Travel

Bitterns, Bugs, and Beer

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.

Adnams pub sign, The Eel's 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.

Pint of Adnams Fat Sprat, in a pub beer garden, with a chicken on the table
What’s a bird like you doing on her own?

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.

#SirenLimoncelloFace

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.

Inside the traditional public bar of the Bell Inn Adnams pub, in Middleton
The Bell Inn, after everyone had left.

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!

A summer view over the reed beds from the Bittern Hide at RSPB Minsmere
In the Bittern Hide. We managed to glimpse one landing in the reeds.

All too soon, my brief visit to Suffolk was over. Next time, I intend to stay longer, and try beer from other local breweries. I’m very glad that I’ve enjoyed some Adnams, as they seem to have quite a portfolio of beers (and spirits) to explore. I’d like to visit the brewery, and the distillery, although we might have to book a room at one of their Southwold pubs so we don’t have too much travelling to do after all of the inevitable sampling! Thanks to everyone on Twitter who recommended them to me, confirming that I should be looking forward to the evening’s pre-planned trip to the pub, including @Beergenie, @BeerOClockShow, and @ohyoumuppet, who also suggested that I look out for their Jack Brand bottles. I didn’t manage to find any this time, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

Other breweries I’m going to seek out next time include Cliff Quay Brewery, recommended by @edrazzall, Hell Hound Brewery, recommended by @NateDawg27 - apparently they have bottles at the Snape Maltings -, Green Jack, recommended by @Palate4Hire (I do like their Lurcher Stout but haven’t tried anything from them for a while), and Old Chimneys Good King Henry Special Reserve, also recommended by @Palate4Hire and seconded by @GhostDrinker. Thanks, everyone!

Outside of Twitter, a very kind RSPB volunteer named Peter recommended that I venture out to The Crown, at Snape, which is one of his favourite local pubs. Peter also told me how when he was a boy, beer used to be brought up from the cellar in jugs, and that when he started drinking, a half pint of Adnams cost about 2p. Thanks for the recommendation, Peter, I’ll try to get to The Crown next time I’m in the area.

My stay in Suffolk felt like going back in time. I’m sure there are places in the county which stock the type of beer I’d usually choose to drink, but for a few days, country pubs, bird watching, and cask-conditioned bitter below 5% was a very soothing change of pace. I did start craving big hops, sours, and decent transport links towards the end of the trip, but all in all, the countryside can be pretty cool.

A Brief Jaunt to Leeds

On Tuesday, I packed my notebook and jumped on a train to Leeds, accompanied by BrewDog Mancs’ Dani, a couple of bottles of Jackhammer (7.2%), and an XL Bacon Double Cheeseburger to line my stomach (yes, I’m a classy bird). The reason for our trip? Leeds is one of my favourite places in the world – I went to uni there, so it holds a special place in my heart – and it was about to become that little bit more fantastic, due to the opening of Tapped Leeds, the new venture from The Tapped Brew Co.

Walking down from the station, we clocked Tapped pretty quickly, neon burning away through the chilly Leeds gloam, calling pilgrims through those newly opened doors – though before we could venture inside, we had a couple of other places to visit. Friends to meet, charcuterie to nibble… But our first port of call was, of course, BrewDog Leeds. Despite only being over the hills at BrewDog Mancs, to my great shame I hadn’t managed to make it across the Pennines to visit our Yorkshire pals until now; they opened after I left uni, so this cosy bar was all new to me. In comparison to our spacious Peter Street building, it’s utterly diddy, but I like it a lot. They have an old-school game console or two (don’t ask me what they are, I’m not au fait with games that aren’t desktop/laptop-based; I had a GameBoy Colour when I was a child and then moved on to Civilisation, The Sims, and World of Warcraft), so people who like that sort of thing can do their gaming while drinking good beer in a nice, social environment, and for we who have neither the inclination nor, let’s be honest here, the co-ordination, there is a good little selection of board games. Give me Leeds Monopoly over jumping on turtles any day.

After perusing the fridges, we decided to go halves on a bottle of To Øl Jule Mælk (15%), in all its spicy creamy smooth sweet dark goodness. Ahem. Fifteen percent could be a bit of a big one to start on, but we were sharing, and after all, our train beer was Jackhammer. The Jule Mælk slipped down far too easily, and soon we found ourselves splitting a Mikkeller Hoppy Lovin’ Xmas (7.8%), as research for a pairing Dani had put together for the BD Mancs beer dinner – seven courses! – which, I hear, went swimmingly, so kudos to her and our chef Matt for pulling off that feat of decadence. The Hoppy Lovin’ Xmas was suitably festive, with shitloads of ginger and pine. Not quite my bag, but decent enough, and it does what it sets out to do.

I’d drink this for pudding.

All too soon it was time to set off to our next stopping point, so after enlisting Nat to join our band of merry men, we trotted off to somewhere I was very excited to finally explore - Friends of Ham. (See what I did there? Trotted? Trotters? Oh, fine then. Go on, get out.) This was another place that opened shortly after I left uni, and for the last god-knows-how-long I’ve been meaning to visit, but it just hadn’t happened. Finally, after hearing friends rave about it for yonks, I was walking through the door. The bar had a good selection of beers to choose from, but I was drawn straight away to the Magic Rock The Big Top (8%). I bloody love big red ales, and was really looking forward to trying this, but it did let me down a little. It was a good beer, just not quite to my taste; there was something about it that I didn’t like, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I’ve since found out that it has lots of Australian hops in, which I haven’t tended to be a huge fan of – in fact, I can only think of two beers using primarily Aus hops that I’ve enjoyed, one being Dark Star Hophead Galaxy (3.8%), and one being Al‘s Vic’s Secret (7.2%). The Big Top just wasn’t as world shaking and beautiful as I usually find Magic Rock‘s range. Anyway, at Friends of Ham the star attraction was, quite rightly, their food menu.

Dani and I shared a platter of two meats and two cheeses. After looking over the menu, we chose the Serrano Gran Reserva ham, which had been cured for fourteen months, and Salame Toscano, which featured garlic, red wine, and whole black peppercorns. Um, get in my face. Cheese-wise, Brie de Meaux was an easy decision,  and the Oak Smoked Lancashire, which had been smoked over old oak whisky barrel chippings, also sounded good. The meats and cheeses arrived accompanied by crackers, olive oil-drizzled bread, cornichons, and mini pots of chutney and chilli jam. It made me feel almost glad that I no longer live in Leeds; if I did, those meat and cheese platters would quickly become a vice that I can’t quite afford, and I would balloon to the size of a house. The Serrano was intense, the Salame was excellently garlicky, the Brie was outrageously good, and the Oak Smoked Lancashire actually came out as my favourite of the whole platter. Good food, a great selection of beer, and lively surroundings. This place has a whole lot of soul.

Happy, tasty Christmas pig.

And then, to Tapped Leeds. I do love how different all of the Pivovar bars are; some appeal to me more than others, but of course, the beer is marvellous across the board. I’m a Pivni girl, myself. Low wooden beams and darkness speak to me. Tapped Leeds is a bit bright and shiny looking, a bit new wave, a bit clean and clinical, but then, they are brewing beer there, so, you know. You could probably brew lambics in Pivni just by leaving the beer under those wooden beams and letting whatever causes that permanent slightly odd smell do its stuff..! The beers were looking good though, with 13 cask and 14 keg, if I read the signs over the bar correctly, and everyone was obviously enjoying opening night. I finally got my grubby paws on some Burning Sky, after my attempts to get some in the excellent Snowdrop Inn earlier this year were thwarted (although I did love their collaboration with Wild and Good George in the glorious Schnoodlepip). I’ve been eagerly awaiting the chance to try some of Mark’s new stuff, and Saison à la Provision (6.5%) was everything I’d been expecting. Peppery, funky, gorgeousness – I’m not generally a huge fan of Saisons, but this was bloody lovely.

Tapped Leeds have been tweeting about their first brew being in progress, so I’ll definitely have to nip over again when that’s ready. I’m also excited about trying one of their pizzas, which Dan (previously of Pivni) was slaving over in his chef’s gear. They looked pretty insane, but after our feast at Friends of Ham, I couldn’t face one that night! Anyway, the time to catch our train back to Manchester was drawing near, and we couldn’t very well leave Leeds without one final stop, so we powered up to the Headrow… And to North Bar.

Oh, North, my old fortress of solitude, my island in the sea of madness of student life. I spent far too long in this place when I should have been writing essays, and I don’t regret a second of it. It hasn’t changed a bit, apart from the addition of a photo booth. What?! Insane, but amazing. We didn’t have long to spend here before getting our train, so a snap decision was made, and we split a bottle of something I’d seen online and been intrigued by, but never actually encountered in person before: Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale (5.8%). It really did do what it said on the tin. My tasting notes for this, hastily scribbled in my notebook, read “super fucking maple syrup bacon”. Well, doy. It was sweet, a little salty, and surprisingly refreshing. Not one I’d necessarily go for again any time soon, though I’ve been assured by Twitter that the chocolate banana peanut butter version is worth a try. I’ll keep an eye out for that, but I actually liked this version far more than I thought I would.

In the North Bar photo booth with the (empty) bottle.

And with that, we dashed down to the train station and hopped back on the train to Mancs – after picking up a couple of bottles of Punk and a KFC, of course, we travel in style – and, bidding goodbye to Leeds, I vowed that I’d be back soon.