Sunday, 13 September 2015

Chelmsford - The Return

A few weeks ago I visited good friends of mine who are living in Chelmsford in sunny Essex, just on the outskirts of Greater London. A popular commuter town, the place is also home to a surprising amount of decent real ale pubs. I'd written about some of them previously on my first visit there, and this repeat visit gave me the opportunity to visit some of the pubs I had missed - luckily my friends were more than willing to join me on this real ale jaunt!

We first stopped for a spot of lunch to help sop up the alcohol in The Plough, a Mitchell & Butlers (M&B) pub near the train station. I believe this used to be a Nicholson's branded pub, but it now just appears to be a regular M&B's. Food wise burgers are the specialty of the house, with a varied selection of heart destroying beef (or chicken) treats available.  You get a free pint with every burger but sadly the guest ales weren't included in the deal. This meant I had to settle for a Sharps Doom Bar. Like a million other ale drinkers around my age (34) this was one of the first real ales I drank regularly, before moving onto the more adventurous beers. It was one of the better pints of Doom Bar I've had, and sitting in the afternoon sun the drink went down a bit too quickly. I followed with one of the guest ales, the Lambton's Cask Ale from the Maxim Brewery. This was a refreshing pale ale. It was nothing outstanding but it did the job, much like the pub itself. If this was the only pub in town it would be a standout but in Chelmsford, which is overflowing with decent ale pubs, it's more a reliable standby, especially for food.

Next up, after a fifteen minute walk through the town centre, was The Queens Head. An unassuming backstreet local, it's worthy of attention as it's a Mighty Oak tied pub. The interior is sparsely decorated, with a small U-Shaped bar. The pub garden was a pleasant little oasis, with the highest number of dogs I'd ever seen in a boozer's backyard. The Mighty Oak Citra was in good form and by now the sun was beating down hard, so this refreshing pale ale went down a treat. Next up was Dark Star Redhead. This was a rich, satisfying red ale, and packed quite a flavorful punch considering it was only 3.7% abv. Despite the manageable alcohol percentage this beer was a bit too rich for me to make it sessionable, but it was a tasty sup nonetheless. A nice little local and also the most keenly priced of the pubs we visited.

Near the Queens Head is the The Orange Tree, although sadly it was closed when we visited due to unexpected structural problems with the premises. It sounded a bit worrying but hopefully they got it sorted out. We sauntered back through the town centre with the intention of visiting the Ale House, but we stumbled across a micropub along the way. I've enjoyed every micropub I've visited so far. I admire their principles of selling good beer in a environment designed to encourage conversation, usually achieved by using bench sitting which encourages punters to mingle with each other rather than being glued to the comforting glow of their mobile phone screen, no fruit machines and (usually) no music. Some people have reported finding them a bit "cliquely" but I've always found them welcoming. The Hop Beer Shop is another micro I can add to the "like" list. There was an excellent selection of local ales on, and it was also the first micropub I'd visited which also boasted a well curated selection of bottled beers. It's definitely more like a pub than a bottle shop though.

The manager was friendly and approachable and after mentioning that I was thinking of opening a much needed micropub in my corner of South East London we had a friendly chat about starting a micropub and the challenges involved. Following the recommendation of the barman I enjoyed a lovely half of Tring Pale Four, which was a superbly hoppy treat. To avoid appearing rude I also bought a few bottles to take home as well. The bottled beer selection ranged from local Essex ales to continental beers and they were all very tempting. The pub is small but although there were quite a few in it didn't feel cramped, the atmosphere was buzzing and overall this was an lovely place for a drink.

We eventually made it to The Ale House, which I wrote about in my previous Chelmsford visit and again it did not disappoint. The half of Salted Caramel from the Almasty Brewing Co that I enjoyed was a highlight. We ordered a calorific but delicious pizza from the take away across the road, which you're more than welcome to bring into the pub. It was so bad for me but also so good at the same time - the perfect takeaway pizza. We finished the night at Barista, a trendy nightspot. I never would of thought of going in here had it not been in the Good Beer Guide, as the place is a glitzy bar along the lines of Tiger Tiger and isn't the usual CAMRA friendly place. But nestled in the back as promised were three gravity dropped ales. My pint of Skinners Copper was in top condition and I enjoyed my drink as the bright young girls and sleazy old men of Chelmsford enjoyed a dance to enjoyable cheesy pop hits. A bit of a surreal end to an excellent day (and night) of boozing.

Chelmsford really is lucky to be blessed with several excellent places for beer, and I wish the micropub all the best success in such a crowded marketplace! I look forward to returning again to pay The Orange Tree a visit - plus The Ship which has snuck into the Good Beer Guide 2016. Well I got to make sure both pubs deserved their place! See you soon.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Norfolk Part 3 - Great Yarmouth

I love a trip to the seaside. The sea air, the amusement arcades, the shops selling every kind of tat imaginable, the bad but delicious food and of course a relaxing pint once the sea and sun has become too much. As part of my Norfolk break The Lovely Jemma and I had a day out at Great Yarmouth. I'd never been before but was looking forward to it, and it didn't disappoint. The shops did not let me down on tackiness, there was plenty of trashy food available, although we chickened out and ending up eating at a Spoons, the arcades were plentiful and there was even a surprisingly thrilling wooden rollercoaster to ride at the far end of the prom.

The aforementioned Spoons was The Troll Cart - despite the original and amusing name the pub was sadly an identikit Spoons with the usual grubby floor, sticky tables and solid range of ales and reliable food.  Once settled in the pub I ended up going for a Southern Fried Chicken strips and chips, which was a glorified chicken nuggets but despite being a meal clearly designed for children it filled a gap. To continue the American theme of my lunch I enjoyed a SixPoint The Crisp which went down a treat and was included with the meal - bargain. I really enjoy the SixPoint beers and am glad that Spoons are still selling them despite rumours of poor sales. The pub was packed when we arrived at noon but soon emptied out once the lunch time crowd were down and we left sitting amongst typical Spoons "characters." A less reputable blogger than I would make a comparison between the name of the pub and its weekday afternoon customers but I'm better than that. It was soon time to move on to the next pub.

There are two Great Yarmouth pubs in the Good Beer Guide and we only got the chance to visit one of them. The GBG can be a bit hit and miss - sometimes the pubs are pretty grim but because they serve a good pint the CAMRA beardies are happy to put it into the guide. Luckily The Mariners turned out to be a bit of a gem. An impressive stone facade outside, and a cosy two room interior made this a cosy and welcoming pub. There was a good selection of ales on and my half of Slap in the Face from Totally Brewed was in great condition and tasted hoppy and delicious. Only one of the rooms seemed to be open. As I'm a nosy bastard I couldn't resist opening the door to the second room where I was greeted by a large dog looking at me inquisitively before deciding he didn't like me and barking his head off. I quickly shut the door, the barmaid had a good laugh and all was well in the world. Located off the beaten track this pub was a nice place to enjoy a quiet pint.

We headed on down to the Pleasure Beach, stopping at the Lacon Brewery along the way. They have a shop at the brewery which was supposed to be open until 2:30pm, but was firmly shut when we arrived around 2pm. Luckily the head brewer saw me looking forlorn at the shop and took pity on me. As they were very busy he'd taken the staff member who usually mans the shop on to the production line, but he got him back in. The brewer also had a chat with me about the history of Lacons and led me into the small museum that they had. Founded in 1760, the brewery had a illustrious history until it was bought out by Whitbread in 1965, and they sadly closed the brewery in 1968. InBev, who make Budweiser, subsequently bought out Whitbread and the Lacons trademark was passed over to them.

After lying dormant for nearly 50 years, in 2013 a drinks distributor tycoon bought back the Lacon brand and brewing returned to Great Yarmouth. There's clearly a bit of money behind the operation and the museum and shop are in great nick, and the branding is very smart. I bought a few bottles in the shop. I've only had the chance to drink the Legacy so far, and it was a decent bitter with pleasant floral notes in the finish.

Overall I had a great time Yarmouth and North Norfolk overall. The weather was on our side, the pubs and beer were excellent, and the scenery was lovely. Well played Norfolk, well played.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Norfolk Part 2 - Norwich

I'd been looking forward to visiting Norwich ever since looking up the town on the handy Good Beer Guide mobile app, and was pleased and a little bewildered at the number of results returned. Arriving in the morning, The Lovely Jemma and  started the day by having a look around the market and a stroll around the shops in this charming little city, and soon it was time to get down to the serious business of enjoying a half in as many of the Good Beer Guide pubs as possible. We both started in The Murderers, handily located near the Primark. The interior was quite amusing with a smugglers cove look, and posters of infamous murderers dotted about. My half of Wolf Brewery Edith Cavell, named in tribute of the famous nurse was a floral, hoppy treat. I'm sure it's what she would have wanted her beer to taste like (maybe.)

After leaving TLJ to carry on her shopping and enjoy lunch with her mum at Zizzi, I headed on to the second pub. It nearly ruined my itinerary for the day as despite the GBG describing the pub as being on the "outskirts" of the city centre it was actually a good 20-30 minute walk before I arrived at The Fat Cat. Nestled on a suburban street corner this place is a CAMRA member wet dream of a pub come to life. Classic pub furnishings, plenty of real ales on handpump and gravity, and lots of little nooks and crannies to sit in. On a damp Tuesday afternoon there were a goodly amount of people in enjoying the ale and chat friendly atmosphere. The Fat Cat has their own brewery, although it's not based in this pub, and I tried a half of their Hell Cat. It was a hoppy, reliable sup, and I couldn't help but invest in one of their pork pies as well, which was very tasty and great value at £2.50, compared to the £4-5 I'd have to pay for a slice of decent pork pie in London. With the soggy weather outside I could have quite easily of camped in here for the rest of the day, but I had a helluva lot of other pubs to visit so I sadly moved on. I'd be happy to come back.

Next up was the The Alexandra Tavern, another street corner boozer nestled in a residential area a few minutes walk from The Fat Cat. An attractive pub inside, with a large horseshoe bar and comfortable seating areas on each side, there was also a nice selection of ales. Beers from the Chalk Hill Brewery seemed to be the house favourite and I tried the Tap, which sadly wasn't brilliant. It was lacking punch and tasted a tiny bit sour and tired. Settling down on a bench I noticed that there was a rather happy four legged fellow a few tables down catching forty winks. Judging from the size of him I thought he'd be more home at The Fat Cat. I gave him a little bit of fuss but he was too sleepy to notice. The pub was quiet and I enjoyed my half in peace, looking at the photos of the immense amount of charity work the landlord has done for the area. I could see this being a lively little local after work hours.

I started walking back to Norwich city centre, stopping in to the Earlham Arms as it was on the way. This large, imposing pub is tastefully decorated in greyish hues inside. Although there is a strong focus on food, I had missed the lunchtime rush and was able to enjoy a half in a quiet, relaxing pub. The half of Norfolk Kiwi from Jo C's Norfolk Ales was really rather good, and the food the punters on the table next to me were enjoying looked tasty as well. Service was friendly, and if this was the only pub in the nearby area it would be an excellent option, but with all the competition nearby this place was reliable if a little bit bland.

A ten minute walk later and I was back in Norfolk Town Centre, and on to a pub I was looking forward to visiting, The Plough. This boozer serves as the tap for the reliable Grain Brewery, and a full selection of their beers were available in this sparsely furnished, small two room pub. The serving area is awkwardly sprawled across the two serving areas, making it difficult to squeeze past even on this quiet Tuesday afternoon. I ended up having a half of the Best Bitter and it was an excellent example of the style, rich warm and comforting. With a pleasant beer garden and friendly service this was a more than capable pub despite the tight layout. Next up, down a side street near the market was The Vine, a small pub serving a nice selection of ales and a tasty looking Thai menu, although sadly I didn't get to try it. My half of Comet by Newby Wyke was a tasty, easy drinking ale, and generally this seemed to be a easy going pub, although I imagine it can get rather cosy during busy periods.

The last pub on my journey around Norwich was The Mash Tun, conveniently located near where I'd parked the car. Owned by trendy Norwich brewers Redwell, the place was done up in traditional craft bar style - exposed brick work, metallic surfaces, a BBQ menu and a absence of handpumps, but plenty of keg available. A wide range of Redwell beer was available, and the Pale Ale I enjoyed was a lovely hoppy treat, although it was delivered freezing cold which lessened the flavour initially. There didn't appear to be a lunchtime menu and the beer prices were high so I wasn't surprised to be the only punter in the pub. Sadly this meant the atmosphere was deathly dull, and the lady behind the bar looked like she wished she could be anywhere else. I couldn't blame her. I'd like to come back at a busier time as I didn't get an accurate feel for the place on my visit.

Norwich didn't let me down with the pubs, with an excellent and varied selection of boozers available catering to just about every taste, from old fashioned ale houses to trendy craft emporiums. I had a great time.