Monday 28 February 2011

Stella Artois Triple Filtrée!

Stella Artois really annoys me. It's not just that it's a typical bland lager. A few years back they referred to the year 1340 in their ads as if to imply that the beer had really been in existence for that long. It actually dates from the mid 1920's when it was a dark Xmas beer. Stella = 'star', geddit?

The last few years have seen a proliferation of art-house style ads that give the impression that Stella is French. Then came the Nouvelle 4% with open top Citroens driven along the Corniche and glamorous women in pencil skirts and head scarfs.  Now it's a 'Smooth Outcome' delivered in a cod French accent.

My problem? Stella Artois is Belgian beer from Dutch speaking Leuven. Obviously this is not cool enough as the ad agencies try to distance the brand fro the 'wife beater' image. A pity for them that it's still being discounted in Aldi.

Saturday 26 February 2011

Thoughts from Liverpool Beer Festival

The CAMRA Liverpool Beer Festival is hugely popular and I've already said how difficult it is to obtain a ticket. The venue is superb. It's the crypt of the Metropolitan (R.C.) Cathedral which was built before the 2nd World War as the first stage of a project to build a grand traditional cathedral to match the Anglican edifice at the other end of Hope Street. The was intervened and plans were scaled back with designs for an ultra- modern glass and steel building taking its place. 'Paddys Wigwam' was controversial and unloved at first but is now accepted affectionately as an integral part of the Liverpool skyline.

It's as bit dim down there for photos
All stonework and Gothic arches it's a great place to drink beer with seating in the main hall for those who arrive early. There seems to be simplicity in planning the beer order. Quality is the watchword rather than rarity with 200 of the countries finest brews on sale. That's a lot of different beers for a mid-sized festival which means some have sold out by the final day. Liverpool has a number of great pubs, many of which have taken the opportunity to piggy back their own festivals onto this weekend to offer the drinker even more choice.

Brimstage, Hawkhead and Yates. What a line up!
The beers themselves are excellent. Most are £1.00 per half/£2.00 per pint even up to and above 5% with only the real rocket fuel brews at £1.50 per half which is still good value. Local breweries get pride of place near to the entrance with 17 of them represented. I obviously sampled the offerings from the wonderful Brimstage Brewery first just to check that they were as good as ever (they were). Their Rhode Island Red must be a winner one day soon at Earl's Court.

Those 'flavours of the month' Brewdog, Thornbridge and Marble were well represented. I have to say that on this occasion I found the Punk IPA to be overpowering, all sweetness and grapefruit. I was much happier with Dark Star's more modest Hophead.

Marble's Manchester Bitter and Ginger went down well but again I felt the Dobber was a little sweet. Maybe these strong hoppy beers are better with the sharpness of keg !! The new Galaxia from Thornbridge suited my palate better. The citrus notes balanced by good bitterness. This one uses Australian hops.

I'd drank a number of hoppy beers in the first few hours do it was time for a change of tack. Sarah Hughes Ruby is always a winner and I was recommended Liverpool Organic's Russian Imperial Stout. The tasting notes state Liquorice, Dark Chocolate and Coffee. Decadence in a glass indeed. This is a top class brewery with a fine range of cask and bottle conditioned beers. Their version of the much missed Higson's Bitter caused a lot of interest but it's a difficult taks to match that pungent, bitter, headache inducing brew.

One rare that was available was Hawkshead Tripel XBP. I cleansed my palate first with a glass of their Bitter which is one of my favourite beers  but the XBP was a disappointment. A strong and dry old ale there was no distinctive flavour evident. I'd even say it was bland despite the strength.

Spelling lesson needed

Good food is on offer too. The Everyman Bistro provide upmarket fast food and there is also a pie and pasty stall and a huge range of farmhouse cheeses with bread. Ideal ballast for a beer festival.

A justifiably popular festival and a good excuse to spend a weekend in Liverpool. After all if you can't get a ticket for each session there are plenty of good pubs.

Friday 25 February 2011


The Independent ran an article on Micropubs last week. The Licensing Act of 2003 made it much easier to open a pub than was the case previously when big brewers or pubcos would object as a matter of routine. Now if you prove compliance with health & safety, law and order, protection of children and are a fit and proper person you get your license.

Buying and existing pub is expensive and so are the running costs. These new Micropubs are small and basic and occupy premises that have been converted from other use. They concentrate on beer and won't have room for fruit machines or food. Now that's all very good but if we're making the effort to go out for the evening why go to something no bigger than your average living room? After all it's cheaper to buy some decent bottled beers and drink at home.
I've been to the Rat Race, a micropub based in a room at Hartlepool Railway Station that was previously a  waiting room, a taxi company office and a newsagent. Now it sells an excellent range of cask beer and is in the current Good Beer Guide but I found it unappealing and gloomy. In essence it was a plain rectangular room with no visible bar. What appeared to be a store room in one corner included a stable door from which the beer was provided. The lack of a bar as a focal point was probably the thing that detracted most from the experience. No pumpclips, spirits or staff to look at. No toilets either, customers have to use the facilities in the railway station. I wish the venture good luck but I prefer something a bit more atmospheric.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Off to the Liverpool Beer Festival

I'm off to the Liverpool beer festival tonight. Tickets are ridiculously hard to obtain but I got my act together this year. There are no ticket sales through pubs, only by postal application or in person on a set date in December - they sold out in two hours. Unless you live or work locally and can spare the time to queue on a Friday morning that means applying by post. Friday tickets aren't sold postally, so that leaves Thursday or Saturday. Beers run out as the festival progresses so Thursday it is. There is the trade session on Wednesday but last time I was offered a ticket for that session I was disappointed to find that only the local beers were available. Well I don't need to visit a beer festival to drink them.

A report will follow in due course!

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Sheffield Tap

For any beer lover arriving in Sheffield by train their first and probably last (only?) port of call will be the Sheffield Tap. Adjoining platform 1 - no access from the platform at the moment - It has fast become a 'must do' bar to rank with any found elsewhere in the country.

The cask beers are impressive. The core range of 5/6 Thornbridge ales are supplemented by 4 guest beers usually from the same brewery. Brewdog were featured during my visit. I tried the new recipe Punk IPA which I must admit was excellent.

However, there is more to this bar than cask beers. There are some interesting keg beers and I risked eternal damnation from the CAMRA gods by sampling the Odell IPA. Very impressive, the expected hoppiness nicely balanced by some malt.  It was nice to chat to a couple of Thornbridge brewers on a busman's holiday.

Nigel and Caolan from Thornbridge. Photo by Michelle.
The bottled beer range is superb. Over 100 Belgian beers, numerous from the U.S. plus Czech, Italian, Scandinavian and other countries. it would be quite easy to stay here all day and ignore Sheffield's other beery gems.

There are now three additional rooms with seating but that is not enough at times as the Tap's reputation spreads far and wide. As a Tranmere Rovers fan the possibility of Sheffield United (no offence), Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham United all playing in our division next season means that I could have three visits to the Sheffield Tap next season. Not that any excuse is needed.

Monday 21 February 2011

Alcohol licence?

The health police were at it again today. A report in The Lancet says that deaths due to liver disease are increasing. O.K. we agree that's not desirable. However, a spokesman on Radio 2,  probably for Alcohol Concern or some similar body suggested that we all be issued with drinks licences, the idea  being that we'd swipe a card every time we bought a drink. If we exceeded the proscribed limit over a few months we could expect a letter from our GPs warning us of the consequences.

The reporter asked the obvious question concerning someone else buying you a drink with their card considering that buying a drink for a friend is not illegal. Not illegal at the moment was the gist of the answer!

This was proposed with all seriousness. Big brother will limit your alcohol consumption and buying a round will be an offence. Presumably drinkers will also have their passports taken away to prevent them going abroad to drink unregulated alcohol. How do we stop these people?

Sunday 20 February 2011

Classy bar

Here's Bar 12 in Hatfield. I'd wager that deep philosophical arguments rage over the merits of cask versus craft. Others will read their Independents and Guardians safe in the knowledge that they are free of contagious disease. The fairer sex may well be sipping their funky wines while marvelling at the accuracy of the Rod Stewart tribute. All in all a perfect example of the traditional English pub that would delight any tourist.

Friday 18 February 2011

Ridiculous beer names

I can't be the only one who's noticed the proliferation of daft beer names. I'm not talking the puerile and sexist names from our domestic breweries that we 'Carry On Camping' loving Brits enjoy so much.

I was more thinking of the output from our foreign friends with their penchant for those so pretentious 1st release this and oak aged that. Others are just weird. Anyway, I've spent an hour or two dreaming up some ridiculous names listed below interspersed with some real ones:
Abbaye de St-Bon Chien 2010
Cuvée Alex le Rouge
Fone 50
Caulfield - Not Just Plain Vanilla
Beer Geek Brunch Weasel
BA Big Worst Bourbon Edition
Texas Ranger w/Vanillabeans & Cocoabeans
List & Bedrog
R. Woodhouse
Cuvée Freddy batch 2
Viola Sofia
Dirty Horse 2005

What do you mean they're all real beers? Get off my blog and back to Ratebeer immediately you geek! In fact, this is just a small selection from Alvinne's superb festival in Kortrijk on 4th March, the day before the start of the annual ZBF event in Essen. We're talking Belgium for my slower readers. Will I be there? Of course!

Not interested in obscure beers from the U.S., Italy, Denmark or Germany? Well Thornbridge are there as well. That got you interested didn't it? No? Oh well, suit yourselves.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Lost pubs

You don't have to live in Wirral to appreciate the following videos. As I've stated previously, Birkenhead and parts of Wallasey are in decline and there seems no end to pub closures. Some of the pubs featured won't be missed but others were thriving businesses in their time and took quite a lot of my money. At least 50% of them are now demolished, just memories remain.

On a happier note two of the pubs in the second video have been resurrected and are doing well, both with an excellent range of real ales. The Royal is now the Cock & Pullet, and the Dispensary has been freed from the clutches of the under performing Cain's and re-invented as (Frank!) Gallagher's Pub and Barbers. It has has just been voted Wirral CAMRA's pub of the year. Both of these pubs have Brimstage brewery beers on sale permanently which goes a long way to explain their success.

The reality is though, that they are isolated success stories and the demolition gangs will continue to find work as further pubs close their doors for the last time.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

CAMRA Pub of the Year, The Harp, Covent Garden, London

I was interested to see The Harp, Covent Garden gain CAMRA's POTY accolade. A few minutes walk from Trafalgar Square, behind St Martin's In-the-Field church it's easily accessible for we tourists from the northern wastelands.

I've only been there once (that will be rectified soon) and found it very welcoming pub with an excellent range of mostly local ales in excellent condition. But I found it impressive for another reason. On 28th December when the capital was teeming with visitors it was open as normal unlike some other well known pubs in London who displayed a 'stuff you' attitude in closing for days on end.

Monday 14 February 2011

Pub exteriors

Lord Napier, Rock Ferry, Birkenhead

This is not an old photograph. In fact it was taken on the same day as I wrote this blog. It might not seem anything out of the ordinary but the pub exterior caught my attention.

Up to say 10 years ago most pub fronts advertised a beer or brewery. Here in Wirral it was typically Whitbread, Tetley, Bass, Higson’s and latterly Boddington’s. If you look closely there were still relics of long-closed breweries such as Yates, Bent’s and Birkenhead. The growth of pubcos that didn’t own breweries meant that pubs nowadays have lost the  branding of yore. Not a bad thing for those of us who remember Tetley’s dreadful brown and yellow corporate colours and identikit signs. I tried to find a photo of it on the internet but they must have all been removed by the good taste police.

What is unusual about this photograph is that the Boddington’s style of lettering has been  renewed and refurbished in the last few weeks. That may give the impression that Boddington’s still has a meaningful existence. The Napier does actually still sell the beer albeit as Creamflow. I was thinking that it may be brewed in Penzance or Dover or maybe even Inverness, somewhere as far away as it is possible to get from Manchester. However, I'm informed that it is still produced in Manchester by Hyde's. True as that may be, the reality for most of us is that Boddington's ceased to exist some years ago.

Friday 11 February 2011

Craft Beer: The right name?

pencilandspoon suggests we all consider if Craft Beer is the correct name for the new wave of 'drinkable' keg beers.

Rather than answer the question directly I thought that I would offer a bit of history first for my younger readers. In the ‘olden’ days when I was a slip of a lad we knew where we stood. The good guys were Real Ale, represented by the likes of Young’s, Greene King (!) and Boddington’s. The forces of evil aka Keg included Whitbread (Tankard), Courage (Tavern) and of course Watney (Red Barrel) plus everthing else that wasn’t ‘real’.

Of course, it wasn’t so simplistic even then. Handpumps were far from universal in the dispense of cask beer. For instance, in many parts of the North and Midlands the Metron electric pump was commonplace but it wasn’t immediately obvious if the beer dispensed was kosher. As time passed, pubs that were previously viewed as paragons of virtue were black-listed for the use of cask breathers. Bottled beer was deemed universally bad apart from Guinness, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, Courage Imperial Russian Stout and Gale’s Prize Old Ale. Fake handpumps appeared as well, which to the expert looked as convincing as those used in say Coronation Street or Emmerdale, but fooled the naïve and unwary. But mostly we knew where we stood and happily fought over the same strip of land for thirty years, with the enemy occasionally inventing new weapons of torture, a sort of beery battle of the Somme.

Things got a bit more complicated as the new Millenium dawned. The Brits discovered the Czech Republic, Germany and in greater numbers Belgium. Most Belgian bottled beers passed the test but some didn’t and the draught tasted pretty good and was often unpasturised and or unfiltered so a blind eye was turned to the fact that it was still kegged. Drinking keg was o.k. if you were in a foreign country wasn’t it? Ditto, a revolution was taking place in the U.S.A. The trickle of new breweries became a flood as the Americans looked at what the great brewing nations had done and decided to adapt and accentuate the styles to their own ends.  The result was a plethora of new breweries, beers and styles which had their roots in Europe but were proudly American in attitude. In particular the hops grown in the U.S., Cascade being a good example, were particularly suited to big hoppy beers. Keg beer was the norm in the U.S. and so that was how they were served, chilled and sparkling. The new bottled beers were mostly pasturarised and filtered too. Some people consider kegged and chilled to be the premier method of dispense for these beer but that’s for another day. Anyway, this movement needed a name. Real Ale didn’t aply, sounded a bit stuffy and belonged to a different continent. Someone coined the name Craft Beer to differentiate the beers from the products of the Multi Nationals and it stuck.

Each to his own you may say. But these beers are seen increasingly in Britain. At first, only in the fancy bars of London, nothing to worry about for the rest of us. But their range is spreading across the country as specialist bars (they don’t call themselves pubs) spring up in cities such as Manchester and Sheffield. The traditionalists could still ignore these cuckoos in the nest until along came Brewdog the self-styled punks of British brewing. They do brew cask beer and very good it is. But they’re on record as saying that keg is their preference and their reach is increasing. Shock horror, the previous saintly Thornbridge are also producing keg versions of their beers. Other breweries are following suit in increasing numbers. Meantime have quietly ploughed the keg furrow for some years and more are taking this path, especially in the London area.

What these breweries have in common is that they brew good beer and embrace the term ‘Craft Beer’. This is a major problem for CAMRA whose position as the ultimate arbiter of what is good beer is under threat, with some brewers and bloggers prominent in their criticism. Their position is founded on the principle that correctly dispensed cask beer is the start and finish with a cursory nod to bottle-conditioned beers. But many CAMRA members willingly embrace the New Keg as an alternative and enjoyable product. They may prefer real ale most of the time but recognise that the alternative is not necessarily fire and brimstone. The argument is starting to rage between the traditionalists and modernisers such as Tim Webb. The worry is that CAMRA may become as relevant to the mainstream as the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood

Finally, I'm not trying to dodge the question so Craft Beer seems a perfectly reasonable name to describe the new wave of good keg beers. I can’t think of a better one offhand - 'Nu Keg' hardly inspires. If I do I’ll copyright it and licence it for a reasonable fee. But unlike some I’d prefer to see it considered as a separate category to real ale and not all embracing. I like to know where I stand so for me real ale = cask, craft = keg. Simple!

*Photo courtesy of  Mike Sweeny

Wednesday 9 February 2011

The future is keg!

As we all fall headlong into the bottomless pit of 'Nu Keg' as I and no one else likes to call it, I came across an image of a previous keg beer that was supposed to sweep all before it. I'm willing to be contradicted but I think it was only trialled in the North of England. You Southerners don't know how lucky you are.

I hadn't yet heard of CAMRA and this was new and 'trendy'. My Dad's pub sold it and Whitbread threw lots of money at an advertising campaign. It was a 'Young Man's Pint' and had a ridiculous tin gauntlet dispensing unit. Today's ASA would have a hissy fit. I used to drink it pre-match at the Prenton Hotel next to Tranmere's ground. It was dark, sweet and probably crap. After a few months it just disappeared without trace never to be mentioned again. Until now.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Gale's Ales

Less of a blog today more of a photo gallery. Gale’s of Horndean marketed their wonderful Prize Old Ale in ultra traditional shouldered bottles with the brewery name embossed on the reverse. The effect was very pleasing on the eye. During the 80s and 90s they extended the concept to on a number of commemorative brews which sported a variety of attractive labels.

I’ve displayed here the classic POA bottle form the mid 70s. There was no indication of strength on  the label. The O.G. was added some time towards the end of that decade. At this time POA was also sold in crown corked nips.

The label was completely re-designed for the 80s. The gravity was indicated on the right hand side. A bit garish for me. Red and green should never be seen?

The 90s saw the introduction of a stylish new label with the year of production on the reverse. A photo of the brewery was displayed which, ironically, was still used once Fuller's had closed the brewery.

Here I’ve shown a few of the commemorative bottlings for your interest. The Silver Jubilee Ale of 1977 is very rare in corked form. It was mostly produced in crown corked nips. The others are an eclectic bunch produced for other royal, national and local anniversaries. It should be noted that these special brews were not re-badged prize Old Ale.

The gravities ranged from a paltry 4.6% for Peter & Julia’s Wedding (who?) from 1989 to a whopping 12% for the Golden Jubilee Ale of 1982. They can sometimes can be picked up on eBay at a cheap price and may be worth a punt, especially the stronger examples which should have matured nicely.

To view a full list of these and other commemorative brews up to 1999 see the excellent Association of Bottled Beer Collectors (ABBC) reference at Bottled beer list


Sunday 6 February 2011

Sheffield Crawl part 2

Leaving the Hillsborough Hotel two stops on the tram will take you to . Keeping left, and crossing the dual carriageway I had reached the Kelham Island district. This is an area of empty streets with any number of decaying factories and warehouses. The rehearsal scenes in the Full Monty could have been filmed here. A stranger would not expect this to be fertile territory for good beer but they would be very wrong. My first port of call was the Fat Cat. Again it is nothing special externally, but inside it is a compact and thriving pub which sells and excellent range of beers from all over the country and also those from its own brewery. I settled down in front of the real fire with a pint of Sarah Hughes’ Ruby Mild.

Simon gets to sample a Belgian classic

  All was well with the word. I promised a special ‘Hello’ to Simon from Kendal who was celebrating his 23rd birthday with a few friends. It’s good to see a younger generation appreciating our classic pubs.
I furthered his beer education with a bottle of Gouden Carolus Xmas which was well received.
Time was passing so it was time for the next pub. Just a five minute walk away was the multi-award winning Kelham Island Tavern. To be brutally honest I’m surprised that it won CAMRA’s highest award two years running. Internally it is nothing out of the ordinary with a comfortable bar and a newer conservatory which has increased capacity considerably. That’s not to belittle the pub, I just think that there are other gems somewhere else in the country that would give it a run for its money. I will say that it is a very friendly and well-run pub that I’d love to have as my local.

The licensee takes great pride in choosing and cellaring his beers so that they are served in optimum condition. I opted for one my favourite session beers, Acorn Barnsley Bitter which is designated as the house beer at a very reasonable price. This is an old fashioned ruby coloured beer with a good balance of malt and hops. it's a long time ago but my recollection is that the original Barnsely Bitter wasn't quite so dark in colour. Anyway, a welcome change from the plethora of hop-head beers that have flooded the market in recent years.

Final stop was the new Sheffield Tap, but I’ll dedicate that one a blog of its own.

Friday 4 February 2011

Sheffield Crawl part 1

Sheffield no longer has Ward's beers but is blessed with a number of superb pubs. You could spend a weekend here and visit a dozen pubs with top class beer. I had six hours so kept it to five of my favourites. A day ticket for the trams and buses was £3.00 when purchased with my train ticket and was well worth it.

For the purposes of this blog I'll pretend that I didn't sneak a quick drink in the Sheffield Tap. Well it does back on to platform 1 of the railway station so it would have been rude not to call in.

 My intended destination was the Devonshire Cat, a 10 to 15 minutes walk through the city centre depending on your speed and/or thirst. In an area of student accommodation sandwiched between the shopping precincts and the drinking circuit this is a modern pub which quickly became popular with a wide range of drinkers. At the time of my visit students, pensioners, football fans and shoppers co-existed quite happily. There are a dozen  handpumps serving predominately local beers and wide range of bottled beers including some Belgian and U.S. classics. These are on display in a glazed storage area to one side of the bar.

There are excellent bar snacks and more extensive dishes available. The pub is spacious and comfortable with lots of wood panelling and has a more individual feel than the typical modern bar styled on the Wethherspoons template.

I drank Acorn Pacific IPA which was in superb condition. Also on tap during my visit were brews from Empire, Abbeydale and others from the Acorn brewery.

A walk up the hill took me to West Street to which those of a nervous disposition should not stray on weekend nights. This was early afternoon so it was mercilessly quiet. A couple of stops to Langsett and I had reached my next port of call, the Hillsborough Hotel. In a redevelopment area it is a red brick corner pub that doesn't look very promising from the outside. However, once inside there is the welcoming site of handpumps proclaiming five beers from Crown, the pub's own brewery plus two guest beers from other local breweries. I drank a pint of the refreshing Hillsborough Pale Ale. The pub itself with an open bar area comfortable lounge and a large conservatory to the rear leading to a few tables outside. The name 'Hotel' is accurate because B & B is available from £40 per night.

There are many pubs of this type that have failed to survive or which have 'fallen into disrepute'. The Hillsborough is a well run, friendly local with great beers which will hopefully thrive for many years to come.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Sharp's sells out!

If you thought Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll were the only shock sales this week then think again. Sharp's brewery has been gobbled up by the giant Molson-Coors for £20 million. So you could buy two comparably sized breweries and still have change compared with the cost of one sulky centre forward. I know which sounds the better deal to me.

In recent years the multi-national conglomerates have mostly withdrawn from the cask ale market, at least on the brewing side. They had declared that they weren't interested in niche markets so the only take overs were made by the larger regional brewers.

Its worthy of note that Sharp's don't own any pubs so the value in this acquisition lies with the beer names. Doom Bar isn't bland but its 'easy drinking' and looks to fit the bill for a national roll-out and a large advertising budget. Will there be a response from the likes of Inbev or are Molson Coors going out on a remote Cornish limb?

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Glenair P*ss Artistes

Thomas Hardy's Ale was advertised for many years as the 'Rarest Beer in Britain'. It's highly unlikely that this proclamation was ever true for the yearly vintages. Many thousands of bottles were produced each year and even as sales dwindled they would be in excess of those from the upstart micros.

However, Eldridge Pope did produce one edition in 1985 that was limited to about 12 bottles only as far as I know. I don't know who the Glenair P*ss Artistes were although their names are listed on the label. I believe that one of them may have been employed at Eldridge Pope and was able to convince the brewery hierarchy to re-badge a few bottles of their flagship ale. Anyway, I've got one bottle!