It’s been a bit hard squeezing in time to be beer geeky recently, as I’ve been training to walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge for the Alzheimer’s Society. However we did manage to make a trip to the Hawkshead Summer Beer Festival last weekend, as it was conveniently positioned next to the outdoors.
After a long walk through the Lyth Valley on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we showered, napped and headed out to Staveley Mill Yard and the Hawkshead Brewery. No dedicated beer geek would be seen dead at a beer festival on a Saturday night: all the good beers have gone and the place is full of people drinking to have fun, rather than carefully rating the beers in four categories and posting the results online, as the brewer intended. No, for the beer geek it is best to get to the festival on the first day, or even to wangle an entry to the trade session, so you’re only drinking with the judges and professionals, when you can impart your helpful advice and learned critiques of their beers to the brewers directly.
This particular Saturday night at a beer festival was full of people having fun: local businesses had food stalls out, a band was competently playing songs from the DFS adverts. Loads of drinkers – yummy alt mummies, mountain bikers, suspicious teenagers, orange girls caked in makeup, fell runners, middle-aged men in aged brewery polo shirts – were outside in the decidedly un-Cumbrian weather, but they also packed the new Beer Hall, the older River Bar and queued for the loos.
We got a seat in the River Bar and noticed, as could be expected, that the beer selection was dwindling by the third evening, and the pump clips were turning their faces away by the minute. I had a feeling that the conservative Cumbrian palate might have shunned the hoppiest beers in favour of the easy drinking bitters. However this didn’t seem to have been the case. In fact, they were guzzling down 6-7% New World hopped IPAs like no-one’s business.
However the beer list was so good (and with such a focus on hoppy pales) that even the leftovers were brilliant: Hawkshead’s own spiky USPA and NZPA were just what the doctor ordered, and Dark Star Renaissance did well in a similar weight-range. Presumably only because Hawkshead has good stocks of its own beers, Windermere Pale was still on the bar outside, one of the few session beers left standing, and one of the best.
The one beer that seemed unfairly overlooked, to the point that it was the only one on the River Bar by the end of the night, was Moor Old Freddy Walker. It made sense that this 7.3% rich, dark, fruity vintage ale was left moping around the bar at the end of the warm evening when all the other beers had been paired off. However it made for easy pickings for the predatory beer geek, and paid off in spades.
Hawkshead was a great, inclusive, friendly beer festival on a Saturday night. I’m sure it would probably be very enjoyable on a Thursday afternoon too.
Friends Of Ham is a new bar in Leeds city centre, on New Station Street close to The Brewery Tap, Layne’s Espresso and, um, Yates’. It’s the labour of love of Claire and Anthony Kitching, who decided to move north from London and open a craft beer bar-come-deli in West Yorkshire.
The slightly enigmatic name relates not to the comrades of the biblical Ham, the son of Noah who was disowned and cursed for seeing his drunken father sprawled in the nip. Rather (if I recall correctly) it’s a pun on a Spanish tapas bar called something like “Amigos Del Jamon”.
The bar itself is over two levels and is remarkable. A small shopfront ground floor has legs of ham hanging from hooks above the bar. The basement, whilst cosy, must be twice the size and contains sofas, long tables, a porcine gallery and a shuffleboard table. The decor is eclectic, welcoming, quirky and thoughtful.
Whilst the bar is full of little touches that signal a unique attention to detail, the selection of food and drink shows similar care and a particular attitude. Those of us who have been following Friends Of Ham’s progress on Twitter and Facebook know that there has been a dedication to finding the best products from the best suppliers that has involved a number of gruelling tasting sessions and advice from experienced Leodensians such as staff member Tyler Kiley (formerly of Mr Foleys) and Neil Walker of Eating Isn’t Cheating (who has posted about the bar here).
Cask beers on the preview night included Red Willow Smokeless and Quantum Bitter and the keg beers included Kernel Amarillo IPA, Magic Rock Clown Juice (a delicious wheat IPA), Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Lakeland Lager and Delerium Red (a Kriek). The back bar had a box of Ampleforth cider and the fridges contain a great range of interesting beers, from Orval to Redchurch East India Pale Ale. Interestingly the licence application included their decision not to stock spirits at all.
The food appears be good, simple and tapas style, will include a range of excellent meats, cheeses and, most excitingly for me, Scotch eggs from the Handmade Scotch Egg Company, including their amazing black pudding version, “Black Watch”. Bascially, exactly what you’d like to eat whilst enjoying an Orval, an Ampleforth cider or a glass of red wine.
Friends Of Ham is a bar and an idea that deserves to find a devoted following. It will be enjoyed by beer geeks, wine buffs and foodies. It is also a welcoming and stylish space that should appeal to a wider demographic that enjoys socialising in a relaxed atmosphere but finds little of interest in the microwaved meals, worn carpets and skidmarks of many traditional pubs.
[UPDATE – Friends Of Ham is open as of 10 July 2012 and will be building up to offering the full food menu. Currently it’s selling a range of meats and cheeses.]
A few weeks ago Tandleman left a comment which said, inter alia, “…remember beer is a social drink to be enjoyed with friends. It should accompany entertainment, not be, in most cases at least, the actual entertainment itself.”
This is, of course, correct. However, drinking alone is when the beer gets to be the main attraction: the meat rather than the stock. When you go to the cinema, you sit in the dark and turn your mobile phone off in order to give the film your full attention. Whilst some films can be enjoyed at home whilst flipping through a magazine or browsing the internet, a truly great film deserves to be watched with no significant distractions, only complimentary sensations: popcorn, a fizzy drink, a loving hand to squeeze through the shocks.
However, drinking alone in a relatively quiet pub serves a greater purpose than simply appreciating a beer in high definition; it can be good for your mental health. It’s not that I hate conversation. Other people can be wonderful, if you’re in the mood for them. However, there are moments when a man needs to spend some time with himself to cleanse the mind of the wearying, frustrating, anxious trivia of real life. To defragment.
My perfect combination is sitting anonymously at a corner table in a half-full pub with a low hubbub of conversation going on all around, with a great beer and a good newspaper crossword (Telegraph cryptic or Observer Everyman, for my handicap). One can sip the beer, stare into nothingness and think about the aroma and taste, solving its mysteries, alternating with working out cryptic clues and anagrams in your quiet battle with the setter.
If I were Icelandic, I might drive to the middle of nowhere and stare across a glacier, finding perspective in the emotionless stoicism of geology as the Earth slowly rips itself apart underfoot. If I were a fisherman, I might pack my rod and stand in a river with only birdsong and trickling water to listen to, lost in the motions of casting and the passing current.
But here, in the rude, grubby, sweaty, selfish, frustrated city, at least I know that there is always a pub, a crossword and a pint.