Saturday, 31 August 2013

Preston Part 2

Preston is never going to win a "prettiest town centre" award, or even a "town centre which is slightly pleasing to the eye" award. It's looking a bit shabby and run down, with a depressing amount of closed down stores, including the aptly named "Bankrupt Books." The town centre has a brown and grubby feel to it, even on the sunny day I was there. But take a short stroll away from the high street and you will stumble across the fabulous Avenham Park. I don't often gush but this park is absolutely gorgeous, with the River Ribble flowing majestically through the middle accompanied by pretty tree lined banks. Well kept and beautifully presented gardens await as you stroll along the river. My awkward pictures below don't really bring across the beauty and majesty of this park. The amazing scenery would be pleasurable enough, but even better there is an excellent pub to be found in the park.

The Continental is perched alongside the bank of the river and boasts a pleasant, modern beer garden overlooking the river and railway bridge. As trains trundled by I enjoyed a half of the house beer, Continental by Marble Brewery. I've never had a bad brew from Marble and this beer was no exception, a hoppy floral treat that matched the high standards of the park and pub. Sadly I didn't have much time to stay at The Continental as there were other pubs on the list before catching the tilty Virgin train back to London. But if time wasn't a constraint I could have spent a good few hours in this charming, comfortable pub. It was my favourite of the pubs I visited in Preston and I look forward to going back.

The Market Tavern was a bit of a jolt back to reality, an old school boozer nestled near, funnily enough, a bustling market. Comfortable booths line one side of the pub and a small serving area dispenses a tantalising selection of hand pumped ales and a good selection of bottled beer, with boozed up regulars propped up against the bar chatting about everything and nothing. I sampled a Bohemian, which appears to be Greene Kings attempt at a "craft" ale. It wasn't a bad effort, with a good hoppy flavour, but it wasn't anything spectacular. To be honest I still don't really know the difference between a craft ale and a real ale. Surely they're both "crafted" unless real ale is actually picked fully formed from trees or dug up from the ground? It seems the main thing that differentiates craft from real ale is about £2-£3 for the price of a pint and about 3-5% more ABV, plus about ten times more hops.

The last pub on my jaunt around Preston was the Old Vic. Handily situated across the road from Preston railway station, this pub looks a bit nondescript and run down from the outside, but venture inside and it's also a bit nondescript and run down . This is a big pub with a large central bar, and what appeared to be a faux wooden beams on the ceiling. It was quiet but comfortable enough when we visited. The first beer sampled was Doff Crocker from Three B's, which was a bit of a disappointment. It had a slightly watery flavour although a decent dry finish salvaged things a little bit. The Priory Gold from Burscough was better - a pleasant and refreshing hoppy ale with good floral flavours.

The Priory Gold was to be my last tipple at Preston before sauntering across the road and heading back to London Euston on a Virgin Pendolino. I've been travelling on these trains for a good few years now and they've finally fully fixed the issue with stinky carriages. This was due to a fault with the toilets which meant the ventilation system basically pumped everybody's bodily emissions back into the carriage. Not pleasant, especially when riding with a coach load of boozed up, kebab filled passengers, with the tilting of the carriages adding to the nausea factor.

Next up is a trip around the pleasant pubs of Bath. Hope you can join me. Cheers!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Beer festivals a go go - CAMRA Great British Beer Festival 2013 and Woodies, New Malden

Last week was a good time for drinking copious amounts of ale. First up was a visit to the CAMRA Great British Beer Festival 2013. This is the second time I've visited the festival at Olympia, and it's a much more pleasant space than its former home at the dark, dank Earl Courts. The light airy building is very welcoming and the lay out this year was great, with the bars spaced out nicely and avoiding the cramped conditions that build up as the day goes on. The only downside is that there never seems to be enough seating, and as I get older and creakier this is getting more important for me. To be fair most of the patrons who did grab a seat were probably way past creaking territory and were approaching snapping and cracking, but it would have been nice to have more places to rest my tired feet and beery head.

The only picture I took at the festival and it's not even indoors. Useless.
The Championship beer of Britain, announced at the festival, was the 1872 Porter from the Elland brewery. I managed to grab a sample and although it's a very solid porter, with a great malt start and a fruity finish, it felt a bit of a safe bet for a championship beer. With so many exciting breweries and beers appearing over the past couple of years, it's surprising that CAMRA claim that the best ale of the year is something that feels decidedly old fashioned. Maybe CAMRA are rebelling against the craft ale scene with this choice or maybe there's no agenda at all. Who knows?! Certainly not me. Not going to stop me from blogging about it though.

As usual there was an excellent selection of ales on offer and I sampled a fair few of them. Highlights included the Chocolate and Vanilla Stout from Titanic which was an excellent ale, with a wonderful sweet aroma leading to a perfect balance of sweetness and burnt hops.The Triple Chocoholic from Saltaire was another winner, with wonderful, subtle chocolate flavours and a good, long dry finish. Fine stuff all round. The American section was very busy, as it has been at past festivals, and by the time I got there there wasn't a lot of choice left. I tried a half of the Snake Dog IPA from Flying Dog which was a very solid American pale with strong hoppy flavours, but like a lot of American beers it was very boozy (7.3%) - almost unnecessarily so.

There were a couple of duffers. Sharp's Own from Sharps was a rather insipid effort at a golden ale, with a rather limp and watery taste that all beers from InBev seem to suffer from these days. It was still passable, and nothing like the horror of A-pork-alypse from Brains. A porter with bacon flavour added, it tasted exactly like taking a sip of a sub standard porter and then shoving bacon fries into your gob while still swallowing your booze. It wasn't completely horrible and after one sip I didn't start vomiting all over the floor while CAMRA stewards desperately threw sand on the floor in an effort to soak up my technicolour stream, but it wasn't a very pleasurable ale. Much like casting Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, it was a brave but ultimately stupid effort.

Despite a couple of iffy beers I had a great time at the festival and it's probably the best one I've been to in the last six years or so. The food on offer was tremendous and I managed to get through a pork pie, scotch egg, wild boar burger, pork scratchings and seafood medley. In case you're wondering I didn't eat it all at the same time, had I done so I think I would have tested the very limits of how much vomit one man can produce.

The crazy decor at Woodies.
On Saturday I paid a visit to another beer festival, this time at Woodies in New Malden in SW London. Woodies is a former sports hall turned into a pub. Walking in you're bombarded with sports memorabilia everywhere, plastered on the floor, walls and ceiling. There's also a lot of funeral programmes (presumably of patrons past) dotted about, which seemed a bit morbid. Overall though it's all very eclectic and there was a jolly atmosphere. There were plenty of tasty ales on offer. Park Life from Windsor and Eton was a good start, a light hoppy session beer that I would be quite happy to drink all day. 80 Shilling from Dark Star was a fine attempt at a dark Scottish ale, with a strong malty flavour and undertones of orange peel. Good stuff.

The American Pale Ale by Clarence & Fredericks is probably one of the best things to come out of Croydon, where the brewers are based. Good hoppy flavours and floral notes made this a solid attempt at a pale ale. Frankly I was amazed the beer made it to the festival at all and the delivery wasn't hijacked by a gang of Croydon's drug fuelled crazies, or some bored kids. Finally, Good Health from Goody Ales was a solid golden ale sporting a nice dry finish, and a slight hint of Tim Brooke-Taylor.

A petting zoo was there for the day so I got to laugh at some sheep, ducks and goats, the primary reason for the existence of any petting zoo. I gave a wide berth to the geese though as I didn't fancy running, screaming, beers in hand, being chased by the orange beaked, beady eyed, honking bastards as they try to nip my legs into pieces one peck at a time. The day was further sullied by the arrival of my least favourite amateur paganists, the hated and sinister Morris Dancers. Thankfully this troupe, although enthusiastic, weren't very good, so I was pretty sure their bizarre ritual wasn't going to resurrect any ancient Pagan Gods this time.

My camera spontaneously combusted shortly after this photo was taken.
I had a great time in Woodies despite the Morris Dancers and if it wasn't located in what appeared to be the Twilight Zone I'd make more regular visits there. If you happen to be in the New Malden area it's well worth stopping by the place for a drink or five.

Next update will be the conclusion of my jaunt around Preston. I've also made a recent visit to Bath which I'll no doubt be blabbering on about. See you soon!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Preston Part 1

Ah the north of England. Despite being a soft southern lad I'm a seasoned visitor to the north, having spent many a summer holiday visiting my grandparents in Blackpool. At first I was scared of Northerners and their bizarre ways, such as wishing a good morning to strangers, wearing next to nothing when it hits 12 degrees, and serving massive portions of food but now I'm used to it and don't break down crying when an old man tries to have a conversation with me on the bus.

I recently went up to Blackpool with my family to celebrate my nan's 90th birthday, and we stayed in Preston. I'd only visited Preston a couple of times before and all I could remember was a bus station with fins and how windy the whole town was. Now that I had a couple of evenings to kill I thought I may as well have a good look around the place and also visit a few boozers.

First up was the Dog & Partridge. I actually visited this pub twice over the weekend. The first time was with my parents in tow. As we walked in a DJ was cranking out the Pixies at room shaking levels. As much as I enjoy listening to "Debaser" at ear splitting volume I thought perhaps this wasn't the place for my parents and we decamped to the Wetherspoons across the road (more on that later.) The second visit, with just my brother and The Lovely Jemma in tow, was a bit better. The pub is quite a shabby place split into two rooms. The front room was basically a God's waiting room with crusty Prestonians enjoying a quiet pint, while the back room had a younger clientèle attempting to dance along to dodgy rock music. Certainly an odd mix of but it was actually rather nice. Sadly the pint of Tetleys Mild that I sampled wasn't the best, suffering from the same watery flavour that all InBev ales seem to have these days.

Next on the list is the Black Horse Hotel, which I visited with my family. I must admit I was aprehensive of going into this pub, as it wasn't in the Good Beer Guide and there were leary lads standing outside. But then I remembered that everybody in Preston looks a bit leary so it was probably nothing to worry about. A Robinsons pub, this had a good selection of their ales on hand-pump including Old Tom, a knockout at 8.5%ABV. Apparently they'll only serve this in halves, presumably to avoid killing all of their potential repeat customers. I wasn't brave enough to try the Old Tom in front of my folks. Nobody wants to see their son as he slurs and stumbles down the windswept streets of Preston before collapsing into a bin. I instead opted for a pint of the reliable Unicorn, and as ever it was a solid best bitter with a good crisp finish. This small, charming pub was packed to the rafters and although enjoyable we moved on to somewhere where we might get a seat.

That place ended up being the local Wetherspoons. The Greyfrair is a barn of a pub and there was no trouble finding a place to sit, even on a lively Saturday night. I had to step in and order a pint of Burning Bails before my dad ordered a "Burning Balls." This was a perfectly average beer from the Acorn brewery, nothing special but it got the job done. Like the beer the pub itself was perfectly average and stereo-typically 'Spoons. The décor was bland with that maroon carpet that Wetherspoons owner Tim Martin must be getting a good deal on, the tables and chairs wooden and slightly shabby, the bar staff a little dozy and the customers looked like they'd come straight out of the "Big Book of Pub Caricatures." If you've been to a 'Spoons before you'd know what to expect and as a frequent visitor I felt pretty comfortable.

The Old Black Bull has won many awards and seemed to be the most respected pub by CAMRA of the ones we visited. This was a good old fashioned boozer with a large main room and a fairly long bar with a tempting selection of ales on offer. Again this is a place we had to visit twice. The first time there was live music on, and although the band sounded excellent the place was absolutely rammed with no standing space and no hope of getting to the bar. The second time was quieter apart a large rowdy group standing at the bar. I tried the Gold by Tatton Brewery which was probably the best pint of the weekend. Subtle fruity hops led to a superb dry finish, and overall a very enjoyable pint. Good stuff.

Part 2 will cover The Continental, The Market Porter and The Old Vic. Why not stop by and see which one was my overall favourite? Unless you've got something better to do in which case do that first then stop back here when you're done. Cheers!