30 June 2008

Not Every Polski Beer is a Lech...

During the course of a survey mission up Leicester's Narborough Road last Friday (blog entry to follow in the next day or so) I happened to pop into Na Rogu, a Polish bar which has opened in the last year or so.

Situated on the corner of Saxon Street and Narborough Road, this small and unassuming cafe-type bar caters primarily to Leicester's Polish population, offering a selection of beers you will find mirrored in most supermarkets these days.

In addition however I found something a little more unusual sitting amongst the Tyskie's in the fridge - a beguiling brown bottle of something called Debowe Mocne with an eye-catching label and a 7.0% ABV.

My curiosity aroused I purchased a bottle (500ml for £2.90 - available at around £1.65 online) and took it home to sample at my leisure.

After a fairly hectic weekend I sat down on Sunday evening ready for Top Gear and decided this would be the perfect time for a nice cold one, so I cracked open the bottle and poured myself a glass.

I'd been expecting very little here - previous experiences of polish beer have been pretty uninspiring, and accordingly I was very pleasantly surprised by what I'd found.

A deep, golden-amber in colour, this strong lager initially kicks off with a well developed malty flavour which is swiftly balanced by a fulsome and pronounced hoppiness.

As the flavour develops further a lightly roasted character emerges, which remains with you right through to the finish, which is long and quite dry.

This beer has a full, malty aroma and quite high carbonation. It drinks deceptively easily given the ABV, and in my opinion is actually more enjoyable than a number of respected German beers of similar strength that I've sampled.

Interestingly enough (or not, depending on your point of view), the Debowe Mocne brand is part of Kompania Piwowarska's portfolio, which includes Tyskie, Lech, Pilsner Urquell and Miller Genuine Draught. If you fancy a laugh, read the summary bullet points for each beer on their website...(!)

If you come across this cracking Polish offering I highly recommend trying it - you won't be disappointed.


Kent's Only Brewpub

Deep in the heart of greenest Kent sits the idyllic village of West Peckham - about as far removed from its South London namesake as you could possibly imagine. With a population of around 350, the community is centered around the village green, home to West Peckham Cricket Club, on a tranquil no-through-road. Dotted around the green, you can see the village's history before your very eyes. St Dunstan's Church with its 9th Century tower and, on the opposing side, odd cone-shaped structures, possibly part of an old mill from years past.

But the jewel in the green's crown is the village pub.

An inn has stood on the site of The Swan on the Green since 1526 and whilst various extensions have been added over the years, parts of the building date back to this era. The most notable addition was the creation of the Swan Microbrewery at the rear of the pub in 2000, making it the first and only brewpub in the county. Over ten cask conditioned ales and top pressured beers make up the core range and specials also compliment the portfolio.

On our recent visit five cask ales were on sale: Fuggles Pale; Ginger Swan; Trumpeter Best; Cygnet; and Bewick Swan, alongside the tank conditioned Swan Blonde. Jimbo and I managed to work our way through the handpulled range and we were both delighted with the quality on offer.

The seasonal Ginger (3.6%), far from a smack-in-the-chops, brutish ginger ale, was subtly spiced and easy drinking for a summer evening. The Bewick (5.3%, pronounced Buick), the strongest bitter in the range, has a sweet and creamy chocolate body counterbalanced by a Target and Goldings hop finish and would make a perfect aperitif to a hearty dinner.

However the best of the bunch had to be the Cygnet (4.2%). This deep golden-brown ale is complex with a predominant caramalt palate and the winning addition of juicy Cascade hops. It really was a belter and worth the half hour journey time alone.

Sat outside the front of the building watching the sunset over the green, keenly supping away, you really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

Swan beers are only available at the pub, which is a bit of a shame as I truly believe the Cygnet and Bewick would compliment any festival lineup. They are clearly limited by capacity but, based on the wares sampled, I would be reluctant for the brewing setup to be changed one bit. Plus their exclusivity only serves to make the pub more special. They were advertising 18-pint minipins behind the bar, although sadly only the Fuggles and Trumpeter were available to take away, in our opinion two from the weaker end of those available that evening.

If the Swan has a ‘fault’, it’s that it can be described as “gastrofied” – a sin that I don’t find as irredeemable as some other bloggers. A large proportion of the pub’s interior is dedicated to dining, not a problem on a warm summer’s day with the benches out front but perhaps more restrictive for winter drinking. The food is of a gastronomique nature; a top-notch rib-eye steak with salsa, sautéed potatoes and string beans will set you back around £15. Mains are at least a tenner and starters around £6-7. A glimpse at the classic motors, including a Lamborghini Diablo, in the car park was an indicator of the target demographic. There is, however, a good selection of bar snacks from crisps and a variety of nuts to olives and even beef jerky.

We found the service to be very friendly and professional too. The pub was busy for a Tuesday night and in terms of table space was operating at near capacity. The barmaids were apologetic for our short wait times at the bar and explained that they were two members of staff down. They worked hastily throughout the evening to ensure each party left with a smile of their faces.

We certainly did.

As we pulled away, taking one last glimpse of the picture postcard scenery an unusual thought escaped me: it’s not all that bad living in England after all, is it?


29 June 2008

Having a Blast at the Victoria Inn

This weekend (Thursday 26th – Sunday 29th June) saw the Victoria Inn at Rugby host its Summer Beer Festival and, with Rugby being only a short hop from Leicester, I naturally decided to take a mosey over and check out the action.

The pub is the brewery tap for Rugby microbrewery Atomic Ales, who brew behind the Alexandra Arms in a brew plant shared with Alexandra Ales. Although relative newcomers to the brewing scene (Atomic was established in 2005) they have already scooped awards at CAMRA festivals and can justly take pride in their brewery motto “Never Knowingly Under-Hopped”.

The Victoria is a classic Victorian corner pub, sitting like a huge wedge of cheese on Lower Hillmorton Road; the cheese impression is heightened by the creamy yellow exterior paintwork with beautifully contrasting blue frames and detailing … stilton, anybody?!

Inside there are 4 distinct rooms; a saloon bar accessible from the front and first side doors – a fairly basic affair with a pool table and dart board, equipped with 4 handpumps; the larger and more comfortable lounge bar can be accessed from the second side door and offers classic red leather seats and what look to be period furnishings. Moreover this bar sports a superb TEN handpumps, giving the pub a proud total of 14 – a local record.

The pub always offers at least four of the Atomic range alongside six guest ales, a level of dedication which I find highly admirable; it was also nice to find one of the brewery partners, Keith Abbis, working behind the bar and happy to chat about the pub and the brewery - my sincere thanks for the polo shirt!

In addition to the two bar areas there are two further rooms with seating, one to the rear which also offers access to the beer garden and one adjacent which is much lighter and brighter and looks out onto the street.

Working commitments had meant I couldn’t get over to the festival until the Saturday afternoon, and I had arrived with some concerns that the selection might be somewhat diminished; fortunately these proved unfounded with all bar two of the 30 ales still available.

Alongside ten Atomic brews on handpull from the bar were twenty guests outside on stillage, sourced from around the country and ranging in strength from Ashover Light Rale at 3.7% all the way up to an impressive 9.0% with Alehouse 9 Above Zero.

Through conversation with Keith I learned that all of the guests had been obtained through swaps with other breweries; no mean achievement given the quality of the selection.

A quick peruse of the list revealed 15 required scoops, but alas! They included the two already sold out in the form of Atomic Festival (a one off and unsurprisingly the first to go) and Fernandes Solstice. Ah well, c’est la vie as they say en francais – thirteen ticks at a pub fest is still pretty good going so I duly started my supping...

Working steadily I kicked off with three of the remaining five Atomic offerings I wanted, namely Half-Life (5.0%), Bomb (5.2%) and Reactor (4.5%). All were in excellent condition and went down an absolute treat; I have yet to sample an Atomic beer that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed drinking.

I had decided to hold off for a while before sampling the new Atomic brew Chilli Haze (a 4.0% golden hoppy concoction, brewed with real chilli and supplying a serious yet strangely pleasant heat) and was determined to keep their Blackout (6.0% sweet, dark, roasted stout-type brew) until last in a bid to preserve my palate; accordingly I made my way out to the garden to enjoy the sunshine, stillaged ales and wonderful aromas from the barbecue which was catering to the culinary needs of the drinkers.

Over the ensuing couple of hours I worked through brews from Cheddar, Nailsworth, Jollyboat, Taunton, Great Western, Festival and Alehouse – a fine selection in generally very good condition, although the Alehouse and the Oldershaw were both still rather hazy. On the whole though I cannot fault the quality of the beer, especially the fact that with the stillage outside the ales were still being served at the correct temperature on the evening of the third day.

In all then a most excellent visit to a cracking little festival; I look forward keenly to the next event at the Victoria, and to the forthcoming Summer Festival at the Alexandra Arms – Thursday 10th – Sunday 13th July.

It's also well worth mentioning a new and very valid undertaking by the Atomic chaps - a new Real Ale review website called Quality Ales, similar to Rate Beer but dedicated solely to English ales. This site also allows registered users to keep a complete record of the beers they've sampled online, instantly accessible to them - effectively a virtual scoop list. I've had a look and will certainly be contributing myself as soon as I've finished converting my handwritten notes over to XL format.


25 June 2008

Taking it Up the Brum

Upon being offered a thirteen quid return to Birmingham from Peterborough with the only condition being that the day was to be spent in various drinking establishments I developed a rather broad grin. You see I am not built as other women; and although the shiny plate glass windows of Selfridges hold much allure they cannot compete with a tour of those fine midlands pubs which I hold in my heart so dear.

And so it was; off I went with a provisional list of watering holes composed from the GBG and various websites of up and coming delights coupled with a fire in my loins that only the promise of good ale can ignite…

Once we had fought our way out of the concrete horror that is New Street Station we emerged into glorious sunshine which only served to increase our by now mad thirst, and it was decided that the first port of call had to be the recently refurbished Lord Cliften in the Jewellery Quarter.

Now I have only heard amazingly good things said about this place, and the way it shot directly into the top five on Beer In The Evening got my senses prickling but I was rather suspicious about how genuine some of these reviews actually were. The only way to clarify how hot this pub actually is was to give it a shot which we duly did, and boy was it worth seeing.

The tone is set right from the outset – modern artworks mixed with faux pub tradition – large solid wooden tables sit alongside small coppertops, stools are upholstered in alternative patterns of tapestry and cowhide, and above the bar in the larger second room are shelves heaving with assorted vinyl records. The works displayed on the walls (and floor!) are as political and thought provoking as you’d expect, and time does really need to be taken to appreciate the whole venue.

On our visit it was nice and bustling, not too packed and seats were readily available to our party. More importantly we had four handpumps giving us the selection of Wye Valley Butty Bach, HPA, Rapid Ale and Bathams Best Bitter.

I heartily supped down two pints of the Rapid and found the condition to be absolutely superb, coupled with friendly smiling staff whom proffered copies of their CAMRA publication Out Inn Brum and upon our time to depart helpfully called us a taxi which arrived in minutes.

It appears that everything being said about this place is spot on – I really cannot think of a single fault to bring them down in my opinion. All in all an absolute must do for anybody imbibing in the city, trust me!

Next on our itinerary was a pub I have had the good fortune to visit on several previous occasions, and a well known tickers paradise – The Anchor Inn, Digbeth.

A ten minute cab ride took us to this National Inventory pub which had just finished what appeared to be a rather fabulous beer festival two weeks ago. After perusing the list and checking out what I had missed I settled on two halves – Great Newsome Anniversary Ale and Ironbridge Coracle Bitter, the latter brewery I believe to be quite a new edition to the micro scene.

Although this is a lovely traditional boozer in every sense, I have to admit I wasn’t all too convinced on the condition of some of the ales sampled during our visit; one of mine was just a little tired and was almost certainly past its best, and hazy glasses and clumpy heads were a bit of a recurrence unfortunately.

I’m guessing that we were literally clearing up the dregs left from the fest – checking the beer menu against the blackboard seemed to confirm this – but that said, the atmosphere and beer selection was agreeable enough to keep us here for well over an hour and a half, and once more a taxi arrived promptly after a swift call from a member of the bar staff.

Overall I’m pretty certain that we just hit this place at the wrong time and that the problems we encountered were only a minor blip in what I believe to be a proper ale house. Worth adding to your list.

At this point my belly was beginning to develop that full-of-liquid sloshy feeling and seeking out food became the order of the hour. Needless to say the cheapest, most effective way for us to get some nosh on board and continue our sampling was to hit the nearest McSpoons for some carb-based ballast, hence our next stop off point – The Briar Rose, city centre.

I don’t intend to dwell too much on this place as it is just your usual basic JD Wetherspoon affair; always heaving, tables being cleared at a snails pace and a three mile trek upstairs/downstairs to visit the toilets.

Maybe the competition from the Welly a few doors up had influenced the ale range a little (a tadge more adventurous than the usual nationals/token local micro setup), but really the sort of pub you can experience in any town or city up and down the country.

I tried the Original Plum brewed by Browar Namyslow, Poland.

By this point I was seriously slowing up on the consumption front and the last Brum pub for the day lay a few steps up the hill ahead of me…

Ah, The Wellington; I have a confession to make - I really dislike this place. I just don’t get it. Nice stone exterior – good. Basic internal décor combined with ample seating – average. Fifteen handpumps and beers available clearly displayed on a flatscreen above the bar area – genius….. So why do I feel nothing but gloomy when I enter this public house?

I think it’s a combination of the fact that unless you are a proper bona fide regular you will be served in the most cold icy manner possible, coupled with ordering your beer by number (conveyor belt imbibing, anyone?) and the overall unfriendliness that hangs in the air. Even the bloody cat was aloof and ignored me!

We stood uncomfortably for almost an hour watching the suits pile in for their first pints of the weekend as we supped our halves and made our scratchy notes. I avoided the Fullers London Pride (!) and needless to say opted for beers by Derby Brewing Co. and Tower instead.

At this point our time in the big city was coming to an end and we shipped out and weaved our way through the shoppers and office workers back to the concrete confusion of the station and our East Midlands tiny train.

Chatter en route home revealed that all in all everyone in our party had had an exceedingly enjoyable jaunt out; and on the whole the beers had proved exceptional. I just wish we had done the crawl the opposite way around – we did visit the best pub first, and the Welly was a bit of a soul sapping experience to end on I have to say.

I still love Birmingham; always have done, always will…

Beer Monster

Vaulting into Confusion

The 20th – 21st of this month saw The Vaults (Leicester) host another of its now infamous beer festivals, this time celebrating the impending wedding of well known Bedford Scooper Tony Burke.

Licensee Paul Summers has long been known for his somewhat warped and twisted sense of humour, and seldom has this been more evident than in the naming of the fine range of specially commissioned, themed ales from microbreweries which he unleashed on an unsuspecting public...

Yes, that's a whole load of "Stag Ale" all brewed by different breweries, to different recipes and different strengths ... confused yet?

Due to other commitments over the weekend, the Beer Monster and I only made it down after the event on the Monday and Tuesday, by which time several of the ales from the bar had sold out - however we nevertheless managed to scoop everything from the stillage (with the exception of the Blackwater brew) plus the Brunswick, Oakham and Full Mash Poppycock from the main bar.

From what Paul has told me, the guerrilla approach to the naming caused no real problems – apart from one old boy who, when asked what he wanted, stood by the stillage repeating the words “Stag Ale!” over and over at ever higher volume!

Though I’m a little ashamed to admit it, I’d not been down to the Vaults since around Christmas time … having taken the time to re-acquaint myself with the pub I find myself wondering why on earth I stopped frequenting it in the first place – the range of beers has always been exceptional, and my visits this week have served to remind me just how excellent the condition of the beer is in here.

Needless to say, it’s back on my regular Leicester itinerary…


Steamin' Billy - Barkin' up the Wrong Tree?

Further to my recent comments on the Western beer festival, a thread has been running in the Nottingham Drinker over the last couple of months which has caught my attention and raises some interesting points.

As I mentioned in my earlier entry, the Western is a Steamin’ Billy pub, and the 'Billy range are brewed under contract by Tower brewery, having previously been brewed by Grainstore – and therein lies the problem, at least as far as Nottingham CAMRA are concerned.

In an article entitled Taking Liberties? (April/May, page 18) the publication roundly and quite justly condemns the nefarious practices of marketing beers as brewed by defunct breweries(Ruddles, Hardy & Hanson etc) and of rebadging beers, however the piece goes on to attack breweries such as Steamin’ Billy which contract out their brewing…

“We have covered this topic … of breweries that no longer exist yet whose beer still amazingly appears on the pumps … Perhaps more amazingly there are even beers being sold from breweries that have never existed at all such as Steamin’ Billy … you won’t see any of these “breweries” at Nottingham Beer Festival as we believe in promoting breweries that actually exist.”
Personally I’m not sure where I stand on this one; I can understand where the Drinker is coming from, but at the same time I’m also aware that the recipes used for Steamin’ Billy brews are their own – a point raised in the letters section of the following edition (June/July, p.36). Surely this lends them validity as a brewery?

I have heard rumours through the grapevine that there are plans to start brewing on site at the Western, which would certainly satisfy the Nottingham branch, but in the interim what do other people think – should you be able to call yourself a brewery if you don’t actually brew anything yourselves?


24 June 2008

The King Beggars Belief

Perusing this months copy of that most worthy of CAMRA branch publications the Nottingham Drinker, I came across this little gem in the letters section...


In response to your article ‘Conned Rudolph’ in the April / May issue of Nottingham Drinker. I’d like to give you a bit of background as to why we reduced the ABV of Rocking Rudolph from 5% to 4.5%.We completely agree with you – Rocking Rudolph is a great beer – and we wanted more people to enjoy it during the festive season. Part of our commitment when we acquired Hardys and Hanson’s was to get their superb collection of beers to more drinkers. The proof is, since we’ve lowered the ABV, we’ve managed to distribute Rocking Rudolph to 23% more pubs in 2007 than the previous year.

We continue to brew all of Hardys and Hansons beers, with the exception of H&H Mild, which is still available in keg format. The reason for this is that when we became responsible for the Hardys and Hansons business, only three per cent of H&H Mild was sold in cask (26 pubs in total) so it was economically unviable for us to brew as a cask beer.

Greene King is committed to cask ale quality and the Hardys and Hanson’s quality manager, Roger Walters, has remained with us to ensure we have the best quality processes in place and continue maintain consistency of H&H beers.

Fiona Hope, Marketing director, Greene King Brewing Company

The editor replies:

Your letter certainly confirms that our heading “Conned Rudolph” was right then!

The beer was sold with a pump clip that declared “Hardy’s and Hanson’s - Rocking Rudolph”. Well common sense suggests that if you reduce the strength of a beer from 5% to 4.5% then it is not going to be remotely anything like the original. Add the fact that you have closed down the Hardys and Hansons brewery with this beer being brewed at the Greene King Brewery in Bury St Edmunds so why try to hoodwink the public into believing it was the same beer that was produced in Kimberley in 2006?

How about treating your customers with a bit of respect for a change, instead of trying to mislead them into believing that long closed breweries are still brewing? In our opinion, Hardy’s and Hanson’s Bitter and Olde Trip taste nothing like they did when they were brewed in Kimberley so why not let these once excellent beers pass into history with their proud reputation still intact?

Instead how about selling your beers in an open and honest way as Greene King beers, not Morland, Ruddles, Ridleys, Rayments or Hardy’s & Hanson’s, or are you ashamed of your own name?

Oh and by the way, correct us if we are wrong, but is a quality manager not responsible for the condition in which beer is sold in the pubs? In which case he has nothing to do with brewing or marketing the beers and so your final sentence appears to be irrelevant to the issue!

You have to wonder how on earth GK have managed to become such a powerful force when they're employing people capable of such ineptitude and who clearly have such little understanding of the market they claim to serve...


18 June 2008

Far from the Madding Crowd – Sojourns in Stamford

For any lover of Real Ale there can be few places in the country more attractive than the area around Stamford, Lincolnshire. Over the weekend I had the pleasure of visiting this beautiful, historic town and checking out several of its excellent ale houses; what follows is a far from complete survey – there are many more pubs I’ve yet to get to!

Accompanied by the Beer Monster we kicked off with a swift half in the Toreador, a cellar bar situated on Broad Street, beneath the Stamford Corn Exchange.

This is an odd little place, primarily catering to the younger generation and popular as a pre-club venue from Wednesday night onwards, and a glance at the bar reveals the usual suspects of lagers / ciders / alcopops / spirits - however the bar also sports 4 handpumps dispensing real ale.

Sadly on our visit (a Friday afternoon) only two were in use, offering a choice of Courage Directors or John Smiths Bitter. Needless to say we both opted for the Directors, and found the condition and dispense to be good – despite the fact that we were both served in Kronenbourg 1664 glasses!

For those who enjoy such amenities the Toreador also offers a pool table and fruit machines, and on Friday and Saturday night the venue also boasts dj’s playing a mixture of chart, house and r&b.

This is a bar with a lot of potential – the open plan layout works well, the place is well lit and tastefully furnished with leather seats and tables … it’s just a shame the ale range was so limited!

From the Toreador it was onwards to the Otters Pocket on All Saint’s Street, a slightly more down to earth establishment popular primarily with sports – and particularly rugby – fans.

Aside from the dodgy name (google it for a giggle if you’re not too easily offended!), this really isn’t my kind of venue – the wall sports a large mosaic Union Jack, every conceivable surface is adorned with sport related material and they even have flat screen televisions installed by the urinal in the gents!

Determined not to be put off by the less than congenial surroundings we nevertheless sat down to sample the beer quality, inspired by the six (albeit not overly exciting) real ales available at the bar.

Of the 2 halves we tried I found the Oakham Bishops Farewell to be in reasonable condition, though a little on the tired side. Unfortunately I had opted for Hop Back Summer Lightning which was very much past its prime; as a result well over a quarter pint was chucked away.

I’d have to say, of all the Stamford pubs I’ve been to, the ‘Pocket is by far and away the poorest for atmosphere and beer quality; having said that, the pub does a roaring trade with the sports contingent and probably couldn’t care less what I think.

It’s just a shame that with six real ales on offer they don’t take more care of their cellar…

Feeling the need for a change of scenery we set off for our next destination, the White Swan on Scotgate.

Formerly the Punch Bowl, this place used to have a mixed reputation for its ale quality. The pub has now changed hands, and the current licensee seems to be keeping a good cellar and offering some brews from micros as well as the nationals.

The pub itself is a fairly traditional affair, well lit and comfortable with stripped floors, neutral colour scheme and a general air of tastefulness. The small bar is situated to the front of the building, while the rear is taken up with seating and a separate area with a pool table.

We found 5 handpumps on the bar, of which one was dedicated to Weston’s Old Rosie cider. The remainder comprised Springhead Bitter, Oakham Bishops Farewell, Greene King Abbot Ale and Milestone's North Rock. Sadly the North Rock had just gone, so we both opted for the Springhead which we found to be in excellent condition and well dispensed.

It’s also worth mentioning the very friendly and outgoing chap who served us – the son of the current licensee – who was happy to talk to us about the pub and the changes that they’ve introduced to the place.

I wish the team here every success with the pub, and hope to watch the place go from strength to strength over future visits.

Thanking our host for his time we polished off our ale and made our way to the next port of call, the Tobie Norris on St. Paul’s Street – the real gem at the heart of Stamford’s real ale scene in my opinion.

An Ufford house (one of five in their estate), the Tobie Norris is an excellent example of a restoration project undertaken properly.

From the moment you enter the wonderful stone building you get a real sense of history and would be forgiven for thinking that the pub has been open for centuries - it hasn't, in fact it's just coming up on two years since the doors opened to the public.

Comprising three floors, each historically restored and furnished in keeping with the character of the building, it's easy to see why owner Michael Thurlby has just received the CAMRA award for Best Conversion to Pub Use.

In addition to the beautiful building, the Tobie also has a strong focus on micro beers, and has recently held a very successful beer festival which I was fortunate enough to attend. The condition of the beers available from the bar has always been tip top in my experience.

There has been some criticism of the pricing of the beer here, with some locals feeling that around £3 a pint is too high; all I can say is I have no objection to paying a small premium for the privilege of drinking in such a wonderful environment - especially as it discourages the less salubrious end of the market from frequenting the pub!

Finally a comment about the staff and management; on every visit I have found them to be genuinely friendly, courteous and helpful - always a bonus!

After some discussion (and several halves) we decided that our next target would be the Jolly Brewer, located on Foundry Road.

A fairly basic pub in terms of decor, though nicely light and spacious, with pool and darts facilities, this unassuming establishment has a lot to offer the serious ale drinker; up to 4 draught ales from some great breweries kept in tip top condition and served with a smile by the friendly staff.

I'm informed that the pub is tied to Admiral, which makes the achievement of the current licensees and their dedication to Real Ale all the more admirable (no pun intended!).

On our visit we sampled Black Abbott and Sod, both from Idle, along with Milestone's Classic Dark Mild; condition and dispense were excellent for them all.

The pub also held their first Beer Festival in May, which the Beer Monster reliably informs me proved to be a great success with 15 micro ales on stillage and another 4 on the handpumps.

In addition to the beer, the pub also offers a range of hearty meals which I’m told combine quality food with real value for money.

The current licensees deserve real credit for what they’re doing with the pub, and it is to be hoped they will continue to receive the loyal support of the discerning Stamford drinkers.

As the day was drawing to a close and we were reliant upon public transport we decided that we had time for one more pub. Our choice seemed fairly obvious, the Green Man – by reputation the finest Real Ale pub in Stamford, and a place which I hoped would impress me rather more on this occasion than it had previously.

A traditional boozer, the Man offers up to 8 real ales on handpull, with microbreweries being very much the order of the day. Effectively L-shaped, there is a long narrow bar to the front of the building with additional seating / bar running up the side. To the rear is a large beer garden which also plays host to the regular beer festivals which the pub holds.

Although held in high esteem locally for its range and quality of ales, I have visited this place 3 times now and have yet to be wowed; on my previous visits I have found only limited micro options, with the condition of what has been available at best passable and at worst unfit for sale.

Sadly on this occasion things didn’t go much better; 4 ales were available – Fullers ESB and Summer Ale, Fernandes Triple O and Wentworth XII Challenge. Opting for the Wentworth, I was dismayed to find that the beer had turned and was undrinkable. My dismay only deepened when, having replaced it with an ESB, the barmaid left the beer on with the clear intention of selling it.

As on previous occasions we stayed for one drink and left, disappointed.

Though the Man had proved a let down once more, we boarded the bus home in high spirits and well satisfied with our day - and planning our itinerary for the following afternoon!

All things considered, Stamford is a fantastic place for a real ale odyssey; as I mentioned at the start of this entry, I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the pubs the town has to offer and I’m looking forward eagerly to my next visit…


17 June 2008

Ale’s Well that Ends Well at the Western Festival

As you will know from my previous entry, the 6th – 8th of this month saw the Western hosting what I believe to be its second beer festival. Naturally I took time out to pay a couple of visits and sample some of the ales on offer...

A copy of the beer list I had received less than a week earlier indicated that the event would be kicking off on Thursday the 5th, with 22 beers listed and the promise of an additional 10.

I duly turned up shortly after midday on Thursday, only to be informed upon arrival that there had been a mix up over dates and the festival would not be starting until the following day...

Somewhat nonplussed by this turn of events I headed back home, wondering as I walked just how this rather unfortunate mistake could have been made. Luckily for me I live close by and hadn't travelled any real distance!

Arriving back at the pub the following afternoon I was presented with a revised (and somewhat diminished) beer list – the promise of an additional 10 beers had gone, and the list was now down to 20 ales with 6 of these being kept back until the following day; moreover, some of the beers originally detailed had been replaced at the last minute by stock originally lined up for sale later in the week.

Determined to make the best of the situation I set aside my growing concerns about the organisation of the festival and got down to the serious task of supping. Despite the reduced selection there were still a few beers I was keen to try, plus a couple of brews I’d sampled previously but needed notes for.

Unfortunately, much as I would have liked to rip through everything I was after in one sitting, I had work commitments and sadly had to leave after a relatively short time. Accordingly I returned on the Saturday for a little mopping up...

During my 2 sessions I sampled Clark'sRed Rag Mild and No Angel (both 4.0%), Full MashOuija (3.7%), FunfairBrandy Snap (4.7%), HoustonBig Lusty May (4.3%), Shugborough [Titanic]Mi Lady's Fancy and Lordship's Own (4.6% and 5.0% respectively), RudgateBattleaxe (4.2%) and Steamin’ BillyGrand Prix Mild (3.6%)

All of these were dispensed on gravity, and I found the condition to be generally very good; the only notable exception to this was the Houston, which was still very green.

Overall then a slightly shambolic affair, but the ale that was ultimately available pretty much made up for it.

Here's hoping next time they organise things a little more effectively!


3 June 2008

Leicester Missions - Four Hours, Six Pubs

I'd been looking forward to the Dark Star tour myself until recently, however a change in the date of the visit meant that I was sadly unable to attend thanks to the very inconvenient timing of my sister's wedding - seriously, some people just have no consideration!

Finding myself thus encumbered with the role of Usher while my cohorts were merrily quaffing it off, I set to work planning some small personal compensation in the form of a mini crawl around my native Leicester. Fortunately I had the Beer Monster with me, so quality company was not going to be an issue...

Having made it through the pre-wedding dinner on Friday night, the wedding and subsequent reception on Saturday - a delightful affair despite the fact that the hotel had run out of their only ale (Theakston's Best Bitter) and no one had been down to the cellar to replace it, with the result that we ended up consuming a truly vast quantity of Hardy's Stamp Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon - and the post-wedding barbeque the following day, we returned to Leicester late on the Sunday afternoon and decided that, realistically, any attempt at hitting the town that night was likely to result in two people falling asleep in their beer. Accordingly we decided to get some solid shut eye and gird ourselves for the following day.

As it transpired, the weekend's emotional and physical excesses had drained the pair of us more than we'd realised. As a result a large chunk of Monday had elapsed before we roused ourselves from our slumber and we ventured out, bleary eyed, to greet the rather grey and overcast world...

After lining our stomachs with burgers from my local TJ's Burgers & Kebabs (damn fine chilli sauce!) we finally reached our first pub, the Black Horse on Braunstone Gate at approximately 6pm - rather unfortunate since we needed to back home for 10.45 and the start of the Apprentice special!

This Everards pub is a classic victorian boozer, divided by the bar into two seperate drinking areas; from the front door you enter the lounge area, with comfortable seating and tables. This area is also used for live bands at weekends, the pub being a haven for blues-based bands. The rear bar, which is much more of a traditional drinking area, can be accessed from the lounge or directly from the street via a side entrance. This bar is popular with the older regulars, is much smaller than the lounge and generally has more of an atmosphere.

Although a managed house, the licensee has a strong commitment to real ale and offers up to four guest ales on handpump selected from the Everard's Old English Ale Club in addition to the usual Everards range, plus guests sourced from Brunswick Brewery, which was bought out by Everards in 2002. The pub also offers Carling and Kronenbourg 1664 for the lager massive and Westons Old Rosie from handpump for the battery acid heads.
On our visit we found Gold from the Purity brewery alongside Marston's Merrie Monk and Brunswick Gaffer's Gold on offer; all three were sampled, and the condition was found to be good but let down slightly by temperature. Both the Monk and the Gaffer's were rather warmer than one would hope, while the Gold suffered the reverse and was rather to cold - evidently there are some problems with the ambient temperature in the cellar here.

Nevertheless, the Black Horse is well worth a visit; the commitment of the landlord to real ale can only be applauded, and temperature issues aside you are always guaranteed a decent pint of something worth drinking in here. The bar maid is very friendly and helpful, and this is now the only traditional pub in an area overrun by soulless modern bars.

Departing from the Black Horse we made our way a short distance up the road to the Western on Western Boulevard - formerly one of the more rough and ready inclusions within the Everards portfolio, recently bought up by the Steamin' Billy Brewing Co. and now a fully renovated and refurbished up market establishment.

Situated on the corner of Western Boulevard, this imposing red brick pub is divided into two large rooms, both accessible from the front door. Turning right takes you into the main bar, which itself comprises two distinct areas. This area is furnished with comfortable seating and tables, and is light, airy and spacious.

Turning left through the front door takes you into the larger of the two rooms, comprising a bar and dining area furnished with dark wood tables and chairs. The pub offers a tempting menu of bar snacks, light bites and pub grub along with traditional Italian style pizzas, although we didn't dine there on this occasion.

Both rooms are decorated with eye catching breweriana, though for my taste the layout is a little too clinical - I like things a little more organic in their arrangement, but that's just nit-picking really!

We decided to do our drinking in the front bar, and were pleased with the selection of four ales on offer - two Steamin' Billys, a Leeds Brewery and a Leatherbritches; after brief deliberation we opted to sample the Leatherbritches Dr. Johnson's and the Steamin' Billy Billy Porter. Both were found to be in very good condition, although the dispense was a litlle on the cold side.

The transformation which the Steamin' Billy team have worked on this place is quite remarkable - in its former days it was very much a pub of ill reputation, and it is quite unrecognisable now; the hilariously ghetto car on the other side of the street gives a fairly good idea of the kind of area it is!

I was delighted to learn that there will be a beer festival taking place at the pub over the weekend, commencing Thursday and ending on Sunday ... needless to say, I will be there and will post on it shortly afterwards.

After finishing our drinks at the Western we made our way up through the DeMontfort University to the Leicester Gateway, part of the Castle Rock estate situated on Gateway Street.
If you can get past the less than inspiring exterior the inside of the pub is quite pleasant; formerly a hosiery factory, this single room, open plan drinking establishment with its pool table, jukebox, low cost food and range of draught continental lagers now caters primarily to the student market. Luckily for us though this was a Monday night and, as a reult, we were able to enjoy the place in relative peace and quiet.

An impressively long bar offers nine handpumps, of which one is dedicated to Westons Old Rosie; of the remaining eight we found the ale range a little limited on our visit, though I'm given to understand that there are usually more micro brews on offer.
Faced with a choice of seven nationals inluding Banks's Bitter, Caledonian Deuchars IPA, Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Marston's Pedigree with one micro option in the form of Overture from Spire Brewery it wasn't a difficult choice - we bought in the Spire and took a seat.

As we were feeling a little peckish by this point we opted for a £2 bowl of chips, which I have to say were very good and a generous portion to boot. It being a rather quiet evening the bar man charged up the jukebox and then informed us there were fifteen free plays and to help ourselves - he may have come to regret this given that I found a tasty selection of early 90's Old Skool to get my teeth into!

Although we spent only a short time in here, and despite the lack of excitement ale-wise, I still found myself pleasantly surprised by the Gateway; the ale was well kept and the dispense good - the bar man had no qualms about removing the sparkler, and the atmosphere was very pleasant.

I'd certainly recommend a stop here for anyone doing a real ale crawl around the city - and if you can time it when the students aren't around so much the better!

From the Gateway it was a short stroll around the corner to the Swan & Rushes on the corner of Infirmary Square, and a pub for which I have a great deal of admiration.

Divided into two distinct rooms, the Swan comprises a main 'L' shaped bar area and smaller lounge, with both rooms served from the same central bar. The lounge is used to host live music
on Saturday nights (usually blues-based) and is also frequented by the Leicester Ultimate Frisbee team. To the rear of the building is a small courtyard / beer garden which also houses the stillage and external bar at the beer festivals which the pub regularly holds.

The Swan is held in high regard by local ale afficionados on two counts, firstly for it's consistently excellent quality of real ale and secondly for its extensive range of bottled foreign beers, which includes german kolsches, bocks, dunkels, rauchbieres and the occasional altbiere alongside Belgian Abbaye and Trappiste brews and a good range of lambics. The pub also stocks a selection of American bottled craft beers, Czech Budvar, Polish Tyskie and Thatchers single varietal bottled ciders.

Those with an eye for breweriana will notice that the emphasis here is on Belgian material, particularly lambic and Orval, for which the owner is one of the UK ambassadors - there's certainly a lot in here to take in!

Complementing the extensive bottled range the Swan also offers twelve handpumps dedicated to real ale, although some of these share the same barrel. In addition to pub stalwarts JHB and Bishops Farewell from Oakham Ales you will usually find either Bateman's XB or Samuel Smiths Old Brewery Bitter and up to six guest ales - strictly no nationals.

For those with a taste for draught lager there is a choice of Amstel or Heineken Export or, for those of a more adventurous palate Het Anker's Margriet and a choice of Lefebvre's Blanche de Bruxelles or Babar is also available from the tap. Draught cider lovers have a choice too with either Samuel Smiths Cider Reserve or a 6-8% battery acid option available from the cellar.

During our visit we sampled Newton's Drop from Oldershaw and Inclined Plane from the Langton Brewery. As anticipated both were in tip top condition and served at optimum temperature.

Unlike most city pubs, the Swan & Rushes has no jukebox, fruit machines or pool table - although there is a much loved and well used bar billiards table. It's a measure of the care and attention given to the beer that vinegar is not used or permitted in the pub!

Finishing our ales we left the Swan and walked the short distance up the road to her former sister pub the Criterion, situated on the corner of Millstone Lane.
You might be forgiven for thinking, based on outside appearance, that this is a rather rough and ready pub; the reality however could not be further from the truth, and a trip inside is well worth the effort.

Divided into two rooms, each with its own bar, the Cretin as it's affectionately known draws a broad mix of people from all walks of life. The basic, wooden floored front bar contains a dart board, hosts regular live (and quite heavy) music and is often closed to the public for private bookings, monthly CAMRA meetings and suchlike.

The carpeted and more comfortable lounge bar is popular with students and professionals alike and houses the pub's jukebox; a tendency towards rock and alternative within the playlist reflects the establishments strong ties to this demographic - the pub is just around the corner from Leicester's leading alternative venue The Charlotte and is a popular pre-gig venue. In terms of decor and fittings, the pub offers traditional dark wood tables, cushioned pew-type seats and stools and is pleasantly decked out with a similar range of breweriana to the Swan - a legacy of the former owner.

On our visit we found a selection of seven real ales on offer - two from the Rugby Brewing Co. who now own the pub, two from Oakham Ales and one apiece from Dark Star, Rudgate and Coastal. In addition to the real ales there are ever changing draught german and belgian beers, a draught cider and usually a real cider to boot - plus a solid selection of bottled foreign beers which almost rivals that of the Swan & Rushes.

The Criterion also hosts regular, themed beer festivals which are usually well worth a visit.
We decided to stay for a couple here, sampling Rugby Cement, Dark Star Mild for May and Oakham Inferno. All were found to be in good form and served at the correct temperature, which I was pleased to find; there have been some problems with conditioning here recently, however it looks as though these may have been resolved.

Food is served at the Criterion, however the pub is best known for its stonebaked Italian style pizzas; sadly these are not available on Monday evenings, but from previous experience they're certainly well worth trying and are exceedingly well priced.

Having finished our beers off we decided there was just enough time remaining for us to hit one more pub, so it was up and off again, this time roughly twenty five yards down the road to the Rutland & Derby - one the new school of Everards pubs.

Until a couple of years ago the Rutland was a very seedy boozer, catering to the less salubrious town centre drinkers; a massive refit and refurbishment has transformed the place into a very trendy drinking establishment. The large, heated courtyard to the rear has seating for a sizeable number of people and makes the pub a popular destination in winter and summer alike.

As a rule this is a venue I tend to avoid, catering as it does primarily to the younger crowd of Up Fer It types - a fact reflected by the strong range of chilled continental lagers and fruit beers available on draught (including krieks and frambozens). There's also a very impressive selection of spirits on the backbar counter - the pub offers cocktails, shooters and all those blended concoctions the kids go crazy for, and as a result is usually heaving from Wednesday night onwards.

On my previous visits I've found the range of real ale rather limited - the usual Everards brews and a selection of nationals such as Greene King IPA and Old Speckled Hen; on this occassion however there were two offerings from the Titanic brewery available and a special, one off ale, brewed by the licensee himself (I'm assuming this was brewed at the Brunswick brewery, though I can't be sure).
Time was very much against us by this point, however we stayed long enough to try this interesting little find (David's Coppernob, 4.5%) and found the beer to be in surprisingly good condition - in my previous experience line cleanliness and beer conditioning has left a fair bit to be desired, however it seems that the current licensee knows how to run a cellar.

I'll certainly be popping back in here again, though as with the Gateway, serious real ale fans may find it better to visit during the day or early in the week.

All in all then a successful mission ... and we made it back in time for the Apprentice!


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