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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.

Gastrophysics: Town Hall Tavern, Leeds City Centre

July 6, 2011 2 comments

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.

Summer Wine On Keg: 7Cs IPA

Being interested in new things doesn’t mean that you think old things should cease to exist.  It is possible to enjoy both a roast dinner and molecular gastronomy; to admire both Michelangelo and Picasso.  But if you have any real interest or passion on any subject, you will naturally be interested in exploring, if not mere novelty, then certainly variety and innovation.

James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery are interested in innovation.  Their many plans for the next few months involve four different saisons, which will appear in keg and bottle only “as we feel saison as a style is best suited to an elevated level of carbonation to bring out that zesty, spicy, estery freshness“.

Their desire to choose the best tool for the job, from ingredients through to the method of dispense, is also reflected in their first (unfiltered, unpasteurised) keg beer: 7 Cs IPA, which debuted at the bar at Mr Foleys yesterday evening, on their new dedicated UK craft keg tap.  Doubtless to the disappointment of many Queen fans, 7Cs isn’t a rye beer.  Instead it’s a style very much suited to keg dispense: a big, bitter, hoppy IPA with (in a UK context) a relatively high ABV of 7%.  The name refers to the seven C-hops it’s made from: *deep breath* Columbus, Centennial, Chinook, Citra, Cascade, Crystal and Cluster.

The beer was a great one to have after work on this hot Friday evening: cool, pale, fresh and solidly, pleasantly bitter. It was on the bar next to O’Dell IPA on keg, one of my all-time favourite beers.  I was happy to keep alternating between the two: the O’Dell providing the rounded mango sweetness and the 7 Cs holding its own with its bitter hit.

The beer was actually served from a corny keg, although in future Summer Wine will be using real, no wait, actual kegs.  Mr Foleys will also have one of their Nerotype black IPAs on keg, and have some cask 7Cs in the cellar for comparison.  As I mentioned previously, the imported bottled selection also continues to improve whilst remaining reasonably priced and their cask range remains unbeaten in Leeds.

I want variety and novelty.  Pubs like Mr Foleys and breweries like Summer Wine continue to interest and excite because of variety and novelty.  They provide the possibility that your next beer could well be different to anything you’ve ever had, or might even the best you’ve ever tried.  And that is a good thing.

I should also say thanks to Dean for being an excellent host once again, and to Andy from Summer Wine, Leigh from The Good Stuff, Neil from Eating Isn’t Cheating, Tom and Ol from Roosters, Mr Foley’s chef and new beer blogger Tyler,  Adam, Mark from North Bar and Sir Zak Avery for a night of fun, if increasingly drunken banter.

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The Grand Old Twissup Of York

February 27, 2011 2 comments

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Ford Prefect buys four packets of peanuts from a pub just before the world is destroyed, as you need the salt and protein after going through a matter transference beam.  However Kate and I realised that a day’s drinking in York with beer bloggers and brewers from as far apart as Kent and Glasgow would require a Wetherspoons breakfast in Leeds station at the very least.

We met Dean, Leigh, Adam, Martin and Rob on the platform and headed to York, where Dean led us to the York Brewery.  Whilst we were waiting Dean cracked open his new homebrew, a superb, fruity black IPA called Devil In Disguise (following the Elvis theme after the previous “All Shook Up”).  After everyone else showed up we enjoyed some cheap drinks in the York Brewery bar, where the dark, coffee, chocolate Centurion’s Ghost and light, hoppy seasonal beer First Light seemed to go down best, and everyone started chatting.

We were treated to an entertaining and informative free tour before heading back for further discounted drinks at the bar.  After a short while we moved on to the Market Town Taverns bar Brigantes on Micklegate. A lot of people seemed to enjoy Hambletown Nightmare whilst I went for Baboon by The Brass Monkey Brewery in Sowerby Bridge.  It was a slightly peculiar pale but oddly smoky beer.

We then moved on to Pivni, the diminutive but proud father of the Sheffield and Euston Taps and, I’m informed, expectant parent of The York Tap!  A great selection included BrewDog on cask (Riptide, 5am Saint, Trashy Blonde, Edge) and 5am Saint in Keg, Camden Pale Ale and Bernard beers.

I quite liked Camden Pale Ale although it did taste somewhere between an IPA and a light pilsner.  Bernard Special Ox was a sweet, relatively high ABV pilsner.  5am Saint was great on keg, although I didn’t try the cask version and Hardknott Dave pointed out that it had a slight taste of silverskin pickled onions.  I wasn’t too excited by the cask Riptide, although it was fine.

What was interesting though was when Dave, Ann and, er, Sooty from Hardknott treated us to a sneak preview taste of two variations on Aether Blaec, one in Balvenie casks and another in those of another whisky whose name now eludes me.  They were both really nice.

After staying in  Pivni for a while, we decamped to various places for food (Kate, Dean and I got much-needed but tooth-shattering pork and crackling baps from a hogroast shop) and then came together with some others in The White Swan, a big Nicholson’s pub on Goodramgate.  I had two slightly disappointing beers: Kelham Island Pale Rider and Thornbridge Jaipur, which for some reason was far less interesting than usual.

We went on to The House Of The Trembling Madness above The Bottle on Stonegate.  It’s a favourite of mine: a hidden hunting lodge-themed bar with a good selection of imported bottled beers and meat and cheese platters secreted above an excellent off-licence.  I had an O’Dell 5 Barrel Pale Ale before we decided that it would be sensible to draw a line under the day whilst all was well and we could face the train back to Leeds with a brave face.  At this point people were headed in the direction of the Rook and Gaskill, which is a great pub, but one that we might have found diffcult to leave.

The House Of The Trembling Madness does have a clever setup where you walk out, slightly inebriated, through a shop full of great beers and of course I ended up buying three big Stone bottles: Arrogant Bastard; Cali-Belgique and Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale.  And this is on top of the bottle of Driscoll’s End that Dominic himself had very kindly given me earlier in the day after I told him how much I enjoyed it on cask.

Once again it was a great day  and it was lovely to meet loads of people whose blogs I read and a few whose beers I drink, and everyone was really nice and welcoming.  Thanks very much to Andy and Mark for organising it and to everyone else for being so friendly: see you on the next one!

American Quadrilogy

December 19, 2010 4 comments

Saturday night in Leeds, exactly one week from Christmas Day. Snow on the ground; fridge full of food.  Nothing else to do but make a spicy Cajun gumbo and work through the American beers in the fridge.  Again I should warn you that my palate remains at best charmingly innocent and at worst unsophisticated.

I’d bought the Green Flash Le Freak some time ago in Beer Ritz and sensibly should have had it whilst it was fresher.  Nonetheless what is advertised as an American Imperial IPA meets a Belgian Trippel matches that description and is quite thick and very slightly bubblegummy with a solid bitter aftertaste.  Kate’s not a fan of Belgian beers so I soon had the whole (9.2%, 1 pint 6 fluid oz) bottle to myself.

The combination of the viscosity, sweetness and bitterness was nice but I didn’t fall completely in love with it.  I suspect it might have worked better for me if the hop taste was fresher than the aged bottle I had.  Perfectly nice though.  You can see Rob’s video review of this beer at Hopzine here.

I still had three American IPAs in the fridge that I’d brought back from New York in November, so I thought I’d better have them whilst they were good.  I had specifically decided not to come back from New York with a suitcase full of beer, but we had a few left in the fridge in the hotel room on the last day, and I wasn’t about to let them go to waste.

First was the Lagunitas IPA.  This turned out to be an oddly bland beer with the hoppiness almost tacked on at the end.  After a while it came across like a fairly dull cooking lager but with a bitter aftertaste.

Next was the Smuttynose IPA. I’d had this on keg in New York and really quite liked it.  It was slightly lighter in colour than the Lagunitas.  The bitterness was more complex although not too punchy, with a good mixture of lemon and pine.  Although slightly cloudy, it was a really nice, light refreshing beer, with a hint of detergent.

The Smuttynose IPA was very good match indeed to the spicy meat gumbo from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s America” book.  Give the recipe a go if you get the chance.

Finally we had the Bear Republic Racer 5.  I’d been looking for this beer for ages in New York, having read about it beforehand on Richard Burhouse’s blog amongst others.  However, perhaps because it’s Californian, it was a bastard to find until I tracked it down on the penultimate day in a supermarket in Williamsburg.

Racer 5 turned out to be the best beer of them all: big flavours of mango, citrus and pine that worked really well together.  If I had to drink only one American IPA for the rest of my life, it would certainly do, although right now I think my first choice would be O’Dell IPA.

Leodis Weekend

December 13, 2010 2 comments

Phew, it’s been a challenging weekend for my liver.  On Friday I went to The Grove in Holbeck for the leaving drinks of my friends Tom and Holly, who were regulars there but are now moving to Masham.  Fortunately I understand that it’s not hard to get a beer in Masham, so I’m looking forward to visiting.

I started with Moorhouses’ Premier Bitter, but wasn’t entirely convinced so moved on to Elland El Divino, a “blonde premium bitter” which was excellent.  Good beer, food and chat in a great pub.

Saturday night found me out on Lower Briggate and Call Lane, the latter swarming with underdressed posers.  However the Smokestack was reasonably good fun and surprisingly had bottles of Anchor Steam and Liberty Ale in the fridge.  Then on to Call Lane Social, a relatively new bar opposite Oporto which had decent music and both Brooklyn Lager and Anchor Porter in the fridge, but was crammed to the rafters.

Two nights that had ended in the purchase of kebabs should sensibly have been followed by a quiet Sunday in front of the Antiques Roadshow (or indeed Last Of The Summer Wine).  However Dean from Mr Foleys had invited Kate and me out for a few drinks with James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery.

With just a bacon sandwich to recover with, I had Crown Brewery HPA; Summer Wine Blizzard and Heretic Black IPA; and Revolutions The Original 45 Porter in Mr Foleys.  Dean’s clearly been buying in a lot of great beers recently and has nefarious plans for lots more.

Summer Wine’s Heretic is a fantastic example of the black IPA style, with only a very slight roastiness at the start and a pleasant wallop of bitterness.  Great as it is, James said that they’re going to tweak the recipe for the next brew. 

The Original 45 Porter is Revolutions’ first commercial beer, and it’s a very promising start.  I’ve had a lot of porters in recent weeks and this is one of the best.  Worth keeping an eye out for.

On to the Victoria, where nine pumps were rapidly dwindling to three.  I had a North Peak Vicious American Wheat IPA, which seems to be in every single M&B pub in Leeds just now (Palace; Adelphi, Scarbrough).  It was an unusually hoppy wheat beer – not as big and punchy as Schneider Weisse Tap 5 but at the same time less thick and sweet, seeming less than 6%.  It was very good but due to the limited choice we moved on to North Bar.

North had O’Dell IPA on keg, which James and Andy informed me uses Citra hops.  I’ve liked this beer for a long time and it’s great on keg.  Another example of knowing something’s great but not knowing why.  Andy came back from the bar with a bottle of De Dolle Stille Nacht, which was 12% and incredibly bubblegummy.

After a Leodis Lager in The Brewery Tap and a final Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the Scarbrough Taps (both had slightly disappointing selections), we headed home.  It was very kind of Dean to invite us along and it was great to chat with him, Andy and James about beer and pubs.  I have a lot to learn about brewing but once again they were really friendly and their passion for exciting beer is infectious.  Thanks lads!

After all that, I should be ready for the Christmas party season…

(For much fuller and more informed notes on some of the beers above, see Leigh’s latest post on The Good Stuff, in which he tries Heretic, the 45 Porter and Vicious.)

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