On Saturday morning I’m going to New York. This might seem pathetic but, at 30 years old, it will be the first time I’ve left Europe. When I was a kid I wanted to go to New York because it was where Spider-Man and the Ghostbusters lived. I kind of still do.
But I’m also very excited about the beers. When I tell normal people that I’m looking forward to trying lots of great beers in New York, they look at me oddly. But since (repeatedly) going to North Bar’s North American Beer Festival and exploring the range of American beers in Beer Ritz, it’s been clear that America is the most exciting place in the world for beer. It seems equally clear that the influence of American craft brewers has greatly contributed to the revitalisation of the British beer industry and to those beers that have sparked my enthusiasm for it all.
So I’ve been reading Lew Bryson’s New York Breweries and Andy Crouch’s beautiful book Great American Craft Beer. I was keenly interested in Richard Burhouse and Pete Brown’s blog entries on drinking in New York.
I’ve discovered that, purely by chance, our hotel is only a couple of blocks’ (Blocks! Get me!) walk from The Ginger Man, Cask Bar + Kitchen and Rattle ‘n’ Hum. Moreover, Rattle N Hum has offers on Stone Arrogant Bastard, Double Bastard and Lucky Bastard all week. I don’t want to go completely mad and spend our entire holiday schlepping half-cut from bar to bar, but other options further afield I’ve considered are Blind Tiger; Mugs Ale House, Brooklyn Brewery and Barcade.
I don’t even want to get started on the beers I want to try, but I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for all the Brooklyn Brewery beers I haven’t tried, especially Brooklyn Winter Ale (recently reviewed by Leigh, with a lovely label) and also Bear Republic’s Racer 5 (recommended by Richard of MyBreweryTap, as well as Andy Crouch and many others).
So that’s what I’m most excited about. Anywhere else I must go or beers I must drink? Anything I’ve mentioned that’s not really worth it?
Kate’s parents live in Kendal, so quite often we end up spending the weekend in the Lakes, enjoying a walk during the day then going out for a drink in the evening. The two places that we end up in most often are The Brewery Arts Centre (disappointingly no longer a brewery; just a very good arts centre) and Burgundy’s.
The Vats Bar at The Brewery Arts Centre is relatively expensive, but does usually have a few ales from around the Lakes on, notably their excellent house beer Ale N Arty from Hawkshead. Burgundy’s similarly has a range of around four local cask ales at a time, often including Coniston beers, as well as a good bottle fridge with Orval, Trappistes Rochefort and even the odd bottle of Goose Island IPA.
The Rifleman’s Arms is a less obvious choice. It’s on a nice green, after what on the first climb appears to be a horrendously steep walk up the hill from the main street, appropriately called Beast Banks. Postman Pat was conceived in the imagination of children’s author John Cunliffe when he was living on Greenside, a few houses up from The Rifleman’s Arms and the former Beast Banks sub-post office.
The Rifleman’s is a pub which has reportedly gone through a few shakey moments in recent years but now seems to be on the path back to good health. On a Friday night it seems busy with locals playing dominoes, darts and also in the side room, pool. Posters advertise a weekly knitting circle and the new landlady/manageress seems to be involved in a number of events on the green and keeping the pub involved in the local community.
They have beer from the SIBA list and when we were in two weeks ago that included Ossett Spellbound and Moorhouses Pendle Witches Brew, alongside the Tetleys and Abbot Ale which seem to be the standards. Spellbound in particular was a nice pale ale to enjoy by the gas fire on a wet windy night, whilst the dominoes clattered in the background. However it was served in incorrectly branded glasses. Hardknott Dave would not approve.
Perhaps symbolic of the decline and resurgence of The Rifleman’s is the literature on offer. On a sideboard by the toilets (pictured) is a complete collection of Good Beer Guides for the years 1995-2003. This might be indicative of when the management lost interest. But now they have up-to-date copies of CAMRA’s “Beer” magazine and the local CAMRA newsletter, “Lakes & Ale”.
There’s just one thing though, which is a bit jarring when you go to relieve yourself in the (clean but typically freezing) toilets after a few: the urinal has lumps of coal in it. Coal. Moreover, I am informed that exactly the same lumps have been there for years. Coal apparently gets rid of odours and I assume that’s what they’re for. But I’ve never seen this anywhere else. Have you?
The Rifleman’s Arms, 4-6 Greenside, Kendal, Cumbria LA9 4LD
North has a lot of Brewdog in at the minute, including the aforementioned cask Paradox, cask Trashy Blonde, keg 5am Saint and will also have, as of today, manager Matt’s own stag party beer, “Alice Porter”. We had a couple of great pints of the hoppy, citrussy Trashy Blonde and capped off the night by splashing out on a big bottle of Stone Double Bastard 2009, which was a syrupy, hoppy beast full of rotten fruit that should be any sensible person’s last drink of the night. We went home very happy.
*As the Queen Mum! Wasn’t she doing filthy things with Tyler Durden last time I saw her?
Last year, for reasons too convoluted to go into, I found myself working on the Euston Road in London, but living in and commuting from Milton Keynes every day through Euston station. I investigated a lot of pubs around this time, ranging from Sam Smiths pubs to icy gastros that weren’t really pubs any more, such as The Queens Head & Artichoke, where you felt like you were putting the serving staff out in some way if you just went in for a pint, even when it was empty.
One pub that I found myself returning to a number of times was The Bree Louise. Just around the side of Euston, it’s a shabby, frayed-at-the-edges traditional pub with terrible toilets. But sometimes the best pubs have awful bogs.
The Bree Louise has two things going for it:
1. It has a huge selection of real ale, with up to 11 beers on gravity and 6 on hand pumps. It looks like a beer festival behind the bar, with all the casks sitting on saddles. For me it was a good place to explore a wide range of beers from a decent selection of breweries.
2. In summer it was a great place to sit outside, or (more likely, given how busy it got) stand outside and enjoy a little bit of evening sun, on a quiet sidestreet just away from the dashing commuters rushing between Euston and Euston Square stations.
Today I note that on the comments to Pete Brown’s entry on the (very exciting) Euston Tap, there’s a bit of hostility towards the Bree Louise. One commenter says:
As long as the whole bar doesn’t smell of piss like the Bree Louise, then I’ll be happy.
Which is probably fair comment. Opinion is deeply divided on Beer In The Evening, where it retains a solid 7.2/10 but attracts criticism for the condition of some of its beers and the quality of the food. Back on Pete Brown’s blog, The Beer Monkey noted:
The lacklustre Bree Louise now has some serious competition down that neck of the woods.
I think this is both fair and positive. There’s room for more good pubs in that end of London, and if the competition from a shiny new craft beer pub forces the Bree to up its game a bit in the areas where it’s been subject to criticism to keep beer fans coming in, that’s all for the best. But I’d hate to see it close.
(For another take on The Bree Louise and helpful links to some largely unimpressed reviews on a number of other blogs, see Boak and Bailey).
I’ve just started reading Martyn Cornell’s fascinating book Amber, Gold & Black: The History Of England’s Great Beers. So far I’ve learned an lot about each of the styles covered and their history, which seems inseparable from the beer itself.
A style which has always confused me is mild. I simply didn’t know what it was. This wasn’t helped at all when I tried a bottle of Banks Mild recently, which is a light chestnut colour, and tasted completely different to the predominantly dark milds I’d tried before. Even in relation to dark milds I’m not sure where the dividing line is with porter.
I now realise, from Cornell’s book, that this variation comes from mild’s historical definition as simply a beer meant to be drunk young. Mild is not monolithic, although many modern examples are dark. It seems that modern milds are either a persistence through history of variations on a style that wasn’t rigidly defined to start with, or a retrospective recreation of something mostly lost.
I decided to put theory into practice and compare a few different cask milds. It was an ideal time to do this as Brewdog have released their own take on a weak mild, Edge. It’s available in many JD Wetherspoons now as part of their ale festival, but I tried it in Nation Of Shopkeepers on Great George Street, where for some reason it monopolised three of the four handpumps.
Brewdog Edge is a 3.2% dark mild, which made it easier to excuse a whole pint at lunchtime. It was a lively pour with a creamy head, but one that soon disappeared. It tasted quite… er, mild; and thin the point of watery. There was a hint of cola as it tingled on my tongue and left a roasted bitter aftertaste.
Compared to Brewdog’s core range and expensive specials – and indeed their recent press releases – Edge is completely contrary. It’s a weak cask beer, that lends itself to drinking in considerable volume. It’s a pleasant enough drink but I can’t imagine anyone getting too excited about it. But how does it compare to the local competition?
I went to Leeds Brewery’s Brewery Tap near the train station after work, as I knew it would do both Leeds’ own Midnight Bell and Tetley’s Mild, the latter of which may or may not currently brewed by Marstons for Carlsberg (according to Wikipedia it is, but there seems to be some debate).
I confess to confusing myself over the similar looking halves on the way to the table, but when I tried them it was easy to tell them apart. Tetley’s Mild has the same dominant taste as Tetley’s Cask Bitter, that almost chemical sulphur taste that I presume comes from the “Burtonising” salts, albeit in a pair of beers traditionally from West Yorkshire.
Beyond that taste, there wasn’t much to the beer at all. It was similarly thin, and perhaps even more watery than Edge. It was refreshing enough and there were some puny roast flavours struggling to compete with the sulphur in the aftertaste, but failing.
I’m not completely sold on Leeds Brewery. They have nice branding and some good pubs, but their beers tend not to be particularly exciting (relative to the local competition such as Roosters and Saltaire) and I’ve been left quite disappointed by a few dodgy pints recently. That said, the Midnight Bell was by far the best of the three milds for my tastes.
It had more of a smell than either of the others, mostly cocoa. That came through in the taste, which was a nice balance of chocolate and mildly roasted coffee. More than anything, it had a much creamier feel in the mouth, and seemed much more satisfying than the others.
However, it’s worth noting that the Midnight Bell is described by Leeds Brewery as a 4.8% “premium dark mild”. This is 1.5% above the Tetleys and 1.6% above the Brewdog. I suspect any comparison should not be regarded as like-for-like.
However, Cornell makes it clear that, at least just before WW1, there were some very strong milds. Moreover, former “Champion Beer Of Britain” Rudgate’s Ruby Mild (which I’ve previously tried and liked) is 4.4%. So, with the qualification that my tastes probably tend towards stronger milds, I’m happy to declare that on this occasion I enjoyed a Leeds Brewery beer more than a Brewdog one.
(Rigorous experimentation over, we stayed for some dinner. The Midnight Bell also tastes very good in the Brewery Tap’s steak and ale pie. However, I ordered a stout and Kate a pale ale, both from Abbeydale.)
I was going to do a review of Further North, which is the best pub within walking distance of my house. However, discussing Further North without first addressing North is like talking about Engels without mentioning Marx.
This post goes a bit beyond a simple review, because North is such a good pub of a particular type that it allows for a wider discussion of what it does so well, and why. North is not what many people I know would derisively refer to as an “old man pub”. Instead, it’s much more like a shabby-chic hipster café bar, halfway between Brooklyn and Bruges.
North Bar’s main strength, on any objective measure, is the selection of beer. It doesn’t have an especially high number of handpumps relative to Mr Foleys or most JD Wetherspoons, but those it does have are chosen well. Good local beers are favoured (with “beer miles” noted on the blackboard), and the cheapest on offer is usually Wild Mule: a pale, refreshing, hoppy session-strength beer from Rooster’s/Outlaw. As a default beer, it’s excellent. Guest beers often include those from Crown Brewery and Marble.
The keg beers are all pretty special as well. As well as some interesting European beers, often including one from Brasserie Ellezelloise, they were the first place in the UK to have Brooklyn Lager on draught.
The fridges, however, are something else. They’re packed with a brilliant selection of European and American bottles. Because these are relatively rare, imported beers, sometimes you’ll find yourself burning through your wallet pretty quickly, but by and large you’re paying for real quality. However if you’re into beer in any way, it’s almost impossible not to want to splash out a bit. Again, though, there’s usually a good cheaper option. Recently, for example, Flying Dog Pale Ale has been on offer.
I should also note that this focus on the selection extends to the range of spirits on the bar, which shuns the default options in favour of similarly interesting alternatives.
The blackboard in North includes tasting notes, which I think should be standard practice these days. When local pubs only ever sold Tetleys they wouldn’t have been required. However, when you’re offering an ever-changing range of unfamiliar, perhaps entirely new beers that most won’t have seen before, you’re simply missing a trick by not letting punters know what they’re supposed to be forking out £2.90 for. Of course they’re always happy to let you try a beer as well.
In relation to the bottles, you’re provided with a beer menu divided by origin and noting style, ABV and price. This is generally helpful but, given the breadth of choice, it often helps to fall back on the knowledge of the bar staff.
All of the bar staff, apparently without exception, have an excellent knowledge of the wide range they’re selling. The management’s commitment to educating the staff at regular tasting evenings is a really admirable policy, and one you’d struggle to find at a lot of North’s competitors. As a result the staff are happy to sound out a customer as to what they like and giving a recommendation. Beyond that, their willingness to say, “We’ve not got [standard option found in most pubs] but have you tried [alternative with similar qualities]?” seems basic when you think about it, but not all pubs bother.
North Bar is not a gastropub. However if you want a really good, reasonably-priced modern British meal with a decent pint, you could do a lot worse than wandering up the road a few hundred yards to The Reliance, which shares ownership with North but has different priorities.
North instead plays to its strengths by offering a small range of low-maintenance food options to sustain their customers. These include good pies, served with or without mushy peas in a canteen tin, with a pie and a pint deal. However perhaps the standout option is the meat and bread or cheese and bread. Who could resist a good Belgian beer with the cheese of the week, crusty bread and pickles off a wooden chopping board?
You could occasionally take North for granted if it weren’t for beer festivals such as their recent Oktoberfest and prior North American Beer Festival, where the bottles and taps changed significantly to include a wide range of exciting examples of German and US beers respectively. The North American one in particular was brilliant, full of exciting beers from Stone; Left Hand; Dogfish Head; Victory and a wealth of breweries I’d never heard of before. Although the novelty (and ABV) of some of the beers was reflected in the price, needless to say I happily spent a small fortune.
North also had (like Mr Foleys) a giant pumpkin filled with Rooster’s 5 Spice Pumpkin Ale (left). Whilst Roosters probably deserve the credit here, it’s another example of a trip to the pub turned into an event. Another good example was the Orval day a couple of Sundays ago, with Orval tasting and Orval cheese available.
North are also good at using social media including Facebook to publicise these events and their regular pub quizzes, which I’ve never attended but sound fun and different.
The clientele are eclectic, with a few older drinkers as well as many younger ones. They’re there to chat or sometimes read, and on the occasion that a shouty drunken idiot wanders in, they stand out like a sore thumb, reminding you of how this would be normal in many other pubs.
North Bar has no telly. I don’t like televisions in pubs but maybe that’s linked to the fact that I don’t watch sports. Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water” had no radio but I would suggest that, judged right, music can make a place more welcoming. There’s no jukebox but instead the music playing is a seemingly random but brilliant selection that includes Jeffrey Lewis, Franks Black and Zappa and Can. This feeds happily into (what I imagine to be) the Williamsburg vibe, as does the local art often exhibited on the walls.
I said above that I consider North to be a café bar. I mean this in the best sense of the word, in that it’s somewhere you can go to while away the hours, exploit the free Wifi or read the paper or a book without feeling like an alcoholic. The staff are friendly as well as helpful and knowledgeable. They’ll ask you if you want another drink when you’re running low, which is something I’ve rarely seen outside traditional local pubs. It’s very easy to spend hours there.
North Bar, 24 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU; @NorthBarDrinks; http://www.northbar.com/