Saturday 25 February 2012

Nottingham redeemed

Up in Nottingham for the weekend, last night the hungry family headed out to look for sustenance. Needing somewhere child-friendly, I'd programmed what was supposed to be the postcode of the closest Wetherspoons into the satnav, but after driving for some miles we still hadn't got there, so when we spotted an obviously family-friendly pub with a car park, we did a u-turn and stopped.

It was called the Sherwood Manor and turned out to be one of Greene King's Hungry Horse formats. On the bar were a handpump for Old Speckled Hen and one of the new dual "north/south" pumps for IPA that supposedly let you choose a big or small head on your pint. The OSH clip was reversed, so it was IPA or nothing...

Now GK IPA can be a decent pint, especially on gravity but also sometimes on handpump. My pint however was awful. Not actually off but dull and lacking in any of the flavours one drinks beer for. It was as if the pump had something in it designed to remove 98% of the malt and hop flavour of the beer, leaving only the 2% that you don't really want or care about. For the first time I can remember I left three-quarters of a paid-for pint on the table.

On the plus side, the food was OK.

Our hotel - the lovely Bestwood Lodge which is a handsome Victorian red-brick mansion, nominally built as a hunting lodge - claims to have an "excellent bar" so on getting back I scanned it for something to restore my injured palate. Becks Vier, Stella, Boddingtons extra-cold and Magners on draught, plus Bud in bottles. We're in Nottingham, and they can't even stick a few bottles of Castle Rock Harvest Pale in the fridge. Argh!!

Fortunately, the city was today redeemed by Hotel Deux. It doesn't look much from the outside, in fact you'd probably not even think there was a pub in there, but the bar has four real ales, all in excellent nick. The regulars are Blue Monkey light and aromatic BG Sips, Welbeck Abbey's Henrietta (a superbly tasty 3.6%er) and Dancing Duck's 22 rebranded as the darker house ale; also on was Blue Monkey's dry and hoppy Pale Blue.

It's extremely child-friendly too, to the extent that the landlord kept our lad amused with games and stuff long enough for me to sink an extra pint! The boy also loved the music room next door - this has bands on two or three times a week but was quiet tonight. He was fascinated by the sparkly disco-ball on the ceiling and the guitars on the wall.

We'll probably look for Ye Olde Trip tomorrow. It claims to be England's oldest pub, dating to 1189. These days it is owned by Greene King, so this will be GK's chance to redeem itself. Thankfully it serves several ales, including a local guest, so I shouldn't have to risk the IPA again!

Wednesday 22 February 2012


No, not a new cable TV channel right down the bottom of the list - I've just signed up for the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2012.

It's in Leeds in May, so I guess I ought to get on with booking a hotel room. Two days of beery discussions with several dozen like-minded souls, and - I hope! - learning how to do this beer-writing stuff better and more profitably. Coo...


Thursday 16 February 2012

Not so much a movable feast, more a portable tasting

For someone used to the typical CAMRA style of guided tasting, today's Adnams event at the King'sTun in Kingston was quite a change. Instead of a sit-down session with jugs and notes, Adnams business development managers Nigel Chubb and John Lamb took a tray of sample glasses each and worked the room between them, stopping at tables here and there to offer tastings and a chat.

Nigel Chubb said they find these movable tastings work really well to push up awareness and sales, and are a lot more practical than sit-down events. They also work as quality checks on the pubs, he noted. Neither he nor John is a brewer, but they both have many years experience in the ale trade and now join forces – the rest of the time they cover adjacent regions – to do a few events like this a week. "We only have the one brewer," making meet-the-brewer events harder to arrange, he said.

John Lamb added: "We mostly do the big chains – Wetherspoon, Nicholsons...." He said Wetherspoons is particularly good for Adnams – yes, it expects a large discount for volume, but no more so than any other pubco – and has done a lot of good for the cause of real ale in general. He added that 'Spoons pubs keep their beer very well. Some can turn over a nine in as little as two hours, showing how fresh it can be, he said.

As he came round with a tray of Explorer samples, I asked John how he decides who to approach on a movable tasting. "Normally with this beer I'll be attacking the lager drinkers," he said. "We've had some great successes there."

He explained that Explorer (4.3% in cask form) has been through a few changes as head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald worked to give it more body and a more stable flavour. That work has definitely paid off, with a very nice golden ale. It now has three hop varieties rather than two for its citrussy nose, a bit more of a buttered-Digestive-biscuit body from its East Anglian pale malt, plus hints of vanilla and grapefruit in the finish.
John discusses Explorer's finer points with a taster

Sample number two was American style IPA. This was the most popular of last year's "Beers of the world" series which saw Adnams 'visiting' New Zealand, Belgium and elsewhere. At 4.8% in cask, it's a lovely hoppy bitter with what the Americans call a dank aroma – and yes, that's quite different from what us British think of as dank! It's the smell of the hopsack, here laid upon a well-bodied ale: "Our golden equivalent of Broadside," Nigel called it.

Speaking of which, sample number three was indeed that well known strong bitter. This time the aroma was of dried fruit and maybe a little muscovado, then on the palate it was that interesting combination of dryness and sweetness, with malt and raisin notes and faint hints of dark honey and oak.

I mentioned to John that some publicans have said it can be difficult selling ales around 5% in strength versus those around 4%, but he said this doesn't seem to have affected Broadside (4.7% in cask). It still sells well, and not just in 'Spoons where it is typically the same price as everything else.

If you're in the Kingston-upon-Thames area and haven't been to the King's Tun lately, give it a try. The ales are very well kept, and as well as the main Wetherspoons beer festivals, it is starting to run its own "in-pub" festivals – the first one started today, runs to the 26th,, and alongside Adnams it features ales from Loddon, Dark Star and Twickenham.

More events are planned for the current festival too, including meet-the-brewer sessions with Loddon (whose Forbury Lion IPA was in excellent form this afternoon) and Twickenham.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Freezing the beer in Battersea

When you're running a beer festival you need to keep the beer cool, typically something like 9-12C. In summer this can require refrigeration, but in a British winter simply turning the heating off is usually enough.

But this week the organisers of the Battersea Beer Festival had to do something they've never done before: ask the hall management to turn the heating ON, as the ale was too chilled and wasn't clearing properly as a result.

Fortunately, they got it done in time, and the beers are generally in excellent condition. As well as a good range of other ales, an addition this year is a separate bar for the strong ales. There wasn't a lot on when I passed by today – just three of the eight casks on the stillage were on sale – and 2pm seemed a tad early for the likes of Buffy's Festival at 9% and Grainstore Nip at 7.3%.

But it's an interesting development, spurred on in large part by the government increasing the tax rate on beers over 7.5% from the usual rip-off rate charged on draught beer in the UK to a new "super-duper utter rip-off" one. I presume that positioning the £4 a pint strong ale next to the £4.40/£6 a pint imported beer makes the former seem less unreasonably priced, although whether that's a good or bad thing to do is debatable.

There's also good ranges of draught German beers, including a tempting 8% Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche Doppelbock (listed here as "Rauchbier Eiche"), and foreign bottled beers, and they're running a couple of "meet the brewer" events – see the website for details.

If you've not been there before, the festival is at the Battersea Arts Centre (the BAC), it runs until Friday and it's easy to get to from Clapham Junction BR.