These are my Golden Pints for 2011. This is going to be one of those awards ceremonies that goes on for ages. My new year’s resolution should probably be brevity. However, if you like you can just read the bits in bold and skip the commentary.
Best UK Draught (Cask or Keg)
Winner: Summer Wine Diablo
I think 2011 has been the year of Diablo for me. I think I had it first around the start of the year, either just before or at NWAF, and at the time it was the perfect beer for me, picking up where Thornbridge Jaipur left off. Since then it’s been a regular drink on cask, keg or now in bottles. Probably the first beer of which I bought a full case, come to think of it.
Runner Up: Hawkshead Windermere Pale Ale
A revelation of a cask session pale, I’m always happy to see this on the bar when I’m thirsty. There’s virtually no other beer I’d rather drink after a long walk, preferably with a Brodies Prime Scotch Egg.
Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Winner: Kernel 4Cs
More representative of Kernel’s ever-changing range of IPAs than an award just on its own behalf. Each of these beers is a joy to drink; so fresh, juicy and hoppy that they usually reduce me to silent admiration. Happily for my drinking companions.
Runner Up: Summer Wine Cohort
Double Black Belgian Rye PA. It sounds like overengineered nonsense; a lion with reindeer horns and the tail of a scorpion. But it works so very well that it seems effortless. Thursday evening on the sofa becomes a drink in the bar of Spacestation Ultrabruges IV.
Best Overseas Draught Beer
Winner: Tripel De Garre
Everyone should go to Bruges and enjoy the house beer in Staminee De Garre. Everyone.
Runner Up: Odell IPA
Much as I enjoy the big, brash, blockbusting DIPAs, Black IPAs etc of this world, this gets close to exactly what I want in an American beer, and I got to drink it on keg in both Mr Foleys and North this year.
Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
I had a lot of very good Belgian beer this year, in Bruges and in Leeds, but this is the one I always want to have in the house.
Runner Up: Bear Republic Racer 5
I do wish the bears (I picture a Grizzly, Polar and Panda around a cabinet table in M&S suits) would get their act together and export more of these to the UK, so we can all enjoy one of the best IPAs in the world.
Best Overall Beer
Winner: Summer Wine Diablo
If this were always on in the pub, in keg or cask, and always in my fridge, I would be a very happy man.
Best Pumpclip or Label
Winner: Odell Myrcenary
Full of energy and understated style.
Runner Up: Sierra Nevada Hoptimum
Clever, refined and fun. Reminiscent of Tony Millionaire.
Best UK Brewery
Winner: Summer Wine
James and Andy work bloody hard to make beers they’d like to drink, and it really shows. Craftsmen.
Runner Up: Kernel
There’s a good chance Kernel would have won if I lived in London. But I don’t.
Best Overseas Brewery
Winner: De Molen
I’ve really enjoyed De Molen beers when I’ve had the chance this year, either in Amsterdam, Utobeer, the Rake or North Bar. I really want to get to know them better.
Runner Up: Odell
Did Odell seem to hit the UK in a big way this year or is it just me? Anyway, I really like quite a few of their beers and their design, so it pipped other, more established US contenders at the post.
Pub/Bar of the Year
You know what, it’s all very nice gallivanting to Staminee De Garre, Craft, Sheffield Tap, The Euston Tap, Port Street Beer House, The Sparrow, The Grove, The Rake, Hawkshead Beer Hall and so on, but it would mean very little if I didn’t have two such excellent bars to go to in my home city. They’re different, but both have been even better than usual this year, with North’s Magic Rock Launch Night and Mr Foley’s IPA Day Celebration being highlights. Well done Dean and Matt et al.
Runner Up: Staminee De Garre
Supermarket of the Year
Waitrose have been stocking Thornbridge beers this year, alongside Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Meantime IPA and a couple of other pretty special beers.
Runner Up: Marks & Spencer
Marks are different from the other supermarkets in contracting unique beers for their own brand range. Standouts have included Cornish IPA (St Austell) and Southwold Winter IPA (Adnams) and I’m really looking forward to trying the fancy big bottle of Greenwich Hospital Porter (Meantime) I bought the other day.
Independent Retailer of the Year
Winner: Beer Ritz
The beating heart of the West Yorkshire beer scene, which was nearly snatched from us without warning in the first half of the year. There are, at my last count, three beer bloggers involved in the management and sales at Beer Ritz. This tells you something. I don’t get home from a long day at work and think, “Oh, law is bloody brilliant. I really must write a blog entry about law”.
Runner Up: The Bottle Shop
Great selection, fortuitously attached to The House Of The Trembling Madness. Getting your clientele pissed on the premises, surrounded by taxidermy, fed to the brim on cured meats, and then making them walk them through a remarkable off-licence to exit: THAT, my friends, is a business plan.
Online Retailer of the Year
Winner: Beer Merchants
Good selection, easy-to-use website, great customer service.
Runner Up: Beer Ritz Mail Order
As above, with an improved website in recent months.
Best Beer Book or Magazine
Winner: BEER Magazine
The intelligent, thoughtful face of CAMRA. I got to write for it this year, which probably signals imminent decline.
Runner Up: The Oxford Companion To Beer
Regardless of the errata, which I am very grateful to various learned beer scholars for pointing out, this is full of fascinating and brilliant beer writing, not least from Garrett Oliver himself.
Best Beer Blog or Website
Oh bloody hell. This is like Solomon’s Dilemma. However, if you’re asking me to make a choice on the spot…
Winner: Called To The Bar
Adrian Tierney-Jones is the most interesting beer writer I read on a regular basis. His posts are interestingly written regardless of subject matter: it doesn’t matter if I’ll never have that beer, don’t like that beer, will never go to that pub. The post is an end in itself.
Runner Up: The Good Stuff
Leigh is also a superb writer. This is a bit awkward, as I know him and now regard him to be a friend, but recently he’s another writer who I’m actually excited to read, either on his blog or elsewhere. A bit of recipe porn and nice photos also helps.
Honourable Mention: The West Yorkshire Beer Blogging Massive
West Yorkshire seems to be replete with excellent blogging. Lock infinite West Yorkshire monkeys in a room with infinite laptops and infinite taps, and you’d still be very lucky to find The Complete Works of Broadford Brewer, Eating Isn’t Cheating, Hopzine, Ghost Drinker, New Briggate Beer Blog, Northern Writes, Real Ale Reviews and the others. Also of course, Sir Zak Avery.
Best Beer Twitterer
Winner: Simon Johnson
Simon will walk this category this year, and deservedly so. His blog is also as good as his tweets, and the fact that he isn’t mentioned in the category above is a travesty. Who’s responsible for this shambles?
From different ends of the country, through their blogs and twitter accounts these tie together the beer scene and write posts that make you think.
In 2012 I’d Most Like To…
Share a drink with those bloggers I haven’t yet met, so I’m really looking forward to meeting people like Steve Lamond, Phil Hardy and Marverine Cole at the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2012 in Leeds.
Open Category: Overall Highlight of The Year:
Winner: Brewing and drinking Summer Wine Covenant
A really lovely offer from Andy and James meant that beer was an integral part of our wedding celebrations. It was great that the beer came out so well and got such good feedback. However I should say that Summer Wine would have been mentioned as much as they are above regardless.
There’s a statue of the great Scot James Watt in Leeds city centre, but it’s the steam innovator rather than the award-winning young entrepreneur, controversialist and ex-fisherman who founded BrewDog with his schoolfriend and former Thornbridge head brewer Martin Dickie only a few years ago. However, last week James announced on Twitter that BrewDog will be making its mark in Leeds, having signed a lease on a new bar, with rumours placing it in a small venue near the Corn Exchange. [Update: More details here]
BrewDog are perpetually mired/revelling in controversy for a number of reasons, principally because they deliberately court it for column inches with a number of stunts and campaigns, which are undeniably effective. They have also made a few missteps, particularly in the customer service on their online shop (which has been acknowledged) and in the consistency of some of the canned and bottled Punk IPA which has recently made its way into supermarkets (which doesn’t yet appear to have been).
On balance, I maintain that BrewDog are A Good Thing. They are not the alpha and omega of the new UK beer scene, but they are, at the very least, a catalyst in the shift in both the industry and consumer expectation towards more interesting beer, with influences from American craft breweries. A great example of this is their new, keg-and-bottle-only bars, and in particular what we saw at BrewDog Glasgow on our honeymoon.
Over the course of two visits we:
- enjoyed sharing a big bottle of Bear Republic Racer 5 out of Teku glasses, considering that this was what all honeymooners should do;
- heard a folk singer play;
- spotted Martin and James;
- admired the relaxed but stylish décor and use of space, deciding that the wood panelling on the wall appeared to have been recycled from the floor of a sports hall;
- observed some Group On purchasers tasting beer with the knowledgeable, helpful staff;
- enjoyed a buzzy, busy but relaxed pub on both occasions, with a wide spectrum of customers;
- saw someone order “your standard lager” and not complain when presented with 77 Lager;
- had a conversation with the bar staff regarding what I was tweeting about and the identity of @GhostDrinker;
- drank Evil Twin Yin and Yang, deciding that it was indeed better than the sum of its parts;
- nibbled on some olives and ate a great pizza which soaked up the ABV nicely;
- relaxed after an amazing visit to Kelvingrove Museum across the road, probably one of the friendliest and most diverse museums I’d ever been to, containing everything from Dali paintings to giraffes to tribal masks to Spitfires;
- drank a few very good Brewdog beers, including Hops Kill Nazis; and
- found it very hard to drag ourselves away.
Even James Watt would find it hard to claim to be able to transport Kelvingrove Museum from the West End of Glasgow to West Yorkshire; but if BrewDog Leeds is even half as enjoyable as BrewDog Glasgow, I will be a very happy Loiner indeed.
I still don’t think James will get his statue in City Square, though.
Don’t get me started on Sheffield. I spent 2 years there (September 2002 – June 2004) when there were (to my knowledge at the time) a few good pubs with decent beer selections, such as The Fat Cat, Kelham Island Tavern and The Devonshire Cat. However two of those were in Kelham Island, which was a fair distance from where I lived and also a pretty overt red light district. As a result I spent most of my time drinking in a few nice pubs with a passable beer selection (The Cobden View, The Hallamshire House) as well as a few rubbish ones, as students do.
So I’m slightly irked by the gall of the place; becoming such a beer Mecca after I left. One of the main culprits is Thornbridge Brewery, which set up its 10 barrel plant in 2005, 17 or so miles to the south west of the city. Not content with conspiring with Pivovar to establish up the annoyingly good Sheffield Tap in the railway station, their pub estate in the city then expanded to include The Greystones and even, to rub salt in the wound, the refurbished Hallamshire House! The pub that was literally behind my house in my first year in Sheffield is now a Thornbridge craftpalace!
I did the pub quiz in the Hallamshire House on a regular basis! I’m pretty sure the burglars who robbed our house three times in a month used to “case the joint” from there! Now, its almost certainly full of students guzzling down Halcyon like it’s snakebite and black. It probably even does great Scotch Eggs, or pork pies you’d swap your LLB for. I don’t want to know. It’s dead to me.
Nowadays I don’t get to go to Sheffield very often, but we were down for a few hours on Saturday for a trip to John Lewis to buy some dogs’ heads for Christmas. We decided to go to Dada for lunch, yet another Thornbridge pub that just opened at the end of October on Trippet Lane, in the building that used to be Trippets Wine Bar. I liked the decor, with its mixture of quirkly artiness (objet trouvé bucket lampshades) and glorifications of the pantheon of Sheffield’s music scene (Cocker; Hawley; Turner; him off of The Human League). The link between Dadaism, music and Sheffield is Cabaret Voltaire, but I don’t think that the reason really matters. Dada is “the abolition of logic … the abolition of memory“.
There was obviously a great range of beer on cask, keg and in the fridges (Buxton, O’Dell etc). However I had to drive later, so we only had a meat and cheese platter and a couple of halves. I restricted myself to a 4.3% Thornbridge Browne: an “Australian Brown Ale” which had the sweet citrus and light caramel taste of C&C brown lemonade (spot the Northern Irishman) with some hops thrown in. Kate, who thought that the Browne’s flavour was like what kids imagine their father’s bitter to taste like, was able to go for the 7.2% Thornbridge/Kernel Coalition Burton Ale, a lovely hoppy, more viscous rich ale.
So yes, yes; da, da. Dada is good. As the Dadaists would have it:
Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”, “Get off my back”, “Be seeing you sometime”. In Romanian: “Yes, indeed, you are right, that’s it. But of course, yes, definitely, right”. And so forth. […] How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness.
For more on Dada, see Reluctant Scooper.
The second stop on our honeymoon was Oban, where we’d rented a small cottage with a woodburning stove, which was a blessing when we arrived on a very, very wet afternoon. We both really liked the town, but it was a bit of a non-starter when it came to beer in the pubs, I’m afraid. The best cask beer on offer was either Deuchars IPA (again) or the fairly unappealingly branded Oban Bay Brewery beers in the Lorne Bar.
The highlights of Oban, when we weren’t relaxing by the fire, were the beauty of the sea and the countryside, the whisky and the amazing seafood. A tour of the Diageo-owned distillery was interesting and refreshingly lacking in bullshit. Both Kate and I became very fond of the 14 year old, with its orange peel and slight saltiness. We also took a trip over to Mull on the ferry, saw sea eagles flying over the road and picked up a bottle of (pleasant but unremarkable) Tobermory whisky from a hardware shop in the town, the distillery being closed to visitors.
We enjoyed langoustines in garlic butter in Cafe Fish on Tobermory, and in Oban itself we had oysters, half a lobster and a dressed crab accompanied by a nice bottle of Fyne Ales Pipers Gold in the modern harbourside restaurant Ee-Usk.
If there is one place (apart from the distillery) that I would encourage you not to miss in Oban, it’s The Seafood Temple. This is a tiny restaurant, slightly south of the main part of the town, looking out to sea from what used to be a public toilet block in a strip of seafront parkland. It’s described as a former bandstand in the Time Out guide, which amused the waitress and chef. The service was really friendly and welcoming and the food was incredible.
We had a scallop starter, a truly superb platter of superfresh seafood (oysters; crab claws; lobster; langoustines; smoked mussels; their own hot and cold smoked salmon) along with a St Mungo Lager (good) and an Oban Bay Skinny Blonde (dull), followed by a delicious poached pear pavlova. The lack of Fyne Ales didn’t put us off; it really is one of the best restaurants we’ve ever been to.
Kate and I spent our honeymoon in Scotland around the start of November. We started with a couple of nights in Edinburgh, which meant we only really had one day to explore, although even that was in a bit of a sleepy, post-wedding daze.
However, we did get to go to two bars outside the hotel: The Oxford Bar and Brewdog Edinburgh. I suppose they’re two extremes of drinking in Edinburgh: the Old Town and The New Town, which would have been a suitably poetic analogy except that the new bar is in the Old Town and vice versa.
Taking the new pub in the Old Town first, we wandered downhill from the Royal Mile into the belly of Edinburgh, the Cowgate. The Cowgate was historically where cows were droved into Edinburgh for sale and was a slum. Nowadays it still feels a bit like you’re in the undercity. The Brewdog bar was a welcome sight, with its stripped back decor and exciting beer boards. On this Sunday lunchtime it was quiet in terms of people, although the metal coming through the speakers was noisy enough.
Kate and I, with the counsel of barman Hoss, enjoyed a good pizza and olives as well as a few beers, including a Stone/Pizza Port Carlsbad/Green Flash Highway 78 (a “Scotch ale”) but the standout was Ballast Point Sculpin IPA: a really, really nice big, fruity IPA, which has deservedly been getting a bit of attention since it’s been available in the UK.
We could have stayed a little longer, but in order to actually explore the city in a state of semi-consciousness, we moved on, after buying a couple of rarities to enjoy later. After wandering around for a bit more we ended up in the New Town and in The Oxford Bar, which Kate had wanted to visit for some time due to its appearance in Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.
When you go into the Oxford Bar it’s tiny and packed with people. Twenty people would probably fill the front room, and there were around that many in this Sunday afternoon. Kate and I ordered a Deuchars IPA (in tribute to Ian Rankin) and a Williams Black. Deuchars is Deuchars is Deuchars: a multi-award winning, bland, bready thing that teases the possibility of hops but never delivers, that I’m sure excited my naive palate around a decade ago. The Williams Black was, by contrast, too challenging: altogether too liquoricey for an afternoon, more suited to the end of the evening maybe.
But The Oxford Bar has such an atmosphere: the barman held court in friendly chatter with the locals and strangers. The quiet Brewdog bar of a few hours earlier was exciting in its design and the range of incredible beers it had to offer, as well as the knowledge of the staff. The Oxford was a place I’d happily stay for ages, for reasons other than the beer. Much like Scotland.