Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Transpennine Rail Ale Trail

The Transpennine rail ale trail is a stretch of pubs on the journey from Leeds to Manchester. It was made popular by that beer program starring Oz Clarke and James May. I never actually watched the show as Oz and James make me irrationally angry, but I imagine they were perfect for a show about beers and pubs as they both look like they would do a good job at being insufferable pub bores, and I'm speaking from experience here. Details of the "official" trail can be found here.

There have been plenty of horror stories about the trail since it got popular, with tales of punters pissing into local residents gardens, vandalising trains, and performing satanic rituals in abandoned mills in chocolate box Yorkshire villages (the last one may not be true.) I was a little apprehensive as we were doing the trail on a Saturday, traditionally the day when all the Fosters lads are hitting the pubs, but was also looking forward to visit some excellent sounding pubs.

Our first stop was the Cellar Bar in Batley, an entirely forgettable pub with a middling ale selection. We got in at 11:45am and  already there was a bunch of lads, including one in a fetching grass skirt, at the pool table looking fairly merry, which set the tone for the rest of the day. We swiftly moved on to Dewsbury to visit the West Riding Refreshment Rooms. Situated on the platform this was a much better bet, with a well chosen selection of cask and keg ales. As luck would have it we were there for the local "Westival" festival, so as well as the ten or so ales available in the pub, the pub was also a real ale concession as part of the festival, with an additional fifteen ales on often. My half of Sorachi from the talented Bristol Beer Factory was in good form, and  Treasure IPA from Yorkshire lads Great Heck was a tasty, hoppy treat. The ivy covered exterior of the pub is a delight to look at, and the cosy interior with train paraphernalia scattered about is also a pleasure. A brass band came on stage as part of the festival, clearly laid on for us Londoners to cement the fact that we were in Yorkshire. It was even pouring down with rain! I had a great time here.

Back on the train and alighting at Mirfield, we skipped the recommended pub and walked in the opposite direction to The Flowerpot, a CAMRA Pub of the Year (POTY) winner. This turned out to be a good idea as the trail participants were growing in number and drunkenness. It also helped that The Flowerpot was probably the best pub of the day. A fine looking stone building nestled in a pretty village, this Otley brewery owned pub serves a selection of their ales and also had some good guest ales on. The interior of the pub is full of cosy corners to enjoy a sup. My pint of White Rat took its time to settle, I'm not used to this as in London pubs the beer generally comes out ready to drink. I prefer the thrill of the settle myself. The end result was a very tasty pale ale. After a surprisingly injury free turn on the darts board it was time to head on to the next stop.

Arriving in Huddersfield, we again skipped the pub on the ale trail website and walked the ten or so minutes to The Grove. I'd read some reports that some people doing the trail don't bother venturing any further on the trail after hitting this pub, and walking in I could see why. This cosy two room pub has a superb selection of cask and keg beers available, with a dazzling amount of handpumps on the horseshoe shaped bar. I tried the collaboration brew It's Magic by  Fyne Ales and Magic Rock, two of my favourite breweries as they produce consistently good beer. It was a malty treat, and my second pint Durham Lightning Rod was a pleasingly hoppy session pale ale. Sadly we hadto move on but I look forward to returning to this lovely temple to beer in the future.

Our last stop before Manchester was Marsden, where we were supposed to visit the Riverhead Brewery TapUnfortunately the place was jam packed with braying, loud mouthed assholes. Clearly the other punters on the ale trail had been hitting the beers hard and fast, and were hassling both customers and staff. It was sad to see. I necked a Riverhead Brewery Fly Weight and we escaped up the road to The Shakespeare. The Dizzy Blonde I ordered was pure vinegar soup, and was swiftly returned for a Tetleys Dark Mild on keg, which was about as good as can be expected. This was not a great pub by any stretch of the imagination but it was quiet and had a pool table so I couldn't complain too much.

The train from Marsden to Manchester was a bit of a nightmare, and the sober customers were looking very uncomfortable on a train packed with braying ale trailers. I say "ale" trailers, from what I'd seen in the pubs most weren't drinking the ales at all - lager was the order of the day. We arrived in Manchester in one piece and had a great dinner at Red's True Barbecue - I'd never eaten so much meat in one sitting in my life and their inhouse IPA was also pretty damn good.

I enjoyed the ale trail but if I was to do it again it would definitely be during the week. My advice if you're doing it on a weekend is start as early as possible and call it quits around 3pm - the pubs are just too busy, and the customers too boorish after then. The two stand out pubs (The Flowerpot and The Grove) weren't even on the "official" trail and it was well worth straying off the beaten path. I would definitely prioritise those two pubs if you're doing the trail.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Walking in Norfolk - Never Turn Back and Jolly Farmers

I was in Norfolk last week for a few days, staying in a cottage in the Scratby area with the wife's family. I enjoy it there - the beaches are quiet, the walks are flat, and the weather was on my side. The only bad thing about the area is that there isn't much beer variety in the many pubs - I was usually stuck with a choice between Adnams or Woodforde's. Even at the Wetherspoons in Great Yarmouth, the aptly named Troll Cart, I ended up having a pint of Woodforde's Nog, a straight forward old ale from the reliable if dull Norfolk brewer.

One pub highlight of the trip was the Never Turn Back, nestled between two holiday home parks in Caister-On-Sea. My father-in-law and I enjoyed a pleasant hour long walk along the beach to enjoy a refreshing pint here. The fun begins outside the pub, which is built in the typical 1930's style of pubs owned by the Lacons Brewery who were (and now thanks to a recent resurrection, are) based in Great Yarmouth. The striking building looks more like the control centre for some ominous 50's British technology than a pub, although it is has a certain charm about it and there's a lovely large beer garden out the front.

The landlord was busy on the lawnmower when we arrived at 12pm, and told us he'd open up at 12:30pm, so we had a look around the caravan parks, playing on the two penny pushers inside the on site arcade, where I failed to win any additional beer tokens. We duly popped back at 12:30pm and the pub was ready for business. It's in the Good Beer Guide and the pint of Adnams (sigh) Bitter was in excellent form, and very much needed after the long walk along the beach in the hot sun. Still feeling a bit thirsty I had probably my sixth pint of Adnams Ghost Ship of the trip, which again was in very good nick. When it's well kept Ghost Ship is an refreshing, hoppy pint that I have a bit of a fondness for.

A selection of food and bar snacks was available and we settled for a hot dog and cheesy chips - it ain't fine dining but it fills a gap. The interior of the pub is very cosy, with plenty of comfortable bench seating, nick nacks scattered about the place, and a small exhibit on how the pub got its somewhat unique name. On reporting on a botched lifeboat rescue in 1906, where nine men from the Caister lifeboat team lost their lives, the phrase "Caister men never turn back" was coined. Model lifeboats scattered around the pub set the theme, and the lifeboat station is only a five minute walk away from the pub. This excellent seaside boozer is well worth seeking out if you're in the area.

Another pub to get an honorable mention is the Jolly Farmers, an Enterprise tied house in picturesque Ormesby St Margaret. With a traditional wood paneled interior, selection of well kept ales (including the inevitable Adnams Ghost Ship and Woodforde's Wherry) and decent food, this would be an excellent stop for refreshment if enjoying a walk through the area. There's even a pool table.

There may not be all that much to do in this area of England, but sometimes fresh air, a long walk and welcoming pubs is just what is required from a short break. Looking forward to returning to Norfolk next year.

Friday, 3 June 2016

My top five craft beers

Craft beer - everybody wants some. Well everybody inside the M25, and in some pockets of the area outside the London Orbital called "The North" (south of London is just a wasteland of cider and cocktails.) Living in London I'm lucky enough to be in the epicentre of beardie brewed overly hopped beer enjoyed by folks with more money than sense. In no particular order here are my favourite craft beers of the ones I've tried.

Gumphreys Belfry - Hopless. I must admit I was skeptical when I first tried this. As Rupert Gumphrey, head brewer and part time uni-cyclist explains from his East London brewery "Hopless is a natural rebellion against the mega hopped beers so beloved by the craft scene. We were fed up with beers that tasted like tropical fruit juice, so we've created a well balanced beer made with absolutely no hops whatever. Just malt, water and yeast. Technically we're not allowed to call it beer but our marketing managers dad is chairman of the Advertising Standards Agency so we're getting away with it."

I must admit it took a while to get used to the flavour, it was like drinking a very bitter bread. But after a few sips and being coerced by the beer bloggers I was sharing this with at some craft ale festival I couldn't help but agree that it was pretty good, even while I was pouring it down the sink in the bogs.

Greenfingers - Asparagus IPA. If the fetching green colour doesn't make this beer stand out, the smell of your wee the morning after drinking it certainly will. As brewer Robert Smith explains "my son Giles kept visiting me on my allotment going on and on about the latest craft beer he'd tried. They all sounded like the brewers had found whatever they could get their hands on and shoved it into their beer. Well I had a bumper crop of asparagus this year and rather than flogging it off down the boot sale I thought I'd have a go of making it into a beer. To be honest it was a bit of a disaster but early thirties men with well trimmed beers kept showing up at my shed offering me £10 a bottle so I couldn't say no. I'm looking forward to see what they make of my Runner Bean Pale Ale."

Craft Beer Toadies - This Will be Rated Number One on Ratebeer. A 12% ABV Imperial Stout brewed in the USA.

Brouwerij Verhaeghe/Bros - When Will I Be Flemish? - Eyebrows were raised when Bros announced that they were following the example of other forgotten bands Iron Maiden and Status Quo by releasing their own beer. Nobody expected it be a Flemish Red, and a good one at that. Beloved by those who insist that Belgium beer was "the original craft beer" while being ignored by absolutely everybody.

Marstons - Crafty Growler Hoppy Artisan IPA. Out of all the attempts of "big brewing" to enter the craft scene this is probably the best. As head brewer Martin Moneybags explains "we just shoved every trendy craft buzzword into the name of this beer in the desperate hope that some confused hipster will order it by accident when they see it in one of our tied houses in the arse end of nowhere"

That's it! Join me next week for my "Top Five Boring Brown Bitters." Actually I may as well just tell you now - it's everything Harvey's brew.