Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Manchester Field Trip, part 2

After our extended visit to The Font the night before, a decent brunch was called for before resuming the beer exploration. I had done my research and knew there was a burrito place (in the style of Benito's Hat or Chilango in London) in Piccadilly Gardens, so dandered up there and had a parcel of pork goodness from Barburrito. I wish somewhere like this would open in Birmingham, but in a way I guess it's nice to have something different to seek out when I visit a city with a larger disposable-income demographic.

Next it was time to hunt down somewhere I'd been meaning to visit since I drew up my Resolutions - the Micro Bar in the Arndale Centre. This took a bit of a hunt to find - it's squirrelled away in the fresh produce Market area (a hive of little stalls and shops selling lots of interesting groceries and ready to eat foods, tea, herbs, coffee, etc. Probably worth a good poke round in itself).

The bar itself is a tiny place but it supports 4 or 5 cask ales and various foreign keg such as Kuppers Kolsch. As it is owned by Boggart Hole Clough brewery & beer distributors, it seemed only fair to try their two draught ales - the pale and refreshing Joffin, and the rich Rum Porter. They also had a Brodies on draught, making me even more jealous of Manchester drinkers as Brodies rarely make it to Midlands pubs.

Although small, the Micro Bar has a great bottle selection, highlights being a large Odell range, Goose Island larger bottles, lots of selection from local-ish micros (Yorkshire Dales, BrewStar, Acorn, Derventio etc.), Belgian beers and a cider selection, plus some mead and fruit wines. My purchases to take home were the Dark Star Six Hop, and the Odell Myrcenary I'd been craving the previous night.

After this brief visit we headed on to Port Street Beer House - it was too hot and time too limited unfortunately for a schlep around any other bars I'd meant to visit - but an afternoon of lounging in PSBH before the train back would do me just fine. Though I did find it freaky to discover afterwards it was exactly a year to the day of my one previous visit there in 2011!

Cask selection
PSBH, like the Font, is somewhere you just couldn't be stuck for choice, unless it's because you're dazzled by the crazy selection of cask, keg and bottle on offer - including on the pumps 2 Dark Star, 2 Kernel, 3 Hardknott, 2 Thornbridge, Summer Wine Brewery, Harbour, and others. We started with a Dark Star Revelation (tagline: "For the love of hops") on keg, and a Carafa Jade red ale on cask - again, a beer I've wanted to try for ages but just not found in Brum. This is the kind of beer I find myself craving at the start of a Friday evening - hoppy, flavourful, ready to pep up your tastebuds and herald the weekend.

It was while sipping these and popping up and down to ask the bar staff about various beers on their list, that I realised they sold everything in thirds - thank goodness! - now I could get on with some serious sampling, starting with Tipopils from Birrificio Italiano. I know everyone rates this highly but being a pils it just doesn't appeal to me, but I thought I should try it anyway - it was light, floral and pleasant but once gain confirmed pils/lager styles just aren't my thing unless it's the unfiltered Kellerbier or Zwickl served at the Paulaner Brauhauses in Munich. Still, I will keep trying craft lager & pils, just in case...

The barman was good enough to give me a taste of Hardknott Rhetoric - my, what a big beer! I would have loved a proper glass of this, but at 10% I was too wary of jeapordising the train journey home. But if it had been later in the evening and I didn't have to go far to bed, I'd have come back to this one for sure.

So I sampled my way through various thirds:
Kernel Citra - this tasted different to the bottled version I'd had before; a big big floral nose with hints of floral-flavoured sweeties from childhood like Parma Violet or Cherry Lips. The taste was more subdued than expected - if you could cross this aroma with the flavour of a fresh Oakham Citra, it would marry up well.
Kernel Summit - had a surprising marmaladey aroma, and a slightly more bitter finish than the Citra.
Liverpool Craft Brewery IPA - I wasn't keen on this, it had a strange 'burnt' flavour and aroma that I associate with some Northern Irish beer (what is the cause of that in a pale or amber beer? I've found it in beers from more than one N.I. brewery). It wasn't horrid, but it wasn't one I wanted more of.
Summer Wine Brewery Half Wit - this was lovely and refreshing and absolutely perfect for summer quaffing, with a very hoppy nose for a wit beer.
Hardknott Code Black - roasty notes and a hint of coffee, but also sweet with vanilla ice cream coming through. Didn't taste as IPA-ish as when I'd had it from a bottle but it was still full-flavoured and a great end to the beer oddessy.

There was just time to have a proper glassfull of the SWB Halfwit and a little more summer afternoon relaxing before it was time to travel on. The Manchester beer scene is a real eye-opener when you travel up from the Midlands - not just an abundance of pubs with cask ale around the city centre (there are so many recommended places I haven't visited in Manc yet), but also bars that realise great cask, keg and bottle selections can all sit side by side and that make a point of enthusiastically showcasing world class and exciting beers to an eager drinking audience.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Manchester Field Trip, part 1

Ever since I drew up my Resolutions at the start of the year, I'd been looking for an excuse to revisit Manchester, to explore it's plethora of great bars, and find some beer I'm excited about drinking in a pub I really want to drink in, which isn't a combination I get often in Birmingham (yet; that may change when a couple of in-the-pipeline craft beer bars open in future months). So when I found there was a band I wanted to see playing the Manchester Academy, it seemed like the perfect reason for a visit, even more so when the venue is just round the corner from a great beer bar like The Font.

The Font is a busy student-oriented bar with wall d├ęcor by David Bailey (no, not that David Bailey) with a simply outstanding bottle range, constantly updated with new releases both from across the water and from the best of the English beer scene, like Red Willow, Hardknott, Quantum, Buxton, Marble, Magic Rock, Thornbridge and others, many of which are local breweries. There are also great brews from Belgium, Holland (De Molen), Germany, and the major league of the US craft scene are all there – Stone, Victory, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, Goose Island, Rogue, Great Divide, Flying Dog, Left Hand, Maui, Anchor, Anderson Valley, The Bruery, and Coronado.

Price-wise, there are some big hitters – Bruery bottles are £18, the Dogfish Head & Sierra Nevada collab is £20, and the Thornbridge and Odell Pond Hopper comes in at £18. But many of the smaller US 330ml bottles are very reasonably priced at under £5, and even better, a very generous 25% discount is applied on take-outs, making this a good stop for a train beer on the way to Piccadilly.

Today's visit started with a Hawkshead USPA, one of the beers from this brewery I've been wanting to try for a while, and this had great crisp and fresh flavours, leaving your mouth dry and ready for another sip, while being just the right side of bitterness. On cask, I also tried the Black Jack first Deal, a maltier bitter, and on keg the Magic Rock High Wire, while my drinking partner settled with immense satisfaction on an Odell IPA, one of the best 'standard' US IPAs (in our tastebuds' opinion anyway) and always pleasure in a glass.

We knew we had to get a hotel beer in for after the gig in case The Font was too rammed to be served later, and it was very hard to choose from such a huge list, but eventually we decided on the Anderson Valley Hop Ottin', though I was also tempted by the De Molen as the Americaans @ £4.70, the Jaar & Dag @ £5.50, and £4.20 for the Op & Top, they were all looking pretty tastily-priced when you apply that 25% discount.

Next I tried the Rogue Dry Hopped St Rogue Red Ale in 335ml bottle as I was in the mood for something red & hoppy. This instantly smelled like a quintessential US craft beer, with sweet malts and big hop oil aromas, reminding me of drinking in New York bars. The pronounced bready grain flavour from the rye is there from the first sip, and I love that – it's good to properly taste the rye and feel the 'chewiness' after. Sometimes rye beers I've had are too bitter and unbalanced, as if the rye can't meld successfully with the hop elements, but this one was lovely and definitely different to non-rye IPAs.

After some food and a quick trip to drop off bags and beer at the hotel, we headed out again, popping into the Salisbury by Oxford Road station, to see what was on – the cask offering was mostly from major brewers – Ansells, Wychwood, Caledonian – but with seasonal beers from these adding some interest. But despite the alt-friendly music policy, we decided to move on to the Thirsty Scholar. This had Copper Dragon, Thwaites & Ilkley's Mary Jane. I tried a half of this as recent samplings of it when it's appeared in bars around Brum have failed to live up to the first two times I had it and it showed an instant “wow” factor in both aroma & flavour – but unfortunately it was a bit lacklustre here also. So, it was back to The Font for more Odell hop goodness before onwards to the gig.

Across the road from the Academy we spotted KRO Bar which looked interesting, and as the main band hadn't come on yet, we went in to check it out. Had some decent draught Paulaner Hefe Weisse and Maisels Dunkel Weisse, and noticed their menu is of Danish & German pub food – frikadeller, fish platters, schnitzel, moules and pork loin, with mains around £7-8 – worth remembering for tea sometime if I'm back up this way.

The gig finished promptly at 11pm, so it was back to The Font for the third time this evening, this time to check out the Brooklyn EIPA in cans. This didn't have as much hop bite as I know it can have, so it left me a little bit hop-hungry and wishing they still had the excellent Odell Myrcenary in stock. Never mind, I soon sorted it out with a Red Willow Ageless Double IPA, which I initially had to drink through a straw due to the enormous head, but it eventually settled down.

The bar is a bit manic with student life at 12am, so you need to know exactly what you want, what your second choice would be, and be firm in queueing to be served. We wanted a last Odell IPA of the night, but by this stage we had exhausted their supply! So we settled on a Coronado Mermaids Red IPA, Cascade-hopped and sticky-sweet, as a fine nightcap and end to an evening of successful imbibing.

Friday, 3 August 2012

IPA Day - what's the point?

So, IPA Day - something to celebrate, or some kind of annoyance?

Normally 'forced' and artifical celebratory days annoy the hell out of me, but I guesss as IPA Day has no basis in religion, tradition, or overt commercialisation of any one brand, I don't really mind someone giving me a vague excuse to drink some IPA. I mean, I don't need an excuse at all, and I'll almost always have a few bottles of IPA of some kind or other in the beer cupboard - along with sours, Belgian dubbels, German weisse, porter, aged stout, and just about any other style I happen to have grabbed in my last beer shop.

I get that some people feel it is a fetishisation of one style above all others - and it gets their hackles up - but I'd be just as happy to celebrate a Dark Mild Day, Porter Day, Quadrupel Day, Wit Day, or any other style, as I think it would be great to have a designated day when beer bloggers, tweeters, and general drinkers round the world might choose to collectively focus on a style; explore it, drink their favourites, talk about it, maybe introduce some macro lager-only drinkers to it. So if anyone out there wants to take up the reigns and start an <insertstylehere> day, I'll be right there with them! In a way, I wonder if that kind of thing may happen anyway as "craft" beer drinking spreads. If it does, I'll be poised at my beer cupboard, ready to dig out whatever is called for. Why not - it's an excuse to savour, to share with other people, perhaps to pick up tips on new beers, or go along to an event (if you live in a town with forward-thinking craft beer bars that is) and spend the night in beery conversation.

For this year's IPA Day though, I am short of time - so sadly couldn't rustle up a spread of IPA-suitable foods, and plan in my beers - or even have enough time to drink a suitable range. Never mind, I see that next year's 2nd August is a FRIDAY - and of course there are many more days of drinking IPA between now and then anyway ;-)

So I took a trip over to @stirchleywines with the intention of just picking up a couple of staple US IPAs, but as ever the great selection of interesting stuff there turned my head, and I thought I'd pick up a few new IPAs from different countries that I haven't tried before. See, this IPA Day thing is a good excuse for expermentation!

Lovely stash from Stirchley Wines
With time being limited, I knew I wouldn't get through all of these on the night, but that's fine, just means there's a few cold, hoppy treats in my fridge for the start of the weekend.

First to be tasted was the Sveh IPA, from De Struisse brewery in Belgium. The Belgians make great beer, but it's not known for it's hoppiness, and it's interesting to see how some innovative brewers there are experimenting with non-Belgian styles. This one didn't say 'IPA' to me at all; it has some hops on the nose, but I found the candi sugar and Belgian yeast dominated on the nose and palate. But I really enjoyed it - the extra bitterness was a great counterbalance to the sweetness, and I'll definitely be drinking this beer again.

Next up was the Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA, a US stalwart, one of those hoppy and refreshing beers you reach for on a hot day. Picked this to go with our food, as something I knew so didn't need to analyse too much while drinking. Dinner tonight would have been pulled pork - a perfect IPA accompaniment - but due to time restriction, I made some 'Old Badlands' spiced chicken instead, with a bit of jalapeno slaw, fries, and some Dave's Roasted Garlic Hot Sauce. The Snake Dog didn't quite hit the mark - seemed a tad on the over-bitter side, but it's usually a pretty reliable hoppy IPA so I'd be happy to see this popping up in a fridge in a bar near me (preferably The Victoria).

As an after-tea cleanser, I next tried the Nils Oscar Hop Yard IPA - this is the beer company from Sweden who make God's Lager - and the label was very enticing, mentioning Cascade, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin, Amarillo, and Citra. It had a great luminous orangey colour, and lively sharpish hop aromas. This had less bitterness than I expected, and a nice weight coming out in the mouthfeel from a bit of sweetness to the finish. Impressed with this, and it would encourage me to try more from their range as they now have a range of beer styles available in this country.

Now for something different - my first beer from Italy's Birrificio Indipendente Elav, called "TECHNO Cybotronic Double IPA" - sounds exciting with an eye-catching lablel, but what really made me buy it were the part-Italian, part-English tasting notes: "Stile Imperial IPa ... Un singolo malto in loop come base e le alte frequenze di luppolo in bollitura e dry hopping, scatenano un rave party extrasensoriale" - well if it's going to be a dry-hopped rave party in my mouth, who could resist! This had a rich and spicy nose, and a warmth and 'heaviness' to it (not surprising at 9.5%) - much more malty and fruity than the other IPAs tried tonight so far, almost like a darker cousin to Oakham's Green Devil IPA.

Sadly IPA day was drawing to a close but I was happy to leave the other beers in the fridge - the pulled pork may get it's chance for some IPA action over the next few days - but there was time for one last beer, this time from one of an impressive crop of new breweries in England who seem to be getting their recipes spot-on from the off, showing off their skill and making beers that excite you and make you want to try anything they produce. This one was 'Ageless', a Double IPA from Red Willow. I've had this beer several times before and have really enjoyed it, so it was a sure bet for a last IPA of the day. This is a 'chewy' beer, with rich malts, a headiness from the alcohol content, and a bready note from the yeasts, but still carrying rich hop aromas and bitters through to the end.

So for me, I didn't feel the need to agonise too much over the beer politics of IPA Day - I was happy to be given the nudge to go shopping, and despite thinking I'd just be drinking a few old familiars, it instead give me the impetus to try some new beers and new breweries - IPAs from five different countries in total. Plus, I now have bonus beers in the fridge for the weekend. But if anyone fancies a virtual meetup over a different beer style on some other specified day, give me a shout, and I'll be happy to join you!