Friday, 22 February 2013

Number 9 Twissup - Saturday 9th Mar 2013

During our previous Twissup, on 30th December, ideas were discussed for future outings to some of the great pubs outside Birmingham city centre – and one proposal seemed like an definite front runner, particularly as the transport option is easy! This is to use the Number 9 bus route out of the city centre through the Black Country, to the towns of Lye and Halesowen, and sample some of the great hostelries there.

Luckily the Number 9 also takes you to the door of one of the region’s more progressive breweries – Sadlers Ales based at the Windsor Castle in Lye – so this Twissup is fortunate enough to take in a handy bus route-accessible brewery visit as well as some decent cask ale pubs, and also Birmingham's newest real ale venture on our return to the city centre.

The itinerary for the day is as follows:

Brunch – I thoroughly, definitely recommend all attendees have a large and hearty brunch before we set off. It’s important to have a good foundation for a day of ale exploring! I am planning to possibly have brunch at Boston Tea Party as they do huge croque monsieurs and other options such as a full English, kedgeree, and bacon & beans. It’s not cheap but it is tasty! Other good Brum independent cafés nearby are @urbancoffeeco (cakes & sandwiches and the best coffee IMHO) and Yorks Bakery Café for tasty hot & cold breakfast options. There are also a plethora of sandwich shops, supermarket chains & others around the Snow Hill / Colmore Row area if none of the above takes your fancy.

12pm – Meet at the bus stop for the Number 9, on Colmore Row in Birmingham City Centre. This is diagonally across the road from Snow Hill station, and about 10 minutes walk from Moor Street or New Street stations. The Number 9 runs fairly frequently – every 10 minutes on a Saturday – so if you are going to be running late and miss meeting up at the start, make sure you know where our first venue is located, and jump on the next No. 9 to Lye.
1pm – The Windsor Castle in Lye
This is the brewery tap for Sadlers Ales and has an upmarket feel, with several of the rooms given over to dining. There should be a fair range of Sadlers Ales on draught, plus bottled American and Belgian beers. In recent years, Sadlers have been flying the flag for hops in the Midlands, producing the lower-ABV but well-hopped JPA (Jack's Pale Ale); a Red IPA with American & Australian hops; the juicy Hop Bomb (Amarillo and Citra); and the Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, which I have yet to taste, but by all reports is something pretty special! If we're in luck we may find some to sample but this may depend on brewing schedules & availability as I think it's been flying out each time they've brewed it. They also make the award-winning Mud City Stout which is worth the trip alone if you like rich and luscious dark beers.

2pm - Brewery Tour - Sadlers have very kindly agreed to take us on a tour of their brewery at the back of the pub, and one of their brewers will be on hand to talk us through their processes and answer any beer geekery questions. They can accommodate up to two groups of 10, so please make sure you sign up in the comments below to let me know you are coming and would like to see around.

3pm – The Shovel Inn in Lye
This is a warm and welcoming Black Country traditional pub, with a good range of up to 12 ales - usually including the locally-produced Enville Ale, Enville Ginger, Holdens Golden Glow, Purity Mad Goose, Ludlow Gold and up to 6 guests. We''ll stop off here for one, time permitting, before it's back down the hill to the bus stop.

4pm - depart Lye, back on the Number 9 bus!

5pm – Hawne Tavern in Halesowen
If we are doing OK time-wise, then we'll call in at the Hawne Tavern on the outskirts of Halesowen. This is an unspoilt, spartan, traditional pub - and none the worse for it! They can have up to 8 ales on, and are regularly commended for quality & condition. It's about a 10 minute walk from here to our next pub.

6pmWaggon and Horses in Halesowen for buffet tea
Few people familiar with the Black Country can fail to have heard of the Waggon, for once you are there with a pint in your hand, it is truly one of those pubs you can find hard to leave. They strive to have a great range of beers at all times and usually something pretty hoppy too which tends to go through phases - for a while they seemed to regularly have Thornbridge Kipling and Oakham Citra when these beers could rarely be found elsewhere in the region, and recently have got through many casks of Oakham Green Devil IPA (with a good deal of help from @RobertoRossUK!) as well as showcasing ales from new Halesowen brewery Angel Ales.

The Waggon are happy to have a cold buffet laid out for us and make sure some seating is reserved, so we can refuel and relax for a couple of hours while we check out their beer range, often including Belgian keg beers on tap. Cost will be £6 per head and vegetarians can be amply catered for – as long as we know in advance! So please let me know in the comments below if you would like a buffet tea set out for you to keep your Twissup energies up (I strongly recommend we all do so)! And of course, let me know of any dietary requirements too.

8pm – depart Waggon to head back towards Birmingham city centre

9pmCraven Arms, Gough Street
The Craven Arms has now burst into life again as of 22nd February, after a long period of closure – rejuvenated and transformed into an ale emporium by the friendly team of Chris & Sharon, with @19irishdragon also to be found behind the bar dispensing beer & beer knowledge. Chris is working hard to ensure a range of exciting beers – no dull, boring, ‘twiggy’ ale – and with 10 handpumps there’s sure to be something yummy to be found here! The outside of the pub has colourful tiled livery, originally built for Holders brewery in 1906, and the inside retains a cozy 'proper pub' feel, while being rather smart and new at the same time. This will be a good chance for anyone not usually in Birmingham city centre to check out it's latest pub opening, before heading home via train or bus, as it's only 10 minutes' walk to New Street station.

So - let me know in comments below if you are coming along on our Twissup to explore these fine pubs and have a tour of Sadlers while you're at it, and if you'd like to be well fed at the Waggon too! Times above are approximate but it's good to have a rough idea of when and where beer geeks may need herding to next ;-)

UPDATE: Bus tickets - if you don't already have a bus pass that covers Travel West Midlands services, then you may need to buy a Daysaver - this costs £3.90 and you'll need the exact change to buy one from the driver. This will cover your travel for the day - both getting into the city by bus, and for our various stops up and down the Number 9 route.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A quick guide to Brussels on a Budget

To drink in bars and eat out in Belgium, Brussels in particular, is not often cheap – most lunchtime main courses in standard neighbourhood restaurants and cafés tend to be anything from €13 to €18, or dearer – it will vary widely of course, but in general it’s not the same as England, where you could expect to find a decent enough pub lunch for under £10 (unless in a gastro establishment) and there are other cheaper options for about £6-7. Beers also can mount up the cost – often a bottle may be around €4 to €5 for a ‘standard’ Belgian beer, especially in the main centre of town and touristy areas. So it can be handy to have a few tips to keep costs down, while still trying to get the most out of the city, but saving the Euros to spend on all that lovely Belgian beer instead!

Here are my tips on ensuring you are well fed while saving some cash:

Firstly, try to make sure your hotel booking includes breakfast. You might expect to pick up a croissant and coffee fairly easily for about €4, but this isn't always the case – you may have to shell out around €8 each for a cup of tea and a toasted bagel, or for a wrap or sandwich in somewhere like the fresh food chain Exki. So if you can have a decent start to the day included in your hotel bill it will work out much easier and not necessarily dearer. Failing that, pick up some pastries from the supermarché the night before, to have in your room.

Restaurant de la Bourse – in the St Catherine area. It’s recently been forced to move premises, but before the move, I’d been going here every February for about 8 years. They offer an unpretentious café space, with menus in 3 languages including English. Lots of Belgian cuisine and good ‘meal deals’ – e.g. a half-pot pot of moules (still a pretty huge portion) with frites for about €14 (cheaper than the majority of places selling mussels) which were better than many I’d tried around the city; or maybe a starter and main course together for €16-€18 – I’d recommend having the steak preceded by the tomato stuffed with grey shrimp that’s part of this deal, as in other places this starter alone could cost you €20! They have a good selection of dishes and sometimes specials – including on occasion rabbit cooked in kriek (cherry beer), stoofvlees (also called carbonnade – a beef in beer stew), and other Belgian dishes.

Vietnamese & other oriental – can easily be found around the St Gery area (just a few streets south of the St Catherine area) – this is a bit of a bohemian area with a run-down feel to it, but with some hip bars, student hangouts, cafes, boutiques, and upmarket restaurants vying for affordable rents. I’ve eaten in a few Vietnamese places round here (several also do Chinese or Thai) as they are cheap and quick, and it’s cuisine I can’t get easily where I live, so still feels like something 'different' to try when in Belgium. So if you aren’t intimidated by oriental menus in French or Flemish, these may be a good bet for something tasty and filling for not many Euros, before you head off for a Belgian beer. Though based on the experience of a friend, if you are vegetarian, just be really sure you've managed to convey your dietary needs across any language barriers.

Bar food – some bars will offer very limited hot bar food – for some reason Spaghetti Bolognese always seems to be popular, and quite often this is a cheaper option (maybe around €8) but decent too. At lunch and early evening, A La Becasse offers this, along with cheese platters and croque-monsieurs; other places might have something similar, but be aware that they may stick to traditional lunch and dinner service times – i.e. not necessarily any hot food available mid-afternoon. 
Frites – there are a few fritures in the city centre, but the one I visit most frequently for a ‘hotel picnic’ is the “Pissy boy chips” (you’ll understand when you see the sign ;-) – actually called FRITLAND, and on one corner of the square around the Bourse stock exchange building. They are open late, so a good stop-off on the way back from the bars then smuggled into your hotel under your coat for a 'hotel picnic', or in more clement weather, eaten outside while admiring the Bourse's monumental architecture. A range of sauces and mayonnaise is offered – I recommend the garlic mayo or Samurai (spicy) sauce. Will fill you up for about €3!

Soup – Belgians seem to be very good at soup! Many cafes and bars make their own fresh each day from whatever vegetables are to hand. I've had great asparagus soup in Waagstuk in Antwerp, and intensely savoury cheese and beer soup in the Halve Maan brewery cafe; bear this in mind as something worth looking out for as a cheap lunch.

Cheese & saucisson – Some of the beer bars won’t do food, but will have a stick of saucission or snack portions of cheese cut into cubes on offer for a few Euros. These can be a good way of staving off hunger and alcohol absorption if you’re having a relaxing afternoon with a few 9% beers.

Noordzee – closed Monday; this is a stand-up counter outside a fishmongers, where they fry up a few delicacies and make tasty fish soup, that you can wash down with a glass of wine. It’s not necessarily “cheap”, but if you are in the mood to spend €6 on some fishy treats or €4.50 for great fish soup, it’s tasty and good quality. It opens at 11am so might be a good place to head to for brunch on a sunny day if you’ve wrapped up warm and don’t mind standing around people-watching while you munch.

Italian – I haven’t eaten at any Italian restaurants in Belgium (having been too keen to search out particularly Belgian delicacies in the past), but vegetarian friends reliably inform me that this can be a good option on a budget, as pizza and pasta places tend to be cheaper than restaurants offering more ‘Belgian’ fare, and they should have a good veggie selection if you need it. Also true for other ethnic cuisines such as Moroccan and Mexican which can be found in the centre of Brussels.

Le Cirio – this is a lovely turn-of-the-century café with a bit of  faded glamour, but still with smartly dressed waiters attending you (and featured recently on Jamie Oliver's Food Fight programme – don't let that put you off!). It’serves food to around 10pm. I’ve had good Belgian fare here – waterzooi (a creamy chicken soup-stew), chicons au gratin, spaghetti carbonara, and other simple hot dishes, for €10. They do croque-madames and other snacks, and a reasonable selection of beers in pretty surroundings.

Beer and bars – while there are specific bars I’d list if advising serious beer aficionados where to go, if you are still making your introductions to Belgian beer rather than intent to hunt down cellar-aged rarities, and in general want somewhere with a decent selection that isn’t too touristy or too pricey, my recommendations would be:

Porte Noir – this may seem like a slight trek from the centre of the city, but really only about 10 minutes on foot from the Grand Place, and is my favourite bar in Brussels. It’s an atmospheric setting – down some steps into the old brick vaults of a convent that used to sit above it, to three rooms with bench seating, bottled beer in fridges, and about 10 Belgian beers on draught. They have a beer list so you can browse through this to decide on your next one, or ask the staff to help you choose if they’re not too busy. This place can get busy on a Friday and Saturday night, but it’s usually worth grabbing the edge of a trestle table if you can. Sometimes there is live music, and it’s a great place to spend a few hours getting acquainted with a variety of Belgian beer. It can be vibrant until quite late on a weekend evening but be aware that it doesn’t open until 5pm each day (closed Sundays).

Pochenellekelder – this is opposite the Mannekin Pis statuette, but isn’t too touristy despite it's location. It has erratic opening hours but is worth a look in if you pass when it is open. It has many costumes around the walls that are used to dress up the little statue for festivals. A decent beer list, though you may have to endure some surly service, but once you’re sat round the table with a nice warming Westmalle Tripel or similar, you won’t mind too much.

Moeder Lambic Fontainas – this is a serious beer bar; no meals here apart from a the excellent cheese platters and a few other snacks to take the edge of the hops. It’s not cheap, but it’s not unreasonable either, and with it’s stark modern interior, free wifi, and plentiful beer list of bottles and draught from round the craft beer world, I’d recommend it as the face of ‘modern’ Belgian beer drinking. They have a much older, tinier, quirkier original bar out in the suburbs, which is worth the trek if you're on a bit of a beer tourism roll, but it’s modern big brother at Fontainas is one of my favourites in the city also.

Student-y and 'locals' bars – these may be a good bet for a cheaper beer with a buzzing but down-to earth atmosphere. There are several around the west of the Grand Place, in St Catherine and St Gery, and in Ixelles and other central Brussels suburbs. There seems to have been a general move towards increased beer lists, so you should be able to find something decent for perhaps around €3.

Le Coq in Rue Auguste Orts is typical of this trend, and has a list of 35 beers including Trappists for around that price, and some such as Boon Kriek even cheaper. In previous years, it was also home to a rather large and slightly grumpy cat called Canaille – 'gangster' in French – who would wait for you to settle down, then march over and settle himself comfortably on your coat, your lap, or your table – whatever suited to mark his ownership of the joint. Sadly Canaille is no more, but apart from that this bar remains steadfastly unadorned, basic, and packed with locals and conversation on weekend nights.

Delhaize and Carrefour supermarkets – if you want to bring some good beer back to England, or just have a few in your hotel room (with a frites picnic!) then avoid the touristy beer shops near the Grand Place, and go to Delhaize and Carrefour supermarkets. There is a decent size Delhaize on Rue au Marche aux Poulets, and a Carrefour in the shopping centre at Gare du Midi, as well as some other small supermarkets around the city. They may well have decent selections of Belgian beer for much cheaper than in bars – a Rochefort or Westmalle might be around €1.50 here, instead of €4 or more in bars. Rochefort 10 normally retails in a shop in England for about £4.50 upwards, so it’s quite a bargain for the lucky Belgians who pick these up with their grocery shopping, and for any visitors to the city who have some spare capacity in their luggage.

Palais of Justice
Need to kill some time in Brussels before you get stuck into the beer, but still watching the pennies? Brussels is full of impressive architecture, so if you are lucky and the weather holds out, you can easily spend some time wandering around admiring impressive buildings while you build up a thirst. My picks would be the Grand Place – an impressive square with several monumental edifices, and handily a Brewer's Museums and a brewpub back onto this square as well; also the Palais of Justice, overlooking the Marolles district – huge and overbearing enough to strike fear into the heart of any miscreant!

There are also several Art Nouveau buildings that can be admired for little cost – in particular the Museum of Musical Instruments and some of the houses in the St Gilles area, and other little touches you will see on shops and buildings around the centre, such as in the Galleries St Hubert. There is also the huge Basilica of Koekelberg, an Art Deco cathedral, with it's panoramic views over the city for a €5 fee. The Atomium can be appreciated from the outside if you get the tram up to Heysel, with all it's past-futurist ominousness; also in the area, about a 15 minute walk from the Atomium, is the Tour Japonaise and Chinese Pavillion – both interesting buildings, and I think only €4 to visit both.

I’m sure everyone has their own brand of exploring to pursue, and when in a different city some of the fun is just wandering the streets and seeing what random places you happen across. But hopefully the above may be a guide to get you started, or help you identify a likely place nearby when your feet are tired from wandering, where victuals may be found at a reasonable (by Belgian standards!) price.