I went to the opening day of Leeds International Beer Festival yesterday evening. With the caveats that I’ve never been to Indy Man Beer Con, GBBF or the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, and the fact that I’m not actually that keen on traditional beer festivals, it was definitely the best beer festival experience I’ve had. It’s on a grander scale than last year and the organisers, bars and breweries involved have put a lot of effort into making it really special, as can be seen from the photos below.
There was a greater use of the possibilities of the Town Hall this year, with the food vans, Friends of Ham’s teepee, the Brooklyn truck and Flying Dog caravan out front. One hidden gem was North Bar’s pop-up “Atomium” in the old cells under the Town Hall, where The Day The Earth Stood Still played on screen whilst drinkers downed shots of tequila and pickle juice.
If you get a chance to attend over the weekend I would highly recommend it. Tickets can be purchased from the city centre box office.
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…
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!
Seasonal beers; and what season is more seasonal than the season we’re in right now, eh? Even the food is all about the seasoning, and so are a lot of the beers: spicy and warming. Not usually what I look for in a beer. However, ’tis the season.
Anchor Special Ale 2011 (5.5%)
Even though it’s not a preferred style, the annual edition of this beer is something I’ve come to look forward to like the new Beano Annual. The empty bottle will join its brothers on my shelf. It can be proud in the knowledge that it smelled of nutmeg and berries; tasted as deep and comforting as its dark brown colour, not too sweet or strong, but with a warming spicy bitterness. This is a very good Christmas beer indeed.
BrewDog There Is No Santa (4.7%)
Ever the pseudo-contrarians when it comes to marketing, I wonder if BrewDog think there is no Santa just because they’ve been very naughty boys and never get any presents. The slightly Scrooge-like beer name doesn’t hide the fact that they’ve gone into the Christmas beer market with both paws this year, also releasing Christmas Porter, a spiced version of Alice Porter. The aroma is very Christmassy: sweet and spicy, with noticeable cinnamon. It’s similar in appearance to Anchor’s style, and inhabits the same ground as a warming spiced brown ale, with a relatively moderate ABV for the time of year. A very nice beer in the end: Dog bless us, every one.
Bush de Noël (aka Scaldis de Noël) (12%)
Yikes. The foil label doesn’t do subtlety or sophistication (Ghost Drinker compared it to the foil on cheap chocolate decorations) and 12% suggests real overindulgence. It is the Christmas version of “The Strongest Belgian Beer” and has a big, very sweet marzipan, cakey aroma. It’s thick on the tongue with some spiciness but a lot of burnt sugar indeed. I decided that what the situation required was some cheese, and some Blacksticks Blue and spiced apple chutney allowed me to appreciate the bitterness on the finish, when the burnt sugar subsided.
Corsendonk Christmas Ale (8.5%)
No more classy in its get-up is the similarly Belgian Corsendonk. This one smells like a sweet spicy dark Belgian beer, and has a lot of sweetness, although a much lighter variety. Again this benefited from raiding the fridge for cheese and a very pleasant bit of Reblochon helped me to appreciate it much more. It was still very, very fizzy though.
Brasserie Dupont – Avec Les Bons Vœux De La Brasserie Dupont (9.5%)
Less a Christmas ale than a Christmas present (formerly exclusively for Dupont’s best clients), this is a very special beer. It’s a nice light saison (come Tripel, maybe?) with a perfectly balanced hoppy character (a little grassiness) which drinks about half its weight. Admittedly this has become of my favourite styles of beer this year, but this is an instant favourite, and a new Christmas tradition if I have my way.
Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser (7.4%)
This Winter Ale is portrayed less as a Christmas ale than some sort of tribute to pet dogs who aren’t allowed to go snowboarding with you but are still up on the slopes with you in spirit. Or something. Poor Ralph Steadman. A slightly boozy nose and chestnut colour, then a malty beer which wasn’t too sweet or heavy, with a pleasant and relatively restrained spiciness on the swallow. Quite enjoyable, but not exactly The Beano Annual. The Topper Annual, maybe.
Sierra Nevada Celebration 2010 (6.8%)
Ah now, this is last year’s Celebration, with an October 2011 best before date. So, whilst it’s not the lovely fresh hopped winter IPA it once was, there is the ghost of Hopmas past lingering on the swallow, after the light caramel sweetness. A little bit of dryness on the finish too, building on the longer swallows to a dry, slighty woody, piney taste. A slightly withered, but still celebratory Christmas tree.
So these disparate winter and Christmas seasonals, of various styles, contained some real crackers and not a single turkey; and there are certainly no leftovers Most of them are available were I bought them (the superb Beer Ritz), and I’d encourage you to visit your own local independent beer shop this Christmas.
Anthony Bourdain in his article “A Drinking Problem” (collected in The Nasty Bits) entertainingly ranted about an imagined London pub that had just “gone gastro”. Good food and good beer, he said, should be nowhere near each other. Pernicious foodies ruin traditional English pubs. He has since retracted this view, but it’s a commonly-held one.
My own view on gastropubs is divided. I like good restaurants that serve decent beer; and I also like good pubs that do good food. What I don’t want is for a good pub to become merely a restaurant-in-pub’s-clothing; one of those places that you get in London where you walk in, order a pint and the manager glares at you like a spent scratchcard for refusing to order food, a poor return on his investment.
The Town Hall Tavern in Leeds is a relatively historic pub (1926) which has recently “gone gastro”. A Timothy Taylor house opposite the courts, I used to come here on an irregular basis for a well-kept pint of Landlord or one of the less widespread Taylor’s beers such as Ram Tam. Beyond that, the old pub didn’t have an awful lot going for it: certainly friendly enough but with too much pine, too much carpet, a fruit machine and pointless televisions. Because it’s opposite Leeds Combined Court Centre it historically had a lot of legal clientele; but I think when Veritas opened, with its wine list and charcuterie boards, that was more the type of place suited to today’s counsel and solicitors.
When the Town Street Tavern was revamped I was initially sceptical. The new exterior looked like it was trying too hard: a bit art deco with some unfortunate purple strip lights. But inside it’s surprising and also considerably improved: floors stripped back to the wood, new green tiles on the walls, no more televisions, a blackboard, some old Timothy Taylor’s ads, and photos of old Leeds, alongside random pub ephemera including (of course) Beer Street and Gin Lane prints. There are some self-consciously quirky teapot lampshades, memorably described on The Apprentice recently as an “idea” rather than a “concept”.
What is perhaps most surprising is the selection of beer. Whilst the cask range is, as before, exclusively Taylor’s (Landlord, Ram Tam, Golden Best), the keg beer includes three from Staffordshire’s Freedom Brewery. They’ve even opted for Freedom’s pleasant roasty Stout in preference to Guinness. The fridges have an interesting selection of imported bottles from Beer Paradise, including O’Dell Cutthroat Porter, Sierra Nevada and Flying Dog Pale Ales, Jever and Tripel Karmeliet. There are also cocktails and a wine list.
The menu looks attractive and I opted for a simple fish and chips, which was very nice indeed and came in suitably gastro-sized portion (“feed not fill”). You can check out more about the food on the website and this mouthwatering Leeds Grub blog post. I should also mention that the service was excellent.
So overall I’m happy with the makeover and it will make me visit more than previously. Whilst the Town Hall Tavern is not quite a destination beer bar to rival Mr Foleys or North Bar, it is a much-improved pub where you can eat and drink well.
Importantly, on a Friday evening it didn’t seem to me that there was too much pressure to order food rather than simply drink. That puts it in a pleasant category with a few other places like The Adelphi (and indeed Veritas) where you might have a few good beers, see another table tucking into some very well-presented food and decide to stay for a light or full meal. That gastro Goldilocks zone where it’s not too restauranty, not too pub grubby, but just right.
I had enjoyed one evening in Amsterdam and gone to four bars, one of which (The Beer Temple) was really excellent. However it wasn’t quite enough: the one bar that had a really exceptional selection was of mostly imported beer and the bar itself was a Dutch take on an American style. Before I left I really wanted to go a recognisably Dutch bar that had a great selection of Dutch beers.
One good contender was ‘t Arendsnest (by the same people as The Beer Temple), however the one that really caught my eye from Tim Skelton’s book Around Amsterdam In 80 Beers was In De Wildeman. Mr Skelton says, “The ‘Wild Man’ is one of the world’s great beer bars and you should not leave Amsterdam without visiting it“. On my last evening I had a two hour window around dinnertime, so I decided to take the tram into town and follow instructions.
I found the bar relatively easily after wandering down a few busy sidestreets on a sunny Saturday evening, passing lots of people eating cones of chips and mayonnaise. When I get there it looked busy, with lots of people sitting outside and a large window opening into a small room that also looked packed. Fortunately when I went into the main bar it was only pleasantly busy and I was able to stand at the bar.
The interior, previously a distillery, met all my expectations: the walls cluttered with beer ephemera and a black and white tiled floor, in fact it’s probably quite appealing to tourists in that kind of aged “brown cafe” style. However where it differs from other brown cafes is in the remarkable selection of beer. There were 17 beers and 1 cider (Strongbow!) on tap. They had the solitary handpump I saw in my three days in Amsterdam, hosting Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. I noted that the pumpclips on the back bar evidenced previous beers not only from Dark Star, Hopback and Gadds, but even Saltaire Brewery.
There are apparently 200 bottled beers available. A copy of the beer menu wasn’t immediately to hand, but the tap selection was so good I didn’t bother asking. I decided to start with the only Brouwerij de Molen beer on tap, Lentehop. This was a great, fresh and bitter IPA that was perfect for a first drink on a summer evening.
I finished it relatively quickly and moved on to Flying Dog In De Wildeman 25th Anniversary Farmhouse IPA which, as the name suggests, was brewed by the US craft brewer especially for this bar’s silver jubilee this year. I didn’t have a clue what to expect of a “Farmhouse IPA”, but found it slightly herby and more subtle in its hoppiness and aroma than the very punchy De Molen beer, but a very nice beer nonetheless, with a pleasant building fruity bitterness.
It tasted to me a bit like a very hoppy IPA that had mellowed in its old age, like a slightly aged bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA I’d had recently. Reading about it now, I can see why it seemed so different: it’s an unfiltered IPA made with Citra hops and a Saison yeast. I’d love to try it again knowing that, but I’ll probably never get the chance.
At this point, having had two strong beers and knowing my time was limited, I decided to have something other than an IPA. I’d already had four IPAs on this trip (two Dutch, one Danish, one American) and it occurred to me that it wasn’t exactly the most native style to the Benelux countries.
I decided to try Wildeman’s beer of the month, a De Proefbrouwerij Vicardin Tripel Gueuze (sp?), apparently a blend of two beers (um, a tripel and a gueuze). It had a really nice tart sourness and was a good final beer to enjoy as I looked around the bar which had quietened down a bit as people went home or out for dinner.
I reflected, whilst standing there, that I really, really liked this place. Great beer, friendly and helpful staff, a beautiful building and a fantastic atmosphere. I can see why it’s such an institution and I would entirely agree with Tim Skelton’s analysis: In De Wildeman is one of the world’s great beer bars. I would add, from my still-limited experience, that Amsterdam is almost certainly one of the world’s great beer cities.
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