the fact that it was on gravity, it could have been because I’d tried it after a beer made with Fuggles, rather than one made with Cascade, or maybe we were just lucky and caught it at the peak of its condition – but it was a really enjoyable pint. Not to cast any aspersions on The Eels at all, their beer was, of course, very well-kept. My partner agreed that the Ghost Ship at The Bell seemed more full-bodied, but taste is so susceptible to the power of suggestion, I can’t really take that as any strong indicator that my feelings were correct. Oh, the joy of cask!
“Like wine, beer is beginning to interest a far wider audience. Unusual imports… “boutique beers”… specialities… traditional ales… the renaissance extends from Europe to North America, to Japan and Australia. Hundreds of new, speciality beers are being produced by scores of new breweries.”
- Inside the front cover of Michael Jackson’s The New World Guide to Beer, 1988.
I often have dreams about beer, in which I encounter rare, exciting new creations and collaborations, or weird methods of dispense (such as beer-gel sachets which you mix into water). More often than not, though, my beery dreams are about missing out: A while ago, I dreamt that I was in a Wetherspoons but there were no Sixpoint cans left, and so I had to drink Punk IPA instead. Despite the fact that I don’t mind Punk, in my dream this was a harrowing moment.
Last night, I had what I believe was the most in-depth and ridiculous dream yet. I was at some sort of huge role-playing festival in the grounds of a country house, where there was a typically ‘craft’, starkly decorated, stripped-back beer bar. There were many hand pumps on the concrete bar, and the pump clips adorning them bore pictures of Pokémon. Now, as any nineties kid knows, the Pokémon motto is ‘Gotta catch ‘em all’, in order to become a Pokémon master. The Pokémon featured on the pump clips were the legendary bird-types, which are hard to find, relatively difficult to catch, and those who obtain them are respected. Parallels with the activities of tickers are immediately obvious.
I wanted to try all of the beers on the bar, but was nervous about carrying a flight without spilling it, so I decided to work my way across, two thirds at a time. The member of bar staff wouldn’t give me third glasses, and instead dispensed my beers into champagne flutes. I was also handed a mandatory plate of weird and wonderful street food, which HAD to be paired with the beers, whether you liked it or not (my subconscious clearly thinks I’m a Comment Is Free writer and decided to go all-in with ripping the piss out of the craft scene).
One of the beers was Magic Rock’s Circus of Sour White Wine Lychee, (in my waking life, I had wanted to try this at BrewDog Shepherd’s Bush last weekend, but wasn’t able to be in London) and the other – well, I knew it was some sort of pink special edition fruit infused barrel aged something or other, but couldn’t remember what, and this fact distressed me greatly. Just asking the bar staff didn’t cross my mind. At this point in my dream, I wandered off somewhere else, and when I eventually came back to the beers, they had of course gone, with no chance of obtaining any more.
I woke up feeling rather off-kilter! I think that, having read Brew Britannia, and written it up yesterday, I felt uncomfortably young (hence the Pokémon) and relatively new to everything; five and a half years of committed geekery is nothing compared to most people I know. It was also a reflection on the huge variety we are constantly presented with during this excellent time for craft breweries, and how easy it is to miss out on the one-off special editions.
I am aware that hearing about other people’s dreams can be deathly boring, and am surprised if you got this far! Has anyone else had any strange beer-related dreams?
I came to beer relatively late in my drinking career thus far, having spent the years between fourteen and eighteen necking various different types of sugary, sticky rubbish. My eighteenth birthday was at the end of 2008, and my first legal purchase at the bar on that evening was, I believe, an Apple Sourz shot (Fast-forward five and a half years, and I’m still drinking sours, although these ones are rather different). It wasn’t until 2009, working behind the bar in a community-run pub, that I sampled the ale which led to my current beer geekery: Dark Star Hophead, for those of you who are curious. I was lucky to be discovering beer at this time. Exploring this brave new world which was unfolding in front of me, I had access to The Cask in Pimlico, I haunted North Bar in Leeds, I was able to join – and subsequently become president of – a well established university Real Ale Society, Brew Dog were making waves, and Boak and Bailey had already been blogging about beer for two years. I’ve found their blog to be an interesting and amusing source of beery info and opinion over the years, so when they popped up at Port Street as part of their book tour in May, I went along, bought a copy, and tried not to be too much of an awkward fangirl…
So really, my personal beer journey begins in the last couple of chapters of Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey’s book, Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. This friendly, accessible, but very informative wander through the resurgence of British beer laid out before me a history of relatively recent years. Many people I know have lived, and been active beer drinkers, throughout much of the period detailed in this book, but I have merely gleaned a vague shape of the historical landscape from CAMRA publications, various blog posts, broader books such as Pete Brown’s Man Walks Into A Pub, and, of course, nostalgic tales, not always particularly positive: “Hah, a young lady drinking a pint! When I was young you weren’t allowed to do that”. Brew Britannia doesn’t just fill in the gaps in the landscape, it gets out its felt tips, adds trees, houses, and little cartoon dogs, then colours everything in very carefully without going over the lines.
From SPBW boozing in their marvellous ties, to the young, hipster-ish upstarts which CAMRA once were (no, really!), through early brewpubs, ‘beer exhibitions’, The Big Six, Michael Jackson, new world hopped beers tasting ‘weird’, and small independent brewers standing their ground, to gastropubs, the gentrification of beer, and the phrase ‘craft’ being around for far longer than one might expect, it’s an invaluable guide to what has gone before – and what we may see again. The names mentioned in the book vary from being entirely new to me, to having a mildly mythic status, and it’s enjoyable to see their characters and roles set out in context, although at some points I felt like I wanted to scribble some sort of tree diagram, to keep track of who knew who, who did what, and where! I suppose that’s the nature of the beer industry: it’s a very small world, and brewers are always hopping (groan, no pun intended) from place to place.
The last couple of chapters are concerned with history I am more familiar with, with Thornbridge being one of the breweries I initially fell in love with in 2009 – even then, they were very firmly established. Craft keg, Brett, schooners, unfined beer, new wave IPAs, Portman Group baiting, beer bars, IndyMan and CAMRGB, and we’re brought pretty firmly up to the moment… In ten years or so, it will be interesting to look back on the current craft boom we’re enjoying. As a beer enthusiast, I feel very spoiled and lucky by all of the choice I have – did the beer geeks of yore feel like this at the first CAMRA festivals? Will good(/craft/whatever you want to call it) beer continue to break into the mainstream? Some young brewers I know are now actively steering clear of brewing weird, niche beers for the craft wankers, instead focusing on brewing straight-forward pales for people who don’t particularly care about precisely which hops they are tasting. Will we really experience post-craft, a backlash against perceived pretentiousness and hipsterism? A recent ill-informed Grauniad comment piece seems to indicate that we may. And will CAMRA ever get their act together to move forward away from ignoring anything that isn’t cask-conditioned, or will they become an increasingly irrelevant drinking club? (For further thoughts on this last point, check out The Pub Curmudgeon’s recent “Opening Times” Column). Brew Britannia has, in exploring the past, got me thinking about the future – but aside from all of that, it’s a bloody enjoyable and interesting read, and one which I will dip back into for reference time and time again.