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Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained

March 31, 2011 1 comment

I apologise that things have been a little sparse around here of late, but recently my work/life balance has been moving further and further towards the former.  However I’ve just had a holiday in Ireland and have come back refreshed.  In fact, some evenings I was so refreshed that my kidneys ached in the morning.

More of that soon, but just now, and further to my previous post, I’d like to congratulate Zak and the lads for the resurrection of Beer Ritz and Beer Paradise.  The beer geeks of West Yorkshire can breathe a collective sigh of relief, whilst their partners and children weep over the extra disposable income that has been wrenched from their grasp.

And what better way to celebrate the good ship Beer Ritz safely making it back to port over the choppy waters of company law, with a new co-captain in Zak, than with a new beer?  Zak Avery, Pete Brown and Mark Dredge collaborated with Brewdog on probably the most scholarly beer of all time.  Who’s left to review it?

It’s just a shame that the beer was brewed before Zak’s elevation to an officer of the company, otherwise they could have called it Director’s Pilsner.

Launches of the new Imperial Pilsner will take place this evening at three locations: North Bar in Leeds and The Rake and The Jolly Butchers in London, each presumably with the most local of the three proud brewscribes in attendance.  I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it to North due to work, but I would encourage you to if you can.

Uncommon Market: The Rake and Brew Wharf, Borough Market, Southwark

March 19, 2011 4 comments

A trip to London for work means an early start, a lot of train time and usually a fairly hectic day (or couple of days) of work when I get there, and a late finish. However every cloud has a head on it, so I decided to use the opportunity to explore the beery delights of Borough Market, which was less than a mile’s walk from my hotel near St Paul’s.

After a picturesque walk across the Millennium Footbridge that runs between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern, I followed the South bank of the Thames to London Bridge. The first place I came to that was on my list was Brew Wharf, a large, spacious, minimalist modern bar under railway arches.

It was quite busy, so I took my half of their own 1 Hundred IPA and went to stand outside. It was a malty, US-style strong (6.3% or thereabouts?) IPA, but on cask. It was quite amber and malty in the way a lot of US IPAs are, and had a nice piney, furniture polish bitterness. It was a very tasty beer indeed, but… Sacrilegious as it was to think, on this of all days (being the 40th anniversary of CAMRA) it probably would have been slightly better on keg.

I then wandered around slightly lost in an enjoyable kind of way, in the shadow of the half-built Blade-Runneresque Shard that now overlooks the street food vendors of Borough.  I popped my head into The Market Porter, a pretty, large, traditional pub with a wide selection of cask ales, but it was also a bit full for a solitary visit.  After a while I finally found The Rake, which must actually only be about 20 metres from Brew Wharf.

The tiny and neat bar had a wealth of incredible bottles, as well as two Sierra Nevadas (Bigfoot and Celebration) on keg and a few cask ales. However, I’d come here for the Kernel. I bought a bottle of Kernel Citra IPA to drink and another to take home, along with a Kernel Export Stout, a Kernel Black IPA and a can of Caldera Ashland Amber Ale, also for the bag.

I went out to the beer garden at the side (which probably more than doubles the size of the tiny pub) and sat down on a bench to enjoy what turned out to be a wonderful beer. On the Twissup people had mentioned how amazingly fresh Kernel beers taste, and on the evidence of this first one, they weren’t wrong. It was a truly lovely, refreshing, bittersweet beer, like the cool morning dew on a mango tree.

I went back to the bar for a De Molen Hel & Verdoemenis (“Hell & Damnation”), which was my first De Molen beer. The closest I’d come to De Molen before was Marble’s take on Vuur & Vlaam. Hel & Verdoemenis was a very nice imperial stout with all the warm, dark, roasted coffee flavours that lend themselves to contented contemplation. However, it was also very drinkable relative to its strength, which is well over 10%, and it probably went down a little quicker than intended.

I had sat down next to a table of gents talking in an informed way about beer and ended up being brought into the conversation. It turned out that I was sitting next the owners of The Rake and Utobeer (Richard and Mike), Nigel from the drinks importers James Clay & Sons and Gildas from Chimay’s export team. They were all very friendly and happy to talk about beer, the legend that is Jeff Pickthall, the Lake District, the interelationship between monasticism and clericalism etc. You know, the usual. I must remember that I owe Nigel a drink if I see him again.

As it was getting late and I was getting tipsy, I decided to head back to Brew Wharf, which had calmed down a bit. I sat at one of the long tables and enjoyed a plate of sausage and mash and another Kernel bottle, this time the Pale Ale South. This was another very, very nice beer, not quite as mindblowing as the Citra but with the same wonderful freshness.

I’d had a fantastic evening and enjoyed some great beer. I was only sad that Kate wasn’t here to enjoy it with me, but at the very least that gave me an excuse to come back soon with her.

As I walked back, my heavy bag clinking with local beers on my back and the huge, baroque dome of St Paul’s dome shrouded in mist looming over the river, I thought that London wouldn’t be such a bad place to live. But perhaps I wouldn’t appreciate it as much if I did.

Beer Ritz: A Loss For Beer And A Loss For Leeds

March 15, 2011 10 comments

My post yesterday about geekiness discussed in passing the importance of specialist shops to spark and inform an interest in a particular geek “scene”, be it beer or comics or otherwise.

In July last year OK Comics, the best comic shop in Leeds, was threatened with closure due to reduced foot traffic as works were going on in the arcade in which it sits. Jared from OK went to the internet and asked for help.

In a remarkable show of support, its customers and the comic community stepped up to the plate, coming into the shop or making purchases online, spreading the word through Twitter, with even celebrity comics fan/writer Jonathan Ross getting behind the campaign. And lo, OK Comics was saved and remains a little independent haven of geek pleasure in the heart of Leeds.

However, today I learned that my other favourite shop in Leeds has closed its doors, suddenly and apparently for good. Beer Ritz is (or was) the best beer shop I’ve ever been to, without exception. Its passionate, knowledgeable staff and management were happy to help people to understand its fantastic range of beers from all around the world.

We didn’t know that Beer Ritz was under threat and didn’t have a chance to help save it, if indeed that was possible. I obviously don’t know yet why it closed, but it had seemed to me to be in good health, and deservedly so.

It’s great having online beer sellers like My Brewery Tap and Beer Merchants, but to my mind they mainly provide a great service to the initiated.

When you’re first becoming interested in beer, you want somewhere to explore the shelves, read the bottles, see what’s available. You can chat to a member of staff, buy a couple of their recommendations (rather than a case), then come back next week for more.  Beer geeks aren’t born, they’re made by places like Beer Ritz and people like Zak, Ghost Drinker and Cheeeseboiger.

That’s what Beer Ritz did for me. The first time I went to Beer Ritz I’d read and heard about a beer called Jaipur but had never been able to find it anywhere. On a quiet Saturday, I decided to look for a better off licence in the telephone directory, saw Beer Ritz and drove to Headingley. Since then I’ve been back countless times, each time spending more money than I really should due to excitement about the selection.

I started reading beer blogs after finding Zak’s brilliant one, then eventually decided to start writing my own, for what it’s worth. It’s not a coincidence that there are so many beer bloggers and tweeters in and around Leeds.  Pretty much every beer I’ve posted about here I bought from the shop.

The closure of Beer Ritz is obviously a terrible thing for the passionate staff, who deserve better, and I wish them all the best for the future. It’s bad for small breweries, who find a loyal customer base through their sales. It’s also a blow for the customers, for independent shops and for Leeds.

However, it’s also a loss for those beer geeks who will never be, who will never see that packed but carefully organised back room with hundreds of bottles from the UK, Europe, America and elsewhere and go: “Wow, I wonder what all these are like?”

Please read Ghost Drinker‘s post with the news and his reaction, and the tributes from  Rob, Glyn and Leigh.  Thanks to Yorkshire Daily Photo for the picture and apologies for not asking first.

UPDATE: FORTUNATELY BEER RITZ HAS SUBSEQUENTLY REOPENED!  HOORAY!

Comics and Beer Part 1: The Transferable Skills Of Being A Geek

March 14, 2011 3 comments

Geeks are geeks are geeks, and I would suggest that a beer geek is unlikely to be a geek about beer alone, if you follow.  Many beer geeks are also cooking geeks, as evidenced by Mark, Zak, Hardknott Dave, Rob and Leigh‘s food and beer matching.  Beer, brewing and cooking have a lot in common for the geek, as naturally does the appreciation of beer and other drinks, most notably whisky/whiskey.

Similarly, many beer geeks are also football fans, which are both fairly social forms of shared geekery.  Football is such an ingrained part of British life that it seems odd to describe it as geekery and lump it in with, say, an unusual appreciation of classic Doctor Who, but many of the same characteristics apply: particularly in dressing up; being obsessed with trivia in relation to the subject of your geekdom; and arguing passionately about your preferences with other geeks in whatever forum is open to do so.  However, Sylvester McCoy fans are less likely to be engaged in street violence against Colin Baker fans than Old Firm supporters might be. 

As well as being a beer geek, I’m a bit of recovering comics geek.  In fact it’s fair to say that I’ve become less geeky about comics at the same time as my interest in beer has grown.  There are a number of parallels and transferable neuroses that apply to beer and comics geekery, not least in a completist’s obsession with searching out and finding rare, renowned and unusual examples of each.  Without such an attitude, no brewery would ever be able to sell a limited edition beer and nobody would ever pay several times the price of a supermarket beer for something imported.

However, I think that beer and comics are an unusually good fit, in that both are generally underrated, misunderstood and dismissed as being lowbrow, when in reality it’s simply that the majority of comics are shallow, spandex-clad teenage power fantasies from the established publishers, in the same way that the majority of beer is made for cold, unthinking guzzling by soulless multinationals.

In both fields there are fascinating and interesting things happening, largely away from the mainstream and especially from independent sources, where individuals or a small number of creative people work on new and interesting things.  Moreover, it’s only when you go into specialist shops or read about these things on the internet that you generally find out about them.  Discovering this underground of quality and auteurism that very few people know about is part of the thrill.

At the same time, however, neither comics nor beer needs to be highbrow, challenging, thought-provoking, genre-busting or world-changing. Just like many things in life, depending on what mood you’re in, both can be at their best when they’re simple, accessible, unpretentious, joyous, throwaway and fun.

Pub Walks: Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Shipley to Skipton

March 6, 2011 1 comment

After doing the Leeds-Saltaire section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal last week, I decided to complete the journey to Skipton this weekend.  I got off the train at Shipley and walked through Saltaire again through a very pleasant section of canal to Bingley where, despite my lack of real interest in canal architecture, the 237 year old Five Rise Locks are still impressive.

I kept going on to Riddlesden, near Keighley where I made my first pit-stop at The Marquis Of Granby on the canalside, about six miles into the walk.  This clean, traditional-looking pub has exposed beams from which jugs and china plates hang, telly showing the sports and an unusual amount of England flags hung above the bar.  The St George’s cross theme extended to the pump clips, where Wells Bombardier draped itself in the flag alongside the more reserved John Smiths Cask and Theakstons Mild.  I enjoyed  a half of the Theakstons – a slightly sweet mellow dark mild – whilst some decent music (New Order, Led Zep) played in the background.

The walk gets a little more annoying after this stage, where large stretches of the towpath are merely mud and grass that show a lot of use by cyclists.  I stopped at around the 9.5 mile point at Silsden, at The Bridge Inn.  Up some steps by the canal, this slightly tired pub unfortunately only had one ale on its five pumps when I went in, although to be fair it was earlyish on a Saturday and presumably the others went off the previous evening.  The one ale on was Abbot Ale, which was sweet, bready and slightly sulphurous, with a slightly bitter to sour aftertaste.  Not unpleasant, but not in any way interesting.

I pressed on in earnest through some nice countryside and past some pleasant villages along the towpath, which remained slightly muddy and unfortunately for a large section runs alongside a main road.  Near Bradley I passed a grand and unusually well-tended memorial to seven Polish airmen who died in a Wellington bomber crash in 1943. 

At around the 15 mile mark and a mile outside the centre of Skipton I came off the towpath and walked onto an industrial estate to the Copper Dragon Brewery.  The brewery has a good, pleasant and modern-looking bar/bistro in the centre of the building which has an emphasis on really nice food.  They were gearing up for a busy evening with a lot of reservations, but were happy for me to sit at the bar. 

Almost everyone’s favourite Copper Dragon beer is Golden Pippin, a nice, pale, hoppy, low ABV session ale in the same category as Ilkley Brewery’s Mary Jane.  However I tried Challenger IPA, which had a bready, slightly citrussy alcoholic smell. It had a traditional taste with less bitterness than you might expect.  I wasn’t entirely convinced it was what I wanted from an IPA.

Scotts 1816 had similar aroma with perhaps more orange peel. There was a dried apricot sweetness in the taste.  Owzat once again had a similarly subtle aroma, with the same creamy mouthfeel but more lemon in the taste.  It was my favourite of the three.  The lady who served me told me that it was the same beer as their Freddie Trueman ale (see photo below) but they changed the name as it wasn’t selling in Lancashire.  I said that was remarkable, and she said it was either that, or a good story.

It was a bit early for me to eat so I went back to the towpath and walked into town in the fading light.  The Narrow Boat, down a back street near the canal, is a professionally-run bar with helpful staff, a good selection of mostly local cask beers and a good fridge selection alongside an appealling menu.  You’d expect as much from the first of the Market Town Taverns, which has now been open for 12 years.

After not really being too excited by a taster of Thwaites Hit The North, I opted for a pint of Ilkley Mary Jane.  It’s a really nice beer, with a light lemon/lime aroma carrying through to a refreshing, light, slightly sharp lime taste with satisfyingly bitter aftertaste.  Also, I know this is a beer blog and not a potato-based snack blog, but ham and mustard Real Crisps are bloody brilliant.

I decided to have a final half before creakily walking to the train, and went for Naylor’s Magnum PA.  Initially put off by the label, which appears to flirt with intellectual property issues, I was quite impressed by the light, subtle, citrus aroma, similarly delicate, fruity lychee taste and bitterness.  It was probably a little too sweet to enjoy a large volume of it, but it’s a nice beer.

Pub Walks: Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Leeds to Saltaire

March 2, 2011 3 comments

Feeling quite unfit and not a little stressed, it was good to take a couple of days off last week and go for some long walks. One of the benefits of living in Yorkshire being able to walk long distances relatively easily along canals, where there tends to be interesting scenery, history, wildlife and, of course, pubs!  It’s all very well climbing Ben bloody Nevis, but is there a pub up there for a self-congratulatory pint?  If so, it’s not in the Good Beer Guide.

On Tuesday morning I set off on a grey morning from my house in Moortown intending to walk the 14 or so miles to Saltaire.  I walked through Meanwood and Headingley to join the Leeds-Liverpool canal near Kirkstall Abbey, a few miles from its start.  A couple of miles further on I met the first pub, The Abbey Inn at Newlay.  Unfortunately the Abbey wasn’t open yet so I went on.  I do like the Abbey: it’s a good honest pub with anaglypta on the wall, good local beers and enormous portions of food.

A little while further along the canal I came to Rodley, where I decided to stop for my first drink.  Rodley has two GBG pubs opposite each other: The Rodley Barge and The Owl.  I decided upon the Barge due to its proximity to the canal, and had a nice half of something pale and sessionable called Ale Gate by the Oldershaw Brewery in Grantham along with a packet of Brannigans.

Having stopped only for about ten minutes or so, I pressed on along the canal for the remaining eight miles to Saltaire.  I passed the Saltaire Brewery, which would seem to me to be strictly based in Shipley rather than Saltaire itself, before leaving the canalside at Salts Mill.

I thought I’d give The Boathouse a try, close as it is to the canal.  I immediately felt a bit out of place in the shiny wine bar surroundings in my boots and mud-flecked jeans.  However there was a reasonable beer selection (albeit more quantity than variation, really: Black Sheep; Golden Sheep; Tether Blonde; Saltaire Blonde; Old Peculier) so I ordered a half of Saltaire Blonde.  It had a slightly lemony soapy smell and an alright mouthfeel but not enough taste.

I walked up Victoria Road, past Victoria Hall (venue for last weekend’s Bradford Beer Festival) and around the corner to Fanny’s Ale House.  Attempting to give the impression of being much older than it actually is (the pub only opened in 1997, although the building is of course older), Fanny’s is nonetheless a nice-looking, welcoming pub with open fires and similar.

It had a fairly wide selection of beers on, including a couple of Timothy Taylors beers and Rooster’s Yankee.  However, adopting what is increasingly a ticker’s attitude to new beers, I ordered a Salamander Dr Awkward.  This was supposed to be pale and hoppy.  There was a general lack of aroma that carried through to a disappointingly weak watery taste.

Bored by pale session beers with no oomph, I then went for the terribly-named Fernandes Double Decker Pecker at 6.5%.  This smelled bitter, citrussy, hoppy and light.  It tasted unapologetically bitter in a dull, slightly gritty and caustic way, with little or no sweetness or other tastes to balance it out.  I thought it was interesting but I didn’t like it that much, on the first attempt anyway.

Regardless of the two beers I tried (as noted, there were good beers on which I knew I liked), Fanny’s is a great pub with a good selection and well worth a visit if you’re in Saltaire.  It was even worth walking 14 miles for.

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