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Hit The North: National Winter Ales Festival 2011

January 20, 2011 5 comments

Yesterday I had the good fortune of going to the National Winter Ales festival in Manchester.  I was especially lucky to get trade tickets and also to go with a few brewers and bar folk.  After getting the train over from Leeds I met up with James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery and Dean from Mr Foleys in the Marble Arch on the Rochdale Road.  A great pub connected to a wonderful brewery, yesterday the beers included the spectacularly hoppy Utility Special IPA and the great Driscoll’s End, Dominic’s goodbye beer to the Marble brewery, before he heads across the Pennines to sunny Thornbridge.

It was good to meet members of the beer literati who we hadn’t met before, including Rob from Hopzine, Matt from Hawkshead (who had been judging) and Brian from The Grove, Huddersfield (along with a whole posse of Grovers).  Even as a newcomer, it was a really nice, friendly, festive atmosphere, before we even got to the venue.  Unable to resist, I bought myself two big Marble bottles before we left: a Utility Special and a Stouter Port Stout.

At the venue, which is a perfect size for the purposes, we were also introduced to more titans of the beer world from darkest Cumbria, the legendary Jeff Pickthall and the semi-mythical Hardknott Dave.  Jeff was kind enough to give me a bottle of Croglin Vampire to review.  We also bumped into Matt, Jim and some of the other staff from North Bar, as well as Matt’s wife Alice, now immortalised as the namesake of Brewdog’s Alice Porter, brewed with Matt’s input.  We were even able to witness the elusive Tandleman working diligently at the festival, apparently unconcerned by the lack of Northern Methods Of Dispense despite the Mancunian setting.

Of course the beers were good too.  Although the general view is that most of them were a bit on the fresh side, it being the first day and all, everyone who tried it seemed to be very impressed with James and Andy’s Diablo, a great IPA with dominant Citra flavours (although it also contains Centennial).  Thornbridge’s Hark was a very nice beer, and was a little more interesting than Merrie, which was by contrast merely good.  It was good to enjoy Hawkshead Brodie’s Prime on cask and Thornbridge St Petersburg was also very good.  I liked the Fuller’s Brewer’s Reserve too.  I enjoyed festival champion Entire Stout by Hop Back, although it wasn’t necessarily the most interesting beer I tried.  I’m sure the other beers I tried will come back to me over the next few days.

Of course after all that it was very clearly time to get a taxi back to Piccadilly for the long, challenging train home to Leeds and the struggle to recover adequately for work the next morning.  Nevertheless the day was very enjoyable and well worth the hangover. Thanks to Tandleman and the rest of the organisers, but as I say, I was especially happy to meet so many friendly members of the international brotherhood of beer, who were far more welcoming to a mere prole than they had any reason to be.  I’m looking forward to Twissup, by which time I should almost have recovered.  Cheers!

There’s two days of NWAF left, so get along to the Sheridan Suite on the Oldham Road if you have the remotest opportunity.  Check out the rest of the winners here.

A Cold Night In Leeds

December 5, 2010 1 comment

I’m afraid I didn’t get round to opening any interesting beers that have been sitting around for “Open It” this weekend. However I did have an interesting beery Friday evening around cold, slushy Leeds.

I started off in Mr Foley’s with a pint of Summer Wine Project 6 Brew 6. I’d already tried it last weekend, but it’s only on the second taste that I was ready for the big solid punch of bitterness and was able to properly appreciate it.

After a quick trip to the Christmas Market (mulled wine rather than beer, as we were standing out in the cold), we went to North Bar for a couple of halves of Brewdog/Mikkeller’s I Hardcore You on keg. A really nice, fruity bitter beer. The fruit lifted the malt, strength and hops so they weren’t too sickly. The Barman reckoned it was mangoes and I’m inclined to defer to his analysis.

I was going to try the O’Dell Isolation Ale but then spotted Marble Vuur & Vlam on the bottle menu. Three drinks down, I was able to rationalise forking out £17 for the big bottle to share on the grounds that it’s almost as rare as a Heston Christmas pudding, and got some nice cheddar, bread and pickles to go with it. I also considered that I’d often blindly paid up to £30 for a mid-list bottle of red wine I knew bugger all about in a restaurant, so why not give a good, rare beer with a decent reputation a chance, eh?

After the very hoppy P6B6 and the sweet fruity bitterness of the I Hardcore You, even this initially seemed quite mild in comparison. A bit further on, we decided it was a really nice beer and it would be great if Marble brewed it as a standard. And it cost less, obviously.

The way home demanded one more stop to shelter from the cold so we popped into the Adelphi. They’ve had Jaipur on for a couple of weeks now but unfortunately had finally run out. Instead we went for Sharp’s Abbey Christmas – a dark brownish seasonal beer made with Yarrow. Whatever that is.

I do really like Sharp’s; Doom Bar’s great and the two Chalky beers brewed with Rick Stein use fennel and ginger in a very complimentary way. However the Abbey Christmas tasted an awful lot like sarsaparilla. Whilst I like sarsaparilla generally it would be fairest to say that, given what had gone before, I wasn’t really in the mood for a complex, vegetal ale.

It’s great to be able to try such a varied range of beers in Leeds city centre, especially in three of my favourite pubs. My wallet may not necessarily agree.

North Bar, City Centre, Leeds

November 1, 2010 2 comments

I was going to do a review of Further North, which is the best pub within walking distance of my house. However, discussing Further North without first addressing North is like talking about Engels without mentioning Marx.

This post goes a bit beyond a simple review, because North is such a good pub of a particular type that it allows for a wider discussion of what it does so well, and why. North is not what many people I know would derisively refer to as an “old man pub”. Instead, it’s much more like a shabby-chic hipster café bar, halfway between Brooklyn and Bruges.

1.  Selection

North Bar’s main strength, on any objective measure, is the selection of beer.  It doesn’t have an especially high number of handpumps relative to Mr Foleys or most JD Wetherspoons, but those it does have are chosen well.  Good local beers are favoured (with “beer miles” noted on the blackboard), and the cheapest on offer is usually Wild Mule: a pale, refreshing, hoppy session-strength beer from Rooster’s/Outlaw.  As a default beer, it’s excellent.  Guest beers often include those from Crown Brewery and Marble.

The keg beers are all pretty special as well.  As well as some interesting European beers, often including one from Brasserie Ellezelloise, they were the first place in the UK to have Brooklyn Lager on draught.

The fridges, however, are something else.  They’re packed with a brilliant selection of European and American bottles. Because these are relatively rare, imported beers, sometimes you’ll find yourself burning through your wallet pretty quickly, but by and large you’re paying for real quality.  However if you’re into beer in any way, it’s almost impossible not to want to splash out a bit.  Again, though, there’s usually a good cheaper option.  Recently, for example, Flying Dog Pale Ale has been on offer.

I should also note that this focus on the selection extends to the range of spirits on the bar, which shuns the default options in favour of similarly interesting alternatives.

2.  Guidance

The blackboard in North includes tasting notes, which I think should be standard practice these days. When local pubs only ever sold Tetleys they wouldn’t have been required. However, when you’re offering an ever-changing range of unfamiliar, perhaps entirely new beers that most won’t have seen before, you’re simply missing a trick by not letting punters know what they’re supposed to be forking out £2.90 for. Of course they’re always happy to let you try a beer as well.

In relation to the bottles, you’re provided with a beer menu divided by origin and noting style, ABV and price. This is generally helpful but, given the breadth of choice, it often helps to fall back on the knowledge of the bar staff.

All of the bar staff, apparently without exception, have an excellent knowledge of the wide range they’re selling. The management’s commitment to educating the staff at regular tasting evenings is a really admirable policy, and one you’d struggle to find at a lot of North’s competitors. As a result the staff are happy to sound out a customer as to what they like and giving a recommendation.  Beyond that, their willingness to say, “We’ve not got [standard option found in most pubs] but have you tried [alternative with similar qualities]?” seems basic when you think about it, but not all pubs bother.

3.  Food

North Bar is not a gastropub. However if you want a really good, reasonably-priced modern British meal with a decent pint, you could do a lot worse than wandering up the road a few hundred yards to The Reliance, which shares ownership with North but has different priorities.

North instead plays to its strengths by offering a small range of low-maintenance food options to sustain their customers.  These include good pies, served with or without mushy peas in a canteen tin, with a pie and a pint deal. However perhaps the standout option is the meat and bread or cheese and bread. Who could resist a good Belgian beer with the cheese of the week, crusty bread and pickles off a wooden chopping board?

4.  Festivals/Events

You could occasionally take North for granted if it weren’t for beer festivals such as their recent Oktoberfest and prior North American Beer Festival, where the bottles and taps changed significantly to include a wide range of exciting examples of German and US beers respectively. The North American one in particular was brilliant, full of exciting beers from Stone; Left Hand; Dogfish Head; Victory and a wealth of breweries I’d never heard of before. Although the novelty (and ABV) of some of the beers was reflected in the price, needless to say I happily spent a small fortune.

North also had (like Mr Foleys) a giant pumpkin filled with Rooster’s 5 Spice Pumpkin Ale (left).  Whilst Roosters probably deserve the credit here, it’s another example of a trip to the pub turned into an event. Another good example was the Orval day a couple of Sundays ago, with Orval tasting and Orval cheese available.

North are also good at using social media including Facebook to publicise these events and their regular pub quizzes, which I’ve never attended but sound fun and different.

5.  Atmosphere

The clientele are eclectic, with a few older drinkers as well as many younger ones. They’re there to chat or sometimes read, and on the occasion that a shouty drunken idiot wanders in, they stand out like a sore thumb, reminding you of how this would be normal in many other pubs.

North Bar has no telly. I don’t like televisions in pubs but maybe that’s linked to the fact that I don’t watch sports. Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water” had no radio but I would suggest that, judged right, music can make a place more welcoming. There’s no jukebox but instead the music playing is a seemingly random but brilliant selection that includes Jeffrey Lewis, Franks Black and Zappa and Can.  This feeds happily into (what I imagine to be) the Williamsburg vibe, as does the local art often exhibited on the walls.

I said above that I consider North to be a café bar. I mean this in the best sense of the word, in that it’s somewhere you can go to while away the hours, exploit the free Wifi or read the paper or a book without feeling like an alcoholic.  The staff are friendly as well as helpful and knowledgeable.  They’ll ask you if you want another drink when you’re running low, which is something I’ve rarely seen outside traditional local pubs.  It’s very easy to spend hours there.

North Bar, 24 New Briggate, Leeds LS1 6NU; @NorthBarDrinks; http://www.northbar.com/ 

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