Friday, 7 December 2012

Holdens ales and Chamberlains hospitality

Chamberlains is a fish & chip restaurant in the west of Birmingham – along the Hagley Road – and in the past 20 months since it's been open has gained a great reputation for it's quality food, enthusiastic welcome, and the many different events they run, such as gluten free evenings, '2 for £10' Tuesdays, and charity lunches.

When I'd first visited, back in February, I really enjoyed the food but felt there was one thing lacking – some good Black Country bitter to go with it. I suggested to Simon, the co-owner, that Holdens would be a good match, knowing they had a range of traditional bitters and golden ales in bottles that might suit various tastes, and suggested they perhaps just try a case or two and see what their customers thought. I didn't realise at the time that the Holdens site was just a few miles up the road, and is in fact the nearest brewery to Chamberlains, making this a perfect local partnership. Since then I've been back a few times to enjoy sampling their beers with a hearty meal, and other customers seem to have appreciated the beer choice too.

I found out via Twitter that Chamberlains would be holding a food and beer sampling event, including a meal and a Holdens beer for £10 on the night. I was very keen to go along to check out what was on offer, and I was long overdue some of their great battered fish anyway, so meeting Richard in town first we were soon on a bus (number 9 or 126 from the city centre) that would take us and our appetites almost to the door.

Once there, we met Lucie Holden, one of the Directors of this family brewery, and James Froggatt, who were pouring out samples of a range of their beers. This included several I am familiar with – the award-winning 3.9% Golden; the smooth and slightly floral Golden Glow (4.4%) - a particular favourite of mine; the 5.1% Special bitter, which is a bit weightier in mouthfeel; and the fantastic Mild with it's assertive nutty and bitter roasty flavours, that give way to a caramel and chocolate sweetness. I hadn't had the Mild in a while and had forgotten how rich this was in flavour. The bitters all have the distinctive Black Country flavour profile of a refreshing start ending with a smooth malty finish, very moreish.

Lucie introduced a few other products outside the core range. Firstly, in 2012 the brewers had embarked on a programme of monthly specials, on a theme of “Holdens Rock Gods”. Each month a new beer was produced for cask and bottle, with the brewers able to play around with different malt and hop combinations – mostly traditional English varieties – while artist Joe Goode designed labels celebrating the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Andrew Eldritch, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and others. The bottle available to sample tonight was the August brew – Buffalo Soldier – named in honour of Bob Marley – which had a delicate citrus note. Next year, their specials will be named along the theme of World Leaders – so I'll be looking out for perhaps a few controversial heads of state popping up on the pump clips.

Next I tried this year's bottling of the Holden's Old Ale – a real winter warmer at 7.2%, which has been matured for at least two months in cold storage, although this example was over 8 months old. Lucie talked us through the process and said they had wanted to produce a beer for the end of the year, but didn't want to go down the route of a spiced ale. This won a Gold in the Champion Winter Ales category in 2011, and is complex with tannic notes giving way to raisiny fruits and a warming finish.

Photo from Richard
I was also surprised to see a Holdens own-label cider, called “Summat Else” at 4.5%, which was very drinkable; fruity but with a dry finish, and not over-carbonated like some other ciders sold by breweries. Lucie explained they wanted to sell a cider, but had taken their time choosing a small producer in Ledbury to create the perfect blend for them, with a definite bittersweet character to it. Richard was particularly taken with this, and very keen to plan a return visit so the Mussels in Holden's cider and cream sauce from Chamberlain's current menu could be tried too.

Holden's are currently brewing at capacity at 50,000 pints a week, and are currently working through expansion plans to double this, to keep their pub estate watered and to take advantage of their own bottling plant, which also contract-bottles for several other UK breweries. Hopefully brewery tours will start up once the expansion is complete, but in the meantime they have a new shop onsite, and the nearby brewery tap – the Park Inn, is open and serving the range of beers and pub meals.

Once we had worked our way through the beer samples, it was time to turn our attention to what Chamberlain's co-owner Dan, the chef, had to offer. This was an opportunity to try a range of flavours from their repertoire as a starter, before sitting down to our choice of fish and chip meals. Our plates included smoked salmon with cream cheese on melba toast and a pesto dressing, which was very flavoursome; delicate grilled plaice with black pepper; breaded haddock goujons; battered cod; and a light and delicious combination of tempura-battered hake with sauteed onions and zingy chilli slices, which I could have eaten all evening!

But it was time to relax and enjoy a proper plate of fish and chips – either haddock, plaice, cod or hake - and choose a Holdens beer to go with it. I'd normally have a Golden Glow but decided to go for the Special on this occasion, with the battered hake to go with it. This was on top form as usual, and I enjoyed helping Richard out with his enormous portion of haddock too. Afterwards I had a bottle of the lovely Mild for 'dessert', and picked up some of the Old Ale to take home with me.

When I came to pay, Simon came over to say he had waived the cost of my meal, as a thanks for supporting them and suggesting they stock Holdens – but I hope they are the ones picking up the thanks from customers now enjoying the benefits of two local and family businesses combining their efforts and making this a 'destination' restaurant where you can relax with a choice of Black Country beers during and after your meal.

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