Andrew Graham Dixon’s new BBC4 series The High Art Of The Low Countries started this week with an episode on Flemish art. You can’t understand the history of art in isolation from the social and economic factors that influence it, so the programme is also a fascinating and enjoyable general background for anyone considering a beery trip to Bruges, Ghent or Brussels.
Partly to introduce the importance of religion and monasteries to the development of the Low Countries, Andrew also visited the abbey at Orval and discussed beer with Brother Xavier. You can view that short section from about the 9 minute point on the BBC iPlayer at this link, which will be available for the next 18 days. However, I would encourage you to watch the whole programme.
Whilst we’re on the Low Countries, I missed North Bar’s Lowlands Beer Festival, but when I called in this week the fridges were still packed with great Belgian and Dutch bottles, both traditional and modern. We enjoyed an Emelisse TIPA and Viven Imperial IPA and finished off the keg of De Dolle Bos Keun, all of which took us back to our trip to Bruges, as recorded in these posts. Andy Mogg has also posted about his trip to Bruges here.
First image from The Arts Desk.
For IPA Day this year I thought I’d demonstrate why I don’t do beer reviews any more. I had three beers in my fridge which are all, to some extent, talked-about IPAs: Italian, American and Danish/Scottish. Reviewing really doesn’t get more half-arsed than this:
Brewfist Spaceman India Pale Ale
What we know: IBU 70, 7.0% from Codogno near Milan in Northern Italy. Has had some good press and, to my knowledge, has only very recently been available to buy in the UK.
Appearance: Orangey, slightly hazy with a nice white head which dissipates reasonably swiftly.
Aroma: The sweet breadiness that you’d get with a quite pedestrian English pale ale with some onions and grapes.
Taste: Pleasant, not too sharply bitter. Building dry bitterness, with a kind of dull, not quite savoury but perhaps slightly sour acidic taste to it. Nice enough, but a bit less citrussy than I would prefer.
Conclusion: The Babylon Zoo of beers: a lot of excitement and hype, but ultimately merely satisfactory.
Bear Republic Racer 5 India Pale Ale
What we know: 7.0% überhyped, überhopped US IPA from Healdsburg, Cloverdale, California. Similar hens’ teeth availability in the UK, fuelling that excitement as travellers to the US return to speak of it in hushed tones.
Appearance: Orangey-gold, clear as a bell, decent head.
Aroma: Immediate sticky sugary fruity sweetness, like a Wham bar. One of those plastic sweets that sticks to your teeth as you tear off a hunk.
Taste: A definite sweet orange-lime bitterness, but with an obvious alcoholic aftertaste. Thinner than a barley wine, so the alcohol doesn’t necessarily blend naturally into the mix until it sits for a while. Then it just adds to a really nice beer.
Conclusion: A massively enjoyable IPA. Lacking in depth, perhaps, but nonetheless a summery, citrussy, plasticky joy of a beer. The Californian ska punk of IPAs.
Mikkeller/BrewDog I Hardcore You
What we know: 9.5% Dano-Fraserburgian IPA blend from two archetypal US-inspired European “craft” brewers, each of which has grown large enough in influence, profile and perhaps even obnoxiousness to start suffering a minor backlash. One more so than the other, perhaps.
Appearance: Considerably more reddy-brown than the other two, with a creamier-coloured head.
Aroma: Clearly sweet, with toffee and even a little menthol, although the booze might just be confusing my nose.
Taste: Big, uncompromising, with a rough burnt sugariness immediately developing into a carbonic sourness. I immediately suspect that the other two beers have killed my palate. Swapping back to the Racer 5 though, it still has all the light treble notes whereas this is all big bass. I’m sure there used to be more mango in this beer – in fact I’ve had more than one conversation about that whilst drinking it – and I’m only getting a hint. Is this old or is the newest batch just not as good? It doesn’t help that there’s no date information at all on the bottle.
Conclusion: A bit too heavy for what it’s trying to be, or at least what I want it to be today. A love ballad by Black Sabbath. A lullaby from Joy Division.
Despite my poor, hop-ravaged tongue, the best of the bunch for me was clearly the Racer 5. If you want a rounded, sophisticated IPA you might go for something else, perhaps even something a bit more English. But for me, Racer 5 is the only one of the three that lives up to both the hype and my memories of it. Of the others, I prefer the Spaceman to the I Hardcore You, which doesn’t match my memories of the latter beer at all.
IPAs are great beers to have in your fridge and are a gateway drug for craft beer as a whole. However, in the last year my tastes have changed a little and each of these seem quite sugary and acidic to enjoy in large quantities. The best IPA I’ve had in the last two weeks is still an amazingly fresh bottle of Goose Island IPA, which (I’m surprised to say) I would pick over either of these three for repeated drinking. But right now, believe it or not, I just fancy an Orval; which is basically a kind of Belgian IPA, right? Right?
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.
[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.]
If you’re reading this blog at all, I assume you’ve heard of Mikkeller, the Danish microbrewery which has since 2006 been producing a vast range of innovative beers in a range of styles, inspired by and building on the work of the most interesting American craft breweries. I also assume you know that Mikkeller does not have a brewery of its own, but produces its beers at other breweries in Denmark and beyond.
I further assume that, knowing this, and having tried Mikkeller beers, you would already be excited to go to the small, stylish Mikkeller Bar in Copenhagen. So, what with you being so well-informed, I’ll just make a few observations on it, why you should go, and why we visited three times when we were in Denmark:
- It’s beautifully designed, as you can see from the pictures on Mikkeller’s new website. It’s clean and minimalist, but also stylish and quirky. The high tables look like drawers and the furniture makes the best use of the space.
- It’s a small bar with good music at an appropriate level, which makes it feel cozy (hyggelig?), where the light colour scheme and bare design might otherwise make it feel cold.
- They have the type of snacks that can be dealt with by a single member of staff, so nothing hot. However the porter sausage is superb.
- There’s free wifi, which seems designed to allow you to send tweets to provoke jealousy.
- It’s on Viktoriagade, not too far from Copenhagen Central Station (København H) and is in the trendy Vesterbro area. Vesterbro seems to be one of those post-industrial up-and-coming areas has quite a few good bars and restaurants (on which more in a later post), although bear in mind that this sits alongside a (not unusually unpleasant) red light district, particularly on Istedgade.
And then, of course, there are the beers. There are 20 taps with a fairly wide range of styles of beer beyond just Mikkeller, including a number of Danish breweries. Most people seem to enjoy the beers in the smallest, 0.2l measures, in dinky stem glasses.
On keg we enjoyed:
- Mikkeller G’Day Mate APA, a nice fresh fruity pale ale with hints of grapeskins and apples;
- Heretic Evil Cousin IIPA, an excellent fresh slightly sweet IIPA with a building bitterness;
- Triple Rock Pacific Gem Single Hop, which had a slightly wateriness and a sweet almost Belgian taste;
- Hill Farmstead Genealogy, a powerful imperial stout from Vermont with a dark espresso foam head which nonetheless had a lot of fresh American hop flavour lifting it;
- De Dolle Bos Keun, this year’s version of the hoppy Belgian Easter pale ale;
- Mikkeller It’s Alight, a refreshing if slightly watery session strength version of Mikkeller’s Orvalalike It’s Alive, which had a little lemony sharpnes on the finish;
- Mikkeller 1000 IBU, which despite its fearsome reputation was an enjoyable big sweet malt and hop bonanza not unlike Stone Double Bastard;
- Mikkeller Big Worse, simply a good, bitter US-style barleywine; and
- Mikkeller K:RELK, a pale ale with limes and orange on the nose but a relatively restrained flavour.
The bottle menu is pretty astonishing, and we also enjoyed a 2007 Orval, in which the leatheryness was cut through with a pleasant gueuze-like citrus sharpness. Following the wine-aged beers we had tried with Garrett Oliver, we also decided to buy a bottle of Hill Farmstead Flora, a wine barrel-aged version of their 5% wheat saison. This was a wonderful, refreshing and refined drink, with all the charms of a Saison Dupont but rounded off with a little white wine.
If I were given to hyperbole, I might say that Mikkeller Bar is the craft beer equivalent of Copenhagen’s famous Noma restaurant. I will say, though, that if it were a restaurant it would similarly merit three Michelin stars: “exceptional… worth a special journey“. Or two special journeys, or even three.
Leeds Brewery has at various times delighted and perplexed me. For the uninitiated, it was set up in 2007 and produces a core range of beers including Leeds Pale, Leeds Best and Midnight Bell, the last of which is my own personal favourite, a 4.8% chocolatey dark mild.
I don’t think I’m being unfair in saying that the range of beers has focussed on the mainstream of the real ale market, trying to capture the affections of the traditional Yorkshire ale drinker and in particular attempting to usurp Tetleys as the city’s favourite local brewery. They have not, as a result, particularly excited beer geeks or inspired their devotion. That said, they also do seasonal beers and have been experimenting with less conservative styles recently, especially at The Brewery Tap where the specials brewed on the small kit on the premises have included a range of single-hopped session pales and a keg saison.
Leeds have quickly established an estate of five pubs, including the Midnight Bell in Holbeck, the historic and beautiful Garden Gate in Hunslet (of which it’s not exaggerating to say that they rescued) and newly-reopened and equally historic White Swan, connected to the Leeds City Varieties. The pubs each have a different focus depending on their location and size, but most have an emphasis on food which is usually done to a fairly high standard.
They have some excellent branding, including perhaps my favourite beermat, “Leeds In A Pint”, and a good website with profiles of the brewers. I’m gratified to see that Alex and Sarah’s favourite non-Leeds beers are Raging Bitch and Jaipur, which surely bodes well. However I would like Leeds Brewery to explain their claim to be “the city’s only independent brewery“.
My conflicted views of Leeds Brewery were represented by Pin, their second and smallest pub, on Dock Street close to the Adelphi. Pin started well, as a cosy modern pub with a decent range of cask and bottled beers and a very nice food menu. It had the feel of a common room or cafe; an ideal place for an lazy weekday evening meal out or a Sunday morning with the papers. When Kate lived on Clarence Dock, we used to visit regularly, but there was a marked change of emphasis and what I came to regard as a crisis of identity.
The food remained very good, but the cask beer selection dwindled, with guest cask disappearing altogether, as more cellar space was given over to new keg lines including, frustratingly, Guinness; surely you could convince Guinness drinkers to try Midnight Bell?
Moreover the quality of the cask went downhill with the Leeds Pale resembling vinegar on a number of occasions, which perhaps indicated an inability to shift cask, but also a failure of the staff to check the quality of the beer. The bottled range seemed to make no sense, as the fridges began to fill with a needless range of identical Spanish-American pilsners. I came to regard The Adelphi, three or four doors down, as a better option on almost every front.
However the good news is that the tarnished Pin has been polished up and is looking shiny and new, figuratively, with a focus on an exciting range of imported beers. When I went in on Friday evening they had Flying Dog Doggie Style and La Trappe Dubbel on keg and a good selection of Belgian and American beers amongst the bottles in the fridge. They even had a guest cask in Rudgate Viking.
Continuing the Viking theme, I had a bottle of Nøgne Ø Pale Ale, which even came with an impressive oversized Nøgne Ø branded wine glass, followed by an Orval in similarly appropriate glassware. The food seems to be pared down to platters prepared by the bar staff at the moment, but usefully these are available all night. The bar looks good as well, with new large atmospheric photos of Leeds sights on the wall, adding to the relaxed café lounge décor.
Pin will be hosting a launch event of Leeds Brewery’s new bottled beer Hellfire on Thursday 17 November. We had a free sample of this pale ale, which is one of Leeds’ most hop-forward offerings. I found the nose a little bready, perhaps not surprising from a bottle out of the fridge, but the taste and aftertaste surprised with a fairly sharp lemony bitterness and a long finish.
Kate’s parents live in Kendal, so quite often we end up spending the weekend in the Lakes, enjoying a walk during the day then going out for a drink in the evening. The two places that we end up in most often are The Brewery Arts Centre (disappointingly no longer a brewery; just a very good arts centre) and Burgundy’s.
The Vats Bar at The Brewery Arts Centre is relatively expensive, but does usually have a few ales from around the Lakes on, notably their excellent house beer Ale N Arty from Hawkshead. Burgundy’s similarly has a range of around four local cask ales at a time, often including Coniston beers, as well as a good bottle fridge with Orval, Trappistes Rochefort and even the odd bottle of Goose Island IPA.
The Rifleman’s Arms is a less obvious choice. It’s on a nice green, after what on the first climb appears to be a horrendously steep walk up the hill from the main street, appropriately called Beast Banks. Postman Pat was conceived in the imagination of children’s author John Cunliffe when he was living on Greenside, a few houses up from The Rifleman’s Arms and the former Beast Banks sub-post office.
The Rifleman’s is a pub which has reportedly gone through a few shakey moments in recent years but now seems to be on the path back to good health. On a Friday night it seems busy with locals playing dominoes, darts and also in the side room, pool. Posters advertise a weekly knitting circle and the new landlady/manageress seems to be involved in a number of events on the green and keeping the pub involved in the local community.
They have beer from the SIBA list and when we were in two weeks ago that included Ossett Spellbound and Moorhouses Pendle Witches Brew, alongside the Tetleys and Abbot Ale which seem to be the standards. Spellbound in particular was a nice pale ale to enjoy by the gas fire on a wet windy night, whilst the dominoes clattered in the background. However it was served in incorrectly branded glasses. Hardknott Dave would not approve.
Perhaps symbolic of the decline and resurgence of The Rifleman’s is the literature on offer. On a sideboard by the toilets (pictured) is a complete collection of Good Beer Guides for the years 1995-2003. This might be indicative of when the management lost interest. But now they have up-to-date copies of CAMRA’s “Beer” magazine and the local CAMRA newsletter, “Lakes & Ale”.
There’s just one thing though, which is a bit jarring when you go to relieve yourself in the (clean but typically freezing) toilets after a few: the urinal has lumps of coal in it. Coal. Moreover, I am informed that exactly the same lumps have been there for years. Coal apparently gets rid of odours and I assume that’s what they’re for. But I’ve never seen this anywhere else. Have you?
The Rifleman’s Arms, 4-6 Greenside, Kendal, Cumbria LA9 4LD