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Old Town/New Town: Brewdog Edinburgh & The Oxford Bar

December 1, 2011 10 comments

Kate and I spent our honeymoon in Scotland around the start of November.  We started with a couple of nights in Edinburgh, which meant we only really had one day to explore, although even that was in a bit of a sleepy, post-wedding daze.

However, we did get to go to two bars outside the hotel: The Oxford Bar and Brewdog Edinburgh.  I suppose they’re two extremes of drinking in Edinburgh: the Old Town and The New Town, which would have been a suitably poetic analogy except that the new bar is in the Old Town and vice versa.

Taking the new pub in the Old Town first, we wandered downhill from the Royal Mile into the belly of Edinburgh, the Cowgate.  The Cowgate was historically where cows were droved into Edinburgh for sale and was a slum.  Nowadays it still feels a bit like you’re in the undercity.  The Brewdog bar was a welcome sight, with its stripped back decor and exciting beer boards.  On this Sunday lunchtime it was quiet in terms of people, although the metal coming through the speakers was noisy enough.

Kate and I, with the counsel of barman Hoss, enjoyed a good pizza and olives as well as a few beers, including a Stone/Pizza Port Carlsbad/Green Flash Highway 78 (a “Scotch ale”) but the standout was Ballast Point Sculpin IPA: a really, really nice big, fruity IPA, which has deservedly been getting a bit of attention since it’s been available in the UK.

We could have stayed a little longer, but in order to actually explore the city in a state of semi-consciousness, we moved on, after buying a couple of rarities to enjoy later.  After wandering around for a bit more we ended up in the New Town and in The Oxford Bar, which Kate had wanted to visit for some time due to its appearance in Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.

When you go into the Oxford Bar it’s tiny and packed with people.  Twenty people would probably fill the front room, and there were around that many in this Sunday afternoon.  Kate and I ordered a Deuchars IPA (in tribute to Ian Rankin) and a Williams Black.  Deuchars is Deuchars is Deuchars: a multi-award winning, bland, bready thing that teases the possibility of hops but never delivers, that I’m sure excited my naive palate around a decade ago.  The Williams Black was, by contrast, too challenging: altogether too liquoricey for an afternoon, more suited to the end of the evening maybe.

But The Oxford Bar has such an atmosphere: the barman held court in friendly chatter with the locals and strangers.  The quiet Brewdog bar of a few hours earlier was exciting in its design and the range of incredible beers it had to offer, as well as the knowledge of the staff.  The Oxford was a place I’d happily stay for ages, for reasons other than the beer. Much like Scotland.

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The Black Dossier: Black Rocks v Proper Black v Kernel Black IPA v Raven v Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale

July 13, 2011 14 comments

I’ve avoided tasting posts recently, as I realised some months ago that it wasn’t my forté.  However, with five black IPAs in the fridge, it seemed a shame not to do a little experiment, so here we go:  five black IPAs enter the ring; only one will emerge victorious. With a style this nascent, but already verging on passé in some quarters, it’s worth seeing what it really has to offer, eh?

Buxton Brewery Black Rocks 5.5%

Prior knowledge: Nice on cask, from a very promising new brewery who specialise in hop-forward but drinkable beers.  I met the guys from the brewery at North Bar recently and they were lovely.

Label-derived facts: Contains Columbus, Cluster and Southern Cross hops.

Blackness: Pretty bloody opaque to start off with, in a full glass. Not priest-sock black, but cola-like round the sides as it gets to the bottom.

Aroma: Nice light citrusy aroma. Bodes well.

Taste: Good, very slightly oily mouthfeel. Acidic, citric taste (unspecific fruit) and a little blackcurrant, some background espresso roastiness. Is light roastiness good or bad in a black IPA? Bad for the illusion, but when you boil it down, perhaps this is the genre’s USP?

Turning to the dark side rating: 7/10. A good very, drinkable beer and a fine example of the form. Smells great, but I would prefer a more malty US-style IPA or a pale ale with some fresher fruitiness. For more on Black Rocks, see Hopzine.

St Austell Proper Black 6%

Prior knowledge: Black version of Proper Job, which is an excellent bold IPA and arguably the best widely-available cask beer in Cornwall. Original beer named after some Cornish regiment’s involvement in quashing the Indian Mutiny, presumably explaining the strikingly bitter aftertaste.

Label-derived facts: Brewer’s Gold, Chinook, Centennial, Cascade hops. Their own yeast. You can’t have any of St Austell’s yeasty goodness. Their mycoculture is their castle.

Blackness: Less opaque than above, but black enough. At least as black as Guinness Original, I reckon.

Aroma: Less than the Black Rocks, light and citrusy but slightly bready too.

Taste: Thinner and certainly more savoury and traditional on the tongue, much more like an English pale ale. Fizzy with larger bubbles, despite also being bottle conditioned. Not exactly kicking my arse with the bitterness, immediately following the Black Rocks. More dark chocolate than coffee in the roastiness, as well as a little bit of nuttiness.

Turning to the dark side rating: 6/10. A pleasant beer but not one that really shows off the appeal of the style. Faced with this and a Proper Job, I might choose either depending on my mood, but would go for the Proper Job 66% of the time.

The Kernel Berwery India Pale Ale Black 7.2%

Prior knowledge: I like this. Glyn from the Rake collaborated in the brewing of it. Kernel are basically this one bloke who sold cheese at Borough Market and developed his home-brewing into his job.  Blessed are the cheesemakers.

Label-derived facts: It’s a black IPA from Kernel. It’s bottle conditioned. It’s best before March 2013 (really?).

Blackness: Quite black. It’s got a lot darker since I opened the first bottle so difficult to say. Basically they’re all dark brown really, but Dark Brown India Pale Ale isn’t as compelling a name for a style.  None of them are “priest-sock black”.

Aroma: Stunning. Big, heady aroma with passion fruit, lychee, all that tropical stuff that you get in cans of Rubicon.

Taste: A slightly fizzy mouthfeel that merits a bit more swirling to knock the bubbles out. After that much smoother. The rich and lasting tropical citrus bitterness is great and pretty much eclipses any roasted malt flavours until the death, where there is a smooth chocolatey whimper in the night.

Turning to the dark side rating: 8/10. Really nice, but I still prefer some of Kernel’s non-black IPAs. The brilliant distinguishing hoppy freshness of the Kernel range is very slightly cut short by the underlying roastiness. It is very lovely though. Mmmm…

Thornbridge Raven 6.6%

Prior knowledge: The first Black IPA I ever had, from cask in the Narrow Boat in Skipton on the day before my 30th birthday. It was sensational then, but I’ve rarely had it since and never from the bottle.

Label-derived facts: Nelson Sauvin, Centennial and Sorachi Ace hops. Maris Otter, Black and Chocolate malts.

Blackness: Espresso-coloured.

Aroma: Right from the first smell you get the roastiness along with the pine and fruitiness.

Taste: This mixture of flavours comes through to the taste. There is much more coffeelike maltiness than the previous examples, but it still doesn’t dominate and the fairly complex-tasting varieties of hops come together into a wonderfully sweeping mixture of bitterness. Not too bitter though, but a drink to really savour, with the warm booziness more obvious than the Kernel.

Turning to the dark side rating: 9/10. Suddenly Black IPAs make sense: a fantastic beer all round. There’s a good malt flavour in here that is perfectly balanced with the rich bitterness and solid ABV. However, it could easily be described as a light hoppy porter; you definitely would not mistake this beer for a normal IPA if you closed your eyes.

Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale 8.7%

Prior knowledge: 100/100 on ratebeer. Crikey. This one’s a bit old, unfortunately. Big hoppy Stone beers seem to be slightly past their best when they get to us in the UK and then I went and sat on this bottle for a couple of months. Idiot.

Label-derived facts: Blah blah blah “first brewed in 2007 as the Stone 11th Anniversary Ale” blah blah blah “thusly” blah.

Blackness: Black, ruby notes around the edge when held up to the light.

Aroma: Woah! Big, strong malty high-ABV US IPA smell, with even more molasses.

Taste: Dark, liquorice, bitter, very richly flavoured indeed; really big and viscous. Calls out for some food and a glass of water to break it up a bit. There’s a lot of slightly acidic bitterness, but no obvious fruitiness. Loads of dark fiercely bitter chocolate malt.

Turning to the dark side rating: 7/10. Perhaps less fresh than it should have been, this bottle is an enormous, dark, malty, bitter and interesting drink to sip slowly. It’s not an IPA though… or not any more, anyway.

The Black Gospel

Firstly I should say that I felt that I got value for money for each of these bottles.  They were all, at the very least, good beers from great breweries.  I think that I should caveat the above by saying the Stone beer was older than it really should have been, so don’t let me put you off a fresh bottle.

After trying all of them over a few nights, it’s clear there’s a balance to be struck with Black IPAs.  You can pretend that there’s no dark malt involved at all and try to surprise people, or you can embrace a limited amount of roastiness and make a great beer with [Greg Wallace voice] big hop flavours [/Greg Wallace voice].  That’s what Thornbridge Raven is: a wonderful, sophisticated, superbly balanced beer that expertly exploits the best features of the style.  But what else do you expect from Thornbridge?

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!

This Is Euston Tap

February 15, 2011 3 comments

An early finish following a day of work in London and a pre-booked railway ticket left myself and a colleague at something of a loose end. Fortunately I had a plan B, and it involved The Euston Tap, the relatively new, tiny craft beer bar at the front of Euston station from the people who brought us The Sheffield Tap and Pivni in York.

From Euston Square I dragged my reluctant colleague through the pouring rain to the porterhouse stone building at the front of Euston proper. Unimpressed as he was by the almost entirely male clientele, even he was forced to admit how great the little bar looked, with the big copper-coloured back bar with American taps and peculiar, CAMRA-baiting unpumpable hand pumps. With little room or no room to sit downstairs, we shared a minor grumble over the lack of coat-hooks under the bar.

On each side of the bar there were fridges of European (on one side) and American (on the other) bottles. “Not cheap”, my colleague noted, and his Northern intuition was in this case correct: these are fancy imported beers with prices to whiten the hair of casual drinkers. He balked at a £20 bottle of Mikkeller, and double-balked at a £43 bottle.

The excellent selection of casks ale was much more reasonably priced, especially for That London, so I recommended a couple of pints of Marble’s Driscoll’s End. Impressed with this, a really robust, hoppy cask ale, we moved onto two keg beers, an O’Dell 5 Barrel Pale Ale and a Matuska Raptor, a Czech IPA.  After starting with a pretty severely hoppy beer (again), it took me a while to appreciate the finer nuances of the Raptor.  An earthy, lavender taste melted into a solid bitterness in the aftertaste.

My colleague went to meet a friend, leaving me to try Sierra Nevada Celebration on keg, which had a oddly cold, flat mouthfeel.  However it did have a nice solid malty, astringent bitterness.  Next was  Thornbridge Brock on cask, which was dark, with a creamy mouthfeel and smoky, bready flavour.  I then had a half of BrewDog Alpha Dog, which, after the pounding my tastebuds had already taken, came across initally a bit like a boring brown beer with barely any aroma, but did have a very nice finish.

Just like in the Sheffield Tap, it’s very easy to go a little bit mad in the Euston Tap, but I did manage to drag myself away with only a couple of bottles of Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard and a bottle of Lupulus (by, erm… some Belgians, I think), after a slightly confused (on my part) conversation with the helpful barman.  I happily and purposefully strode out through the rain back to King’s Cross for the train north.

As it turned out, the entire train network had collapsed in a gibbering heap that evening, so I ended up drinking one of the Oaked Arrogant Bastards accompanied by a Tunnocks Caramel Teacake, which was the only thing I could afford from a vending machine whilst stranded for a time in Doncaster station.  They went pretty well together actually.  It certainly beat the usual can of John Smiths Smoothflow on the East Coast service.

New York Stories

November 11, 2010 2 comments

On Saturday morning I’m going to New York.  This might seem pathetic but, at 30 years old, it will be the first time I’ve left Europe.  When I was a kid I wanted to go to New York because it was where Spider-Man and the Ghostbusters lived.  I kind of still do.

But I’m also very excited about the beers.  When I tell normal people that I’m looking forward to trying lots of great beers in New York, they look at me oddly.  But since (repeatedly) going to North Bar’s North American Beer Festival and exploring the range of American beers in Beer Ritz, it’s been clear that America is the most exciting place in the world for beer.  It seems equally clear that the influence of American craft brewers has greatly contributed to the revitalisation of the British beer industry and to those beers that have sparked my enthusiasm for it all.

So I’ve been reading Lew Bryson’s New York Breweries and Andy Crouch’s beautiful book Great American Craft Beer.  I was keenly interested in Richard Burhouse and Pete Brown’s blog entries on drinking in New York.

I’ve discovered that, purely by chance, our hotel is only a couple of blocks’ (Blocks! Get me!) walk from The Ginger Man, Cask Bar + Kitchen and Rattle ‘n’ Hum.  Moreover, Rattle N Hum has offers on Stone Arrogant Bastard, Double Bastard and Lucky Bastard all week.  I don’t want to go completely mad and spend our entire holiday schlepping half-cut from bar to bar, but other options further afield I’ve considered are Blind Tiger; Mugs Ale House, Brooklyn Brewery and Barcade.

I don’t even want to get started on the beers I want to try, but I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for all the Brooklyn Brewery beers I haven’t tried, especially Brooklyn Winter Ale (recently reviewed by Leigh, with a lovely label) and also Bear Republic’s Racer 5 (recommended by Richard of MyBreweryTap, as well as Andy Crouch and many others).

So that’s what I’m most excited about.  Anywhere else I must go or beers I must drink?  Anything I’ve mentioned that’s not really worth it?

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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