We’ve teamed up with our resident Beer Sommelier, Annabel Smith, and asked her to write about some of her favourite food and beer matches, exclusively for you. Every Friday Annabel will pick a cask ale of the week, tell you a few facts about it, and suggest some food to pair with it. She tries to write about beers which are widely available and accessible nationally, rather than niche beers which are only available in a few pubs regionally.
If you want to get involved and suggest a particular beer for the feature, just email her at [email protected]
Greene King Abbot Ale
Some deity, some God in the skies above us waved a wand and –hey presto – a drink was created which made us happy, talkative and creative. It helped us laugh at rubbish jokes, and make friends of enemies (who hasn’t slurred the immortal words, “You’re my besht friend you are, no really, you’re my besht friend” whilst being propped up on the way home).
It’s why we still automatically raise our glasses to this day before we take our first sip: we’re subconsciously thanking the mysterious celestial beings for this divine drink.
Well, that’s until Louis Pasteur came along, smashed this theory out of the water, and said “Look chaps. It’s not magic. It’s a chemical reaction, and it’s scientific”. A bit like the bullish kid at school who blabs that Father Christmas isn’t real, and it’s actually your Mum and Dad who put all the presents under the tree.
(Blimey, I hope the Daily Mail doesn’t get hold of this, I can see the headline: “Beer Sommelier ruins the magic of Christmas for thousands of kids nationwide”).
I love the fact that during the Middle Ages, throughout Europe, the most brilliant beer was being produced by monks. Let’s face it, they ticked all the boxes. They were clean; cleanliness is next to Godliness, and sanitation is particularly important when brewing beer. They were literate, they wrote the good recipes down so they could replicate them time and time again. And because they really didn’t have a lot else to do, they were patient, and had the time to perfect a beer.
Did they abstain from beer themselves? Oh no, not at all! Records from Italy, France, Belgium and the UK show that these monks were the original Cask Marque inspectors. Quality control had to be maintained, and at points, some of these monks were imbibing up to 13 pints a day. Slightly dodgy considering any sign of drunkenness was not tolerated. If a monk spilled beer because of inebriation they were made to stand upright and perfectly still for an entire night.
You may be wondering why I’m babbling on about religion this weekend. In the Christian calendar, the 24th of June is designated Midsummer’s Day, a feast day of the Christian martyr St John the Baptist. Focus on the word ‘feast’. Am I right in saying you can’t have a feast without a couple of cheeky beers?
This week we’re going with a widely known beer, Greene King Abbot Ale, from Bury St Edmunds. The history of brewing in this little market town can be traced back over a thousand years, and the brewery sits alongside the ruins of the Abbey. Abbot Ale gives a nod to the powerful brews that monks created all those years ago. It’s 5%, rich with masses of fruity personality and a sweet lovable finish. It’s brewed for longer than other beers to create a fuller, more mature flavour. The head brewer describes the colour as ‘mahogany’. That’s a great word for a beer, it suggests sturdy, well made, reliable, stands the test of time.
On my Midsummer Feast table I’m going to have a tankard of Abbot with meat: pulled pork with crackling, charred lamb chops with crispy fat (which I’ll eat with my fingers), and juicy rump steak with a pot of English mustard. If you’re not a carnivore like me, ripen some really stinky Brie de Meaux and load onto hot bread with grilled artichokes.
As you raise your glass, just remember why you’re doing it, and give a little thank you to whoever invented beer.
Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker
- Sporty: Bloke on golf course in checked trousers striking the ball with club mid swing, or giant trophies being held aloft with a football/cricket bat/dart board in the background
- Transporty: Happy chaps with vintage vehicles, steam engines, bi-planes, motorbikes and F1 racing cars
- DIY-ers: power tools, hammers, half built sheds, and safety goggles
- Beer Drinkers (more of which later)
I noted there were no cards depicting my father’s more notable traits, for example, death stares at inappropriate clothing items, dragging daughters out of nightclubs at 3 o’clock in the morning (oh yes, it happened on more than one occasion to me) and turning up at school sports day dressed as James Bond. That’s a random selection of my own father’s behaviour.
So onto the drinkers. The most prevalent picture on all the cards, by far, was that of beer: in dimpled glasses, in pints and halves, in tankards, goblets and yards of ale.
Well, my Dad’s never been the sporty type, unless you count competitive lawn mowing. He’s not really a speed freak either, his pride and joy when we were kids was a clapped out VW Caravanette with a top speed of 43mph. And as for DIY, his heart’s in the right place, but he’s monumentally accident prone. He once chopped half his thumb off with an axe; he picked it up, drove himself to the hospital pronto (well, at 43mph) and asked for it to be sewn back on. His thumb has always been a bit wonky to this day.
Ultimately, it was a no-brainer to pick a Father’s Day card depicting beer.
My Dad has always been a beer drinker, and he always drinks halves. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him with a pint in his hand. I once asked him why he drank in half pints, and he said it was because he could honestly say to my Mum that he was “popping out for a half”. He never told her how many halves he had. There’s absolutely no logic in this whatsoever, but it seems to make sense to my Pa.
He’s also a lifelong stout drinker, buying into the claim that stout is ‘better for you’. That is, until I introduced him to this week’s beer, which is Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker. Stouts have roasted and toasted flavours, usually with an intense bitter finish, and Boltmaker has all these qualities, which is why I knew my Dad would like it.
Yes, he grumbled that it wasn’t a dark ruby red hue and it didn’t have the coffee chocolatey aromas associated with his beloved stout. But as the days are getting warmer, he conceded that it was like a ‘summer’ version of his favourite tipple. It did help that the beer name also sounds quite ‘manly’. I doubt I could have got him onto a beer called ‘Singer Sewing Machine’ or ‘Egg Whisk’.
Boltmaker is a burnished copper colour with a fruity nose and it goes with all the foods my Dad likes best: sausage & mash, traditional Roast Beef Sunday dinner, cheese & pickles. Me? I like it with a spicy chunky chilli, I think it’s got enough sweet malt to balance out the heat of the spices.
On Sunday, I will be hiding all power tools from my Dad, switching off Sky Sports and leaving the car at home. We’re off to the pub for a few halves of Boltmaker and a father/daughter bonding session over beer.
Purity Pure UBU
In addition to adoring lots of types of beer, I’m a complete foodie as well. I’m willing to try anything once, perhaps to retaliate against being brought up in a very traditional Yorkshire household. I knew what I was having for my tea every night of the week without fail (note, tea translates as dinner, or supper for more affluent households). Anything that was considered ‘foreign’ was treated with suspicion and never featured on our repertoire of meals. This included most foods which we now take for granted as part of our staple diet. Curry? I didn’t taste it until I was 18. Pasta? Like uncooked pastry, according to my Mum. Garlic? Are you kidding me?
But it was the norm for me. It was only when I left home and escaped the shackles of familiarity that I went on a bit of a culinary journey. Like a kid who has always been denied chocolate or Coca Cola, I went on a food bender. I relished any dish put in front of me. Offal, oysters and octopus. Veal and venison, tripe and tongue. I learned how to pluck a pheasant and skin a rabbit, gut a sea bass and smoke a side of salmon.
It was subjective. I hated some foods which were considered exquisite delicacies, like caviar (felt like eyeballs popping on your tongue), and loved others which were classed working man’s fodder, such as crunchy slices of belly pork.
There is one dish I always return to, one I can cook reasonably competently, and I have my mum to thank for this, despite her reticence to broaden her comestible range: a Sunday dinner of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Puddings. To avoid any confusion here, ‘dinner’ meant it was served at lunch time.
There are lots and lots of beers which go well with roast beef. When a beef joint roasts, the fat caramelises and becomes sweet. It’s called the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavour. Seared steaks, pan-fried dumplings, biscuits, breads, toasted marshmallows, and many other foods, undergo this reaction. Close your eyes and imagine smelling a rib of beef roasting in the oven, and (unless you’re a vegetarian, of course) observe how your taste buds react: you salivate, you anticipate, and you crave that first mouthful.
I want you to keep that thought in your head as I quote a chap called Garrett Oliver, an American brewer and writer. On his first taste of British ale he wrote: “It exploded in layers of flavour – hay, earth, newly mowed grass, orange marmalade, and baking bread. Did I like it? I wasn’t sure. But it was so interesting that I couldn’t stop drinking it. Then my glass was empty”.
Mr Oliver went on to become one of the world’s most respected beer and food writers, as well as a brilliant brewer. (I met him once at Thornbridge brewery, and despite him being middle aged, I acted like a teenager meeting Harry Styles). He went on a beer epiphany, at almost exactly the same time I discovered food.
So this week I want to tell you which beer to try with your Sunday Roast beef because this is far, far better than a goblet of Shiraz or a costly bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Ask for a glass of Purity Pure UBU. It’s a 4.5% amber ale, brewed in the heart of the English countryside with Maris Otter barley, which complements the sweetness of that caramelised beef, and flavoured with Cascade and Hallertau hops. It has a wonderful toffee and orange marmalade flavour, just begging for a juicy roast with some spicy horseradish on the side.
Okell’s Dr Okell’s IPA
One of my friends is a staff nurse at a hospital in Liverpool. She holds down a senior role, has done her job for over 20 years, and even though she has more experience than some of the doctors in the hospital, she frequently tells me that even the most demanding and challenging patients just go to mush in the presence of a doctor. The Doctors are the ‘Gods’ in the hospital, and whatever they say, goes.
I thought of this when I was trying to sell my car a few months ago. When writing the advert for Auto Trader, the contact box asked me for my title. The cursor hovered over ‘Ms’ and then I flicked back to ‘Dr’. If I was a doctor, I would get full asking price, no time wasters, the car would obviously have been as well looked after as any patient. I clicked ‘Dr’.
My other half did a double take and said “At what point did you become a doctor?” I hummed and hawed about my reasoning for reinventing myself as a doctor before he took the mouse off me and clicked ‘Ms’. “It’s fraudulent” he admonished me.
This week’s brewery was set up by a Doctor, and the beer is still brewed by a Doctor. Dr. William Okell, a Cheshire surgeon, started Okell’s Brewery in Castle Hill, Douglas, Isle of Man in 1850. He was not a man to be messed with. By 1874 Dr. Okell owned many of the pubs on the island, and had convinced Tynwald (the Isle of Man’s parliament) to create an act ensuring the purity of beer brewed on the Isle of Man.
Surely all beer is pure and natural?
Well, not during this period in history. In the 19th century, brewing became a science, rather than something which you did for fun by chucking a few ingredients together. Brewers wanted to explore how to develop different flavours, styles and methods, so many brewers started to work with druggists, pharmacists, and to be honest, complete quacks. A similar profession in some ways – both strived to make people feel better and happier. Many druggists advised brewers to use…shall we just say ‘special’ additives?
Some brewers were highly attuned to what was good for beer, and what wasn’t. One of these brewers was Dr Okell. He was determined that all beer should be pure, and as such decreed:
‘No brewer shall use in the brewing, making, mixing with, recovering or colouring, any beer or any liquid made to resemble beer, or have in his possession any copperas, coculus indicus (a poison with stimulant properties), nux vomica (strychnine), grains of paradise (a spice related to ginger), guinea pepper, or opium or any article, ingredient, or preparation whatever for, or as a substitute for malt, sugar or hops.’
Which kind of suggests a lot of brewers were using these ‘special’ ingredients. It went a bit too far in the early 1900’s and arsenic was a common additive to beer which resulted in hundreds of people dying. Mistakenly, the deaths were frequently attributed to alcohol poisoning, as the symptoms were similar to arsenic poisoning.
The Manx Brewing Purity Law is still adhered to today at Okells, and it’s overseen by Dr Michael Cowbourne. Putting my neck on the line, Dr Cowbourne is the original craft beer hipster, and when I first met him he was standing at the controls of his Brewhouse manically controlling hissing cauldrons of pure beer perfection. He is one of a very few Doctors of Biochemistry, and has a real influence on the complexity and taste of Okell’s beer recipes.
So as an apology for almost passing myself off as a doctor I’m nominating Dr Okell’s IPA as this week’s Something for the Weekend beer. Despite its pale colour, this 4.5% beer is fully loaded with aroma and flavour. It starts out sweet from the abundance of pale ale malt, and then the hops kick in. Six varieties of hops to be precise, all adding individual dimensions to the beer. Spice, citrus and dryness counteract the sweetness. My food match might sound a bit random, but stay with me: drink this with a mound of fajitas – prawn, chicken, beef and veggie all work well. The spices in the dish are complemented by the tangy lemony hops, and the sweet malt cools everything down. This is a perfect beer for Mexican food.
St Austell Proper Job
I’ve always admired people who have the dedication and patience to keep a diary. Not the kind of diary where you scribble things like “Dentist, 2.30” or “Bob’s birthday, Red Lion, 7pm”. I mean a diary which chronicles daily activities, thoughts, observations and opinions. Politicians seem to do it effortlessly, although where they get the time, I really don’t know. I’ve just finished reading all of Piers Morgan’s diaries in which he records every minute detail of his life, from being the youngest editor to the News of the World (he mentions this with alarming regularity) to his shameless name dropping of every celeb on the planet he’s “best friends” with. Despite being Piers Morgan, the diaries are good fun because they’re full of outrageous, and probably completely exaggerated, gossip.
I love the idea of keeping a diary so I can look back in my twilight years and ponder what a complete muppet I was. However, I’ve never had the attention span or commitment to devoting an hour of my life each day to diarise things. But last Christmas I was given a book called ‘Listography: Your Life in Lists’. It was a book of blank pages, each page with a heading such as: List Your Favourite Films; List Your Guilty Pleasures; List Bands You’ve Seen Live. There are 133 pages of lists to fill in, and it’s a great journal to take on a long train journey. It creates a kind of autobiography of your life without having to go into painfully long narrative. I LOVE lists, I make a list every morning of things I need to do, usually starting with “Put pants on” followed by “Clean teeth”. It’s immensely satisfying crossing these things off my list and feeling I’ve actually achieved something.
One of the lists is “List Your Past Jobs”. So starting at the age of 13, I did the following:
- Ran a pet food stall on the market
- Watered plants in a local garden centre
- Stocked up the shelves in a bookshop
- Laboratory assistant in a soft drinks factory
- Sorted through job applications for British Telecom
- Au Pair in London (I was rubbish)
After a number of years which involved an expensive education my parents could barely afford and a less than useless degree, I realised I was ultimately unqualified to do anything. Other than pull pints in a local pub. But it was this job that made me. I learned how to cook, entertain the public, manage staff, organise events, condition cask ale. I mastered crowd control, how to balance the books, relationship counselling and the art of taking twenty minute naps between shifts. I understood how to unblock a drain, break up an argument and make a perfect G&T. And without fail, every week, someone would say to me “When are you going to get a proper job?”
Which is why I love the name (and taste) of this week’s beer: St Austell Proper Job. It resonates with that period in my life when I was dead on my feet, working in excess of 70 hours a week for a paltry wage, but absolutely loving every minute of my life. For those of you who have ever done this job, or have children, parents, relatives and friends who are doing this, this is one of the most valuable life lesson jobs they can have. Never knock it, never under estimate where it can take you…it’s a Proper Job.
Right, better start talking about the beer. I’m a big fan of St Austell beers, they don’t try and be super-trendy, they just aim for quality. The beers are well crafted from premium ingredients, and Proper Job is hiding its light underneath the Tribute bushel. It contains Cornish spring water, Cornish grown barley and is a 4.5% IPA with a grapefruity smell. But the taste is grassy and fresh, it’s not harsh or intensely bitter like so many ‘new school’ IPAs on the market. It’s a natural partner to fish, especially crab, mackerel and sea bass, but I’m going to ‘pub’ it and put it with a plate of wholetail scampi, tartare sauce and minted peas. Seriously, can’t get better than this, anywhere in the country.
Marston’s Old Empire
Running the risk of incurring wrath from beer producers all over the world, there does seem to be one particular beer style which attracts more attention than any other, and keeps reinventing itself to appeal to new generations of drinkers.
IPA invariably features in the top 5 selling cask beers in the UK, and there is one brand which has consistently topped the leaderboard in Cask Marque’s Hall of Fame voted for by the Caskfinder Ale Trailers. It’s a strong IPA called Old Empire, brewed by Marstons.
Now I’ve written before about the origin of IPAs and the story behind them. But I’ve currently got four beer books in front of me and they all tell a slightly different story about how, where and why IPA grew to dominate the worlds brewing landscape. The more I research it, the more convoluted and cloudy the origins become, depending on which book I’m reading.
So whilst it’s fascinating to keep peeling back the layers and trying to get to the true story of IPA, I’ll stick to some facts I know and I’ll get onto why I’m writing about Old Empire this week.
Up until 60 years ago, the 24th May was celebrated with Empire Day, a day to celebrate pride in the achievements of Britain and its colonies, which accounted for around a quarter of the world’s population at one time. Patriotic songs were sung in schools, flags waved and tales of heroism recounted. How brave the British were by marching into foreign countries and dictating how they should be run! Britannia ruled the waves!
But as political views and the world changed as the Second World War drew to a close, Empire Day started to look slightly embarrassing. A little bit despotic, slightly tyrannical. So Empire Day was quietly pensioned off in 1958 and has subsequently been replaced with the more inclusive Commonwealth Day, celebrated in March.
What does remain is a thirst to create the type of beer that was once shipped around the world from towns such as Burton-upon-Trent. Which is where our Old Empire comes in. Originally developed in 2003, Marstons engaged the services of Roger Protz to advise how the beer should look, smell and taste.
What emerged was a powerful 5.7% beer, brewed using only Optic malt. This is a full flavoured, biscuity tasting malt, but it’s subtle, allowing other flavours to shine – particularly hops. Earthy, spicy, floral British hops are added to the brew, which when married with the Optic malt produces a classic English ale. Then American hops are added to give it that hop-bomb aroma and a ‘dash of lime’ flavour.
This was the first beer I tested when I was doing my training to become a beer assessor for Cask Marque. Under the tutelage of a seasoned beer inspector, I examined the clarity of Old Empire, checked the temperature, sniffed the foamy head and then took a gulp. Then another. The taste of the beer lingered long after the first mouthful, drying and resonant, demanding another swig.
“You want to be careful with that one” said the landlord as he watched me. “It’s a bit special”
Special enough for Old Empire to become one of my favourite beers. It got top marks in that first assessment I did, and whenever I find it in a pub, it’s the benchmark for all the other beers on the bar. It absolutely deserves to be top of that Cask Marque leaderboard.
Whilst my beer books may recount how great our British beer was for the countries we so ‘generously’ colonised, we may want to reflect the amazing cuisine these countries rewarded us with.
So if you find Old Empire in the pub this weekend, pair it with a creamy Chicken Tikka Masala. The hops will meld with the coriander and cardamom, and the gentle carbonation will slice through the creaminess of the dish.
Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde
A few months ago I penned an article for my local CAMRA magazine lamenting the fact that some cask brewers felt they had license to use sexist, derogatory and offensive language when naming their beers. I pointed out the fact that no other area of industry would be stupid or ignorant enough to label a brand ‘Leg Spreader’ or ‘Muff Diver’ (I kid you not, these are genuine names of real cask ales). It wasn’t that I was offended particularly, I just felt weary, that it was lazy marketing, and had a whiff of the phnar, phnar, Sid James type of humour which quite frankly deserves to remain in the last century. What’s more, I also felt it made a mockery of our industry when a brewer has to resort to toilet humour to sell a brand and it gives rise to every negative stereotype which is frequently cited about cask ale drinkers.
But it’s a fine line between offensive advertising and downright clever marketing. For years, Timothy Taylors advertised its beers for ‘Men o’ the North’. Sexist? No, not particularly, as it was done tongue in cheek and had a ‘reverse psychology’ effect, as so many women (including Madonna) endorsed their flagship brand, Landlord. Strangely enough, the same thinking applied to the chocolate bar Yorkie. When they launched their “It’s Not For Girls” advertising strapline, sales amongst female consumers increased massively. It’s about getting your message across in a relevant way.
So this week, I’m writing about a brilliant beer called Dizzy Blonde, a 3.8% beer from Robinson’s in Stockport. Yes. The pump clip features a shapely platinum haired female clad in a scarlet corset, but it doesn’t antagonize me in the way that other cask brewers haves so clumsily attempted to do with their names. This beer is a genuine blonde ale, it’s light and zesty, hop forward and assertive. It attracts as many females to the cask category as men, not because of its name, but because it’s a lovely fruity, soft well blended beer.
I’ve come to know and love the team at Robinsons well over the years. Search any archive on Robinson’s brewery and their family tree and you’ll see that virtually the whole clan is blonde. They don’t use the word blonde in a derogatory way, it is inherent in their family genes. So they created a beer which reflected this, just as they created Old Tom a century ago to celebrate the brewery cat. A lot of thought has gone into naming this beer, and it’s nothing to do with ‘sex sells’.
Hell, even their national account manager, Claire, is a through and through blonde, and she has one of the sharpest brains (and the nicest personality) of anyone I’ve come across in sales. Ask her hundreds of customers why they love Dizzy Blonde and she should take some of the credit. Nothing dizzy about her.
Dizzy Blonde was one of the raft of blonde ales which emerged at the start of the cask beer revolution a decade ago, along with others such as Saltaire Blonde, Ossett Yorkshire Blonde, and Thwaites Wainwright. These brewers listened to what consumers demanded and delivered it in spades. Gentle, fruity, accessible beers which appealed massively to both genders.
I’m happy to drink Dizzy Blonde on its own, with my newspaper or a good companion. But if I were to drink it with a meal, I would choose a fish dish: plaice with samphire; a chunk of cod with Hollandaise; meaty monk fish wrapped in pancetta with tomato and olive salsa. Dizzy Blonde’s really quite a clever girl.
Tiny Rebel Cwtch
Last week, we took The Big Dog on his holidays to the Gower Peninsula in West Wales. Knowing it was going to be a very long drive, we made a bed in the back of the car complete with fleece blanket, cushions and toys for the Big Dog. It looked like the comfiest cubbyhole ever and I wished I was in the back of the car rather than the dog. Curiously, the name of this week’s beer can be translated as ‘cubbyhole’. I’m talking about Tiny Rebel Cwtch.
Five hours after we set off we arrived on the Gower Peninsula. Being the week after the Easter holidays the region was deserted and over the course of 4 days we walked along mile after mile of empty sandy beaches. The Big Dog morphed into a puppy as he raced along the seashore. Our cottage was situated on a ridge of common moorland populated by wandering horses and cows (and allegedly adders). Cows and dogs don’t mix. We spoke to a local farmer who said cows were like teenagers: they hang around in packs, they’re curious about anyone straying onto their territory, and they “probably” won’t attack. Not very reassuring.
The cottage had a wood fired hot tub in the garden (this was the sole reason for booking the cottage, my other half loves a gadget). We were met by the owner on arrival who informed us that the hot tub would take about 90 minutes to fill, and then once the wood fired boiler was stoked up, the water would take a couple of hours to heat. So our first task was to start filling the hot tub. Two hours later, we peered into the tub (which looked like a huge wooden barrel) and saw with dismay that it was less than a quarter full.
Hmm, what to do whilst we waited? No brainer, let’s take ourselves down to the local pub. And what a pub it was: crackling smoky real fires, low beams, and a proper pub grub menu. Best of all, there were three handpulls on the bar, one of which served Tiny Rebel Cwtch (rhymes with ‘butch’), a 4.6% Welsh Red Ale. Despite this beer winning the Overall Supreme Champion Beer of Britain at the Great British Beer Festival in 2015, I had never sampled the cask version. What better place to sample this Welsh ale than in its home country?
Settling down in a snug with our glasses of Cwtch we embarked on a Yahtzee marathon. Interspersed with a break for food (Welsh lamb cutlets for me, Venison burger for the other half) we lost track of time as our glasses kept miraculously being refilled. We pondered the diminishing amount of pubs which offer traditional pub grub. Then we glanced at the clock above the bar, looked at each other in abject horror and realised the hot tub was still filling back at the temporary homestead. “Yikes!” we exclaimed (you may be reading this before the watershed so insert your own interpretation of what word we actually said).
We hot footed it back to the cottage, picturing the garden under three feet of water. Nope, the speed at which the hot tub had filled was like the pace of life in Gower. Slow. The water had just about covered the seats half way up the tub. So we returned to the pub for another cuddle. Before you get any ideas, Cwtch can also be translated as ‘cuddle’.
This beer is a bit of an enigma: the first gulp delivers a big malty, caramel sweetness but then – pow – the crisp, zesty tropical hops kick in, dishing out a delightful bitterness which bites though any residual sugar. It’s a delicious mix of old world ale tempered with New World hops. A fusion, you might say.
So whilst we drank Cwtch with traditional pub food, I understood how well it would go down well with any Asian or Middle Eastern foodie restaurant. It would be rapturous with a mezze of hummus, tahini and flatbreads. Perfect with spice infused Tandoori slow cooked lamb. Versatile enough to drink with pieces of honey infused Baklava.
Hogs Back T.E.A.
Did you know that beer is the most imbibed alcoholic beverage in the world, miles ahead of wine, cider, and spirits? In fact beer outsells wine in every country in the world apart from three (according to the Beer Academy): France, Italy, and quite bizarrely Bulgaria. Actually, beer is the third most consumed liquid in the world, behind water, and –yes, you’ve guessed it – tea.
Wherever you go in the world, the British are associated with drinking tea. Down on your luck? Have a cup of tea. Lost your job? Have a cup of tea. Wife run off with the milkman? Cup of tea (without milk). It’s the solve-all, comfort-inducing, problem-solving choice of beverage for us Brits. It’s classless, time defying, inclusive and cheerfulness in a cup.
Which brings me on to why I’m writing about this week’s beer – Hogs Back TEA. Exactly 12 years ago this week I applied for a position at Cask Marque. I really, really wanted the job. I was interviewed, interviewed again, and then invited to meet the board of directors over dinner one evening (or tea as we call it in Yorkshire). This was a big test for me, and one I was very nervous about – you only get one chance at making a first impression, and all that. Best frock on, I ventured into London and met with a group of people who would decide my future career. I was seated next to a man called Rupert who, by his very nature, soothed my nerves, encouraged my opinions and alleviated my anxiety. He was my cup of tea that night.
What’s all this got to do with Hogs Back TEA? How is this connected to that chap called Rupert who sat next to me many moons ago? Well, he now heads up Hogs Back brewery and he, along with a talented head brewer, created TEA.
What a flipping great name for a beer! To be fair to my Welsh and Scottish friends who might rile at the Traditional English Ale acronym, TESWA doesn’t quite have the same ring.
Hogs Back TEA is brewed in buildings which at various periods over time housed cattle, wheat and hogs, hence the name of the brewery. The brewery epitomises the unique juxtaposition of old school farming heritage and cutting edge modern brewing technology. Most of the hops used are sourced within 5 miles of the buildings, including their own back yard in Tongham, Surrey. Their historic Farnham White Bine hops are not grown anywhere else in the world.
TEA only uses Fuggles hops, and this lovely copper coloured, caramel scented 4.2% beer embodies a great British bitter. It’s balanced, it’s fruity, it won’t alienate the hop heads out there, nor will it offend the traditionalists. It has all the elements of a good time-defying beer which is set to delight drinkers, young and old, who appreciate a well constructed quality ale.
It’s also wonderfully versatile with food: Hogs Back recommend TEA with good old fish ‘n’ chips (great if you’re heading to the coast this May Day weekend). But if the sun comes out this weekend, think of that great British picnic tradition: have your TEA with Scotch Eggs, sausage rolls, slices of salty vintage cheddar and ham rolls.
Each year, over 253,000 people enter a ballot to be picked to run the London Marathon, which takes place this Sunday. Of that number 50,000 are successful, and as the race organisers predict there will be a certain percentage of drop outs, approximately 40,000 runners take part.
These are people who are seriously committed to their art. I am filled with awe at their determination and discipline. My last attempt at running a measly 10k race resulted in humiliation when I was overtaken by a man carrying a fridge on his back.
In the course of training for the Marathon, these lycra clad racing snakes lose their toenails, have to cover their nipples with plasters, but worst of all, most of them abstain from drinking beer for months before the big day.
Dame Kelly Holmes says that in her days of high level competing, she pictured a block of chocolate waiting for her just beyond the finishing line, and it motivated her to get a move on. So if some of these Marathon runners are beer lovers, I imagine they spur themselves on with the thought of a pint waiting for them when they finish.
(Although why on earth would you give up beer? It’s hydrating, made with lots of water, it’s full of nutrients like niacin and riboflavin, it contains no cholesterol or fat, and the hops in beer help alleviate stress. I talk a good argument and it’s probably why my running days never extended beyond that fateful 10k race).
I like to think that the competitors are visualising a shimmering glass of ale as a reward for all their hard work. These mad fools have lived on energy gels for months. As their route takes them through one of the greatest cities in the world, it’s got to be a locally brewed tipple. I can’t think of a better beer than Fuller’s London Pride, made down by the river in Chiswick at the Griffin Brewery.
For a 4.1% beer, it’s juicy and dry and full bodied all at the same time. It has a gorgeous orange marmalade smell, a characteristic of many of Fuller’s beers. What’s more, this beer travels well, so if you’re watching the marathon in a pub 200 miles north of the capital, it will still taste as good as it does in its home town.
What might entice the runners even further is the thought of heading to one of Fuller’s Ale and Pie pubs. Fuller’s realised a long time ago how well their beers go with pie and they’re dedicated to this in some of their finest pubs. What’s more, it’s proper pie with a bottom, sides and a top, all enrobing the filling (none of this ‘stew with a lid on’ rubbish). Steak ‘n’ ale, rabbit, chicken and ham, pheasant – all go down well with a glass of London Pride.
So as other spectators yell encouraging platitudes such as “keep going!” to the whippet thin runners as they sprint past, I shall raise my glass of Pride and shout “EAT SOMETHING!”
Beer And Chocolate
I’m mixing things up a bit this week, and instead of writing about one particular beer I’m going to do a chocolate special purely because it’s Easter weekend. I did a ‘crisp special’ last year, so I think chocolate deserves a turn on Something for the Weekend.
In the course of writing this column, I thought I might see if there was any particular connection between beer and chocolate, because let’s face it, both make us happy. It turns out there is: cacao trees produce large pods full of beans. These beans are fermented, dried, and then refined to make chocolate. How is beer made? It’s fermented. In 2007 archaeologists suggested that chocolate may have originally been a by-product of brewing beer as brewers were using cacao pods as brewing vessels. Bingo, link made.
So if I’ve got my sums right here, if you pair chocolate with the right beer, you’ve got a double happy person, right?
Which brings me onto a group I’m involved in called Dea Latis, whose mission it is to get more women interested in, and engaged, with beer (Dea Latis was the Celtic goddess of beer and water). One of the most successful events we run every year is our annual beer and chocolate tasting. For one of these events I volunteered to sample the chocolates in Charbonnel and Walker to make sure we had the right flavours to go with the beer (look, it had to be done). I’m ashamed to say I made the sampling session last all afternoon and I asked the chocolatier if he would consider adopting me.
Without wanting to sound remotely sexist in any way, just mention chocolate to most women and they will start salivating. There have been numerous scientific studies about why chocolate has such a strong resonance with women, and the impact it has on the female brain, but I’m not qualified with the science of it. I just know that there’s some kind of ‘cheerful’ trigger associated with chocolate which is particularly prevalent in many women.
So, forgive me if I edge slightly away from cask ale in this column but I want to share some of my most mouth watering beer and chocolate combinations.
Einstok Smoked Porter with a rich chocolate brownie creates a cappuccino on your tongue; Liefman’s Kriek (cherry beer), or Meantime Raspberry Wheat beer with a block of dark chocolate is Black Forest Gateau re-invented; Blue Moon Wit Bier with a sliver of Terry’s Chocolate Orange is quirky, unusual and heaven. The award winning Saltaire Triple Chocoholic Stout works well with good quality white chocolate and Marston’s Old Empire is lovely with a bar of Fry’s Turkish Delight. Most stouts are a great match for good old Dairy Milk, but my particular favourite is Young’s London Stout because of its creamy taste.
You might think I’m making all this up, but as I say to so many people when I’m doing beer and food pairings: try it. If you don’t like it, it’s not that you’re wrong, it’s just that it doesn’t suit your palate. Try something else.
Old Speckled Hen
This week, I looked at the number of Something For The Weekend articles which had been posted on the Cask Marque website. Twenty six. I also stared out of the window for lengthy periods of time, dusted the skirting boards, ate way too many chocolate Hob Nobs, and generally faffed around when I should have been writing this article. Twenty six. The number of miles in a marathon. What is it that marathon runners say when they’ve gone a certain distance? They ‘hit a wall’. This is the way I felt looking at a blank page and wrestling with my conscience about choosing this week’s beer.
It’s not that there aren’t enough beers to write about. Or lack of experiences and escapades associated with those beers. It’s about getting the balance right between picking off the niche beers for the aficionados, and recommending a mainstream brand to novice cask drinkers. A bit of a dilemma for me. Cue another Hob Nob.
So, I’ll get straight to it, and ask for calm amongst the hecklers out there: this week’s beer is Old Speckled Hen.
This beer perfectly demonstrates why there can be no single definition of what ‘craft’ beer is. All beers started out as craft beer. Produced in small quantities, using quality ingredients, made with care and skill, with a great back story.
Old Speckled Hen started off small batch. First brewed in 1979 by Morlands, it was originally a commemorative beer to celebrate the arrival of the MG car factory in Abingdon 50 years previously (I know it’s a tenuous case for a knees-up, but hey, what the hell).
Maybe it was the name which originally got everyone intrigued. A dodgy MG used at the factory as a run around had become so paint splattered it was fondly known as ‘Owld Speckl’d Un’. So the beer had a connection with local industry. The iconic MG octagon emblem was reproduced on the pump clips and bottles.
Its popularity grew because of its consistent quality, fruit ‘n’ nut aroma and the moreish toffee flavour. Oh, it also helped that the original cask version was particularly high in strength at a time when bars were awash with meh beer. (I don’t actually know what ‘meh’ means, I just know that teenagers utter it whenever they describe something which has no significance. I’m down with the kids, me).
Old Speckled Hen was unique for its time, it was cool and it was hardcore. Sound familiar? A bit like we describe craft beer today? Gets you thinking about how easily we’re all influenced and judged by the beers we drink.
I’m not a beer snob. I never turn my nose up at a beer because it’s immensely popular. I do turn my nose up at bad beer though. Whilst I might lament that Old Speckled Hen isn’t the strength it used to be (although my liver would argue otherwise), I have never abandoned a beer because it wasn’t considered ‘cool’ anymore. Does it really matter if a beer becomes mainstream as YOU enjoy it? Does it make it any less a beer?
So I’m championing the lovely, delicious, delightful beer that is Old Speckled Hen. I’m breaking through that wall of insecurity which makes me feel I need to justify writing about it. And I urge you to do the same this weekend – choose any mainstream brand you want because you’re the one who’s going to be drinking it. As long as it’s good, who the hell cares how cool it is?
Oops, nearly forgot amongst all this dusting and examining the weeds in the garden, what food would I eat with a glass of Old Speckled Hen? It’s cheese all the way: cheese on toast, quiche Lorraine, macaroni cheese or if you’re impressing the other half, whole baked Camembert.
Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild
Firstly, I know you have to try very very hard to find it, and when you finally think you’ve found somewhere with a firkin of this hallowed beer, it might be gone by time you get there.
Secondly, I love doing research about a particular beer to add to my own personal experience of it, and I could barely find any information about it. Scant details about origins, or history, or development.
But maybe that’s why it’s such a holy grail for beer drinkers: it’s shrouded in mystery, and that’s what makes it so enticing.
I found a brilliant piece of writing about it from one of Britain’s best beer writers, Des de Moor who said:“Around the world there are a few beers that every dedicated beer lover ought to try at least once, not just for their intrinsic quality but also their deep links to the heritage of brewing. Consider the likes of Worthington White Shield, Anchor Steam, Guinness Foreign Extra, Budvar and most of the Trappist ales – beers so precious, UNESCO should slap a World Heritage designation on them.
One deserving entrant on this list originates from a small brewpub in the little-known town of Sedgley, a bus ride from Wolverhampton in the Black Country of the English West Midlands. The Beacon Hotel is a gem of a pub, listed in CAMRA’s National Inventory for preserving its multi-roomed layout, but perhaps most celebrated as the home of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild.
The hotel and its brewery date from 1850, and Sarah Hughes herself presided for 50 years from 1921. The brewery fell out of use in the late 1950s but was revived in 1987 by Sarah’s grandson, John Hughes, who still owns the pub today.
John dug his grandmother’s recipe out of a bank vault and resolved to stick to it as closely as possible, recreating an authentic strong early 20th century Black Country mild of the sort that once slaked the thirst of local workers in the days when this area earned its uninviting name from the smoke of a thousand factory chimneys.”
Now this article created more questions than it answered. Who was the mysterious Sarah Hughes? Why, in a period of history when mild’s were usually low strength, did Sarah create a 6% blow-your-socks-off super strength humdinger of a beer?
I’ve trawled the internet, searched through my beer books, but I still can’t figure out why she did it. I don’t understand how this little brewery in the Black Country, who only produce 24 brewer’s barrels a week can have attracted such huge attention and reverence from beer drinkers worldwide.
When I ran a pub, I perhaps managed to get hold of two firkins a year, if I was lucky. Getting hold of the beer was like hoping your numbers would come up in the National Lottery. Selected regulars would be informed of its arrival. I didn’t even have a pump clip for it. 72 pints of Sarah Hughes would go within an hour of its arrival on the bar, so keen were drinkers to get a taste of this beer.
So, why is it so special, other than its rarity? Maybe because it’s a stunning beer. It’s a rich ruby colour with a massive aroma of blackcurrants, stewed plums and fruit cake. The taste is sweet and fruity at first, then like a good port it delivers dryness, woodiness, molasses and Muscovado sugar. If modern beers describe themselves as ‘complex’, this one is off the scale.
Everyone I’ve ever come across who has been lucky enough to taste this beer raves about it. Maybe the secret of its success is its limited availability.
Try it with a good quality chicken liver pate, game terrine or a steak and kidney pudding in suet pastry. It needs a good hearty meat to stand up to a beer this great.
Thwaites Crafty Dan 13 Guns
I first came across this week’s beer at an industry ‘do’. Every December, the Guild of British Beer Writers holds a dinner and awards ceremony to celebrate the best in beer writing and journalism. It’s one of my favourite events of the year, all my ‘beer heroes’ attend, and it heralds the start of Christmas for me.
At the reception, before dinner, a number of brewers from around the country, sponsor the bars, so it’s like beer ‘pick ‘n’ mix’. You get to try new brews and old favourites and have a good natter with everyone you’ve not seen throughout the year. I know, it’s a hard life, but someone’s gotta do it.
It was at this event several years ago that I came across a lovely chap called Ian Bearpark who was at the time, the Production and Distribution Director at Thwaites brewery in Blackburn. Ian is beer old school in the best possible way. He’s a gent through and through, and it’s these kind of guys who give beer a good name. He beckoned me over, and said “I want you to try this new beer. It’s called 13 Guns, and I think you might like it”.
This is always a bit of a political situation for me, because how do you react if you taste it and think “Oh. Well. It’s alright, but it’s not going to set the world alight”? Do you rave about it to please the producer? Do you give your honest opinion and risk hurting their feelings? He gave me a glass of the amber coloured ale and peered beadily at me as I tasted it.
I’ve got to say, at first I was a bit shocked at the aroma. It was pumped up with mango, pineapple, lychee and as juicy as an Um Bongo. Not sure about this one, I thought to myself, whilst smiling manically at Ian. Then I tasted it. It was an explosion of fruit, malt, sweetness and bitterness, intense hop hit and utterly divine.
I anchored myself at the bar and said with absolute honesty: “Flip. That’s brilliant”. Two hours later I was steered gently away from the area. Well, I clung on for a while, Joanne Lumley style, in a most undignified way, but nothing at that Awards Dinner could have outshone 13 Guns.
Little did I know that Ian would shortly leave Thwaites, but he gave me a hint when he said 13 Guns was his legacy. That legacy was taken up by another brilliant brewer, Brian Yorston, who joined Thwaites from Wadworth.
So it was with quiet satisfaction, delight (and a certain amount of smugness) that one of my top 10 Desert Island beers, 13 Guns, picked up a gold award a couple of weeks ago at the ‘Oscars’ of the Brewing Industry. The International Brewing Awards, held in Burton upon Trent, were started in 1888, and an Award is a recognition by fellow professional brewers that a beer is an outstanding commercial example of its style. All the judges are practising brewers, this is serious stuff and an accolade that all brewers aspire to.
If you can’t find 13 Guns on cask, I exhort you to buy the canned or bottled version from a retailer (listen, I’m a cask girl through and through, but my fridge ALWAYS has some 13 Guns in there).
What’s more, it’s massively versatile with food. On cask, try it with a fiery curry. In can, have it with your Friday night Chinese takeaway, it’s amazing with aromatic crispy duck pancakes and Dim Sum. Or best of all, just drink this one on its own for the sheer pleasure of a beer that needs no props. 13 Guns – I salute your brilliance.
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
Righty ho, lads and lasses, take a look at the date today. It’s the 17th March, the date when St Patrick allegedly drove the snakes out of Ireland and we could all celebrate with a beer or two. Specifically a glass or two of stout.
This whole date is dominated by one particular brand, you know who I’m talking about, and do you know what? Good on them for encouraging non-beer drinkers to sample a beer on the one day of the year where it is practically the law to have a pint of the ‘black stuff’ and enjoy it.
There are probably more myths, stories and misconceptions about stout than any other beer style, a lot of them perpetrated by the brilliance of marketing, advertising and hearsay of one brand owner.
The word ‘stout’ was historically a generic name for beer. It originated from stout porter, a popular style of beer in the 1800’s in London. Yep, you read that right, London. It described a high alcohol, bolder flavoured version of any beer.
And whilst stout is now typified by one brand owner who may have backed up his claims of it being good for you by siring twenty one children (massive respect, Arthur Guinness and more so his poor wife!), there are so many more stouts we could look at.
Let’s take Young’s Double Chocolate Stout. I love this beer for numerous reasons, not least the fact that the brewery has a special room dedicated to store all the real chocolate that is added to this beer. How cool is that? A chocolate room in a brewery. I might just decide to live there.
You might be thinking that you can only get Young’s Double Chocolate Stout in bottles, but I have insider info that the largest pub company in the UK is listing it this month in cask for their pubs. So there’s no excuse not to find it.
A few years ago, I was asked to select some stouts for a St Patrick’ Day beer tasting on national television, and this is one of the beers I picked. I engineered Kylie Minogue drinking it on The One Show, Holly Willoughby sampling it on ‘This Morning’ and they loved it’s sweet, silky qualities. Far from being heavy, bitter and ‘dour’, it displayed the best qualities of stout: full flavoured with hints of coffee, chocolate, vanilla and toast. It contrasted beautifully with strawberries, ice cream, Tiramisu, and surprisingly game meat such as venison, grouse and pheasant.
Stout has so much more to offer than a ‘one day a year’ experience. You only have to look at a glass of stout to realise what brilliance has gone into creating this wonderful beer.
Hop Back Summer Lightning
I apologise in advance if you start reading this and think, I’ve read this somewhere before. It’s because I want to reference an article I sent to Cask Marque back in 2013, but it has relevance when talking about this week’s beer.
Back in 2013, I went to Bruges for the weekend with my other half. I had heard many other beery people talk about how fantastic Bruges is, and we both felt it was a gap in our beer education. So under the guise of widening our knowledge we planned a trip to do some sightseeing, walking, but most of all to experience the beer. I’m a massive fan of Belgian beer and looked forward to sampling some unusual, quirky and inevitably strong beers. It was as beautiful a city as I’d anticipated (especially as it was snowing) and we visited a LOT of bars. Every beer was served in the correct glass, every bar had a beer menu rather than a wine list, and every beer we ordered was brought to our table. Service was exceptional and on more than one occasion we were recommended a beer by the staff. It was Beer Paradise. But over the three days we were there, we never once sat at a bar, we didn’t engage with other customers, and we didn’t discuss the weather with the bar person. We were served our beers at the table, and chatted to each other, and played cards, and Yahtzee and hangman (yes, really). It was a totally different experience to going to a British pub. The beer was amazing, don’t get me wrong – but something was missing, and it took somebody else’s story to make me realise what it was.
A couple of our friends emigrated to New Zealand in 2011. They are both massive real ale fans and used to be regular customers in our pub. They love their new life, but they’re a sociable couple who adore their beer, and one of the things they told me they miss was not being able to drop down to the local pub. There is no pub culture in New Zealand, no popping out for a couple of pints after work because the distances to travel are too huge. Socialising for them has now taken on the form of going round to friends (early evening) for a barbie, with a few bottles of ‘beer’ thrown in. No sitting at the bar, bumping into people you haven’t seen for a while. No getting to know new people through a shared love of a particular beer, or a common interest, or a mutual friend. No standing at the bar inspecting the range of pumpclips and trying to decide what you’re going to start with.
They returned for a visit late last year and the first pub we visited had Hop Back Summer Lightning on tap. Their excitement was uncontrollable (believe me, they don’t get out much). Their reverence for this beer was unrivalled. They have nothing in their adopted country to match the sheer brilliance of this 5% ‘summer’ beer.
I know I use the word ‘iconic’ a lot, but Summer Lightning is one of those beers which ticks my 3 point iconic beers list every time. Without doubt, it will still be around in a hundred year’s time; it sticks to the original balanced recipe; and finally it demands a ‘second pint purchase’ just to make sure the second is as brilliant as the first.
The brewery has been through a chequered history but hey, what the hell? It’s a winning formula and as long as no one tinkers with the ingredients, the strength or the branding (all a bit ‘Wicker Man’ which makes it all the more intriguing), I don’t care.
Summer Lightning is the Cloudy Bay of the beer world. A world class dry, crisp, fresh beer. Snappy and spine tingling. Put it with crispy calamari, chilli prawns or salt & pepper crab and it beats wine hands down, any day of the week.
As I waved my friends off at the airport I noted that whilst pubs may sometimes get it wrong with service, or quality, or environment, we’re very, very lucky to have such a unique culture of diversity and variety in our beer range. And the rest of the world might want to look on and take note.
Some of you may remember from a few articles back that I own a dog. An unfeasibly large Labrador, referred to in our household as ‘The Big Dog’. He’s not fat, he’s just big, the size of a small donkey.He’s a gentle soul, very placid, to the point where it feels like you’re dragging a lump of concrete round on the morning walk, and considering he doesn’t have an off switch when it comes to food (like a heat seeking missile he can detect a discarded kebab at 500 yards) I am very determined that he will not become overweight.
So a couple of years ago we took him on a long walk. The Hadrian’s Wall Walk. 84 miles from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend, Newcastle. Basically straight across the country, from North West to North East. Seven days to do it, averaging about 12 miles a day.
Ten miles into the walk (imbibing a few cheeky sherberts along the way) we hit long stretches of remote, relentless landscape which created a huge thirst, for us and also the Big Dog.
I craved something cool and refreshing and quaffable. Something not too gassy, not too strong and something which wouldn’t put me off my stride. Every few miles, as a tavern came into sight we agreed we ought to stop “for the sake of the dog” (it sounds as unconvincing as it was). This is where I discovered Lancaster Blonde: as thirst quenching as a cold shandy when you’re parched, as delicious as a Cornish pasty when you’re ravenous, and as welcome as a tax refund when the car’s MOT is due. Hmm, I perhaps don’t do it justice with that last bit.
But considering I’m a Yorkshire girl bigging up a Lancashire beer, you might get the idea how good Lancaster Blonde is.
Blonde ales are softer on the palate than traditional pale ales, they’re fruitier and more rounded than most IPA’s, and they’re lovely sessionable beers. Lancaster Blonde ticks every one of these boxes and at 4% I could have a pint at most of the Inns along the way without falling off the wall.
Best of all, at the end of each walking day, when we reached each destination, Lancaster Blonde seemed to be a permanent fixture in the B&B’s and pubs, and hostels. There is something immensely satisfying about achieving your mileage quota for the day, dumping your rucksack in your room and retiring to a bar with a pint of ale. What was the best food match for Lancaster Blonde along this trek? A homemade creamy chicken and leek pie, cooked in buttery shortcrust pastry and served with a mound of spring greens.
Feeling fit and healthy we reached Wallsend, and celebrated carting The Big Dog across the country by having a few beers. Our mission was somewhat undermined though when a chap in the pub looked at our exhausted canine and said “By. He’s a chunky lad, isn’t he?”
Jenning’s Sneck Lifter
From an early age, my parents took me, and my siblings, walking. I don’t mean a stroll round the shops, or a walk round the municipal park. It was a hard core “get your boots on, pull on your thermals” hike. With hindsight, I know why they did it now: other than getting fresh air and exercise, it didn’t cost anything, and with a large family of six to feed, clothe and educate, weekend activities were fairly limited.
As I grew into a teenager, I HATED it. Hated it with capital letters, when they announced “Right, we’re going to tackle Holme Moss on Saturday” (for those if you not familiar with Holme Moss, just Google the Tour de Yorkshire and you’ll see how steep and barren that landscape is). With the truculence and apathy of Kevin the Teenager, I would trudge up fells, hills and ridges furiously emitting waves of adolescent loathing towards my parents, continuously muttering “Is it much further?” Even the promise of a cheese and pickle sandwich followed by a mini Mars bar did nothing to curb my resentment about the whole exercise. I would rather have been hanging round a shopping precinct, or practicing my Farah Fawcett flick than been on a wild moor looking like a total dork. “It’s not a fashion show, you know”, my Mum would say, which would infuriate me even more.
Perhaps if I could have seen into the future, I might not have been so miserable. Emerging into adulthood, I realised that the reward at the end of a long day hiking for most walkers (as well as feeling brilliant in mind and soul) is usually a pint of cask ale, brewed in the county you’ve spent the last few hours exploring.
There are very few pleasures in the world as great as a glass of beer at the end of a long endurance hike. The thought of that beer spurs you on, incentivises you to put one foot in front of the other, go that further mile. The first sip is nectar, and more than anything else it feels well deserved.
Other than my beloved county of Yorkshire, I’ve walked all over the UK, and found something special in the landscape of every county. But the Lake District, in Cumbria, takes some beating. Forget the Swiss Alps, this area of our country is stunning. My favourite place, and one I visit as often as my diary (and my wallet) allows me to, is a little market town called Keswick. It offers hundreds of walking routes for beginners, intermediaries and experienced walkers, and welcomes them all back into one of the many dog-friendly pubs in the town centre with well kept ales, nourishing food and warm friendly snugs.
In keeping with the region, many of the ales available in the pubs come from a brewery not too far away: Jennings in Cockermouth. Jennings is now owned by Marstons, but what Marstons have done so skilfully (whilst building up their portfolio of regional breweries) is keeping the brand’s local identity, whilst making the beers widely available nationwide. So which beer would I choose from Jennings?
It’s always Sneck Lifter for me. Brilliant name for a beer: a sneck is a door latch in Northern dialect, and a Sneck Lifter refers to your last sixpence which allows you to lift the latch on the door to the tavern to buy a pint and mix with friends.
It’s an intriguing beer, strong at 5.1%, some would say an ‘old ale’. It’s got hints of coffee, dried fruit, bit of chocolate, but with a nice refreshing herbal finish. It’s a deep mahogany colour, which suits the winter months, but it’s as good a thirst quencher on a hot summer’s day as it is on a frosty, bitingly sharp February evening.
Each time I go to Keswick, there’s one particular pub (you know who you are, you’re Cask Marque accredited!) who offer a bestselling dish which goes really well with this beer. The pub’s staff bring out steaming bowls of goulash, served simply with a chunk of garlic bread. No fancy veg, no complicated presentation. It’s the original ‘soul food’ meant to make you feel satisfied, replete, warm and nourished, and its slight spiciness contrasts with the sweetness of Sneck Lifter. What’s more, you always want another glass of Sneck Lifter after the first one is downed.
My Ma and Pa passed on a good legacy. Far from hating walking now, I relish putting on my boots, gearing myself up to a long walk and escaping from the rat race for a few hours. Even though I’m now accompanied by two teenage children who frequently ask if Dad can bring the car to the summit to drive them back. One day they’ll realise, the reward at the end of a long walk is every bit as special as the experience itself. That’s Jennings Sneck Lifter.
Throughout most of the 1990’s I now realise I lived in a bit of a bubble. I was lucky enough to run a free house, not tied to any big brewery; I had a fairly lenient boss who was happy for me to choose and buy the cask beers I wanted to feature on the bar each week; I was supplied with a little van to go and pick up a firkin here, a firkin there (little did my boss know I trekked all the way down to the South Coast sometimes, just to pick up a beer one of the regulars had raved about). With hindsight, it clearly didn’t make commercial sense, but this was my world. There were an endless, infinite number of beers I could choose from and I was like a kid in a sweetie shop.
What I didn’t realise at the time was how dire things had got brewery wise in our capital city. From once being the brewing capital of the world with over 200 breweries in the 18th century (for a city of only one million inhabitants), the numbers dwindled over the years, leaving only a handful by the turn of the 21st century. I mean that literally: there were five breweries left (if that) in London at the point the clock struck midnight on the eve of 2000. For a city which, by then, boasted a population of over 6 million.
So if you wanted a beer brewed locally, your choice was pretty limited. It was this situation that puzzled the founder of this week’s brewery.
During the Great British Beer Festival of 2006, two gents sat in Earls Court, looking through the huge list of beers available and they realised with sadness that there was not one beer available from London, other than the ones brewed (excellently, I might add) by Fullers down the road in Chiswick.
One of these chaps was Duncan Sambrook, at that time an accountant at Deloitte in the City. Armed with nothing more than a passion to change this ridiculous situation, within two years he had learned to brew beer, found premises in Battersea, purchased plant and by sheer coincidence, met up with another brewer from his home town of Salisbury. This brewer went by the name of David Welsh, a name some of you may be familiar with. He successfully ran Ringwood Brewery for many years (ironically, this was the brewery I had taken my little van on a jaunt to many years before to purchase some Old Thumper). David and Duncan became sparring partners to revitalise the London brewing scene.
Sambrook’s brewery gave birth to the quaintly named Wandle Ale in November 2008. During this two year set up period, Duncan had continued to work in the City, and only left Deloitte three months before Wandle appeared. That must have been a hell of a task, juggling setting up a new brewery, whilst holding down a high pressure job.
Wandle is named after the Thames tributary which flows past the brewery, and the ale quietly started picking up awards not only for its light, lemony flavour, but also the quality and consistency of its ingredients. At only 3.8%, it presents a lovely quaffable session ale. Other beers followed, a modern interpretation of porter named Powerhouse Porter, and an excellent ‘Pumphouse’ Pale Ale. Each of the pump clips grandly proclaims “Brewed in the Heart of London”. A tribute to a city which should quite rightly be loud and proud about its brewing heritage.
When in London, I always seek out Wandle, as much for its story as well as its flavour. It’s a lovely beer to have with Welsh rarebit (or posh cheese on toast as we know it round my area), honey glazed sausages, and traditional fish and chips. But it also lends itself well to seared scallops with Hollandaise sauce, a salmon steak poached in lemon juice, or some prawns cooked in butter with garlic and chilli. How’s that for a versatile beer?
You may be asking how many breweries there are today in London? Well, having consulted an expert on the numbers, the estimate is there are between 80 and 100 breweries established and thriving in the capital. Londoners have the choice that I once took for granted, and I think Mr Sambrook took a very well calculated career decision at exactly the right time.
Walker’s Crisps Beer Match
Cast your mind back a few years ago to Walker’s (the crisp people, just in case you’re not with me and thought I was talking about a beer) who launched an advertising campaign focused on the quality and care they put into every bag of crisps. It showed a slow motion Gary Lineker holding a crisp up to the light and inspecting its appearance. Gary putting the crisp in his mouth and nodding with approval at the quality and full flavour. Gary flashing his cheeky chappie smile at the camera signalling his approval to the viewers.
Well, harumphed the army of Cask Marque inspectors, we’ve been doing that for years with beer. (Inspecting the quality, not the slow motion bit, of course. Although I could name one or two who could speed up a bit).
But of course Cask Marque didn’t have the squillion pound marketing budget that Walkers have. Which is why Cask Marque HQ went into a bit of a meltdown this week when they saw the latest Walker’s advert. Slap bang in the middle of the advert there is a scene outside a pub door and for a few seconds, the Cask Marque plaque dominates the screen. Not a bag of crisps. Not Gary’s cheesy grin. Cask Marque – the sign of quality. Major excitement in the office, not seen since Kate Moss stood next to a Cask Marque plaque on her wedding day photos (classy, eh?)
So, Something for the Weekend has been hijacked this week by the guys and gals at Cask Marque Mission Control who asked me to communicate their thanks to Walker’s and name my best ‘beer and crisp’ flavour matches.
First the science-y bit. All crisps contain fat and salt. The fat coats your tongue. The salt makes you thirsty. So to get rid of the fat, you need a bit of effervescence on your tongue, to scrub away the greasiness. The salt needs neutralising, so you need water. And which alcoholic drink is up to 95% water? Hello beer!
I’m going to stick with the more popular flavours, so here are some of my current favourites:
- Cheese ‘n’ Onion with Caledonian Deuchar’s IPA: The King of Crisps, in my opinion. Needs a light refreshing, spritzy beer
- Ready Salted with virtually any cask ale you like (ready salted, or ‘plain’, as my other half calls them, are much maligned, but they’re massively adaptable). If pushed on a brand, I would go for Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker. Both classics in their own right.
- Smokey Bacon with Bath Gem: the lovely sweet finish of the beer complements the paprika style of the bacon flavouring
- Roast Chicken with Hogs Back TEA: really salty flavoured crisps with a fabulous Traditional English Ale
- Cool Original Doritos with Lancaster Blonde: slightly citrusy, a bit biscuity and a perfect foil for the saltiness of these snacks
- Cheese Quavers with Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde: both are light, delicate and majorly more-ish
- Roast Beef Monster Munch with Hop Back Entire Stout: punchy flavours in both and works surprisingly well
- Flamin’ Hot Max with Crafty Dan 13 Guns (an American style IPA): this one blows your taste buds away
Remember folks, there are other brands of crisps out there, but as Walker’s scratched our back, we’ll scratch theirs. Scratchings…now there’s another article.
Palmer’s Dorset Gold
When I first started writing these features, I was very determined that the beers I chose would be available from John O’Groats to Land’s End, so no reader could ever accuse me of being too regionalised, and become frustrated that they couldn’t get the beer in their immediate vicinity.
I’m now 4 months into writing about cask beers and it’s become fairly evident that this decision isn’t sustainable. It’s come as a surprise to me that there are so few national brands, and I’m loathe to write about the same brewers time and time again. So what do I do? My lovely friend Alastair, who is the lynchpin who holds the Cask Marque operations teams together, suggested I combine a travelogue, writing about beers which, whilst only available in a particular region, could be suggested for when you go on your own travels. This caught my imagination, and gave me a bit more scope for picking out each week’s beers.
So hold onto your hats and be prepared to visit Dorset, the home of Palmer’s Brewery. Actually, hold onto your hats is a bit of a misnomer because there are no motorways in Dorset. Not one. If you want to travel round the county be prepared for winding country roads (well, I say roads, some of them have a grass strip growing up the centre), slow moving farm machinery, and flocks of sheep with no intention of moving anywhere in a hurry. It’s part of the beauty of this county.
Palmer’s is based in Bridport, and is still run by John and Cleeves Palmer, descendants of the founders. What sets this place apart from some of the newer brewers is their unequivocal quest to make sure their beer is served to customers in their pubs EXACTLY how the brewer intended it should taste. These guys are absolutely passionate about quality, in fact they’re obsessive. They own lots of pubs in the region, and they won’t let anyone handle, or sell, their beer unless they’ve been through a rigorous training process to make sure they have a full understanding of how to handle their cask ale. This extends to everyone who works in the brewery, from the accountants, to the telesales people, to the guys who fix the equipment in the pubs. They set an example to any brewer wanting to make sure their beer is perfect at the point of purchase.
Perhaps this is why you only find their beers in a concentrated region of the south.
How committed is that? For a small brewery to say “we’re not all about price, or margin, or pile it high, sell it cheap”? Palmer’s philosophy could be compared to the ethos of a big retailer like Waitrose and John Lewis: get the people right, get the product right, and never knowingly undersell. This is perhaps why they have kept their beers within their sightline, always able to control the quality.
They not only have some lovely pubs to stay in, but you’re always sure of a good pint. It’s guaranteed.
They keep their range small, and if I were to recommend one, it would be Dorset Gold, coming in at 4.5%. It was originally brewed as a summer ale, but proved so popular they brew it year round. It’s citrusy, refreshing, fruity and delectably drinkable. If they launched this beer nationally it would be an immediate hit.
My first taste of it came at the end of a very long drive, and the landlord of one of their pubs recommended I had a pint with pork belly and roast potatoes. I bowed to his proposal and he said “Right, I’ll just go and start cooking it now”. It’s that kind of cottage industry which is so admirable. It was one of the best meals I’d had in my life, and he came to sit with me whilst I ate, with his own pint of Dorset Gold.
Go and visit Palmers if you’re ever in Bridport. They are supremely welcoming, immensely proud of their heritage, and you’ll experience a triumph of heritage combined with progressive thinking.
Well, there were some technical reasons: throughputs and volumes of the Black Stuff are far higher in bars in Dublin than in, say, Stockport, so the beer is fresher. The beer also doesn’t have as far to travel. But I believe that by far the biggest reason was psychological. Supping a pint of Guinness in Ireland is usually coupled with being on a mini break/holiday/stag weekend (delete as appropriate) and drinkers are chilled out, relaxed, and surrounded by the craic of the Irish. So there is a cerebral association between good times, happy times and that beer in front of you. Think of it this way: when you have that gorgeous glass of wine on the balcony of your hotel on your summer jollies in Spain, the same wine never tastes quite as good on a wet weekend on Wakefield.
Which brings me onto this week’s beer. Walking out of Cardiff railway station, the first thing you spot is a huge chimney emblazoned with the unusual word ‘Brains’. Whichever route you take into the city centre, you’ll be surrounded by a myriad of pubs proudly displaying the Brains logo. Visiting rugby fans will see the name emblazoned on the red shirts of the national team. It’s almost written in law that when you visit Cardiff you have to have a pint of Brains S.A.
If a brewery in England tried to claim any of its brands were the ‘National Beer of England’, there would be an outcry. How can any beer lay stake to this claim? And yet, by sheer good fortune, tenacity and national pride, many Welshmen (and women) will unashamedly state that Brains is the national beer of Wales. The success and longevity of this family owned brewery owes much to its founder, Samuel Arthur Brain, whose legacy lives on in that pint of Brains S.A. (Although he might turn in his grave if he knew the beer is affectionately nicknamed Skull Attack).
A canny series of events saw Brains signing a major sponsorship deal in 2004 with the national rugby team: the following year Wales won the Six Nations Grand Slam for the first time in 27 years, and Brains was the name on everyone’s lips. Clever marketing slogans followed, celebrating Welsh pride in the beer:
“It wouldn’t be Wales without SA”.
And yet this beer very nearly didn’t make it to our tables today.
One of the extraordinary legacies left by prohibition in the United States during the 1920’s and 30’s was that Americans ‘lost’ their taste for full flavoured beer. (Although they’re sure making up for it now). It’s why certain brands of lager enjoyed massive success following prohibition, because they were easy to drink, and more about refreshment than flavour.
Britain nearly suffered the same fate as America during the early part of the 20th century. We came perilously close to a ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages due to the pressure of ‘dry crusaders’, government acts and religious zealots. One of the breweries which felt this threat the most was Brains. But they fought a hard battle, they stood their ground, they sang in male voice choirs (hey, don’t knock me, my Pa sang in a male voice choir and they were a force to be reckoned with on a Friday night) and they won.
Next time you see Brains S.A. on draught, give it a go. In the glass, it shines light copper, and delivers a lovely rich nuttiness from a perfect blend of pale and crystal malts. It’s a solid brawny 4.2% with Challenger, Goldings and Fuggles hops bearing earthy, woody and herbal aromas and bitterness. Pair it with a simple chicken roast, or an earthy mushroom risotto. It’s the taste of the Valleys.
We are very, very lucky at the moment in the beer world. We now have more breweries in the UK since the 1930’s. Beer is outselling wine in every country in the world (other than France, Italy, and quite bizarrely, Bulgaria). We luxuriate in choice and variety. A new generation of drinkers has discovered how wonderful and diverse beer can be. So the easy option when writing this piece every week would be for me to pick the ‘beer of the moment’, a brand which everyone is talking about, and then I would be an ultra cool beer writer, and pick up shed loads of awards.
But it kind of goes against the grain with me (scuse the pun). I’m not super cool, or hip, and I want to make sure we don’t forget the excellent beers which provided the backbone for the growth of cask ale. I want to tell you about beers which have a little back story for me, beers which have meant something to me, regardless of how trendy they are, and give you an appetite for trying, or even reconsidering them. So this week’s beer is Wadworth 6X.
6X used to be on almost permanent rotation in my pub. I didn’t really know much about the beer, other than it sold well, was always easy to keep and I never had a problem conditioning it. It’s a malty, fruit ‘n’ nut beer with a copper hue. It weighs in at 4.1% although I remember the hey day of 4.8% 6X – boy, we lived on the edge back in the eighties. It goes brilliantly with good old bangers and mash, or Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding.
Travelling down to Wadworth in Wiltshire for my first Cask Marque meeting with them, I became inexplicably excited that the route would take me past Stonehenge. I phoned my Mum from the car, telling her I was approaching the famous stones and then – whoosh – I was past. She asked me what they were like. I’m ashamed to say I described them with one word: small.
But as I went further into Wiltshire (aka Wadworthshire), I passed mysterious boulders in Avebury, just plonked at the side of the road, and strange hillocks which resembled scenes from a Lord of the Rings film set. This was middle earth and the heart of ancient England. Driving into Devizes where the brewery is situated, wooden barrels were being loaded up onto carts pulled by two Shire horses (Monty and Max, if you’re interested, and they belong to a Shire Horse Union, but they don’t ever go on strike).
If you’re wondering where this is all going, let me bring all the threads together. If breweries like Wadworth didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have the wealth of wonderful beers we have today. The importance of heritage is so easily overlooked and it’s easy to knock beers which some consider old fashioned and old hat. But just take a moment to consider how brilliant 6X has been to survive changing consumer demands, perceptions and attitudes. It has stood the test of time, and whilst it may not be hip to extol the virtues of a traditional beer, we need to reconsider why it’s still around: it’s solid, it’s well designed and it’s known worldwide. Just like Stonehenge.
In 2002 I pulled my last pint as a licensee, waved goodbye to my cellar and set off on my travels into the ‘corporate’ beer world. I’ve often mused since then which beers I wished had been around during my publican years so I could have had a natter with the regulars about how brilliant they were. This week’s beer is one of them, because the brewery was only founded in 2005, and yet its beers have picked up more than 350 national and international awards. I wish I’d been around to champion this one from behind my bar. It’s Thornbridge Jaipur.
Many brewers spend squillions thinking up a tag line to describe their values, ethos and aims. Thornbridge keep it simple with three words: Innovation, Passion and Knowledge, and what’s more, they fulfil every one of these objectives.
Thornbridge Hall was one of the breweries I visited when I first joined Cask Marque in 2005. Brewing was done in an eclectic 10 barrel plant in the Hall grounds. If creativity had a sound, this place fizzed with it. Young brewers from all over the world were given the freedom to experiment with styles, flavours and ingredients. Innovation box ticked.
It felt very much a cottage industry, before the word ‘craft’ had even entered into British beer vocabulary. I was beckoned through a secret door at the brewery into a magical world (no, it wasn’t Narnia). It was a stately dining room which looked like as though it hadn’t changed in hundreds of years: a huge oval table with at least twenty place settings, pewter goblets, a massive chandelier and the Bakewell hills as a backdrop through the windows.
“This is where we do the food and beer matching” my host solemnly told me. Knowledge – ticked.
It was the first time I had experienced a brewer doing something serious and scientific with food and beer, and it was probably the catalyst setting me off on my journey to become a Beer Sommelier.
Due to the popularity of Thornbridge’s beers, a state of the art brewery, Riverside, was opened in 2009 (in addition to the Hall), in Bakewell. It enabled production on a far larger scale, but set an almost unrivalled commitment to quality. The Riverside site is as immaculate as the day it opened its doors, you could eat your dinner off the floor (although you’d be kicked out if you tried). Passion – ticked.
In my opinion, Thornbridge Jaipur is one of the great beers of our generation, and I truly believe it will stand the test of time. Thornbridge introduced a big, punchy, heavyweight IPA to thousands of unsuspecting drinkers. It said “sod the strength” and produced a 5.9% beer, when most of the corporates were running scared about strong beers. It said “let’s blow this one up with flavour” long before it became achingly fashionable to do so. Jaipur has got citrus in spades, especially pithy grapefruit, but it’s soft and smooth and rounded. It’s got a lip smacking sweet honey undertone and then a long, enduring bitter finish which begs for another gulp.
What’s more, this beer polarises people. Some look shocked when they first try it, some look as though they’ve discovered Nirvana. But this is the beauty of a great beer, it gets people talking, and that’s why it’s an iconic beer in my book.
It’s also incredibly versatile with food: the citrusy hops can cut through the heat of dry Indian food, such as samosas, bhajis and Biryanis. But they also cut through oily fish like smoked salmon. And if you want to experiment a bit, try it with a slice of moist carrot cake with frosted topping. It’s weird, but it definitely works.
Right, for those of you might think I’ve got a bit of a thing about Adnam’s (yes, I wrote a piece about Ghostship back in October) I want to reassure you that I’m not biased in any way, I’m not pressured by the powers above me to write about a particular brewery or beer. I’m given a bit of a free reign, and this week I want to extol the virtues of Broadside.This is because it holds a special place in my heart at this time of year. Over a decade ago I moved into an old lodge house situated in the grounds of a big stately home. During the daytime, the house looked wonderful: high ceilings, big windows, lots of character. Once I had moved in, I realised the downside to living in an old house. It was flipping freezing, even with the central heating on full belt (the boiler was as ancient as the house), and the only way I could keep warm was to light a fire, hug a hot water bottle, and drape a fleece blanket over me.
The beer that got me through those cold months was Broadside. It was chunky, warming, full of depth and a good friend to me. I was lucky enough to live next door to a pub which had Broadside on almost permanently so I decamped most nights to their bar, partly to get warm, but mostly to savour the fruit cake like aromas and flavours of this beer. At 4.7% it gave me a warm glow, and matched with the pubs excellent Shepherd’s Pie (with a side of red cabbage) I could return to the freezing homestead with a happy heart.
And then I discovered that Adnams do Broadside in bottles, and it’s a whacking 6.3%. So I made like my granny (who used to keep a bottle of Guinness in the airing cupboard for her nightly tipple): I kept a bottle next to the feeble fire and had it as my night cap when I got in. The best of both worlds!
Moorhouse’s Pendle Witches Brew
Burnley in Lancashire gets something of a bad rap in the press. The media uses this small town in the Lancashire hills as a lens on how diverse, and sometimes divided, our country has become. It’s a town which has gone through enormous change over a short period of time and magnificently represents what happened when Britain evolved from being an agricultural nation to an industrial nation in the 18th century.
Driving up to Burnley, through the old mill towns of Hebden Bridge, Todmorden and Mytholmroyd you kind of get why there was such a thirst, a need, a desperation for decent beer. During the 18th century in the North we went from being cosy, lovely, barn dancing, flag waving village people (not in the YMCA sense of course) to an existence which rivalled hell on earth: huge grinding mills, slum like dwellings, a power force across the manufacturing world which treated men as commodities, not humans.
And what do you do if your working life is this grim? You seek comfort in the local tavern. Beer made you happy, beer made it all worthwhile. It’s no coincidence that some of the most established and well known breweries grew up around this time in our history, because beer was the ‘solution’ (pinching a quote there from Bart Simpson) to all this hard work and graft.
Am I painting a grim picture of Burnley? I hope not, because the hills surrounding the Moorhouse’s brewery are lush, and green, and mossy. They represent England in all in luscious glory, and every time you hear the words to ‘Jerusalem’ I want you to think of Burnley. It epitomises every word in that beautiful poem.
As does this week’s beer – another favourite of mine: Moorhouse’s Pendle Witches Brew. Come on, the name just sells this, it’s absolutely legendary for a reason: it’s strong (5.1%), it’s warming on those cold winter days, it’s sweet, spicy and fruity. It’s perfect for drinking in front of the fire after a hard days graft, or walking those hills above Burnley. Paired with a hot pulled pork or hot beef sub roll served with home cooked chips it’s the perfect antidote to all the fancy Christmas food. Salt of the earth beer served with traditional grub, it doesn’t get any better.
Fullers Vintage Ale
Right, before I get any letters from “outraged from Onslow”, I know that Fullers Vintage Ale is in a bottle and yes, I know you’re never going to see it on a handpull at your local. But consider this article a bit of investment advice from your friendly beer trader.
Back in the summer, one of the national newspapers printed a small paragraph about a beer which had gone on sale for £250 a bottle. It was quickly picked up by the rest of the media and created a massive amount of interest because (and I quote) “Who in their right mind would pay £250 for a bottle of beer?”
I was a bit miffed at this question because we don’t bat an eyelid when we hear stories about wine going for £20k a bottle at auction. But of course, beer’s the poor relation of wine, it’s the ‘doff cap, yes sir, no sir’ drink compared to wine. Or is it?
The beer in question was one of the original bottles of Fullers Vintage Ale, produced in 1997. It had become a collector’s item, in the same way that bottles of Thomas Hardy’s Ale became the stuff of legend (my other half has a dust-covered bottle of Thomas Hardy’s in his office, which he regularly has to fish out of my handbag when I try to nick it).
Now I’m sure you know that, unlike wine, most beers don’t age very well. They are brewed and designed to be imbibed as fresh as possible. But Vintage Ale is carefully crafted to age well, and the flavour will change, mature, and gain more depth until it’s like a fine bottle of Cognac. A small batch of Vintage Ale is produced annually by Fullers, and every bottle is individually numbered and boxed. Each year there is a slight variation in the flavour profile due to different varieties of hops being used. It comes in at a hefty 8.5% ABV.
The beer can be drunk fresh, but my recommendation is to buy two bottles. One to taste now, and one to save for a special anniversary or occasion in the future. The beer is best stored upright, in a cool dark place.
Fathers buy this beer on the birth of their children, so they can give it as a wedding present when the little ones flee the nest. Beer aficionados buy a few bottles every year so they can compare the latest version to previous releases.
So, if Father Christmas brought you some of this beer (or if he put some money in an envelope to treat yourself to a bottle or two), pour it with ceremony into a goblet glass, savour the strong rich flavour and drink it with a slice of heavy, moist, brandy laced fruit cake. It makes an ideal companion, and those bottles you put in your shed (sorry, cellar) might just be a worthy investment in years to come.
Titanic Plum Porter
This week’s beer has become somewhat iconic for a lot of cask ale drinkers. In fact, since I started writing these articles, this is the most requested beer you’ve asked me to write about. Titanic Plum Porter. Now whilst a lot of purists turn their noses up at ‘fruit’ beer, this particular ale seems to won the hearts and minds of beer drinkers throughout the land (as well as picking up a huge amount of awards along the way).
Titanic Brewery is now over 30 years old and run by the Brothers Bott. Founded in Burslem, in Staffordshire, the brewery name gives a nod to Captain Edward John Smith who was born just down the road in Etruria. He commanded the world’s most famous (or infamous) liner, The RMS Titanic. I could be cheesy here, and make a few puns about sinking a few pints of Titanic in my time. But I won’t because it’s a rubbish joke.
I first came across Plum Porter a few years ago. My friends and I had booked a cottage near Leek in Staffordshire to do a spot of walking, a bit of Christmas shopping, and plenty of beer drinking. It turned out to be one of the coldest weekends on record, with night time temperatures plummeting to minus 15 degrees. Two days before we set off, my other half broke his toe walking into a tree (this is before he had any beer). So with him on crutches, treacherous road conditions and a Labrador (aka Big Dog) the size of a small donkey in the car, we set off for Leek.
The first pub we walked into was The Roebuck, one of the pubs owned by Titanic Brewery. We all ordered glasses of Plum Porter, it seemed a Christmassy thing to do. I think I was expecting a quirky, sour beer, like the tart lambic beers originating in Belgium. But Plum Porter was nothing like this. It was a revelation, in a class of its own. Yes, it had a fruity juicy plummy undertone, but it was exquisitely dry and rich without that cloying, syrupy flavour exhibited by so many fruit beers. We ordered a second round without hesitation, and then another. The Big Dog settled under the table with a bag of pork scratchings, realising the long walk we had promised him wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
This beer epitomises that long wintery weekend in Leek, and for that reason, I’m going to ask you to put it top of your list to have with turkey and all the trimmings. You won’t need any cranberry sauce to balance out the turkey, as this beer does it perfectly for you. And in case you think it’s only a winter beer, I’ve also supped this beer at the height of summer, matched with a gorgeous goat’s cheese salad.
Plum Porter deserves its iconic status amongst beer drinkers for being a ‘fruit’ beer which is more beer than fruit.
Hook Norton Mild
How do I describe it? Well, do you remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when you were a kid and you imagined what Willy Wonka’s factory looked like? All cogs and wheel, and pulleys, hissing steam and bellows, wonky chimneys and lopsided roofs?
That exact image sprang to mind when I first rounded the corner onto Brewery Lane and saw the Hook Norton brewery. It’s very remote, in achingly beautiful Cotswold countryside. There is no mobile phone signal. There is no light pollution at night. When brewing ceases for the day, you can hear a pin drop in the brewery yard.
Inside the Grade One listed building there is a complex system of Heath Robinson style contraptions which turn out their beers. A huge steam engine installed in 1899 is still in running order. When I was there a few weeks ago holding a training course, I had to shout over the tremendous noise and thumping coming from the steam engine above the training cellar. So I ran up the stairs to ask if they could tone it down a bit. The brewery workers looked at me in shock and said “But it’s her birthday. We thought we’d just start her up a bit for a treat”. That’s the way it is at Hook Norton.
In addition to this eccentricity, I love the fact that they are one of the few breweries who produce a ‘true to type’ Mild. No fancy names here, it’s called Hooky Mild, it’s 2.8%, and it’s a dark ruby coloured soft malty beer. Mild fell out of fashion soon after the Second World War, it was seen as a wishy washy beer, associated with rationing. Yet this beer style once ruled the bars in Britain. The Brewer’s Journal estimated that in the late 1930’s mild accounted for more than three-quarters of ALL beer brewed in Britain. That’s an astonishing figure considering our beer consumption was far higher than it is today. It was considered a comforting, refreshing, nourishing pint after a hard day’s manual labour.
Mild’s are seeing a revival, many being brewed successfully to a higher strength, but it’s alwaysa pleasure to drink a traditional Hooky Mild, especially when matched with simple, good quality, local produce, such as cheese, pickles and baked meats (like a slice of home cooked ham). Hooky Mild is most definitely liquid bread, and as this pairing is what Hook Norton offer in their Visitor Centre, I think they’ve got it just about spot on.
Theakston’s Old Peculier
Right folks, we’ve hit December. A great excuse for this week’s beer – Theakston’s Old Peculier. Although I’ve got to say, I don’t need a time of year to drink this. I absolutely love it when I walk into a pub and see this beer on the handpulls, it’s like all my Christmases have come at once. When I’m doing food and beer events, this is one of the beers that converts more non-beer drinkers (the fools!) to the beauty of ale more than any others.
It’s a lip smacking, juicy concoction of stewed fruit, cherries, sultanas, and raisins coming in at a powerful 5.6%. If you had to compare this beer to another drink, you would say it’s the port, the vintage wine of the beer world.
I met up with Simon Theakston a few weeks ago and asked the question: why do so many great beers come from Yorkshire? His response was a masterclass in geography, history, politics and culture. I’ll share it with you someday, there isn’t room here because my notes run into dozens of pages. His passion for creating a great sustainable beer is boundless and his knowledge is humbling. The thing that stood out was Theakstons determination to create a beer which was better than anything else out there.
Well, I think they got it about right with Old Peculier. The name pays tribute to the unique ecclesiastical status of Masham, a little market town in North Yorkshire as a ‘Court of the Peculier’ and is also reference to the strong characteristic of the beer. For many years it was affectionately referred to as Yorkshire’s ‘Lunatic’s Broth’.
If you haven’t been to Masham, go. Seriously, go and visit, it’s so unbelievably beautiful and picturesque. But please pronounce it ‘Mass-Ham’ otherwise you’ll be identified as a tourist.
So, as I’m supping my glass of OP, what food should I have with it? It’s one of the few beers I’ve come across which complements Stilton: it doesn’t emphasize the coppery, metallic element in the cheese, it just brings out the sharp saltiness in a brilliant way. Main course? Rib eye steak, cooked rare to medium with a béarnaise sauce. It’s also versatile with good solid puddings like fruitcrumbles, stewed rhubarb and chocolate fondant.
Shepherd Neame Bishop’s Finger
If your knowledge of Kent is limited to news items about queues of lorries stacked on the M20, think again. This is the most beautiful county, steeped in hop growing history, dotted with oast houses, and widely known as the ‘Garden of England’. It’s also home to Britain’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame, based in Faversham.
This week’s beer is a long time favourite of mine, loved by the regulars in my old pub as a ‘Here Comes the Weekend’ beer. For me, it has associations with good times, fond memories and life long friends.
Bishop’s Finger may not be the most famous beer in the Shepherd Neame stable (that accolade goes to Spitfire), but it’s definitely one worth seeking out. Before you assume the name of the beer is offensive in any way, let me explain. It takes its name from the finger-shaped signposts which pointed pilgrims on their way to the tomb of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury.
This is a beer that, according to the Shepherd Neame website, “holds EU Protected Geographical Indication, recognising its unique provenance. It is brewed to a charter which states it can only be brewed by the head brewer on a Friday and that it must be brewed using 100% natural ingredients, Kentish hops and barley, and the brewery’s own artesian mineral water.”
How bonkers is that? Only in Britain could we state that a particular beer can only be brewed on a Friday by the head brewer. These kind of rules and charters made me fall in love with the eccentricity of the cask ale world in the first place.
So other than the powerful 5% ABV punch why do I love it? Well, it’s got a flavour of prunes, plums and dried apricot, then it’s spiked with pepper, cinnamon and bitter blood orange. It’s a beer which makes you sigh with content, it hits the spot right away after a long hard week at work. It’s warming, and rich, and makes you feel blessed that we have access to such great beer in this country. It resonates with rich feasts of venison, lamb, grouse and pheasant, winter berries like cranberries, and hot mustard and piquant horseradish. Or as my old regulars used to demand, a plate of Black Pudding served with apple.
Whilst I was in Burton upon Trent last week, I got first glance of the new branding and advertising campaign for Marston’s Pedigree. Marston’s have very cleverly used people scouted from the streets of Burton to use in the adverts because as the director of the campaign says in the press blurb,“It’s in the blood; in the water. If you’re going to live, grow and die in this town you’re going to be connected to brewing in some way. You can sense it as soon as you get off the train.”
The Oxford Companion to Beer (yes, there is such a book, put it on your Christmas list), has several pages devoted to Burton-upon-Trent, and how this small town north of Birmingham became known as the brewing capital of Britain during the 19th century. Brewing in the town can be traced back to 1004 and is mainly attributed to the ‘special’ water, which is extremely hard, full of sulfates and perfect for brewing pale ales. This is a town which is built on beer, especially my old friend Pedigree. I’m in Burton virtually every week; my other half thinks I’ve got another fella there and he’s right in a way. The Marston’s brewery on Shobnall Road proudly displays its rows of oak casks through huge viewing windows; this is the legendary Burton Union System, and I fell in love with it the first time I saw it. This fermenting apparatus adorns Marstons’s ales with a distinctive fruity dryness and brings out the famous sulphury “Burton Snatch” aroma (stop giggling at the back).
Pedigree is a keeper. It’s been around since 1952, and it’s one of the best selling ales in the UK for good reason. It’s not too hoppy, it’s not too bitter, it’s full of flavour, and it’s a great beer to order any day of the week in a pub whilst putting the world to rights with your mates. It just delivers what a great beer should: malt, fruit, dryness, drink-ability and sociability. What’s more, it’s incredibly versatile with food. It has no problems with pub staples such as steak pie, sausage and mash, burgers and curries. It’s a comfort beer, one to keep going back to when you need a reliable old friend.
This weekend is a thirtieth anniversary for me. It is thirty years since I went to my first gig (as we used to call them). Bradford St George’s Hall. A seething mass of badge strewn denim, pounding drums and mosh pits. Iron Maiden.The demi-god Bruce Dickinson ruled the stage and I learned the art of head-banging. The noise, smell and atmosphere was overwhelming. (By the way, I couldn’t have a beer cos my sister wouldn’t buy one for me and I had to get up for school the next day).
Fast forward a few decades and I was training some licensees in the bar at Robinson’s Brewery in Stockport. All of a sudden, there was a commotion outside and we were all hustled out. Peering round the door, I saw a camera crew accompanied by most of the brewery staff. Over their heads I could see a chap standing behind the bar, his hand grasping a glass of amber ale. The handpull in front of him had a pumpclip which resembled the patches I had so painstakingly sewed onto my denim jacket many moons ago. It was Bruce Dickinson, he was ten feet away from me, and it was the launch of Trooper, the collaboration brew between Robinsons and Iron Maiden. Bruce was a real ale man! Hallelujah!
So in celebration of my first gig anniversary allow me to describe the wonders of Trooper. A 4.8% IPA style beer, packed with Goldings and Cascade hops which give it spicy bitterness, it also has a strong roasted malt flavour. This is a premium ale, designed to be treated with respect, and savoured slowly. It goes brilliantly with fiery curries (those hops cut through chilli heat) but the roasted malt means it’s equally good with a roast chicken.
Bruce cemented his place in my heart when he wrote to introduction to last year’s Cask Report. His opening line was “When we’re on tour, cask ale is one of the main things I miss”. What a guy!
There’s a good reason I didn’t write about Hobgoblin on Hallowe’en, even though the people at Wychwood have closely associated this beer with that date on the calendar. Bonfire Night seems much more fitting for this smoky, roasted beer.
Bonfire Night means pulling out the winter clothes that have been in hibernation since before summer. Gloves, scarves, woolly jumpers and hats. It means the clocks have gone back and the curtains are being drawn before the 6 o’clock news. It’s about re-discovering gorgeous winter foods like beef in ale stew and apple crumble with custard. And that’s why this beer is perfect for drinking down at the local pub annual bonfire party; its shimmering ruby red colour and malty caramel flavours are like cinder toffee and toffee apples combined.
Created for a one-off occasion, Hobgoblin was produced by Oxfordshire’s Wychwood brewery. However, too much was made and the surplus was supplied to a local pub. A worker in the pub drew a picture of a hobgoblin and stuck it to the as yet un-named beer’s tap. It took both the pub and Wychwood by surprise with its success, as customers came back asking for more of the “hobgoblin beer”. In my local, there is still a tatty, battered poster – one of the first produced – with the now legendary phrase:
Hobgoblin’s popularity is a combination of genius marketing and genuinely good, well thought out beer. For novice beer drinkers who don’t want huge levels of bitterness, this is a great ‘starter’ beer to have with bangers round the bonfire.
I intended writing about Adnams’ Ghostship next summer because of its sunny lemon and lime flavours. However, one of our readers emailed me and asked me to write about it and it seemed quite fitting with Halloween coming up this weekend to talk about a spooky-ily named beer.
I love Adnams’ Brewery and where it is. Right on the east coast of the UK in Southwold it’s tucked behind sand blasted shutter boards, and quirky wonky constructions. It’s apparently hugely fashionable to go to Southwold, and rightly so. It has brilliant – seriously brilliant – seafood and shellfish, served in the pubs and bars which scatter the town. It is the epitome of an English country sea side resort with its lighthouses and beach huts.
Ghostship was originally a 9% beer called Deathly Pale Ale but it was pulled after the brewers realised that the label resembled too closely the symbol for poison.
Luckily, Fergus Fitzgerald came along as Adnams’ charismatic head brewer. He barely looks old enough to drink, has a brain the size of a planet, and Nelson Sauvin is his favourite hop. He totally understands the importance of balance in a beer and how to create a ‘symphony’ of flavours.
(The name Ghostship is inspired by one of Adnams’ most haunted pubs, The Bell at Walberswick. The shores of Walberswick are littered with eerie wrecks of smuggling ships from a bygone era).
Ghostship is your go to beer with white fish: sea bass, sole, cod, haddock, and halibut.
It’s delicate and fragrant, but with enough sharpness to cut through brine. At 4.5%, it has a backbone of malty sweetness, and coupled with those juicy, zesty hops it pairs perfectly with seafood, particularly a creamy fish pie.
Way, way before all these achingly fashionable, super hip craft brewers came along, a little brewery in Peterborough (I know, Peterborough!) was beavering away experimenting with new flavours and hop profiles.
Oakham was founded in 1993 and led the way in sourcing exceptional, and unusual, ingredients from around the world. Their foray into pale gold ales started with the legendary Jeffrey Hudson Bitter (or JHB as most cask ale aficionados affectionately know it). If I put this beer on my bar at 5pm on a Friday team time, it would be gone within two hours. It’s a superb session ale and one to start the weekend with.
Then blow me down, Oakham came along with Citra. This brewery was responsible for introducing the UK’s drinkers to the gloriously tropical fruit richness of the New World hop. Citra – that one word absolutely suggests lip smacking, thirst quenching, drenched in sunshine.
And what’s more, the guys at Oakham aren’t arrogant or bullish about it. They don’t use any aggressive marketing strategies. They don’t spend squillions on promoting this beer. They know they have a great beer and they rely on word of mouth: in other words, they are really really lovely beer people who believe passionately in their product and make sure the quality of it is great wherever they supply it.
Citra is summer in a glass on any day of the year. It has a zesty, zingy quality which lends itself well to fragrant aromatic foods such as Thai green curry and Pad Thai noodles. It brings out the lime and the coriander, whilst cutting through the heat of chillies and the creaminess of coconut.
I love Citra served in a stemmed glass (like a big wine glass). If your other half’s favourite tipple is usually Sauvignon Blanc, this beer will win them over, hands down.
St Austell Tribute
Hard to believe, but before I started my work at Cask Marque at the ripe old age of 35, I had never visited Cornwall in my life. My first journey down to Cornwall in my line of work was blighted by the worst snow storm Cornwall had seen in years. Only ten miles shy of St Austell brewery, the charismatic head brewer, Roger Ryman, phoned me and advised me to turn back. Bitterly disappointed, I drove the five hours back home to Yorkshire, and had a second attempt a month later. Without a doubt I was rewarded with a county which rivalled Yorkshire in terms of friendliness, quality of pubs and superb beer. I fell in love with Cornwall instantly (although Roger warned me I might not feel the same at the height of the season when the county is swarming with tourists and the roads are gridlocked).
St Austell Tribute can count itself as one of the major success stories of the 21st century – and deservedly so. St Austell modestly claim Tribute is “the South West’s favourite beer”. I would argue against that: it’s one of the country’s favourite beers. It has a fantastic zesty orangey and grapefruit flavour, superbly balanced with a seriously biscuity malt. It’s well made, it’s consistently good and it put this brewery balanced on the edge of the country on the map.
I’m a bit biased when it comes to food with this beer. The marketing guys at St Austell are right in saying it goes well with pub classics such as fish and chips, burgers and a good old Cornish pasty. But I like to re-live the whole experience of Cornwall by having a glass of Tribute with a Cornish crab sandwich, served on white bread with salty butter. It reminds me of sitting by the window in the Old Customs House on the harbour in Padstow and watching the wintery landscape.
By the way, the second worst snowstorm to hit Cornwall started that night, and it took me eight hours to get home. But that pint of Tribute was worth it.
Timothy Taylor’s Landlord
It seems like everyone in the world knows something about my first beer. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord from Keighley in West Yorkshire has won more awards than any other beer (it has won the Champion Beer of Britain a record four times) and is frequently cited by ale drinkers as their ‘favourite ever ale’. Yet it’s only been available on draught since the 1960’s (it was originally brewed to be bottled).
What makes it so special? It uses an abundance of Golden Promise barley grown harvested in Northumberland and the Scottish borders and the sweetness of the barley is perfectly balanced with spicy Styrian Goldings and Fuggles hops (how great a word is Fuggles? It could have come from an episode of Blackadder
Landlord was my best selling beer when I ran a pub, and each week, the dray would turn up with four huge 36 gallon barrels which were dropped into the cellar with a resounding thump (that’s over 1100 pints a week).Conditioning the beer took time and care: I’ve had more than one beer shampoo from venting a tub of Landlord too quickly after delivery. But the end result was worth it.
The style is defined as a pale ale. Yet most of you know that Landlord is not pale in the modern sense, it’s a burnished copper colour. Pale ales evolved in the 18th century and were defined as such because they were so much paler than the deep russet brown beers the nation had been so used to drinking. It was pale in comparison, and the name has stuck.
Landlord starts off slightly sweet, followed by a mouthful of soft fruitiness, then the dry bitterness kicks in. It’s harmony in a glass. It’s a massively versatile beer with food, but I like the ethos of the chaps who work up at the brewery. Keep it simple, keep it clean, and keep it traditional. You can’t go wrong with a well made Scotch egg, a slab of pork pie and a sliver of salty mature cheddar. The maltiness complements the saltiness of the cheese and pork, and the slight carbonation cuts through the fat in all these three foods.