Having explored quite a lot of Cumbrian beers recently, it was good to cap it off with a visit to the Beer Festival at Taste Cumbria. The CAMRA-run festival at the Jennings Brewery was part of a programme full of exciting food events in Cockermouth.
Because there was so much on, we only got to spend a few hours at the festival, but enjoyed a few of the range of Cumbrian beers and got to talk with some luminaries of the Cumbrian beer scene including Neil Bowness and his other half Sharon, Jeff Pickthall, Hardknott Alex and Coniston’s Ian Bradley and Helen Bradley. The beers were a good representation of the Cumbrian beer landscape and included some excellent examples from the progressive fringe, including Hawkshead NZPA, Hardknott Code Black, Coniston Infinity IPA, Coniston No 9 Barley Wine and Stringers Furness Abbey.
In addition I got to try a couple of beers from breweries that were less familiar to me. Hesket Newmarket Scafell Blonde was a pleasant light blonde of which it would be easy to sink a few pints after a long summer walk. Great Gable Yewbarrow from Egremont was a great beer hiding behind an unassuming pumpclip: a 5.5% strong dark mild that was packed with flavour.
We also got to chat with Pete Brown at the festival, and on the Sunday we went to his talk and tutored tasting. We tried a perry, cider and five beers from the festival, which Pete talked us through in an engaging and informative manner.
He also did a couple of readings from his books, including his new one, Shakespeare’s Local, about the history of The George Inn in Southwark. It sounded like it should be as fascinating and funny as the rest of his books, an exercise in studying the wood by looking very closely at a single tree. The book is released on 8 November and will be a Radio 4 Book Of The Week in December. Pete also talked about his new project surveying international ciders and perries for a world cider guide, which sounds like it should be an interesting survey of an drink that isn’t usually considered in a global context.
Sadly, I missed a few of the other beer events, including Jeff Pickthall talking about the more esoteric beers of Cumbria (although Jeff very kindly gave us a bottle of his aged stock of No 9) and Pete and Jeff’s pub quiz on the Saturday night. But it has been a fantastic weekend and everybody involved, especially including Neil and Sharon, deserve a lot of thanks for the work they put in to showcasing the best of Cumbria’s beers prominently alongside the best of its food.
The other night I was thinking about how many Northern English breweries consistently impress and surprise me, and how many of them are relatively new. Thornbridge Brewery seems like an established veteran of UK craft brewing, but it’s only seven years old. Marble Brewery is positively neolithic in comparison to most, having started in 1997.
It is trite to say that the new wave of breweries in the UK owe a lot to the American scene. However, the enjoyment with which I’ve been drinking hop-forward beers like Buxton Wild Boar, Summer Wine Diablo or Magic Rock High Wire makes me wonder if I even really need to buy American beers any more. Certainly these English beers haven’t acquired either the age or the price uplift of their imported American inspirations by the time they make it to my shopping basket.
Then I wondered whether I really needed to drink beers from anywhere else at all. Between them, Marble and Thornbridge have been working their way through the canon of Northern European beer styles recently, from Vienna lager through wheat beers to Kolsch, saisons, dubbels and tripels. Summer Wine have also paid tribute in their own irreverent way with the Lime & Coriander Saison I’m drinking right now and the mind-bending but superb double Belgian Rye PA Cohort. Sure, I’d miss Orval, but I could certainly attempt to console myself with Durham Brewery’s Bombay 106.
This is not to mention the excellent quality of both traditional English beer styles and those newer styles which, although influenced from abroad and made with New World hops, are nonetheless peculiarly British: the barley wines; the strong stouts and porters like Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime; the cask session pale ales like Roosters Yankee, Ilkley Mary Jane or Hawkshead Windermere Pale; and yes, even the brown bitters that sell by the gallon.
After a bit of thinking, looking at Google Maps and (frankly) gerrymandering, I concluded that, if it came to it, I could probably cope with drinking only beers brewed within a 75 mile radius of my house in North Leeds. Provided, of course, that they had access to hops flown from the other side of the world. (I should note I hadn’t even considered Burton and it ended up within the area quite by accident – I was pushing north east and north west). That would allow me to enjoy beers (inter alia) from all of the following breweries:
Acorn, Black Sheep, Buxton, Coniston, Cropton, Daleside, Durham, Goose Eye, Hambleton, Hardknott*, Hawkshead, Ilkley, Kelham Island, Kirkstall, Leeds, Little Valley, Liverpool Organic, Magic Rock, Mallinsons, Marble, Ossett, Red Willow, Revolutions, Ridgeside, Roosters, Saltaire, Sam Smiths, Stringers, Summer Wine, Thornbridge, Timothy Taylor, and York.
Whilst I would scrape by on these riches, in quiet moments I would find myself yearning for Orval, Brooklyn Lager, St Bernardus, Sierra Nevada Torpedo or even Jever. I’d certainly miss Kernel and Brewdog; it would sting on a positively existential level to never enjoy another Irish stout. The worst would be to travel and not enjoy local beers: cursed to stick to the Watney’s Red Barrel in “Majorcan bodegas selling fish and chips […] and calamares and two veg“.
But I think this exercise has helped me to realise that one of the best things about beer is that someone in the smallest unit of an industrial estate in West Yorkshire can buy foreign ingredients and build on the innovation and tradition of other brewers, cultures and traditions, to make the some of best beer in the world, right on my doorstep. It’s a credit to those American, Belgian and other brewers that they have inspired them to do so.
You can’t say that about wine. As they say in Doncaster: bollocks to Terroir.
*Just about: I might have to add an extra half a mile…
Update: For a reply from Southern England, see Mark Landell’s blog.
Imperialism: Black Sheep v Brewdog v Bristol v Buxton v Hardknott v Magic Rock v Mikkeller v Thornbridge
The adjective “imperial” in Imperial Stouts originally referred to export of these dark, high ABV English beers to the Russian Empire and the Baltic countries. However, it also seems an appropriate adjective in terms of its alternative meanings as having supreme authority, or being outstanding in size or quality. This is reflected in the subsequent appropriation of the adjective for “Imperial IPAs”.
Due to their uncompromising ABV, one should generally avoid an Imperial pint of Imperial Stout, much less open eight bottles in a week. However, in the name of art and of clearing the dark and frightening end of my beer shelf, I decided to take on the following:
Black Sheep Imperial Russian Stout (8.5% ABV)
This was brewed for the 2011 Great Baltic Adventure, which Pete Brown participated in. It had a creamy nicotine stain head, liquorice and dark chocolate nose, thick mouthfeel and a vinous, raisin and liquorice taste. It coats your mouth and throat like a pleasant boozy treacle, more sour than bitter. Black Sheep have brewed what I would expect of an Imperial stout: that rich alcoholic liquorice that interests me on occasion but I’m rarely in the mood for.
BrewDog Tokyo* (18.2% ABV)
This “Intergalactic Fantastic Oak Aged Stout” is very much one of the big boys, both in ABV and reputation. It has a very yellow head, with vanilla and maybe a slight woodiness detectable in the aroma. The taste is surprising, much sweeter and lighter than you would expect, although the mouthfeel is also quick thick. The sweetness conceals a little dryness, perhaps from the oak chips? Reading the bottle tells me it also apparently contains jasmine and cranberries, so with that and the vanilla and oak chips, there’s a lot more than just malt, hops and yeast contributing to the flavour. This results in a very boozy dessert in a glass, which becomes almost too thick and sweet to enjoy in quantity without, say, a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Bristol Beer Factory Ultimate Stout (7.7% ABV)
Ah, now this one confused me. One of BBB’s “Twelve Stouts of Christmas”, I assumed this was going to be their attempt at a classic Imperial Stout, perhaps in the vein of the Black Sheep. However something about the aroma reminded me of a Belgian Dubbel, with an unusually prominent yeast character carrying through into the taste. There was also a a vinous chocolate flavour with with a lack of hop bitterness on the swallow, but rather some sourness. In fact the label, read subsequently, clearly stated that it was made with a Belgian yeast. Imperial in a distinctly Belgian manner, and enjoyable in the same vein as Marble’s Chocolate Dubbel.
Buxton Tsar (9.5% ABV)
This “Imperial Russian Stout” aligns perfectly with my tastes. A dirty brown head and good aroma which preempts the welcome dry, slightly fruity hoppiness on a roasty malt base. It’s not sweet like many of the others, although it is a little bit oily; not overly so. A modern take on the classic style, expressed without any fancy additions. Just the beer to enjoy while the sun sets on your own empire.
Hardknott Vitesse Noir (11% ABV)
This “Triple Imperial Vanilla Mocha Stout” is in the vein of the BrewDog Tokyo with its use of vanilla, but with the further addition of coffee. The head is quite thin and the aroma is of a sweet black espresso. The taste leads with the coffee, giving way to sour fruit and liquorice. Not noticeably boozy, but with a quite silky mouthfeel. It’s a nice beer, with the coffee and vanilla lifting the experience above the heavy stouty richness.
Magic Rock Bearded Lady (10.5% ABV)
This “Imperial Brown Stout” has a coffee-coloured head and dark chocolate aroma. Slightly burning on the first taste, presumably from the alcohol, this gives way to bitter chocolate and then a noticeable hop bitterness on the aftertaste. Further tastes combine hops with dark chocolate deliciously. Very decadent and enjoyable.
Mikkeller Black Hole (13.1% ABV)
I paired this particular bottle with a documentary about the Higgs boson. However, in short order, it became quite hard to concentrate on particle physics. It had a big dense brown head, probably the largest of the eight. It smelled big, perfumed and malty. Whilst it was certainly thick and rich, you could easily convince yourself it wasn’t as strong as it is. After all, not many beers are this strong. Throughout, there is a sweet spiciness lifting it, which again probably owes a lot to the addition of vanilla and coffee.
Thornbridge St Petersburg (7.7% ABV)
“Imperial Russian Stout” with a cappuccino head. The aroma is floral and hoppy, which carries through to the taste. There’s a dryness here, like in a good Irish stout. It had a much lighter body than many of the others, with levels of hops to malt that, in relative terms, takes it closer to the territory of black IPAs. My lasting impression was of pot pourri and coffee, which probably doesn’t convey how good this beer really is.
So, what are the lessons of empire? Well it seems that these bottles fall into three categories:
1. Imperial Stouts with a thick liquorice profile dominated by the rich, dark malts (Black Sheep).
2. Imperial Stouts with a big hit of largely New World hops (whilst I do appreciate that the first Imperial Stouts were also very hoppy) to compete with the malt profile (St Petersburg, Tsar, Bearded Lady).
3. Imperial Stouts which add unusual ingredients to compete with the flavour of the malt and an elevated ABV (Vitesse Noir, Tokyo, Black Hole, to some extent Bristol’s Ultimate Stout).
My preference is for the dry or fruity bitterness of the middle category. The strong-but-sweet vanilla-infused beers were certainly nice, but I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth and find myself coming back to hops at every opportunity. Thornbridge St Petersburg, Buxton Tsar and Magic Rock Bearded Lady will always be very welcome on my beer shelf.
Leeds, as well as having a significant brewing history, also has a close connection to the Temperance movement. The Band of Hope, a Christian charity to promote temperance amongst working class children, was formed in a building close to the Tetley’s Brewery in 1847.
As for myself, I wasn’t supposed to drink at all last week, less on moral grounds and more as part of an attempt to look as stunning from behind as Pippa Middleton by my wedding day. You won’t be surprised to hear that this didn’t really work out: I did have a few drinks and the gossip mags have yet to latch onto me as the next big thing and give me a hilarious abbreviated name (N Middy?).
On Tuesday, Matt from North Bar contacted me over Twitter and asked if I wanted to come to a Nøgne Ø focus group that evening. Nøgne Ø is a Norwegian brewery whose beers, in my experience, are rarely seen in the North. In the words of Jarvis, “So what else could I do”? Other members of the group included Dean from Mr Foleys, Rob from Hopzine, Alice “Alice Porter” Porter and Neil from Eating Isn’t Cheating.
I won’t waste your time expanding on Neil’s account, but suffice to say it was good fun, we chatted about beer and drank some really good ones. I enjoyed all the ones I tried (Pale Ale, Saison, India Pale Ale and Porter) , but special mention should go to the IPA which was a stunning rich, hoppy and malty US-style IPA.
Unfortunately I had to make an early exit before the Imperial Stout, but I’m told it was the best beer of the evening. Hopefully I should have a chance to have it again, as Matt says that he has some of the higher ABV Nøgne Ø beers coming in for North Bar, which should be lovely based on this selection.
North Bar was my downfall again later in the week, as they had Kirkstall Brewery’s first beers: Pale Ale and Black Band Porter. Kirkstall Brewery, started by Dave Sanders (formerly of Elland) is the newest brewery in Leeds, and shouldn’t be confused with the historic Kirkstall Brewery that closed in 1983.
Both beers were very good: the Pale Ale a light refreshing beer, but with satisfyingly robust and lasting bitterness for its strength; the Porter even better, with exactly the complexity you’d want from the style. Mr Foleys had both in this week too which sold out very quickly, and on the basis of these first two beers I’m looking forward to seeing more from Kirkstall. A very promising addition to Leeds’ beer scene.
Mr Foley’s caught me out on Friday with a Hardknott Infra Red (first time I’ve had it on cask – a great hoppy beer with rich forest fruit maltiness, but I think it might be even better suited to bottle or maybe keg?) and a RedWillow Smokeless, a great smoked porter.
So basically my attempt to avoid the beer failed, although I did have less than half my recommended weekly units (and if you ask me, got pretty good value for it). This week’s lesson: If you want to lay off the beer, don’t live in Leeds. It’s a great place to fall off the wagon, though.
This week doesn’t bode much better though, as the exciting Sparrow Bier Cafe opens in Bradford City Centre! I think West Yorkshire is ganging up on me.
Dean Pugh, the manager of Mr Foley’s Cask Ale House in Leeds (and in his spare time, homebrewer, beer geek and good bloke), has been working to build on and improve the range of beers on offer at Mr Foley’s for some time now, and recently I’ve really started to notice how this Mitchell’s Of Lancaster pub has evolved into a beer bar worth getting properly excited about.
You can tell a really good beer bar (for me at least, and probably beer geeks generally) because you go in and find it really hard to make a decision; not because of the lack of choice, but rather because there are too many things you really want to try, like on the first day of a good beer festival. This has been my experience of Mr Foley’s recently, whose support for cask beers from interesting local microbreweries in particular does a real service to West Yorkshire’s beer scene.
I went in last Thursday after reading Leigh’s mention of RedWillow Ageless Double IPA on his blog. However when I saw what was on the bar, I also wanted to try the other cask beers I hadn’t tried before: Revolutions’ Smiths-themed non-royal wedding beer “…It was really nothing”; Elgood’s Pageant Ale; Hardknott’s Atomic Narcissus; York Brewery’s Pride Of York. That wasn’t even the limit of the selection, which included a total of nine cask ales, the remainder being Burton Bridge’s Burton Porter; and York’s Ghost, Terrier and Guzzler.
And that wasn’t the end of it, because the keg selection is really quite impressive as well. A recent addition is a permanent BrewDog pump, which had both IPA Is Dead Nelson Sauvin and New Punk on; other pumps included Leffe, Amstel, Marston’s Oyster Stout, Erdinger and Pilsner Urquell. Then you could move on to the fridges, which include a lot of interesting craft bottles including 4 BrewDog bottles; 6 fruit beers; at least 8 US craft beers before getting onto the Belgian, German and Czech ones.
I think Mr Foley’s can confuse people a bit as to its identity: it’s quite a large pub in the old Pearl Assurance offices, spread out over at least four assorted levels. It has bigscreen TVs often showing sports. The telly brings (well behaved) sports fans in for football, Super League etc., but manages not to keep the (pro-quiet pub) CAMRA types away: the ticking is too tempting. You also get the after-work crowd from surrounding council and professional offices, society meetings in the back room etc. It’s usually pretty buzzy and with a wide range of people.
On the subject of beerticking, on this occasion I went for the Hardknott Atomic Narcissus: a “pride”-type best bitter at 4.2%. It had a solid amber to brown colour with a creamy head. There was a rich forest fruit to slightly savoury aroma I can’t quite place. It had a definite but mellow bitterness, with a solid malt base. The RedWillow Ageless Double IPA at 7.2% had a really lovely tropical citrus aroma, a smooth, rich mouthfeel and a good lasting bitter aftertaste.
As if to emphasise that the great range of cask beer isn’t just a happy coincidence, the pumpclips behind the bar showing upcoming beers are pretty exciting too: a selection of beer from Summer Wine; Hardknott; Mallinson’s; Rooster’s; Hopback; Elgood; and Castle Rock.
Now, if I’ve not convinced you with enough lists, you can head over to Mr Foley’s It’s Your Round page to see what’s on the bar right now. Just remember not to take Mr Foley’s for granted: it’s unquestionably the best pub in Leeds for cask ale and now it’s got a few more strings to its bow.
UPDATE: Dean has subsequently informed me that there’s a further expansion of the range about to take place in the coming weeks, with more than 30 new bottles in the fridges and two new keg lines, one each for US and UK craft keg. The US keg line will host the likes of O’Dell, Sierra Nevada, Victory, Brooklyn and Anchor (which would be wonderful) and, even more excitingly, the UK keg should include Summer Wine and Magic Rock!
For more on Mr Foleys see this post from Ghost Drinker.
Last week Kate and I did The Dales Way, in reverse and slightly foreshortened, when we walked from Kendal to Ilkley. We were extremely lucky with the weather and it was a truly beautiful walk over 5 days of 12-16 miles a day. I was looking forward to enjoying a few beers along along the way, and at the end of a long day we certainly felt that we’d earned a drink. In my next few posts, I intend to cover the pubs along the way, for those who are doing the walk or are just in the area.
Before starting out on our walk we stayed in Kendal for a couple of days. The Dales Way doesn’t actually run through the centre of Kendal, but does pass through the nearby villages of Staveley and Burneside and a lot of trekkers will stay in the area on their final night before tackling the last section of the full Dales Way, in the usual direction to Bowness.
Kendal town centre is pretty good for beer generally, and you can usually find some Cumbrian beers from Coniston, Jennings and Hawkshead breweries. Burgundy’s in Kendal (sometimes referred to as “The Wine Bar”) is a fairly regular visit for me when we visit Kate’s parents. It has a few (four?) handpumps with a range of local beers. It’s a decent size, spread over three levels, and a rooftop smoking area/beer garden and is usually fairly busy.
However when we visited last week the pub had expanded even further into a new area on the lower ground floor. The new bit includes a brewkit behind glass, as in The Brewery Tap in Leeds, and it will be interesting to see what their own beers are like. We were lucky enough to visit in a week where they had set up a temporary bar downstairs for a Cumbrian Beer Festival, expanding the range to around 20 beers.
We tried quite a few of the beers, including Stringer’s Yellow Lorry, Dent Brewery Baas & Stripes (an American-style pale ale with a typically painful name) and Ulverston Laughing Gravy. On a warm spring day, we were in the mood for golden hoppy beers and there were two very good beers in that category in Hardknott Continuum and Hawskhead Citrillo. The last two beers were from the two most interesting breweries in Cumbria that I’ve had a lot of exposure to; although I should mention that I’ve only tried a couple of Stringer’s beers, although I did have a Stringer’s IPA from MyBreweryTap recently and it was excellent.
The Hawkshead Citrillo did stand out as the best beer of the day. Presumably made with Citra and Amarillo, it’s a big, bitter, fruity pale ale in all the right ways, on a par with Thornbridge Jaipur and Marble Dobber, and coming across like the tough big brother of Hawkshead Windermere Pale, which also uses Citra and is almost certainly the best 3.5% beer in the country at the moment.
Burgundy’s won’t always have such a wide range, but it usually has a good one and if there’s nothing on the pumps to interest you, there is a well-stocked beer fridge with probably the best selection of imported bottles in the town centre, including a selection of Belgian beers and even Goose Island IPA.
Other good beer bars in Kendal include The Vats Bar in The Brewery Arts Centre (near the youth hostel) and The Rifleman’s Arms on Greenside, near a lot of the B&Bs. It would be foolish to pass through Staveley without visiting the superb Hawkshead Brewery Beer Hall (but check opening times in advance) or as an alternative The Eagle & Child.