Sunday, 26 January 2014

Birmingham - Part One

Me and The Lovely Jemma were in Birmingham last weekend. It's been a long time since I was last there, and my only memories from my last visit was the terrifying shopping experience of the Bullring and walking around for nearly 90 minutes trying to find the Birmingham Academy to see some "up and coming" local bands attempt to win some award. As is the case with any "faces of the future" competitions I attend none of these bands went on to future success.

The first thing I noticed after getting off the train was that Brum seems to be taking a page out of nearby Coventry's book and is knocking everything down and starting again, although Birmingham hasn't had a helping hand from the Nazis in the demolition.. The area around New Street station in particular is awash with building sites, and although I'm sure it will all look great when it's finished it's a bit of a mess at the moment.

I wasn't going to let the sound of drilling, mixing and sweary builders get me down though. Two minutes walk from Birmingham New Street is the Post Office Vaults, our first stop on a mini ale trail I'd devised. Things got off to a good start when the blackboard advertising the pub just had "beer" written on it over and over again, like the insane ramblings of a pissed up madman. Inside the place is nothing remarkable. They haven't really disguised the fact that it is a former post office vault but there are a couple of minor attempts at decoration with some empty beer bottles along the walls and hops hanging from the ceiling. Free Wi-Fi was avaialble courtesy of the Greggs bakery next door. I'm not sure why Greggs even has wi-fi as I imagine most patrons want to get away from the stench of stale pastry and hot fat as quickly as possible so they can gobble down their overpriced and not very good sausage rolls, but there you go.

A small serving area belies the tremendous amount of drink on offer, including a fine selection of foreign beers. Naturally I avoided these as I have no idea about beers from abroad except for some Belgium Trappist offerings and a smattering of American beers. I couldn't find a beer menu to help guide me through the bottles so instead I went for a selection from their cask ales. Hobsons Mild was nothing special but a decent sup, getting correct all the elements of a mild with a slight chocolate and mocha flavour but not attempting to push the boundaries. Rat Brewery's The Rat of Khan was much better. A hoppy treat with nice floral flavours but not overpowering. Really terrible name for a beer though.

The Lovely Jemma requested a cider and I asked the friendly barman what was on offer. "We have a sparkling cider on draught" replied the friendly barman. "Oh" I replied, a bit disappointed and thinking they don't really care about cider here. "Oh and there's the twelve ciders here" he remarked as he moved out the way revealing a cannily placed blackboard listing the ciders on offer. I then noticed all the certificates from CAMRA lining the walls awarding their real cider selection. Clearly this is a place that cares about the disgusting boozy apple drink so well worth popping in if you're demented and like cider.

Next on the list was the Wellington, affectionately known as "The Wellie" according to the Good Beer Guide and "The Welly" according to Twitter. Next to the large serving area there was a plasma screen listing the beers, and a message politely asking patrons to order by pump number. The beer I wanted to try was second on the list and I decided to order it by name, because I would have found it weird and even a bit unpleasant asking the barman to provide me with "a pint of number two please."

I opted for the Black Country Ales BFG and me and TLJ departed upstairs to enjoy our booze. There was a collection of games including both Jenga and a knock off "stacking wooden blocks game" stashed in the corner looking unloved so we opted for a game of chess. While I was loosing horribly I couldn't help but think that the upstairs of the pub had a vibe that reminded me of The Harp in London, but on a larger scale. Good ale selection, mix of young and old clientèle, and similar traditional furnishing. The pint of BFG was great, and kept in good condition. Overall this was a lovely place, but as a Pub of the Year winner I wasn't wowed by it the same way as other winners have done.

The final pub of the evening was The Briar Rose, a Wetherspoons which I thought was in the Good Beer Guide but turns out it's not - the one in the guide was across town. Still it was OK in here, and it provided the basic Spoons function of providing a pint and a quick meal. It even goes one step further and offers rooms to sleep in as this is a Wetherspoons Lodge. The ale selection was pretty decent and the Titanic Full Steam Ahead was in good nick. My steak and kidney pudding had been reheated professionally and promptly and went down a treat. As it was a Friday night the bar was packed but the place is massive and we managed to snag a table at the back. It was a low key end to a pleasant if low key mini pub crawl.

Next week I'll be talking about the Prince of Wales in the "upmarket" (for Birmingham) suburb of Moseley and The Old Contemptibles back in the town centre. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Cronx Brewery open day this weekend so I'll probably write a few words about that. There will even be pictures! That's something to look forward to.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Fiz, Innis & Gunn

A short update today. I've just come back from a couple of days in Birmingham but I'm saving my report on the pubs I visited there for next week. This has left me with not much to write about for this update as nothing else really happened to me beer or pub wise. The only thing of any note was that I tried an Innis & Gun Rum Cask for the first time. This was my first ever Innis & Gunn beer and I wasn't really sure what to expect. I always got the impression they were more style over substance like another successful Scottish brewer, and I tend to pick other beers over theirs when I see it on sale. Howeve once again my prejudices were proved wrong and it was a pretty decent beer. I've got a soft spot for rummy beers, my favourite being Boggart Rum Porter. Innis and Gunn's effort wasn't quite as good but it was a comforting, strong ale with the rum complementing the beer pretty well by being noticeable but not overpowering. Good stuff and worth a sup.

Another reason for the short update is because I've been neglecting my blogging duties and have spent most of the week being hopelessly addicted to a mobile phone game called "Fiz." The aim of the game is to build up a brewery from your humble beginnings making beer in your garage (or "car hole" if you're not posh) to becoming a international brewing superstar. It's easy to pick up and plenty of challenges are thrown at you to keep things interesting. It's got a knowing sense of humour with a few digs at the characters you come across in the beer scene including picky beer festival goers who think they know everything about your brew and the ever growing number of craft beer loving hipsters. It's more addictive than a tub of Ben & Jerry's laced with cocaine and well worth the £1.99 price tag.

Hope you can join me next week for my ramblings about Birmingham and its pubs!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Baring Hall Hotel, SE London

Last February me and The Lovely Jemma moved to the Mottingham/Eltham area, as it was the only vaguely affordable area in the wonderful property bubble that is London. The avid reader of my blog would know that I used to complain that there wasn't a lot of pubs near my house. The only decent place was the Park Tavern in Eltham, but it's just a bit too far away to warrant frequent visits. One particularly annoying thing about the area when we moved in was that there was a grand looking closed pub called the Baring Hall Hotel directly across the road from busy Grove Park station, a convenient twenty minute walk (or five minute bus ride) away from our house.

Photo from the Antic Website - which is why it's good quality!

Reading about the building online, the pub had been open until 2009 when it got fire-bombed. This isn't surprising as there isn't much to do in Grove Park except go to the Sainsburys Local and then set a pub on fire. The building stayed vacant until a developer twigged that a big patch of land opposite a train station with a journey time of fifteen minutes to London Bridge might be a good opportunity for flats. Luckily a plucky gang of campaigners stopped this from happening and while the building remained vacant at least it would still be a pub.

Shortly after we moved The Lovely Jemma embarked on a small email campaign to several pubcos to see if they wanted to take over the building. Some reported that they already had their eye on it, while others weren't interested. In desperation we even wrote to Wetherspoons. We figured a 'Spoons would be better than no community boozer at all. All seemed lost until I came across a tweet from a company called Antic saying they had agreed on the lease for the pub.

Being a North London lad I had never heard of Antic but reading online I could see they had opened a fair number of pubs in "less desirable" areas, e.g most of South East London. I'd actually been to a couple of their pubs and had enjoyed my time there so I was very pleased to hear I would have an Antic pub within stumbling distance of my home.

Well just under a year later the Baring Hall is now open and it would have been rude not to have paid a visit or three. Decor wise you can tell this place had been fire bombed and fire bombed good. I've only visited the pub after dark and with the candles on the tables and burnt out walls it's an eerie but oddly pleasant and comfortable atmosphere. I don't know how it holds up during the day but it's certainly atmospheric at night. The Lovely Jemma felt like she was in a pub from the computer game "Fallout 3" and had to restrain herself from accidentally picking up and dropping furniture and robbing the cash register by mistake.

Fallout 3. To be fair the Baring Hall is nicer and much more welcoming than this!
There are twelve handpumps which is brilliant for a pub that is the only real ale outlet in the area. I've enjoyed a few beers here. Highlights include Saltaire's Triple Chocoholic which is a tremendous beer that is like drinking a boozy chocolate fudge cake. Great stuff. I also tried a Tiny Rebel Zool as I was overcome with computer game nostalgia, a cheap but effective trick from Tiny Rebel to lure in those young, trendy craft beer drinking hipsters. It was a decent, light and hoppy sup. On my latest visit I was pleased to see they had a Magic Rock beer on cask, which you don't often see in London. High Wire NZ was good but not in the best form, perhaps it lost something on the journey down from Yorkshire. It was lacking the big hoppy finish it had the last time I tried it.

I was initially hesitant to write about this pub as it's early days and it's not quite ready yet - there are plans to serve food and presumably the place is going to be redecorated. But with the excellent selection of well kept beers on offer I would recommend a visit if you're in the area. If the standard stays the same I think this has a very good chance of becoming a destination real ale pub for the SE London area.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Brixton Brewery and Art Brew (plus Windsor & Eton)

Considering most of my time is spent going on and on about pubs and beers to any poor sap who will listen, I received surprisingly few beery gifts this Christmas. In fact on Christmas Day I only received two beers, and one of them was BrewDog Tokyo at a mind destroying 18.2%. Drinking this would have ended up with me shouting abuse at the Queen before falling asleep and waking up with a poorly head and an appetite for cold roast potatoes. To be honest this wouldn't be much different to my usual Christmas Day activities. I decided I'll save this brain scrambling beer for when I hear life changing news that I want to forget, such as a meteor is going to wipe out all life on Earth or Piers Morgan is returning to the UK.

After the welcome but small collection of beer on Christmas Day I was cheered on Boxing Day when my brother presented me with a bag full of craft beers. Two from Brixton Brewery, one from Art Brew and another from Windsor & Eton. I could tell these were craft beers because the majority came in tiny (330ml) bottles presumably designed for teenagers. Thankfully the guys at Art Brew know that beer is actually drunk by grown ups and should come in nice big bottles, so their Orange IPA came in adult size.

The beery line up. Photo slightly blurry as always.
I was a bit worried before drinking the Orange IPA as it appeared to fall into all the craft beer trappings. It was an IPA, it had a slightly sarcastic blurb on the bottle and it had a "crazy" twist in the form of chucking orange peel into the brew. But thankfully my stupid prejudices were completely wrong and this was an excellent, well rounded IPA with an extra bit of magic from the subtle orange peel notes. This beer avoided the common "chuck in the hops and let's see what happens" mishaps other craft brewers blunder into. Well worth seeking out a bottle.

The two beers from the Brixton Brewery were good but not up to the standard set by the Art Brew. Reliance Pale Ale was a solid but unexciting example of the pale ale form. With so many pale ales out there the beer needs to be special to stand out but this one was content with being good but boring. Effra Ale was better, with good hoppy notes livening up this well crafted amber ale. Both beers were tasty but I feel this is a brewer that is still finding their feet. But there's definitely promise there. Finally there's the Windsor & Eton Republika. Windsor & Eton have a bit more experience than Brixton and this was evident in the beer, as it was a very good Pilsner style tipple. I do tend to enjoy Windsor & Eton beers and this one was no exception

Overall all four beers were decent but the Orange IPA was something special. As the craft beer "big bang" settles down and the brewers get more competent at what they're making I think the next few years could be an exciting time for beer. Let's hope I'm not proved wrong!