Wednesday, 31 July 2013

BBB - Birmingham's Beer Scene Comes Of Age

After making a move to London earlier this year, it was great to be returning to my “home city” of Birmingham on Friday 26 July in very auspicious circumstances – to attend the Birmingham Beer Bash, after many months of building anticipation! I had been looking forward very much to a great event where I would get to pick and choose from a wide selection of interesting beers and catch up with lots of Brummie chums – and I hoped above all that things went smoothly for the organising team, a group of Birmingham's beery best – who had gone out on a limb to bring a momentous festival to our city. I was not disappointed!

Having attended IndyMan last year, I knew there was a new standard in place for beer festivals, just as there has been a new wave of breweries sweeping the land. IndyMan broke free of the constraints faced by CAMRA festivals, being backed by commercial beer enterprises and a different financing structure; looking to be staffed mostly by brewers and associates able to sell and serve their own products; and offering the best of cask, keg and bottle dispense – but also, crucially, in a really interesting venue that offered lots of scope for different festival areas and events.

Birmingham Beer Bash (or BBB – hence “bCubed” as it is also known) had a similar but quite simple agenda – to bring amazing beer to the city, whatever it's dispense. It was a huge bugbear of mine while living there that we seemed to be lagging behind other (smaller) English cities massively, in that we had no “craft” beer bars – i.e. those offering exciting keg beers as well as a strong range of the cream of UK cask and bottle offerings, and international beauties appearing too. In the year before I left, things were definitely on the up – first The Victoria started to offer bottles from Kernel, Partizan, Arbor, Summer Wine, cans from Ska Brewing, and an improved draught offering with Hardknott, Thornbridge and others; then Brewdog Birmingham opened, at last bringing some keg lines to the city (along with their trademark 'punk' attitude :-); and then the Craven Arms was revitalised by Chris and Sharon Sherratt, with a great ever-changing cask range and bottles in the fridge from De Molen and Cantillon.

But before this, some local beer chums had met for a 'twissup' and expressed their concerns that good beer just wasn't reaching Birmingham in the way it was flowing into other cities – and somehow, they all took a leap of faith together, and decided they could take matters into their own hands and change Birmingham's beer scene to the one they wanted to see – at least for one summer weekend!

12 months later – and their dreams came true. I have to admit I was anxious for the team – having run beer festivals myself I knew of the pitfalls, nervousness, and the 101 things that can go slightly off-plan – but even more so if you're not backed cashflow-wise by a large consumer lobbying group, there is no precedent for this type of event in the city, and your biggest question is “if we build it, will they come?” - well, I hope from the time the doors opened on Friday morning, their fears were allayed and they could start to enjoy the adrenaline buzz!

I attended for two sessions – the Friday evening and Saturday daytime – and it was a wonderful feeling to be walking down through the backstreets of Digbeth (a part-arty regeneration/part-Victorian industrial area of Brum – think Hackney Wick, but Digbeth got there first!) on a scorching summer day, knowing lots of friendly faces and interesting beers awaited us. I say “interesting” rather than “awesome”- as I felt the point of the varied beer list was to showcase a wide range of styles and new beers, not just the familiarly great and good – to push people outside their comfort zone a bit.

So what were my highlights?
  • The Venue – I thought this was pretty amazing – buildings originally part of Birmingham's canal and industrial heritage, providing lots of interesting spaces that could be used in different ways for the event, such as the seminar room with the International and Junction bars, the courtyard with it's canal-side setting providing a food court, and the larger cask, keg and bottle area. I don't know what the arrangements for food might have been had it rained the whole time, but it looked like there was enough space to go round, with numbers just right – no crowding, no queueing for ages for bar service or loos, and plenty of space to mill about, but enough punters for a buzzing atmosphere on both sessions I attended.
  • The food – so great to be reunited with the artisan food from local producers Loaf and Squisito – we feasted on meatballs with great bread and salads (good choice for a hot summer evening), Italian-style sausages made with fennel and local beer from Tunnel Brewery, and then tried some Pop-up Dosa – this divided opinions as some weren't keen on the textures of some of the different dosa condiments, but I loved every element of it and felt it was another good food option for the weather.
  • The people – the sheer amount of amazing people there – exhibiting brewers and associates (great to see @HardKnottDave, @HardknottAnne and @HopcraftGazza again, and meet @dredpenguin from Weird Beard); so good to catch up with Birmingham chums I hadn't seen since I moved; beer bloggers who had travelled from up and down the country to be there; the beery Twitterati out in force (great to see the glamourous @BeerBeauty again, and too many other people to list!); and of course the amazing BBB team of lovely, lovely people (you all know who you are!) who were always ready to greet you with a big grin and a hug, regardless of how busy and knackered they must have been feeling!
  • The fringe events – I was super-excited about these, getting to listen to a great talk on hops from Paul Corbett of Charles Faram Hop Merchants, all about malts (and what he considers to be beer ingredient perversions) from Dom of Thornbridge, and another great session run by Dom on how to identify the types of chemical faults to be found in 'bad' beer, which certainly made you thirsty for a 'good' beer by the end of it but with a keener sense of what may be going on in your glass.
  • The beer choice – so many beers, so many styles, so many breweries; bottle, keg and cask – with around 130 beers & ciders being featured on draught over the 2 days, and many more in bottle from @Stirchleywines, there was something for every taste – I did my best to try as many as possible, but special mention must go to Hardknott Rhetoric II, which we went back for many refills of; Arbor Ales / Moor Beer Double Dark Alliance; Sadlers Ales Dr Hardwicke's DIPA; Compass Berry – but really, too many to mention.
And the downsides?
  • The beer choice! – even enlisting the help of a 'beer buddy' to help me try as much of a range as possible by sharing their choices with me, still wasn't enough to get me round all of the beers I wanted to try in the space of two sessions – never mind the beers I'd earmarked in the programme but didn't happen to be on during the times I visited. But I think that's the mark of a good beer list – to leave you wanting more – even though making the choices as my last session drew to a close was agonizing!
  • Missing out on a burger – I had been really pleased to hear the Original Patty Men would be serving all day on Saturday; I'd tasted their burgery delights before at Digbeth Diner, and was muchly looking forward to munching on this again; but sadly they were so popular that they had run out by 2pm, just as I was about to go fetch my lunch from them – I gave them a friendly telling off for depriving me of meaty goodness, but satisfied myself with another dosing of Squisitodeli's lovely sausages.
  • The waiting – altogether such a great festival that delivered above my already high expectations – must we really wait another year for it to happen again? (Please, let it happen again!)

It was a very rewarding experience all round – and made me quite emotional for the team, to think how great they must feel to know they had pulled it off, hundreds of people enjoyed themselves, gallons of good beer was consumed, much beer learning went on, friendships were formed and cemented, and certainly from my point of view as a punter, everything seemed to run smoothly on the surface – and who knows what interesting projects, sharing of knowledge, and collaborations are now fermenting away as ideas in the minds of the many brewers who met up during the event! I salute all who organised the festival, the sponsors who made it possible, and everyone who turned up and made it all pretty amazing. Viva Birmingham Beer Bash, the city's beer scene has now come of age!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Sadlers Ales at the Windsor Castle Brewery

The Windsor Castle brewery - where Sadlers Ales are produced - is based in Lye, a Midlands town along the route between Birmingham and Stourbridge. I had first come across their Jack's Pale Ale being served at Inn on the Green (Acocks Green, B'ham) several years ago, but it is in recent years that their beers have gained more prominence, with award-winning established recipes alongside new and hoppy beers emerging. So when earlier this year I organised a Number9 #Twissup, that would take us by Number 9 bus from the centre of Birmingham to the door of the brewery, it was a great opportunity to see inside the brewhouse, try their range of ales, and have a good chat about hops with their head brewer, Chris Sadler.

Chris explained that the Windsor Castle brewery was originally founded in Oldbury by his great-grandfather, but that brewing operations ceased in 1927 – these were resurrected in Lye by Chris' father John in 2004. They have developed their portfolio since that time, and now have around 8 regular beers, and several seasonals and specials appearing. The Windsor Castle also serves as the Sadlers' taphouse, and is renowned for it's food offering as well – but it was the array of 10 cask Sadlers ales along the bar that immediately caught our eye and lifted our spirits when we entered. The bar staff explained they don't usually feature a guest as the house beers are so popular and turnover is quick, and there are usually seasonal brews to form a counterpoint to the core range, giving drinkers a wide choice of styles and strengths to choose from. They also have bottled versions of some of these beers in the fridges.

After making our initial purchases to start checking out the ales available, we met Chris in the bar area; he took us through to the brewery's hop store, and talked us through their current range. There are several traditional styles covered, such as Red House, a 4% Black Country mild, and Worcester Sorcerer, a 4.3% Best Bitter. Their Mud City Stout (6.6%), with cocoa and vanilla richly complementing a blend of dark malts and oats, is multi-award winning, and an immensely flavoured beer whether from cask or bottle; and the JPA (Jack's Pale Ale) is a very sessionable 3.8%, which has recently had it's recipe tweaked to make it a 100% Citra-hopped beer. This tasted fantastic on cask and came out on top as my beer of the day, despite the many other lovely beers we tried during the Twissup. 

Chris explained that as he has now taken over the Head Brewer duties from his father, it has given him the opportunity to 'play around with hops' a lot more and develop new recipes and specials, such as their Hop Bomb – available in 330ml bottles as well as on draught, this caused quite a stir in the Midlands beer scene when it appeared, with the 5% abv providing a good base to carry through the Amarillo and Citra hop flavours and aromas. It was great to see such a range of exciting hops in the storeroom, and we easily spent the best part of an hour discussing characteristics and uses, as our party had two professional and at least two homebrewers who were all eager to talk with Chris about alpha acid values and aroma characteristics, and how crop variations in different years give rise to recipe changes and adjustments.

But back to the beer – and we heard about two recent beers that Chris has been working on – the Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, which is continuously hopped throughout it's 85-minute boil and comes out a hefty 8.5%, and an Imperial Stout, which was still in development but Chris seemed pretty excited about already and described as 'something special'! We were able to have a taste of the latest batch of Dr Hardwicke's to be brewed – just about to go into the conditioning tanks – and this certainly had a lot of hop bite and full body even as an unfinished beer that still has to receive it's dry-hopping, so I'm looking forward to tasting this when it's finally ready.

We spent a while longer having a look round the 10-barrel brewery and the cask store, where sacks of used grain from the mashing process were stacked up ready for a local farmer to take away, and returned casks awaited cleaning and refilling with ales to be sent out again, before returning to the bar to work our way through the rest of the range and pick up some bottles to take home. I tried their delicious crisp Red IPA and also Basilisk, a bitter with some slightly sweet notes but a clean finish, and took home bottles of the Mud City, Hop Bomb, and Mellow Yellow, a pale ale with a hint of honey.

It was great to see a truly family-run brewery (Chris's sister also runs the taphouse and restaurant side of things) that is still keen to create new recipes and experiment with different hops coming to market, and it certainly marks them out as the most progressive brewery in the Birmingham area to my mind, and the only one bringing truly well-rounded but sparkily hoppy ales to Midlands punters.

And if you are yet to discover their beers, and like the sound of their hop-experimentation and special recipes, you can find some at the upcoming Birmingham Beer Bash festival on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th July 2013; there are rumours there may be some Imperial Stout available in bottles, and on draught will feature the hefty Dr Hardwicke's Double IPA, and 'Lion Hart', their 4.2% July seasonal beer – which is described as a blood orange ale brewed with juicy American hops and fresh pineapple – sounds perfect for a summer festival!

Saturday, 29 June 2013

BRÜSTIVAL at Brüpond

Before my recent move between cities, I did my research to find out what breweries might be near my new location, and soon identified three whose beers and hopefully premises I would get to check out – the fourth in the Borough, Brodies, and their brewpub the King William IV, already being well known to me!

Luckily, just around the time I was moving, one of these new breweries advertised they would be having a brewery open day and beer festival – a good chance to pay them a visit, and as luck would have it the spring sunshine was at it's height when the day of Brüstival at Brüpond Brewery arrived.

The brewery itself is a little off the beaten track – a W12 bus from Walthamstow took us through an industrial estate until the driver signalled the last stop and we had to get off, not quite sure of our location – so we followed a guy who looked like he might know where he was going, and soon saw we were in the right place with a crowd of people hanging out in the yard enjoying the sunshine, some Mexican street food sizzling up, and the brewery premises beyond.

Inside were a couple of bar areas – one with casks racked up, the other with more casks and a bottle fridge – so we grabbed a couple of halves from the list and had a wander round while working out what other beers we wanted to try. The brewery is in a decent-sized space which meant customers could walk around easily having a look at the kit, the sacks of malt stacked up, and peer into the hop freezer, while the brewery dog Matilda trotted around sporting a brewery t-shirt and generally enjoying the bustle.

Unfortunately the Brüpond Ain'cho Mum's Porter wasn't available – an Ancho chilli beer I had been keen to try – so we opted for their Tip Top Hop (with Motueka) and The Amber Experiment – a Belgian-style beer, with a geuzey-ness presumably from the yeast. The Tip Top is a beer that seems to split opinion, judging by reactions of those I've sampled it with on other occasions as well as this one – some people love it, for others it's not for them – I'm wondering perhaps if it's the flavour profile of the hop used; I believe the next version of this beer will use Celeia, so I'll be keen to find out how this is received. We also tried the Sweet Bee Honey'd Wheat – despite the name, a vegan beer (like all Brüpond's beers) that doesn't use honey – and this was unusual and soft on the palate, but not too sweet, although quite a different style to Bavarian weiss-style wheats.

Before making our next beer selections, we thought it wise to try out the burritos and tacos being cooked up in the yard by Luchadores, with large pans of simmering tender pork and beef ready to be served up with your choice of salsa (vegetarian options also available, but I was never going to be swayed from the lure of tasty meats). The 'hot' salsa was HOT – making my tongue sting and my eyes twitch – but I must have liked it as I went back for more! We shared a burrito and tacos and felt we'd provided a sufficient 'fond' to commence further beer exploration.

Next on the roster was the Jack of Clubs, a rich ruby ale from Wild Card Brewery. I met the team behind this nascent brewery while supping their beer – William, Andrew and Jaega – and was pleased to hear that although they are currently cuckoo-brewing at Brentwood, this is only a temporary arrangement while they wait for planning permission to go through so they can get their own brewery set up at the Warrant Officer pub on Higham Hill, as their intention is that the brewery will firmly be rooted in Walthamstow. While these plans come to fruition, they are concentrating on producing just the one beer at present, and settled on Jack of Clubs, as this is a recipe they've been honing as homebrewers for the past six years. It's a very malty, traditional bitter, with rich fruity notes and a slight sweetness on the finish, and has been going down well so far in cask and bottle at local pubs and the Warrant Officer itself.

We then got stuck into the two Brodies on cask – the Old Street Pale and the London Fields. Once again, Brodies came up trumps with these super-hoppy pales, with the Old Street being @dave_car's favourite of the day. We also tried the three beers available from another brewery within the Borough – East London Brewing Co. These were the Pale (light and clean on the palate), the Nightwatchman (a reddish bitter), and the Quadrant Oatmeal Stout – this was my favourite of the three, which had a thinner body than expected but a nice creamy flavour and smooth coffee notes on the finish.

The evening was wearing on, and being unsure of the bus timings we opted for a taxi back to the centre of Walthamstow. But I couldn't leave without trying some lovely fruit gin from local producers Mothers' Ruin – the damson was particularly potent and richly flavoured – and to pick up a bottle of Gosnells London Mead. This is a locally-produced mead (brewed and bottled on the Brüpond premises, in fact) – but displaying a new approach to serving mead – at a lower ABV than usual (5.5%, brought to this level presumably by dilution?) and in 330ml bottles – so it's more like a single-serve of beer. I like this innovation, it could bring mead back to being a more widely enjoyed drink and encourage more people to try it. I took this home and tried it a few weeks later, enjoying the light honey flavours, and the crisp carbonation leading to a dry finish.

It was great to be at a festival actually within a brewery premises, meaning you could meet the team behind the beers and have a look at their working area, and the atmosphere was certainly buzzing with lots of local ale fans – good to meet Mr Mustard, Greavsie, Sam and other people we chatted with from various London branches of CAMRA.

Brüpond are holding several more themed festival events (details here) at their premises over the summer – with the next one being an American Independence-day event, on Saturday 6th July from midday, bringing together beers produced by American brewers at English breweries – as the founder of Brüpond, David Brassfield (known as “Brass”) is originally from Colorado. This will feature ales from Moor Beer, Bexar, Wild Beer Co., Lovibonds and others, as well as the existing range and a couple of new beers from Brüpond. There will also be pulled pork, chocolate beer brownies, and something tasty for vegetarians provided by Queenies, who have run various pop-up food events at the Rose and Crown in Walthamstow. This looks to be a good day out with a range of beer styles represented – so hopefully see you there!

Thursday, 27 June 2013

(Beery) Things I will Miss About Birmingham

So now it's a reality, I have moved away from my “second home” where I'd lived for most of my drinking life, and taken up in pastures new. I can't deny it's a wrench to leave somewhere I'd become firmly rooted to, and where I'd been a participant in the beer and food scene for so long, watching it develop and change, and eventually blossom into an ever-increasing array of great pubs, independent restaurants and food producers; seeing a community grow up both online and in person to move the city “Forward!” - Birmingham's motto!

Of course, there are plenty of non-foody/drinky things I'm going to pine for too – the Brutalist but firmly for-the-people architecture of John Madin; the vibrant suburbs of Harborne, Stirchley, Kings Heath, Moseley; the beauty of Bournville in the spring; leafy canals and lofty buildings; spaces with 'hidden' history where nightlcubs, factories and cinemas used to be; the secret parts of the city that are imbued with personal meaning.

But this is a blog primarily about food & ale, not melancholic psychogeographical contemplation, so here are the top 10 beery(ish) things that make me sad to be leaving:

The Bartons Arms – my number one pub hangout in Brum, that I came to consider my “local”, even though it took two bus journeys right across the city to get there from home. But the Bartons has held a special place in my heart since Oakham took it over and invested heavily to bring it back to it's former glory – with it's amazingly beautiful historic interior of etched glass and Minton tiles, serving good value Thai food and those quaffable Oakham ales. I've seen different landlords and bar managers come and go here, but they each brought character and a warm welcome, and ensured 'regular's corner' remained a fixture where I could always find a friendly face any time I visited. When Oakham introduced the Citra hop to these shores, my cross-town visits increased further, and I never stopped appreciating what a great pub we were lucky to be able to visit regularly. Visits here helped me through sad times and to celebrate many good times, and it's always felt like a 'home from home', so it seemed fitting to have one of my last pub outings in Brum to the recent beer festival here with a bunch of chums.  I hope it continues to excel in being all that a pub should be.

The Electric Cinema – some time back, myself and a friend worked hard to get Purity beer and the Electric linked up via Twitter, so we could have a decent and local ale to drink while basking in its comfy sofas. The Electric was my haunt when it was more of a run-down, underfunded, shabby porno-chic hangout, but I loved seeing interesting Arthouse double-bills there, while sitting on the worn seats and enjoying some 50p homemade cake and coffee. Now it's been brought back to life with a retro feel under the steady hand of 'local boy done good' Tom Lawes and it's the only place I want to go to see films, while supping on a Pure Ubu or movie-themed cocktail.

Stirchley Wines and Cotteridge Wines – two amazing bottle shops that were a short bus or cycle ride from my home, whose range just kept getting better and better over the years and through the hard work of their owners. I'll doubt I'll ever again be so close to not one but two “Aladdin's Caves” of beery joy and friendly proprietors. I've talked more about their delights in my recent blog post here.

Great Western Arcade – again a great destination for Brum foodies, with Anderson & Hill (great Italian deli, also sells local bottled ales) and Loki Wine (a wine merchant where you can sample the wares before buying, with a smart seating area up above) facing each other, an artisan bread maker at one end, and the Whisky Shop there too (selling some whisky cask aged beer like Harviestoun's Ola Dubh). It also hosts Hollingsworth's for your cigar and tobacco needs, an old-fashioned sweetie shop, a refined chocolatier, and Druckers patisserie. If more specialist food or drink retailers move in, this has the potential to be the most exciting shopping street in the city – perhaps this is where a city centre craft beer shop should be appearing!

Festive Frankfurt Market – for the Hogan's Cider Bar

Some Brum-dwellers hated the crowds and hustle this caused in the city each November and December, but I loved it for the multitude of yummy stuff it brought within easy reach – and also because weissbier is a favoured drink in our household. But best of all was the Hogan's Cider Bar – quality draught cider and perry, hot spiced, vintage bottled – and Allen Hogan always willing to dispense some cider knowledge while we hung out with cidery chums from Leicester and further afield.

The Victoria – I first visited this pub when it was a dingy bar, more than a little run down, but providing useful meetups for the LGBT scene courtesy of the two ladies who ran it. But after a period of dereliction, it was taken over by the budding Birmingham indie pubco of Bitters N Twisted, and embodied everything I'd want in a 'night out' pub – music erring on the rock and indie side and cask beer in cutely decorated surroundings. In the past year they've upped their game on the beer side too, and now scene stars like Red Willow, Hardknott, and Thornbridge often make an appearance on the pumps; they were also the first pub in the city to start stocking the type of bottles a beer geek would make a beeline for – Partizan, Arbor, Kernel, Tiny Rebel, with some great soul food to go with it.

Craven Arms – this may be Birmingham's newest ale pub, but from the minute it opened I knew I would be missing it when I left, because it's run by two lovely people – Chris and Sharon – who are dedicated to good beer, and it's got a lovely 'proper pub' feel to it. With Chris striving to bring in the most interesting ales, around 9 ciders and perrys, and bottles of Cantillon and De Molen for a very reasonable fee, it became my Friday evening hangout of choice, especially as Chris's music policy seems to cover just about every indie and alternative band I'd want to hear!

Past drinking spots – now closed, The Foundry and the original Edwards Number 8 – I never drank anything 'decent' in here – it was all bottled Pils and K cider – in the days before I discovered real ale, though I don't think the Ansells keg bitter would have done much to help me down the path if I'd tried it – but these were places where I spent a huge amount of time and helped me feel rooted to Birmingham, and interested in the history of its pub, brewery and nightlife scene, so I'll mourn their passing from my regular thoughts as I won't be looking out of a city centre office window being reminded of them every day.

Black Country bittersBathams and Holdens, I'm looking at you – with anguish, knowing that even though I don't get to see you on draught that often in the middle of Birmingham, I'm going to see you even less now I'm 100 miles away from the Black Country. This is painful to contemplate as these were already beers I got cravings for when they were practically on my doorstep – what torture to maybe only get a drop of these on cask about once a year from now on! I'd love to see these breweries feature even occasionally in London, but it's also perversely pleasing to think that this kind of bitter is still a regional treat, for those who can make it back to the industrial heartlands.

Lastly, but very definitely not least, the beery people I have met over the years – from becoming active in the local branch of CAMRA when I first joined, volunteering initially to run the cider bar at the beer festival and increase the range of cider in the city, and eventually organising the beer festival itself, and the many great people I have met via CAMRA or 'down the Anchor' over the years who I now count as good friends; to more recent friendships formed with Twitter as the medium, getting to meet a fantastic bunch of great folks – I'm going to miss them all like hell and hope that somehow I'll still see a fair bit of them if I get to make trips 'back home', at beer festivals round the country, and if they come to beer geek gatherings in London. At the very least, I hope a large swathe of them will be at the Birmingham Beer Bash festival in July, so we can catch up over some of the most amazing beer Birmingham will have seen!

There are many more things about my adopted Brum homelands that I'll miss with a passion, but in the spirit of Beer and Food Adventuring, I know the flipside is that there are also many things to explore and discover around my new home – so I'll take Birmingham's motto with me as I go - “Forward!”

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Three Amazing Local Offies

Now that I have come to leave Brum, as a parting shot I wanted to pay tribute to something unique in the beer scene that the city has to offer – three amazing local offies within roughly a square mile of each other – or more correctly, a triangle – around the Stirchley and Selly Oak/Bournbrook areas of South-West Birmingham. To find one 'local' (i.e. non-city centre) off licence stocking something a beer geek would consider interesting is rare enough, but to have three within walking distance of each other is pretty special. And now I've moved to other parts of the land where a decent bottle shop is nowhere to be found, I keenly miss the ability to walk in somewhere and spend a good while browsing what's new on the shelves, have a chat with knowledgeable owners on what's upcoming on the beer scene, and leave with arms groaning with great purchases and a shopping list for 'next time' already forming in my head. So if you get the chance to visit Birmingham and have the time for a short bus or train ride to the suburbs, make sure you take a large bag and an even larger budget, and get yourself to one of these gems:

Stirchley Wines & Spirits – 1535 Pershore Road, B30 2JH
When I first moved to Birmingham, at the time more of a cider and wine drinker than ales (there being no real ale to be found in my previous Belfast haunts at the time to educate me), Stirchley Wines was the only place where 'interesting' beers could be found, signalled by the pink elephant of the Delirium Tremens sign outside the shop. Since then, Krishan and his father have worked to bring a constantly-updating selection of beers to Birmingham's thirsty punters, and the breadth of choice has skyrocketed in recent years. You will find a great selection of Belgian stalwarts – including Rochefort, Rodenbach, Cantillon, De Struise - and stars of the US scene such as Flying Dog, Uinta, Stone, Weyerbacher, Anderson Valley. You'll also find a great range from Nogne O, Brewfist, Elav, and other emerging craft scenes, and the full list of Oktoberfest biers in season. Up and coming UK breweries are also well represented, in particular a good range from Kernel, Hardknott, Thornbridge, Brewdog, Beavertown, Bristol Beer Factory and many more. And the local brewers get a look-in too, so it's a good source to find some Wye Valley, Purity, Beowulf, Titanic, Church End and Sadlers, among others. Not to mention the Japanese craft beers recently arrived from Hitachino Nest, a fair amount of bottled cider, and occasionally a 'beer bread' produced by local artisan baker @loafonline.

USP – a long-standing institution which now also has two draught keg taps dispensing deliciousness from the likes of Magic Rock, Harbor, Thornbridge, Mikkeller and others, to take away (smart-looking containers provided). And as well as getting involved in lots of community projects and pushing forward the beer festival scene in Birmingham (check out @birminghamcubed happening in July), Krishan will enthusiastically talk your ear off about beers of all kinds if you let him!

Cotteridge Wines – 1825 Pershore Road, B30 3DN
Within a couple of years, the team of Jaz and Kal have managed to turn this local grocer and off licence into a beer nut's heaven – with what I believe to be the widest selection of craft beer available in the city. They were keen to engage with the growing beery community in Brum, asking for advice and suggestions on what to stock, what breweries you'd recommend, and offering trade lists to see if there were particular beers you were after. A few years ago, it was great to be offered a list of all German beers currently available to them, and be asked to 'take my pick' on what I'd want to buy next time we were in the shop – and the German range is still pretty amazing to see. Since then, they've made personal connections with many breweries up and down the country, leading to a recent collaboration brew with Brodies (called Bish's APA, to thank @the_bish for his help I believe), which should be hitting the market in coming weeks – if not already sold out in advance to the online beer geek community! On their groaning shelves, you'll find beers you're familiar with, beers you've heard of but not had the chance to try, and rarities and new releases you didn't even know you were desperate to drink yet! And if they aren't stocking it, chances are they can source it for you, so don't be afraid to ask. Last time I visited, there was a huge amount of choice, but in particular large ranges from Mallinsons, Arbor, Williams Bros, Fyne Ales (including one of my favourite beers, Jarl), Ska in cans, Maui, To Ol, Buxton, Red Willow, Evil Twin, Brodies, Odell, De Molen – and an absolutely jaw-dropping selection from Mikkeller.

USP – always something new and unusual 'just in', with competitive pricing and an ability to track down that 'rare' beer you might have been seeking (provided it's still being produced of course!) and ensure it's reserved for you to pick up. And soon – their own beer brewed with Brodies – perhaps more collaborations will be in the pipeline?

Wine Stop – 75 Raddlebarn Road, B29 7DA
Now this off licence is less 'beery' than the above two, and is in the studentville areas around Birmingham university, but is definitely worth seeking out. The proprietor, Hardeep, is a complete whisky (and whiskey) freak – it's clearly his passion and hobby as well as his business – and there are over 100 different whiskies available here with Hardeep happy to spend time talking you through several of them, working out what kind of thing you might like or explaining the characteristics of new whiskies he has acquired. He has even had a whisky produced for him by renowned distillery Caol Isla – named 'The Whisky Thieves', this is available from the shop in reasonably priced limited edition bottles, and has a spicy, peppery note, that smooths to a slightly sweet finish. It's very easy drinking but with enough complexity there to be interesting, and we've already restocked on a second bottle as a memento of Birmingham's great drinking scene. Hardeep will be happy to recommend several different bottles given your preferences and price range, but I'd also advise you look at his Indian and Japanese whisky offerings as I don't believe this selection can be bettered anywhere in Brum. On the beer side, although the selection may appear small, there is certainly enough of interest – they stock the legendary Bathams Bitter, alongside some Thornbridge, Cairngorm, Sam Smith's, Otley, Hook Norton, and Wye Valley, and other English and Scottish breweries, and a couple of different versions of Harviestoun's Ola Dubh, a rich whisky-cask aged dark beer (great with dark chocolate!).

USP – a whisky and whiskey selection that can't be beaten (plus Bathams in bottles!), and knowledge dispensed by a friendly proprietor as obsessed with the whisky scene as you may be with the beer scene, and happy to spend a while sharing his spirit recommendations or discussing beer while you browse the shelves. And the only “Birmingham” whisky – The Whisky Thieves – definitely worth picking up!

So although I write this smitten with a wry bitterness that these three amazing local offies are no longer local to me, I also feel immensely proud and delighted that Birmingham can offer such an amazing choice and service to beer and spirit fans – whether aficionados or newbies, they will find friendly faces happy to advise and converse in any of these three establishments, who are all moving the scene forward in their own unique ways. Visit, and enjoy!

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.