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Friends With Benefits: Friends Of Ham, 4 New Station Street, Leeds City Centre

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.

Read more about Friends of Ham from David at Broadford Brewer here, from Mark at Opportunity Hops here, from Zak at Are You Tasting The Pith here and from Neil at Eating Isn’t Cheating here.

[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.]

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Imperialism: Black Sheep v Brewdog v Bristol v Buxton v Hardknott v Magic Rock v Mikkeller v Thornbridge

January 15, 2012 11 comments

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.

Pewter World: The Sheffield Tap and Thinking Tankards

July 24, 2011 10 comments

A good Sunday, on which we went to Sheffield to walk around John Lewis with a scanner to assemble a wedding list.  This turned out to be less of a chore than it might have been (“Yep, if someone wants to buy me one of those, that would be nice”) , and we got a free pot of tea and cherry Bakewell bun each in the John Lewis cafe for our efforts.

Afterwards I was rewarded for good behaviour with a trip to the splendid Sheffield Tap for a few beers before the train back to Leeds.  A bottle of Thornbridge Versa, the brewery’s new Weisse Beer, was very nice: pleasant and banana-ey, basically a well-crafted and unimpeachable version of a style that doesn’t really excite me.  Magic Rock High Wire was on solid form on cask and Thornbridge Raven, also on cask, remains a truly great beer.  A bottle of Urthel Hop-It (9.5%; crikey) was a nice blonde hoppy Belgian, but far from being the US-influenced double IPA that I had expected for no good reason.  Note for the future: if you want a US double IPA, just order one.

The main point of this blog post, however, is to ask your opinion on a matter of some recent concern to me: pewter tankards.  Beer can be drunk from pewter in the Booking Office bar at St Pancras, as well as the Fox & Anchor at Smithfield.  In both North and Further North in Leeds, regulars have their own pewter tankards hanging on the wall by their names.

But are they really any good?  Do they add or detract from the drinking experience? You certainly see less of the beer, but does it taste more metallic? Do they keep the beer colder than glass?  I’m thinking of adding a Sheffield-make tankard to my wedding list and your comments would be a great help.

Rock & Roll Circus: Magic Rock Launch Night at North Bar

July 1, 2011 9 comments

I was very excited when I first read about Magic Rock Brewing Company on Mark Dredge’s blog in February. Stuart Ross had been brewing some excellent, hop-forward beers at Crown Brewery in Sheffield, including the outstanding well-hopped porter (explicitly not a black IPA) Brooklyn Black.

With Magic Rock, he was teaming up with Jonny Burhouse and  Richard Burhouse of MyBreweryTap.com, the Huddersfield-based online beer shop that sells a great selection of the best modern British and US craft beers.  So the new company has quite a lot of talent when it comes to both brewing and marketing.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend the first launch night at The Grove Huddersfield (as documented by Neil here), but happily North Bar had another event this week. Manager Matt and the staff had gone all-out for this one, following the theme of the really good-looking labels to dress up themselves and the shop as a circus. Matt (of course) was the ringmaster and there were even stilt walkers and a contortionist. I did feel sorry for Jim in his lion suit though.

In a short time I managed to sample all of the beers, but I basically stopped taking detailed tasting notes after an array of bloggers and tweeters arrived. However, you would be better off reading Neil’s and Leigh’s blogs for that in any event. I can tell you that Curious is a nice, stridently hopped pale ale with a more bitter than sweet flavour that punches well above its 3.9%.

High Rise is a very good citrussy West Coast pale ale whilst Rapture is an absolute stunner of an amber/”red-hop” IPA; an instant classic. Cannonball was a great strong IPA on keg, the match of its American counterparts. Finally (back on cask) Dark Arts is a really nice rich and complex stout with good berry notes.

It doesn’t take a fortune-teller to predict a bright future for Magic Rock. Their attitude to hops and dispense will chime well with beer geeks whilst their elegant and unique branding and quality beers should hopefully win over the wider public.  You can buy their bottles from MyBreweryTap.com, unsurprisingly.

Matt and the staff at North did a fantastic job of making the night a lot of fun and once again reminded us why North is and has been such an asset to the UK beer scene. Upcoming events include their annual US Beer Festival from 4-15 July 2011, which was a real education in beer for me last year.

Read Leigh’s post about the evening here.

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