Category Archives: In praise of…

Mix It Up

MixedCase1

Is it me, or are brewers releasing far more beers these days than they used to? I know starting a blog post with that kind of question makes me sound like an old timer rattling his cane from his easy chair, but there you go. And I’ve got no evidence with which to back this up – it just seems that since I started writing about beer all those years ago, there are more launches, more styles and ever-wider core ranges. Buxton have probably scaled back from their seventeen-strong core lineup, but they – like plenty of other breweries of the moment – continue to put out beer after beer; morning noon and night.

In no way am I complaining – having all these new beers to discover is brilliant, it’s what got me into drinking decent beer to begin with (after seeing the light and ending what is probably best described as ‘the Carling years’). But how on earth do you stay on top?

By mixing it up.

In one fell swoop, a mixed case gives you a chance to cover several months-worth of new beers at once. I’m becoming such a big fan of doing this that I’ve more or less stopped regular visits to bottle shops for three or four bottles, instead choosing to pool the beer fund and unleash once a month on a sturdy cardboard container of fun instead. The latest to arrive; twelve difference bottles from Thornbridge, who have produced some fantastic stuff over recent months, all of which I am now able to taste. Sure, it does cost more in one go than repeated impulse shelf-clearing, but it seems to me that there are so many advantages…

Progression

I think the best analogy for the importance of a mixed case is if you compare it to an album. Sure you can buy a series of singles over time and listen to your chosen hits, but listening to the album in order gives you the only chance to put everything in context, as you work through the music in sequence. How songs fit with each other, the musical timeline, hopefully gives you a better idea of the band’s talent as a whole – and mixed cases are the same. Start at the lower abv, the lager, the house pale, and work up. I think it leaves you better placed to appreciate the brewery as a result.

Skill

And that leads into the next point. If an IPA-heavy brewery continues to fire out pale and hoppy – which there is nothing wrong with, of course – then it’s easy enough to simply carry on picking them up. So when you order a dozen or two-dozen from the same producer, chances are there will be a range of styles that eventually come up the driveway with a wheezing courier. Here’s your best shot to see the overall level of expertise at this brewery. Can they do big and dark as well as light and hoppy, or are they hiding behind the dry-hop? How does the house yeast carry through? Is there balance across all styles?

Find a favourite

As I said above, getting a selection of beers from one brewery at once (even if you don’t drink them all in one sitting) leads to an ideal chance to discover new things. And carrying that example from the above paragraph onwards, if the producer does actually turn their hand to imperial stouts as well as IPA’s, then you’ve instantly found a new favourite that you might otherwise have never discovered. So next time you are in that bottle shop, maybe you’ll be able to pick something out a little different to give you a bit of all-important variety!

Order direct

Finally, you can go direct to source with a mixed case – order from the official website and the beers will be fresher, they will be posted to your home (although you have to then be there) and there’s literally nothing that can go wrong! Well, until the courier leaves your mixed Thornbridge case on the doorstep without knocking and the rain soaks through the cardboard so the entire thing nearly comes apart halfway up the stairs. There’s literally nothing that can go wrong!

So that’s it – I think from now on I’ll just be buying my beer in this way, with no exceptions. Well, apart from all that US beer as the shipping costs would be huge. And there are some great Belgian beers in Edinburgh bottle shops at the moment. Plus the Anchor Seasonal will be out very soon. And it would be rude not to pop in when I’m going past, I guess…

In praise of…The Bridge Tavern, Newcastle

BridgeTavern2

Almost exactly two years ago, I experienced, pretty much for the first time, the sheer majesty of a drinking night out in Newcastle (despite it being only an hour and a half from Edinburgh). I wrote at the time “I’ve never been anywhere on Earth with a higher concentration of pubs, bars and clubs. It seemed like the whole of England was there, tottering about in their best shoes, or shirts, or both. Drink is the currency in Newcastle. Drink.” I doubt if the ‘high-heels and coat-free hedonism’ has abated much over the last couple of years, but something there is different – the party city now has its very own brewpub.

The Bridge Tavern is the first such establishment in Newcastle for thirty-odd years, so I’m told, and sits wedged between the iron trunks of the Tyne Bridge stanchions as if it had been coughed up at high tide. From the front, it looks squat and square, but inside is anything but – sprawled over multiple floors, with an outside rooftop-decking area underneath the bridge approach, within thrumming distance of overhead traffic. Operator Greenan Blueye spent half a million pounds on the refit, from the previous guise as the Newcastle Arms – and it really shows (the original frontage was restored as part of the conversion).

The 2hl brewkit sits at the back of the ground floor, across an open, wooden-floored bar. Installed in association with the Wylam Brewery, the kit apparently came from a cider maker, and looks an absolute picture, gleaming from the far wall. Head brewer is Joe Roberts, ex of Tyne Bank, Anarchy and Allendale; due to the close proximity to the public, he only brews at night – to avoid sloshing peracetic on those tucking into a club sandwich. It must be pretty rough on him, but I quite like the idea of the staff opening up in the morning to find a conditioned cask waiting by the bar, all traces of the brewnight cleaned and squared away. Stealth brewing – the new craft?

Walking around the Bridge Tavern, it just looks the picture. Modern, yet fitting with this fairly amazing old building. After a while sat outside, under the bridge, I realised why I had instantly taken to the place – it reminded me of the Rocks in Sydney, and the pubs I used to go in under the shadows of the Harbour Bridge,* when I lived over there. Without wanting to sound too much like Kevin McCloud, restorations are about more than just throwing money around, and artfully piling furniture and fittings into modern shapes. Places like the Bridge Tavern really work, and really make you want to visit.

*This is no co-incidence, as although the Tyne Bridge was built first (1928 as opposed to Sydney’s 1932), both were designed to resemble New York’s Hell Gate Bridge, which had opened in 1916.



The Bridge Tavern, 7 Akenside Hill, Quayside, Newcastle NE1 3UF MAP
Website / Facebook / Twitter Feed
(huge thanks to Michael at Canny Brew for showing us around the city before our Tyne Bank Brewday)

In praise of…Six°North, Aberdeen

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Belgian beer has an unmistakable mystique surrounding it, one that (if I wanted to verge completely into pseud’s corner) I would say transcends boundaries. I’ve been to small Adriatic islands where the only options are base lager, but there’s a small bar that sells Orval, and has Tripel Karmeliet tin-signs up on the walls. For such a small country, its beers reach far beyond the boundaries of the low countries. As such, Aberdeen is a city that you could never describe in terms similar to Adriatic islands – there’s much more of a historic beer culture there, for a start (before comparisons relating to the weather are even considered). Yet, down a twisting side-street a short stroll from the BrewDog bar, there recently opened Six°North, a Belgian-themed beer bar that immediately stands out.

Six°North is a brewery tap for the producer of the same name, subtitled ‘the Belgian brewers of Scotland’, who operate from the Marine Hotel in Stonehaven. As such, Six°North have their hometown tap already in place, in the guise of the hotel, but founder Robert Lindsay was keen right from the start to get his beers into the nearest major market. The 6°n bar opened only a couple of months ago, and still looks extremely new – but it also looks the business, with several nods to traditional Belgian taphouses; plenty of basic, convivial seating, and the chrome tap surrounds that bracket the bar counter. The beer list – which is suitably enormous – is written on the highest chalkboard I’ve ever seen, right up in the rafters.

It’s a welcoming space, with a front room overlooking the street, and a central communal area with a large balcony above. Home beers are well represented, as you’d expect, with five Six°North kegged beers and a single cask on offer, alongside another nineteen kegged offerings and a couple of casks. There are Scottish notables such as Cromarty, Tiny Rebel and Alechemy, but 6°n is, first and foremost, a Belgian bar. And it’s a cracker. As Six°North find their feet as a brewery, to have these notable bedfellows on tap in their bar must be hugely exciting – certainly I never expected to be able to drink Troubador Magma in Scotland. But then, that’s Belgian beer for you. As those Adriatic islands attest, the joy of Belgian beer is that it travels well – and in Abderdeen, has found a new destination.



Six°North, 6 Littlejohn Street, Aberdeen, AB10 1FF
Website / Twitter Feed

In praise of…The Anderson

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In Scotland, frequently small-town, country pubs have something of a dispiritingly small beer range. Dispiriting for beer bloggers, that is – the reason they stock keg lager and smoothflow Best is that’s what their regulars want. The fleeting visits of highfalutin’ out of towners don’t merit the inclusion of a dedicated imperial stout tap. And, let’s face it, why should they? Sometimes, though, you stumble across a real find – a rural pub that caters for a wider range of the British drinking public. You end up miles from anywhere, amazed that the Pig & Pheasant could support Sierra Nevada on draught. These unexpected discoveries are one of the most joyful of drinking pleasures.

Of course, there are places that are tucked away like this, yet have made a name for themselves. Hidden in plain sight, remote boozers that have a beer range to rival the latest East London Craft Tap. Small village pubs with twenty cask fonts. End-of-track seaside bistro bars with incredible bottle selections. Word gets out, spreading through the socially connected beer scene like Twitchers phoning each other about the latest wind-blown arrival. No need to consult a frayed pub guide when you have a smartphone. Check those blogs, find out the places to go. There are plenty of gems these days, but none stay hidden for long.

Take the Anderson. Halfway along the main street of Fortrose – a tiny town a handful of miles north of Inverness – as soon as you tell any beer fan in the know you’re heading up there, they recommend it. “Oh, you’ve got to go to the Anderson,” they say “That place is amazing. You’ll not have seen anything like it!”. The same beer fans being no stranger to hyperbole, you smile and nod, but still decide to check it out, anyway. The alternatives around there necessitate a visit, at the very least. And then, you stumble through the small door, noting the Mikkeller plaque, and groggily take in what could be the best pub in Scotland.

The last time I had Brooklyn’s There Will be Black was at the brewery itself, in Williamsburg, NY. Now, here it is again, on draught in a small Scottish seaside town four hours north of Edinburgh. A 7.5% Black IPA (although Brooklyn don’t call it that), on tap, in Fortrose. Also on, cask and keg offerings to tempt any drinker – they do, also, stock Belhaven Best, but a handwritten sign square in the centre of the bar states their position on other, more common beers; ‘if we don’t have what you drink, drink what we have’. As I was standing at the bar, a newcomer arrived and was gently moved away from his requested Tennent’s to Oranjeboom lager.

Run by the bustling, velvet-clad Jim, the Anderson is supremely personable. The staff are hugely friendly and patient, whilst Jim shuffles about, firing off quips and thumping people on the shoulders. The regular bar has a monumental selection of bottled Belgian beers, framing the entire bar, and the cask and keg taps are advertised on dangling chalkboards, sectioned into beer styles. The whisky bar has a similarly vast range of choices, written on a giant blackboard above the serving area – the two bars being joined by an access corridor, which on my visit had a pie and chips perched on a beer crate. Each time I passed, it had reduced in size (I didn’t take any chips, although they were mightily tempting).

To find a pub as friendly and well-stocked in a town as out of the way as Fortrose is wonderful. That’s not me being patronising, it’s me reacting to a drinking lifetime of settling for whatever’s the best option. In the Anderson, that beery decision can take some time indeed.



The Anderson
Union Street, Fortrose IV10 8TD
Website / Twitter feed

In praise of…Fette Sau

It’s fair to say that you smell Fette Sau before you actually see it. This is partly due to the hideaway nature of the restaurant – down a Brooklyn side street, housed inside an old car workshop. But, also, because the aroma of the barbecue drifts out over the surrounding block, guiding you onwards until you find the small neon sign overlooking the street. Williamsburg has plenty of hipster hangouts, but none advertise themselves so successfully. I’ll bet many locals over the years have wandered out for dinner with no specific plans and ended up there, following scent trails like on the old Bisto adverts.

You don’t have to be a regular viewer of the food channel to know that Americans love their barbecue. Fette Sau – ‘fat sow’ in German – dishes out glistening meats, served by the pound, alongside a multitude of craft beer (in case you were wondering where this post was going). All of their meat is smoked in-house, with a blend of red and white oak, maple, beech and cherry, locally sourced for the restaurant. I don’t claim to be a BBQ expert by any means, but it certainly seems like they take their provenance seriously.

Fette Sau is the kind of place that works very hard to portray itself as having no frills – communal tables, order at the counter, no reservations etc. But the staff are extremely friendly – helping us to work out what we wanted, when we had no idea (what does a pound of pulled pork actually look like?). Once selected, the barbecue is heaped onto a tray lined with greaseproof paper, piled up with sides, and away you go to find a spot at one of the tables. We ended up facing the incredible ‘beef chart’ mural – one entire wall listing the near-limitless possibilities of the cow.

The whiskey list is hugely impressive, as is the beer – ten taps line the back wall of the bar, the handle of each an implement of the trade (knives, cleavers, a meat tenderiser). I went for the Sixpoint Vienna Pale, brewed exclusively for Fette Sau by the south Brooklyn brewery. It worked with the rich barbecue perfectly, helping to offset all of the sweet, sticky flavours of the pulled pork and brisket. The beers arrive in mason jars – something we found more than once in Williamsburg, with pitchers being served in glass carboys.

Fette Sau does have those kind of touches that some would find a bit twee – but they all work together really well. Barbecue lends itself to fun, communal, dining after all. The food was fantastic – hand pulled Berkshire pork shoulder the best I’ve ever tasted, potato salad and burnt end baked beans a revelation. There are a couple of British bars I’ve been to that have very similar touches to Fette Sau, and whether deliberately or not, I can see why – it would be a place I’d head to, even if I wasn’t eating.



Fette Sau, 354 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (718) 963-3404
Website / Twitter

In praise of…The Ship Inn, Low Newton-by-the-Sea

There’s no better place to be on a wild and blustery day than inside a warm, cosy pub. Last month, on a trip to Northumberland, I was lucky enough to visit the Ship Inn at Low Newton-by-the-Sea on a particularly foul autumn day, and ended up staying there for hours. Watching the grey sea batter against the coast from behind a rime-crusted window, pint of ale and fire on – what could be better? Well, it turns out the Ship is no ordinary coastal boozer – as it also contains a micro-brewery, so everything I drank that afternoon was made on site.

Low Newton (and yes, there is a High Newton) is a tiny village, clinging to the beach near Alnwick. The main feature is a low square of whitewashed cottages, open to the sea, surrounding a village green. Sitting in a corner of the row of buildings is the Ship. Built in the late 18th Century, and originally known as the Smack Inn, today it is run by a mother/daughter team, and serves only its own beer (cask, that is). The brewery began operations in 2008 – four years on, they produce almost eight barrels a week, rolling the beer ten feet into the cellar.

‘The word local has come to mean just that’ says a laminated leaflet nailed to the bar counter – and who can argue? Having become totally self-sufficient in real ale, the three handpulls are always sporting something made just yards away. It reminds you of what pubs must have been like, back in the days when herring was landed by hand on the beach, and nothing travelled very far from its point of origin (people included). The pub doesn’t seem to have changed much since – a large room with a fire at one end and the bar at the other, a dozen tables in between.

People certainly move around more these days – even on a wind-thrashed Tuesday lunchtime, it was packed (we managed to get the only table available). Most of the occupants were hardy walkers, dressed up in various shades of blue GoreTex, walking poles tucked behind chairs. The three beers on offer were Dolly Day Dream (a pleasant ruby bitter), Ship Hop Ale (a dry, fruity golden ale) and Indian Summer (a lemony, bitter pale ale). All were kept and served perfectly, and went brilliantly with a pie ploughmans (a piemans?).

Every so often, a table-load of walkers would force open the door and boldly stride out, resuming their march along the coastal footpath. It wouldn’t be long before a new set arrived to take their seats, all stamping feet and foggy glasses. After our ploughmans; the crumble of the day – they only have one – stewed apple topped with cream. Another beer, and more sitting, listening to the wind rattle the windows and feeling lucky that our hobbies don’t extend to rambling, meaning we had nowhere to go and nothing to leave for.



The Ship Inn, Low Newton by-the-Sea, Alnwick, Northumberland NE66 3EL
01665 576262 Website
Lunch 12-2:30, evening meals 7-8.
Booking essential, (nb – no cards taken in the pub, cash only)