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First Fifteen: Celebrating North Bar

June 28, 2012 3 comments

North Bar is 15 years old, so it can finally rent Air Force One on DVD, which came out in the year of its birth. North Bar opened in Leeds at the same time as British rule ended in Hong Kong and since then has become an integral part of the renaissance of the UK beer scene. You can read a more indepth article about North’s founders and history from The Good Stuff’s Leigh Linley on Culture Vultures here.

North’s official birthday is Sunday 1 July 2012 and I’m looking forward to going to the party. In the run up that, They’ve been putting 15 very special beers on the bar, a new one each day, many of which were brewed specially for the event and some even with manager Matt Gorecki and the staff. You could almost put them to the tune of the 12 days of Christmas. Except it would have to be the 15 days of Northmas. Hmm…

On the first day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Roosters North Pale Ale ,
On the second day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Lindeboom Special Pilsner,
On the third day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: BrewDog Belgian Pale Ale,
On the fourth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Thornbridge General Sherman Imperial Red Ale,
On the fifth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: FLYYYYYYYYYYY-ING DOOOOOG! Kujo Coffee Stout,
On the sixth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: O’Dell Milk Stout,
On the seventh day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Nøgne Ø Oak Aged Sunturnbrew,
On the eighth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: FLYYYYYYYYYYY-ING DOOOOOG! In De Wildeman Farmhouse IPA,
On the ninth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Mikkeller Beer Geek Breakfast,
On the tenth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Marble Aged Little Jim,
On the eleventh day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Cantillon Gueuze on Cask,
On the twelfth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Sierra Nevada Solar Storm,
On the thirteenth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Kernel IIPA,
On the fourteenth day of Northmas, the barman gave to me: Gaffel  Kölsch from the wood…
 

That’s the makings of a veritable first XV from some of the most exciting British, European and American breweries, especially considering the strength of some of them. In the interests of surviving until North’s 30th birthday, I’ve managed to be fairly restrained and have tried just four so far: the O’Dell Milk Stout was lovely, the cask Cantillon was a wonderful experience (acidic pear/apple clean sourness, oddly drinkable), the Thornbridge General Sherman stands out as a superbly fresh hopmonster which tastes a lot less than 8.3% and the Gaffel Kölsch from a wooden cask had a wonderfully smooth mouthfeel and a crisp herbal bitterness.

North is a bar worth celebrating and these beers are worthy of toasting it with. What’s more, there’s still at least one more to come. See you there!

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The “Round” In History: Rules, Comradeship, National Security and Venereal Disease

June 27, 2012 5 comments

Caught in a “round” system, drinkers can either find unwanted pints of beer stacking up in front of them like a firing squad, or sit around resentfully staring at their empty glass as the one whose turn it is next nurses their beer.  The former always used to happen between a group of us at a rural pub in County Antrim called The Wayside, so that the unstarted pints stacked in front of the slower drinkers at the end of the evening were described as a “Wayside Pile-up”.

The rules of the round can be more complicated and applied more restrictively than a newcomer might think. “Rules are rules”, say people with no imagination. Sometimes exceptions  and “sitting out” may not be permitted:  you may not refuse my generosity nor deny me yours.

There was a particularly strict attitude in certain pubs in my homeland, where I was once told a story of a visiting Englishman who didn’t automatically get a full round, but instead would ask each of his colleagues if they fancied another one.  Quiet offence was initially taken, but he was not to blame – as it was explained to me by the self-appointed pub anthropologist – that was just what English people did.

The Edwardian equivalent of the Wayside Pile-up was regarded as nothing less than a threat to national efficiency and, therefore, wartime security. Rounds were banned by “No-Treating” provisions made under the Defence Of The Realm Act in 1915 and revoked on 4 June 1919 (“and it is generally expected that this date will be made an annual, public holiday in Scotland” – Punch).  Lloyd George attributed an initial reduction in drunkenness convictions to the effect of the Order.

There’s a great example of the application of the No-Treating Order in a 1916 newspaper article here, where a sailor buying a round of drinks and the Cardiff landlord he bought it from were both prosecuted.  The landlord’s silk raised an interesting argument in his defence:

Mr Lewis Thomas K.C., for the landlord, said that the real reason for the order was to hit the person treating, and the person who was treated.  Supposing, said counsel, he and his friend, Mr. Whitely (appearing with him), before going into a hotel formed a joint-stock company and contributed 6d. each, and he went in and paid for two bottles of Bass. (Laughter.) If then his friend drank one there would be no offence.

The Lord Chief Justice: You don’t say really that, when going in to take refreshments, you form a joint-stock company in which you each contribute half of what is going to be spent?

Mr Thomas: It depends on the confidence you have in each other.

The Glasgow Herald reported in March 1944 on calls from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland for a No-Treating Order to be brought in during World War 2:

Many attempts, he said, had been made to get the Government to pass such an order, but so far without result.  He for one thought it was too soon yet to give up the battle – and he believed it was also in the mind of the Church he represented – to bring further pressure to bear on the Government in this matter.  There was no doubt that inebriation, immorality, and the incidence of venereal disease were very closely related to each other, and that it was difficult to deal with those problems separately.

The last point reveals what appears to be behind many for the calls to ban “treating” in 1944: a desire to prevent men buying women drinks in an attempt to arouse their affections, rather than simply to prevent groups of workers “getting a round in”. The same point was raised by Viscountess Astor in the House of Commons in the same month:

Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that something ought to be done to relieve the anxiety of people who are deeply worried about the treating of young girls in public houses? Would not a no-treating order help in this very important matter?

As far as I’m aware, the “round” currently escapes any blame in the ongoing debate about alcohol and public health, as the arguments are generally restricted to pricing, duty, measures, ABV and age.  Perhaps it is because pubs are now thought of as a preferable, supervised drinking environment.

Or perhaps it is acknowledged that the system is one of those long-standing British traditions born of an obsession with rules and fair play, along with cricket, grammatical pedantry, writing outraged letters to broadsheet newspapers and queuing. Furthermore, the general ability of  men to buy women drinks doesn’t just spread VD, but rather is pretty much essential for the British to procreate at all.

BrewDog, Craft and Consistency: “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

June 25, 2012 25 comments

Last week I went to a bar in Leeds that I wouldn’t normally associate with interesting beer, only to find they had BrewDog Punk IPA in the fridge.  And I really didn’t know whether to buy it or not.

I’m a BrewDog shareholder and, in a measured way, could be described as a fan of BrewDog’s bars and many of their beers. I would probably even qualify as a “scamp” (*shudder*). I do find some of their marketing tiresome, so I try to look past it; I’m not interested in paying a small fortune for their 330ml limited edition bottles, so I don’t.  The trouble I have is that, over the last year or so, their flagship beer, which was a favourite of mine (including after the new recipe), has become one of the least consistent beers I’ve ever experienced.   I’ve had bad keg, canned and bottled Punk. Now I’m close to giving up on it entirely.

Moreover, it’s getting a bad reputation.  It appears to me, from various drinkers’ and bar workers’ posts on Twitter, that there’s a serious and persistent problem.   There’s the odd great batch, but interspersed with terrible ones.  This reflects my own experience: a few weeks ago I decided to give Punk another chance to see if the problem had been resolved, so bought a couple of bottles from an off-licence. They were lovely, fruity and crisp – a real return to form.  A week later I bought two more bottles from Waitrose and they were undrinkable.

I know that consistency is not a problem that’s unique to BrewDog, and I’ve also experienced occasional disappointments in the consistency of certain other forward-looking breweries recently.  I know that BrewDog are aware of this problem and have said they would deal with it, but six months on from this post I’m yet to see the resumption of consistency and a corresponding restoration of trust.

I am conscious that BrewDog are in an interim phase in their growth, as they stand on the edge of crossover success, and that they’re having problems keeping up with the demand they’ve created with supermarkets.  However, “mainstream” drinkers are used to the rigorous quality control and consistency they get from the multinational brewers, so when they pick up a bottle of beer from the supermarket shelf, they rightly expect that it tastes like it was intended to taste.  For the “scamps”, or at least for me, if the “craft” ethos is to mean anything, it has to imply a minimum of quality and pride in your product: “first and foremost, great tasting beers.” 

I bought the bottle of Punk in the bar last week.  It was better than some I’ve had and actually drinkable, but still not as good as it should have been. Perhaps I’m simply judging each bottle too harshly because I’ve accrued such a prejudice against it.  Whatever the case, it didn’t have me scampering back to the fold. 

For discussions on wider consistency issues beyond BrewDog, see HopZine and Boak and Bailey.

Categories: Beer Tags: , , , ,

History is not a nightmare: Whitelocks Ale House, Leeds

June 18, 2012 3 comments

We appreciate the old despite the new and also because of it. James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 when he lived in Paris: it was about, and set in, the Dublin he had left in 1904. It had taken him eight years to write the novel, during which time Ireland saw a great war, an Easter rising, a war of independence and the signing of the treaty establishing the Irish Free State, and was standing on the brink of yet another civil war. So Joyce’s intensely modernist, taboo-breaking and anti-traditional novel is, nonetheless, also an important and evocative historical document of a particular time and place.

 

Listening to Radio 4’s adaptation of Ulysses, with its sensual descriptions of porter, stout, lager, cider, burgundy, steak and kidney pies and cheese and mustard sandwiches in Dublin hotel dining rooms and pubs, made me want to visit Whitelocks, Leeds’ oldest pub/luncheon room. For Stephen Dedalus, history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. For Whitelocks, though, history is its bread and butter.

I’ve written about it before, but the historic alley pub, filled with copper, tiles, wooden partitions, mirrors and nostalgia, has recently been taken over by Mason & Taylor. The noticeable improvements consist of a good scrub, a slightly fancier evening menu, new staff and an improved selection of beer (still Yorkshire beer, but better, more interesting Yorkshire beer), with the aim of reversing the fading and withering of age.  The policy, it seems, is as much one of restoration as it is of reinvention: making Whitelocks a pub that lives up to the considerable local goodwill.

For lunch I enjoyed a simple but good pork and apple sandwich with a half of Ilkley Siberia, the 5.9% cask rhubarb saison brewed with Melissa Cole. The Siberia had a lighty fruity, almost white wine aroma and a full soft mouthfeel, being in great condition. That gentle and pleasant marshmallowy taste that seems to characterise many of Ilkley’s pale ales held up a tartly sweet and sour bitterness. The savoury and sweet pork and apple sandwich, which was much as it had been when I last visited, was a perfect match.

Turks Head Yard, the narrow alley dominated by Whitelocks, now finds itself surrounded by the redevelopment of Leeds’ “Trinity Quarter”, due to complete in 2013. Leeds City Centre is already a bizarre mixture of the old, new and once-new. I hope that these careful and respectful improvements in beer and service will quietly move Whitelocks from being a pretty museum piece just about kept in business by nostalgia, to a pub that, in its own stately way, is once again as integral and relevant to the beer scene in Leeds as more modern contenders such as the craft beer pioneer North Bar. Although, now I come to mention it, even North Bar is no spring chicken these days.

I highly recommend these two articles about the history, recent decline and new ownership of Whitelocks by Leigh Linley and Simon Jenkins.  You can now follow Whitelocks on Twitter at @WhitelocksLeeds .

Peak Practice: The Old Hill Inn, Chapel-le-Dale, near Ingleton, North Yorkshire

June 10, 2012 5 comments

There are a few things I look for in a good pub: nice beer, friendly service and (where food is offered, which it needn’t be) good food are some of the basics.  After that, anything else is a bonus.  A historic interior and a connection to Winston Churchill, for example; or a display of elaborate sugar sculptures by Colin the pastry chef: all of these things add to the ambience. If that’s what you look for in a pub too – and I know that a lot of you are sugar sculpture afficionados – I recommend The Old Hill Inn, at Chapel-le-Dale near Ingleton.

The Inn sits under Ingleborough, the second highest mountain in Yorkshire and, to be frank, a strutting bastard of a geographical feature. It faces Whernside: less showy, but such quiet confidence befits the highest mountain in Yorkshire.  A few miles away is Pen-y-Ghent, which is usually the first of the Three Peaks that idiots climb in the gruelling c.25 mile Three Peaks Walk. A walk which I, unfathomably, have volunteered for.

We’ve been climbing the Three Peaks one at a time to let ourselves know what we’re in for.  On Saturday we climbed Whernside: 736m above sea level and ascending around 460m from the starting point. In terms of ascents, that’s kind of, almost (but not really) equivalent to walking up all of the stairs in the Empire State Building, or the Sears Tower, or even the finished Freedom Tower.  It’s not as tall as some other mountains in England, but they aren’t in Yorkshire and are therefore excluded from consideration.

On Saturday afternoon we were coming down from Whernside and I was happy with the walk.  For a sloppy sack of of lard and bones, I felt pretty energetic despite the sweaty climb into the clouds; I thought that the Three Peaks was achievable. Nonetheless, I was very happy to arrive at the pub at the end of this practice walk, order a crisply citrus-bitter, yet balanced, pint of Dent Aviator and enjoy a really superb homemade burger with delicious fried onions and chunky chips.

The burger was probably the most basic and “pubby” thing on the menu, but after the walk I wanted something simple. Kate went for the second most “pubby” thing: a wonderful plate of homemade pork sausages, mash and gravy. The Good Beer Guide reports that the pub is owned by “a family of chefs”, which is reflected in the hearty but considered food which reminded me of The White Lion at Cray.

However, apart from the excellent food, what struck me most was that the cosiness of the bar (open fire etc) was reflected in the warmth of the service, that stands apart from those rural pubs across Cumbria and Yorkshire you walk into wearing hiking gear and are stared at by the locals and staff like you’ve just asked about the pentangle on the wall of The Slaughtered Lamb.

The only problem I have is that, when I actually come to do the Three Peaks in one go at the end of July, after two peaks, tired and sore, I’ll have to walk past The Old Hill Inn on the way to the third peak, Ingleborough, which looks like something out of Mordor. One does not simply walk into Mordor; at least, not when the other option is a filling dinner, a good beer, an open fire and an impressive selection of sugarwork.

If you would like to sponsor my Three Peaks walk for the Alzheimer’s Society, I’d be very grateful if you could do so here.

Bitter and Jaded: Changing Tastes and Blogger’s Ennui

Like a fasting, beatific saint from the early middle ages, I have seen wonderful things. Colours not previously experienced anywhere in my mundane, cruel, mud-sodden, stinking, warty, short, pox-curtailed real life. I have seen gods, angels, demons and castles in the sky: nothing else compares.

More specifically, I’ve caught myself in the middle of a lot of mediocre beer experiences recently, possibly due to increased expectations after 18 months of beer blogging. Pints of slightly earthy brown water no longer satisfy. I find myself trapped in market towns where the pubs only offer endless pumps of perfectly-kept, virtually identical cask boredom.

I used to settle for Guinness. More recently I won’t even tolerate that. I reluctantly opt for the least worst pilsner before quickly moving on to whisky. I’ve even turned to wine in the desperate search for flavour in a flavourless climate. (It’s alright, I’ve discovered).

Recently I ranted a little on Twitter late on a Friday night (tellingly) about how people could possibly have given two shits about cask beer before some genius thought to put New World hops in it. That’s an unfair exaggeration and a slur on many excellent traditional (and yes, even subtle) English beers, but it reflects my increasing view that the majority of cask beers don’t merit my enthusiasm or loyalty. Nor do the majority of keg beers, or the majority of bottled beers.

I seem to have turned myself into a snob. Now there is interesting beer and there is uninteresting beer. Thankfully there’s still a hell of a lot of the former, thanks to hardworking, thoughtful, innovative brewers. These people deserve my money and support.

But as for the rest, I’m no longer prepared to settle for boring cask beer just because it’s cask beer, whether it was brewed in a shed or an aircraft hanger. Nor will I settle for any dull beer, just because it happens to qualify as beer and I’m a “beer drinker”.

Alternatively, perhaps I just need a holiday.

Categories: Beer Tags: , , , , , ,

The Blessed Bank Holiday Morning

June 5, 2012 1 comment

The treat of an unusual morning off. The blessed, wonderful knowledge that tonight – the feast, the indulgence, the excess – will be followed by a morning in bed. The alarm snoozed. The hangover quietly slept through.

The time to fry some bacon and quietly convince your stomach to keep that much-needed salt and fat down, rather than a rushed morning; a precarious bus journey; putting on a brave face for 9am. You would forgive a war criminal in exchange for that morning off. A monster.

For a queen? An unelected monarch? A benign but ideologically objectionable symbol of a system wrought with class, privilege, prejudice, wealth and status? For this morning… fine. That’s just fine.

Categories: Uncategorized
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