28 October 2008

Buckling in Pursuit of Oblivion

Every once in a while something comes along that really blows your mind – the birth of a child, that big win on the lottery, or, in my case, a beer of such potency, complexity and provenance that it sweeps away all preconceptions and expectations, leaving you glassy eyed and reeling from the sheer magnitude of the thing.

Granted, it’s not something that happens very often; indeed, this is the first (and probably only) time that I’ve experienced this with an alcoholic beverage, but it’s something which I suspect will stay with me for as long as my faculties are functional.

My story begins some two months ago in, as is so often the case with these things, the pub - the particular pub in question being that much favoured haunt of mine, the Swan & Rushes, Leicester.

During the course of a conversation one evening, licensee Grant Cook casually dropped in the matter of a couple of rather special nine gallon casks which had been promised to him by those nice chaps over at Oakham Ales.

Naturally my ears pricked up – Grant has a very good relationship with the Oakham team, and the promise of something new from them is always to be savoured; on this occasion however “something new” was not quite the order of the day…

With mounting excitement I listened as the story unfolded: the brewery had cleared out their cellar, and as it transpired they had a few barrels squirreled away from a couple of first brews.

The ales in question, Oblivion (5.7%) and Hawse Buckler (5.6%), had been quietly maturing in the cask for a little over one year and three years respectively – until now.

My appetite suitably whetted, I waited for the arrival of the barrels at the pub, my mind feverishly contemplating the potential of these most rare scoops until, at long last I heard the words I’d been so eagerly anticipating:

“They’re Here”

First to come on to the bar was the Oblivion, a beer which I know very well and am always partial to. What emerged from the barrel however was a very different beast to the brew which I have supped so many times; this was the sort of beer that sidles up, coshes you and nicks your wallet.

A deep, dark, reddish copper in colour with a thick, dark cream head, the beer offered up a powerful aroma of ripe fruits and malt which carried the thinly veiled threat of a serious headache if not handled carefully.

Taking a deep, fulsome pull on my pint the first thing to hit me was the incredible amount of fruit on the palate, complemented by a rich and spicy maltiness. This was followed up by a gloriously dry, bitter hop finish that seemed almost to suck the moisture from my cheeks – doubtless due to the late addition of dry hops.

I had expected a sharply alcoholic hit, but what I experienced was a warming glow akin to what I would normally associate with a sherry – a delicious sensation which brought an immediate smile to my lips. The mouthfeel meanwhile, full and thick, complemented the palate perfectly.

I could compare this with some of the stronger American IPA’s, but that wouldn’t do it justice – the year in the cask had given this brew the time to develop into something of stunning dimensions, a true prince among beers. The ABV will remain a complete unknown, although I would have said at least 7.5%

Unsurprisingly, the nine gallons went within twenty four hours and, a few days later, it was time for the real star of the show. If the Oblivion was a prince among beers then now it was time to hail the king...

On Thursday night the Hawse Buckler (again, a beer I know well in its younger guise) came on to the pump, and I duly prepared to taste the first half – common sense and the strength of the Oblivion were enough to ensure that I initially approached this with extreme caution, albeit short lived.

The first thing that struck me was the colour: never before have I seen a beer so utterly black, the kind of black you normally only find in the deepest caves or on the ocean floor. The head, thick and tight, was a rick coffee hue and clung to the glass with a viscosity unlike any I’ve seen in a beer before, forming spider web patterns on the side of the glass as I drank.

The aroma, deeply roasted with hints of liquorice, coffee and cinder toffee, seemed to physically crawl into the nostrils, a thick fug of delicious promise that sent my olfactory system into overload and drew an appreciative gasp from my lips.

The first mouthful was a revelation, a rhapsody of sultry, roasted tones with a rounded, mellow fruitfulness and delightful notes of coffee, burnt toffee and caramel, that liquorice again and hints of tanned leather. A moderately dry finish with a slightly hoppy edge completed the palate perfectly, while the thick, chewy mouthfeel was a sheer joy.

After a couple of pints on the Thursday night the Beer Monster arrived in Leicester to join me on Friday afternoon. Naturally we made our way down to the pub in order that she too might savour this dark ambrosia and, with gay abandon, we set down to some serious quaffing.

Four pints later and we were well and truly banjaxed; an attempt at bar billiards turned into a master class in how to avoid potting balls, communication became increasingly difficult and at just seven in the evening (the HB had run out by six) we decided it was time to head back home and have some food. The food never happened - we were unconscious by seven thirty.

God only knows what strength the beer had developed into; certainly we were far more hammered after those four pints than we normally are after a full day of serious ticking at a festival, but being a fan of the strong, dark brews I’d have to say somewhere near or above the 10% mark.

Returning to the Swan the following day was like entering a field hospital for the shell shocked. Around the pub wandered the casualties of the night before – the few, the band of brothers who had shared in the black ritual that had taken place.

Everyone it seems had been hit by the Hawes in much the same way, becoming incredibly drunk without realising they were doing so – the true danger of such a beer. So easy to consume and moreish, it had seduced us with its scent and gorgeous body, only to rob us of our sensibility and coordination.

The words of one victim sum it up perfectly:

“I woke up on the sofa with me trousers round me bloomin’ ankles and me bloomin’ shoes on!”

Enough said, methinks.


27 October 2008

Bull Brewery Showcase №1 - Kelham Island

This Thursday 30th October marks the start of what should prove a very popular monthly brewery showcase at the Bull in Horton Kirby, Kent.

Each month the pub aims to procure six highly sought-after and rare-to-the-area ales from one of Britain's best and most innovative microbreweries. The brewery's casks will be dispensed by gravity from a stillage and will be in addition to the pub's staple 5 or 6 ever changing ales behind the bar.

This month they're kicking off with the mighty Kelham Island of Sheffield. We're lucky if we get the occasional Pale Rider popping up in Kent and London but this weekend, in addition to regular brews Easy Rider and Pride of Sheffield, there will be no less than four specials:
  • Harvest Gold 3.8%

  • Conquistador 5.7% - Peruvian dark ale

  • Grande Pale 6.6% - billed as Pale Rider on steroids

and what has to be the pick of the draw:

The showcase runs from Thursday through until Sunday evening and there's even live music on Friday night.

Just try and keep us away!


21 October 2008

Bladdered (again) @ the Bull

This October finally saw the arrival of the long-awaited Bull Handpicked ’08 beer festival. Dubbel, Jnr and I had excitedly been anticipating the event since landlord, Garrett, first approached us on a random regular Friday evening visit, enquiring as to where our real ale allegiances lay and which of this year’s brews had most impressed us. We rapidly reeled of a list of faves from notable British breweries including Thornbridge, Marble, BrewDog, and Beowolf.

The Bull is definitely my favourite watering hole. I was first introduced to the place in April this year and from my very first visit I’ve always felt warm and welcome in its homely and comfortable atmosphere. This really is a pub you can walk into and leave feeling content. As soon as you open the door the staff and the regulars will welcome you with open arms to their locals’ paradise. Landlady Lynne’s food never fails to impress me: generous portions, locally sourced ingredients, seasonal options, BBQ’s, hog roasts, fine home made crumbles - you name it - and if there isn’t anything on the menu that takes your fancy, Lynne is only too happy to go out of her way to be flexible with other options.

The Sunday roast this week again left me spellbound. Naturally, I had to select the largest option on the menu - a bit of everything! - beef, lamb, pork (and crackling of course). The home made roast potatoes were perfect with lightly cooked cauliflower, carrots, cabbage, stuffing, and a huge Yorkshire pudding. Mmmm.

Garrett is amazing in his knowledge and enthusiasm for breweries and beer sampling. He’s so positive in his ongoing aim of sourcing some of the best beers in the country and he never seems to forget any of them! Not withstanding his cellar skills, which are clearly exceptional based on the constant stream of crystal clear beer pulled from the pumps. If you were inclined to check the temperature you could guarantee every pint would be virtually spot on 13.5 degrees. The two proud owners together with the rest of their team provide the perfect concoction for our Ultimate Pub.

Anyhow, I digress. Back to the festival…

We were invited to a preview “tasting” session on the Thursday night. In actuality this was just a chance to get the beers flowing nice and early - I think the hosts were too excited! The first night was supposed to be a light one. If only my head felt the same way as I navigated my way to work on the Friday morning knowing only too well that it would only be a few hours before we could continue working through the select 20 or so beers.

Friday was definitely ‘a good effort’ and I woke up with my face stuck to the sofa on the Saturday morning but still eager to get back to the pub for midday to ensure we had maximum time for quaffing all day. Thank heavens I backed out of the originally proposed 20 pint challenge! We all left at the appropriate time. A finishing Dark Star Imperial Stout put pay to everyone’s plans for a late night. Officially 10.5% (although the consensus around the pub was that it was probably a fair bit stronger - 14% at a guess). YCC associate Rapid confirmed its soporific qualities after deciding that 4pm was the perfect time for a pint of it. Fortunately he’d perked up admirably well come darkness.

After much wallowing and some deliberation we opted to give the Sunday a miss. None of us felt it wise to tackle another day and what a shame! We missed Lynne’s hog roast which looked fantastic as it was being prepped the night before.

In terms of the ale selection Beowulf Dragonsmoke Stout (4.7%) was one of my favourite beers of the weekend; a full-on smoky dry-roasted stout with a rich bitter palate and a hint of chocolate which tingles the tongue. Their Dark Raven (4.5%) tradional mild with a heavy yet smooth and hugely fruity body was also a treat. Sadly we missed the Finns Hall Porter as it was stoically kept in reserve until the Sunday buffle*.

This was our first encounter with BrewDog Hype (4.1%), a beer which can only be described as BIG. A warm gold colour, the nose is full of a spectrum of fruit, malts and hops, the flavour is one of the richest, fullest beers I’ve ever had. Not one to be drunk all day! With some pints the palate adjusts as you work your way through and the overall taste sensation weakens – this just doesn’t and was one of the first beers to run dry. Punk IPA (6%) came runner up in the Beer of the Festival public vote and is a legendary beer for us. Each of our stashes are full of the stuff following Tesco’s recent giveaway introductory offer of 99p a bottle. However, straight from the cask it’s a different animal: a monstrously sweet, yet refreshing and tangy IPA in keeping with the rest of the impressive BrewDog range. We pray they don’t become too big and lose their way.

Dark Star Festival Best (4.5%) was a festival special literally consisting of 50% Festival and 50% Best Bitter. I was unsure about this one. Although a big fan of Festival, the Best is the only ale in the entire range I’m not sure I enjoy. Having recently tinkered with the recipe, it has improved but it still lacks the usual Dark Star wow factor. The two mixed together seemed to separate again on the palate, possibly because I was already familiar with the two ingredients. On the other hand, the Imperial Stout was worthy of celebration alone. This rich, gloopy, treacley Russian Imperial Stout is absolutely to die for and probably my personal Beer of the Festival - certainly the one that commands the most respect.

Other beers that really impressed were the eminently drinkable Marble Pint (3.9%) which was first to sell out despite its worrying sparkling yellow-green hue and another huge-hopper JP Best (4.3%). But a special mention must go to Thornbridge, whose Katipo (5.4%, pronounced Kar-ti-Paw) porter was dark but not too heavy and chocked full of peaty, ripe fruit flavour which we absolutely loved. However, the Beer of the Festival was rightly awarded to Jaipur IPA (5.9%) a modern-day classic and possibly the best IPA currently in production in the country with spice and a host of fruits offset by a rasping dry finish, it really was in world-beating nick.

Overall the festival was wonderful and an all-round great success. Garrett and Lynne have since revealed that they are planning to put their acquired stillage to good use with a monthly brewery showcase weekend. The first of which will hopefully be BrewDog in November. (Keep an eye on the blog for further updates) Brilliant news, and great to see that the hard work put into the festival hasn’t kerbed their enthusiasm!


*Buffle, v - best defined by Two Hats of Goldie Lookin' Chain: "I dunno if you've heard of buffling but it's to shy away from something, "You coming out for a drink? You coming out tonight?" "No, I'm buffling". Or you get in a fight "Aaaah, no buffling, no buffling."

13 October 2008

Regina est Mortuus

There can be few things sadder than watching the steady decline and ultimate passing of a real ale pub, but alas I must now report the closure of the Queen Victoria in Leicester.

What started out as a highly promising new venture began to disintegrate into a shambles, with beer range and quality deteriorating rapidly, increasingly unsavoury clientele beginning to frequent the place and general maintenance going to pot.

It seems that within a couple of days of their last Bogtrotter beer festival (3rd – 5th October) the bailiffs had been in and the place is now boarded up.

The jungle drums here in Leicester indicate that the closure was due to unpaid debts; certainly we here at Ale Affinity have received enquiries from persons within the brewing industry wishing to contact the proprietor.

The Queen Vic had the potential to be a true gem of a pub; the proximity to the train station and the soon to open Curve theatre made it an ideal location, and the intention of delivering quality micro brewed ales should have made it a real winner.

Sadly however something went badly awry, and over a period of perhaps three months a multitude of issues began to rear their ugly heads.

The result was never really in doubt once the rot set in, but somehow I kept holding out hopes of a turn for the better.

Now it only remains to be seen whether anyone will take on the pub and commit to the expenditure required to make it truly viable – a complete cellar overhaul, full renovation of the living quarters upstairs and significant structural work throughout the building.

For now at least, it seems the Queen is dead.


11 October 2008

Bladdered @ the Brunswick

As many of you will doubtless be aware, last week (1st - 4th) saw the Brunswick Inn host its annual beer festival and, due to a change to our original plans, the Beer Monster and I had the pleasure of taking a trip over for the Friday session.

Arriving at around 1pm, we found the pub already packed out with an eclectic mix of families, scoopers, students and lunchtime drinkers; after a quick foray through the main bar area we swiftly established that seating was going to be at something of a premium and ensconced ourselves in the separate lounge area to the right of the front entrance.

We had been expecting to find around 30 beers available as this seems to be pretty much the norm nowadays, however we were in for real treat – fifty ales were on offer, and the selection was quite impressive with beers from (amongst others) Brown Cow, Old Bear, Goose Eye, Tigertops and Burton Old Cottage; for those who are interested there’s a full beer list on Natasha Moorfield’s site.

Needless to say, the pair of us were pretty soon drooling at the prospect of the quaffathon ahead and wasted no time in getting the first couple of halves in, kicking off with Phantom Mild from Tigertops and Oh Bullox from Brunswick’s own selection; the condition of the beers was excellent and pretty much reflected the standard across the board, although we did encounter a couple of slightly hazy brews later in the day.

Given that we were in Derby for the day it seemed something of a crime to restrict ourselves to just one pub and, accordingly, after getting our drinking legs nicely screwed on and putting away sixteen halves between us we decided it was time to take a bit of a mission and hit our other chosen destination, the delightful Flower Pot pub, home of Headless brewery.
I fell in love with the ‘Pot on my first drinking visit to Derby, and once again I found myself bowled over by the fine range of ales that were on – fifteen if memory serves me correctly, with the bulk of these being guests rather than Headless brews. As a first time visitor the Beer Monster found herself suitably impressed by the place; there’s been some criticism from certain corners over the slightly higher beer prices charged by the pub, however the beer selection is invariably excellent, the condition usually very good and the pub has a charming ambience, all of which more than make up for the slight premium in my opinion.

Our all too brief visit allowed us to sample nine ales from seven breweries, including the Flower Pot Special brewed by Burton Bridge alongside offerings from Full Mash, Salamander, Holland, Whim, Black Hole and Headless themselves.

With time ticking on it was back up to the Brunswick to grab a final half each and some food. Fortunately the pub had laid on a barbecue out back and were offering a choice of hotdogs or burgers at reasonable prices, so we opted to chow down with the burger option, topped with baked beans – a new taste sensation on me (I’d never have thought to put the beans on the burger, in the bun, but it works an absolute treat!)

Having finished lining our stomachs it was time for the short stroll back up to the station and the Friday night party train back to Leicester, with the pair of us feeling decidedly well oiled and very satisfied with the outcome of the day.
We’re already looking forward to the next Brunswick bash, which will be taking place around the same time next year – it’s a shame they only do one per annum, but I guess the waiting ultimately makes the reward all the sweeter…


6 October 2008

Strong as a Bull

Sometimes it's a closely-fought wrestling bout in your mind: do you divulge and promote your undisputed favourite tucked away treasure of a pub to the world? After all, an unpretentious, warm and friendly, classic village pub like this deserves to prosper and be a source of pleasure to as many worthy souls as possible.

Or do you try your hardest to keep it a secret; your own personal, relatively quiet refuge away from the unpleasant realities of big city life? There aren't many places where you feel so truly welcomed and smugly satisfied.

As more and more of Britain's much beloved pubs continue to wither towards terminal closure, there are the odd few that have sprouted new life and are keeping the freehouse tradition alive.

Since we imposed ourselves (as out-of-town regulars) on The Bull in Horton Kirby early this year, we have witnessed a very good pub grow to become truly great. In the last 10 months, we have seen Licencees Garrett and Lynne:
  • introduce real ciders and perries and acclaimed American and Continental bottled beers in addition to the excellent ever-changing cask ales from microbreweries nationwide

  • arrange pub outings to the Dark Star brewery and Chappel beer festival

  • host numerous beer festivals, parties and live music evenings

  • launch a website and Facebook group, keeping regulars up to date with developments and upcoming events

  • serve up a treat of fine, locally-sourced homecooked food (including special steak and fish nights, lamb and hogroasts and barbeques galore)

  • justly pick up the local CAMRA Pub of the Year award, a title dominated by the Cock Inn at Luddesdowne for the past 3 years

There's even a cracking view of the Darenth Valley from the peaceful back garden and the rarity of an adorable pub dog, Chloe, completes the homely, familiar feel of the place. We have never left without a beaming smile on our faces and count our lucky stars that we have a place of this standard within reasonable distance (about a 25 mile round trip from home down the A20).

Happily, far from resulting in complacency, the Pub of the Year status seems only to have spurred the owners on to achieve greater things. A sixth handpump is waiting to be installed on the bar and there is sometimes an extra ale available on gravity. The keg beers have been refined with Stella and John Smiths ousted in favour of imported Löwenbräu and Dark Star Natural Blonde lager. Garrett even has plans to commence brewing on site in the New Year.

This weekend The Bull is hosting its Handpicked '08 Beer Festival, sourcing beers from the corners of the country that you simply do not find in Kentish pubs. There are also a couple of exclusives, including a seldom seen cask of Dark Star Imperial Stout at 10.5% ABV and a festival special also from the Sussex micro. As self-professed aficionados we were given the opportunity to assist in the selection of the ales - so if you don't like the look of these then you've got us to blame!

Beowulf Dark Raven (4.5)
Beowulf Dragonsmoke Stout (4.7)
Beowulf Finns Hall Porter (4.7)
BrewDog Hype (4.1)
BrewDog Punk IPA (6.0)
Brewster Hophead (3.6)
Brewster Hop-a-doodle-doo (4.3)
Dark Star Hophead (3.6)
Dark Star Festival Special (4.5)
Dark Star Imperial Stout (10.5)
Marble Pint (3.9)
Marble JP Best (4.3)
Marble Ginger Marble (4.5)
Newby Wyke Sidewinder (3.8)
Newby Wyke Riverside Special Bitter (4.8)
Purity Pure Gold (3.8)
Purity Pure UBU (4.7)
Thornbridge Lord Marples (4.0)
Thornbridge Katipo (5.4)
Thornbridge Jaipur IPA (5.9)

As well as this impressive beer list, there will be a further 5 ciders and perries, a barbeque, live music, birds of prey display and another mouthwatering hogroast on the Sunday. The atmosphere is sure to be terrific and attendance is strongly advised.

The festival runs from Friday through to Sunday and the nearest train station is Farningham Road on the London Victoria line. I imagine we'll be there more often than not, so do come and say hello if you spot us.


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