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Taste Cumbria Beer Festival, Cockermouth and Pete Brown

September 30, 2012 3 comments

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 IPAConiston 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.

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The Westmorland County Show, Hawkshead Brewery and the Hawkshead Beer Hall, Staveley

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago we went to the annual Westmorland County Show. I’ve never been to an agricultural show before but it’s difficult to describe how much fun it was without sounding like an enthusiastic three year old: “There were sheep and really fat pigs and massive bulls and weird chickens and ferrets and huge owls and men with chainsaws and kids Cumberland wrestling and great cheese and lots and lots of tractors…” It was amazing though.

The bar for the show was provided by Hawkshead Brewery, and it was good to see that, alongside their standard Bitter (which is a very enjoyable example of a safe style), they were also selling a lot of Windermere Pale, which is packed with Citra, all for £2.50 a pint.

It struck me that what you might assume to be the most conservative of audiences was taking very well to such a modern beer style, in the same way that Coniston seem to be able to sell Infinity IPA and Bluebird XB in traditional pubs in remote market towns. Whilst unexciting brown bitters seem to be the norm in most Cumbrian pubs, perhaps they needn’t be.

We also managed to squeeze in a trip to the Hawkshead Beer Hall at the brewery in Staveley, for another Windermere Pale (it’s great to have a really nice session strength beer when you’re driving) and a scotch egg, pork pie, sweetcorn fritters and mushrooms and stilton on toast. We also picked up a fancy numbered bottle of St Austell Royal Diamond Jubilee Imperial IPA to take away.

I’ve written about the Beer Hall before, but I mention this just to emphasise that Hawkshead Brewery in particular seems to be pulling the Cumbrian beer scene up by its bootstraps, both through its beers and also its brewery tap.

Feel Good Hit Of The Summer: Hawkshead Summer Beer Festival

July 26, 2012 9 comments

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.

Further accounts of the festival are at Beersay and Beer Reviews.

Themes of #EBBC12: Bad beer, free beer and bad free beer

One of the points that emerged from the panel and group discussions, and indeed Stuart Howe’s very funny keynote speech at the European Beer Bloggers Conference was that opinion is split as to whether blogs should ever be truly negative about a beer or a pub.  Some believe blogging can give pubs and brewers useful feedback about possible improvements, or just a much-needed kick up the arse. Others believe constructive criticism should be fed back privately.

Some people can’t be bothered to write about bad beer and mediocre experiences. Sometimes, it can be fun to read (or write) a really scathing review; certainly restaurant critics and their readers seem to relish it. Similarly, reviews of bad music and awful films (see for example Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon in Empire) can be more entertaining than those of good ones. Furthermore, being warned off a bad experience can be as useful to the reader as being tipped off about a good one.

This discussion has some relationship with another major theme of the weekend: free beer.  Does receiving free samples from a brewer undermine a blogger’s objectivity?  Most people seemed to agree that accepting and (honestly) reviewing free beer is acceptable, although many also considered that it was poor etiquette to ask for it, or at least that the thought of doing so made most people uncomfortable.   Having said that, one of the reps from a multinational brewer said they had lots of free beer to give away and were happy to give out samples when asked, so if you want to dismount your high horse, there’s a gravy train to catch.

My own view on this is that if there’s free beer being handed out, far be it from me to turn it down.  I’ve been sent free beer from St Stephanus (SAB Miller) and more recently Hawkshead, which I intend to review shortly.  Along with all the other attendees of various moral standpoints, I also had an awful lot of good-to-excellent free beer at the conference, from producers as large as Molson Coors to as small as Roosters.   However I would never ask a brewer for free beer if they weren’t already in the process of doing so.

As regards free beer that turns out to be bad, I probably wouldn’t write about the beer if it was going to result in an outright scathing review (rather than, say, a middling one).  But I tend not to do that in any event as, particularly in the case of small and independent brewers and pubs, I appreciate that their jobs are difficult and many of them have invested a huge proportion of their time, sweat and imagination to actually create something real in the hope that others will enjoy it.  In that context it seems cheap and easy to point out a few things I might regard as failings or contrary to my personal taste, just to get some moderately entertaining writing out of it.

I’m also aware that my criticisms might derive from teething problems or a blip. Using hypothetical examples, if I feel aggrieved enough criticise the quality of Orwell’s Wallop or the service at the newly opened Damp Satellite Artisanal Beer Emporium, I’m reporting an actual experience, but one that will hang around on the internet and search engines for some time.  My half-litre of Wallop might have been from a bad batch or a new manageress of the Damp Satellite might lick it into shape, but there’s still an indelible stain on a server in San Francisco.

I’ve only ever been truly negative about a pub once on here, and that reflected some appalling service that both gave me a real sense of grievance and the view that people would benefit from knowing about it. Even then, when I see that particular post still getting hits many months later, I wonder if people still need to be “warned”. Perhaps more to the point, I also wonder if I’m still as annoyed as I was at the time.

Northern Sole: Imagining a life with only Northern English beers

February 21, 2012 26 comments

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.

Ilkley Beer Festival: Cask Ale, Abbey Cider, Tasty Pies and Craft Keg

February 12, 2012 17 comments

Ilkley Beer Festival is one of those events that I always hear about before the event itself, but after tickets have sold out.  In the past I’ve tended not to mind too much, because it’s a festival organised by the Ilkley Round Table rather than CAMRA: what could the Round Table know about beer that CAMRA doesn’t?

However, having had the chance to go to the festival on Saturday afternoon as a friend had some spare tickets, I can say that they did an excellent job, and I’ll be quick to snap up tickets for next year.  This is partially due to the long list of corporate sponsors for the charity event: local solicitors, accountants, architects, bankers; the great and good of this predominantly middle-aged, middle class, West Yorkshire spa town which lies in the commuter belt for Leeds and Bradford.

However having a lot of money to throw at a beer festival doesn’t in itself lead to a good festival.  The venue’s pretty good: the King’s Hall in Ilkley is a good size and ornate, certainly a step up from certain other festival venues I’ve been to. The festival also benefits from a stall from the local butchers, Lishmans, which offers hot pies, sausage rolls and “Yorkshire pasties” for a voucher (£1.25) each.

Oh yes, I meant to mention the beer.  I would find it hard to put together a much better list of English cask ale breweries, including Buxton, Mallinsons, Roosters, Thornbridge, Marble, Oakham, Bristol Beer Factory, Dark Star, Red Willow, Hawkshead, Magic Rock, Brodies, Revolutions, Stringers and of course Ilkley Brewery.

I most enjoyed Brodies Citra (on the recommendation of @misterfrosty), a great beer for 3.1%; Hawkshead NZPA and Buxton Wild Boar IPA, both excellent strong, citrusy IPAs; and Revolutions’ Milk and Alcohol, a silky milk stout that Leigh and Dean had a hand in. Another highlight was the superb Ampleforth Cider, as made by a German monk in North Yorkshire, which was a steal at £1.25 a half, given that it’s 8.3% and usually costs upwards of £7 a bottle.  I’m afraid I missed the whisky cask-aged cider from Udders Orchard.

One interesting footnote is the “craft keg” section of the beer list, which had a single British keg offering from Ilkley Brewery, alongside two American (Brooklyn Lager, Flying Dog Pale Ale) and two German keg beers (Jever, Flensburger). All but the local Ilkley beer would have been “permitted” by CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival as “Bières Sans Frontières”, which does seem a little odd.

However I think we’re in real danger of making the term “craft keg” look absurd pretty quickly if we start using it to refer to Jever: a very tasty lager from a large scale brewery which is part of the Oetker Group, the food processor which also owns “a maritime freight business, a bank, a publishing company, an insurance outfit […] and a number of high-class hotels all over Europe”.

One Scotch Egg, One Bourbon, One Beer: The Craft Egg Revolution

October 19, 2011 5 comments

I’ve been messing about a bit on Twitter recently regarding my increasing appreciation of Scotch Eggs.  Joking aside though, they’re a pretty superb bar snack: they can be bought in fresh from a good local supplier, kept in a fridge and sold to hungry customers with the minimum of serving time and presentation, but the maximum of stomach-filling proteiny goodness.  This is why I write the name with two capital letters: out of respect.

Bascially if you can serve cold pies in your pub, you can serve Scotch Eggs.  And frankly if you can serve pies and Scotch Eggs to drinkers, there’s pretty much a moral duty to do so.   This has been picked up on by a number of the new wave of craft beer bars, including Craft Beer Co and The Gunmakers in London and the Hawkshead Beer Hall in Staveley.

When I tweeted about this at the weekend, @CarsmileSteve informed me of the remarkable range of Scotches available at Sourced Market in St Pancras Station, alongside their range of Kernel and other great beers (which they refuse to put in the fridges, instead reserving that space for several varieties of uninteresting lager.  Who wants to drink a shelf-warm IPA?).  When I was down in London this week I took the opportunity to pop in and buy a couple of “Black Watch” eggs, made with black pudding; which must be the Black IPA of the Scotch Egg world.

I love black pudding, to the extent that it’s a starter at our wedding.  I love Scotch Eggs, to the extent that we’re going to Scotchland for our honeymoon.  I am therefore pretty much ecstatic with the tasty starter I had yesterday evening: warm black pudding Scotch Eggs with homemade picalilli and a bottle of Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime.  The Scotch Eggs at the Hawkshead Beer Hall are made with Brodie’s Prime, but a glass of it was an even better pairing with these: the dark roasty beer and sharp hoppiness both matched and cut through the earthy, savoury, fatty black pudding.

I considered for a fleeting moment changing the name of this blog to “The Scotch Egg Prole” and becoming number one on the Wikio Scotch Egg Blog Rankings, but  @unclewilco pointed me towards Forever Eggsploring, a truly remarkable and comprehensive study of the Scotch Egg that transcends the term “Scotch Egg Blog”.  It even has interviews on the subject with such celebrities as Dom Joly, Tom Kerridge and our own Dame Melissa Cole.

Not coincidentally, it appears that Craft Beer Co and Sourced Market get their classy Scotch Eggs from the same supplier: The Handmade Scotch Egg Company Limited.  Have you seen their selection? Chilli Scotch Eggs; Ginger & Apricot Scotch Eggs; Scotch Whisky Eggs; Scotch Eggs rolled in crisps…

You should really be able to find a Scotch Egg fit for any beer there, from barrel-aged imperial stouts to double IPAs, with some (vegetarian? smoked salmon?) stretching the bounds of the genre. Is this the start of a craft bar snack revolution?

For further beer and Scotch Egg related larks see this post by Mark Dredge.

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