Small town blues

bridgwater.jpgI’ve just come back from my home town (Bridgwater, in Somerset) where the pubs are having something of a crisis. For years, it’s been one of those towns that claims to have more pubs per head than any other. I don’t know if that’s true, but there are a lot of pubs. And, for almost as many years, those pubs have managed to make their way, despite the heavy competition.

Sadly, in recent years, a couple of big (and, crucially, cheap) chain pubs have opened in the town centre, leaving many of the smaller “locals” all but empty, even on Boxing Day (traditionally a very busy day).

Big business and the council are partly to blame here, but I have to say that some of the pubs are doing themselves no favours. In the face of stiff competition, they should be rising to the challenge and making the local the place to be. Instead, the pub nearest my parents house has decided that:

1. the best way to make the pub feel more lively is to put Radio 1 on at full volume and turn off the juke box

2. they’re too depressed to greet people when they enter the pub, or smile at them during service

3. it doesn’t matter if the excellent local bitter — Butcombe, on which more later — is stale or off

4. there’s no need to wash the glasses

5. that currying favour with five grumpy regulars is more important than making newcomers feel welcome.

This is typical, sadly. So, in my home town, the local pubs are now less friendly, more expensive, dirtier, less atmospheric, and have worse beer than Wetherspoons. And that’s saying something. My Dad, who has been drinking in Bridgwater pubs since he was old enough to lie to a barman about his age, got so depressed we had to leave.

I suspect that in Bridgwater, and many other towns across the UK, we’re going to see an end to the days when a population of 36,000 can support almost 200 pubs. Bad pubs are going to die. Cheap chain pubs will prosper. But good pubs — pubs that keep a small range of ales in good condition, which make their customers feel welcome, that create atmosphere, and that make you feel like a regular, or even a friend, when you’ve been twice in a month — will survive.

I’ll name names: the Bower Manor is a fairly unassuming restaurant/hotel, with a small bar. It, too, was quiet on Boxing Day, but the landlady was friendly; there was one fresh, well-kept real ale (Sharp’s Doom Bar — the best pint of this I’ve ever had); a roaring fire; and a Christmas Tree. It was hard to leave!

Oh, and I promised to say something about Butcombe Bitter: it’s a great beer. One of my favourites (my judgement being partly clouded by homesickness, I’ll admit). At its best, it’s very bitter, very satisfying, and slightly sulphurous on the nose. I can’t vouch for how it will taste if you see it on tap outside the West Country, but try a half and let me know what you think.


Beer & food matching at Christmas

christmas_beer_menu.jpgGarrett Oliver maintains that there are no foods that can’t be matched with beer. So I thought I’d have a go at matching beers to the different courses of the traditional Boak family Christmas.

I didn’t have the benefit of Mr Oliver’s advice while I was choosing the beers, but I can consult in retrospect, as I bought Bailey a copy of The Brewmaster’s Table for Christmas. We may put up a book review when we’ve finished, but we’re enjoying it immensely at the moment.

1. Grapefruit appetiser + Blanche de Namur

Why selected: Grapefruit was always going to be a challenge, especially when grilled with spices. Spices and citrus suggested a Belgian Wit to me. I went for Blanche de Namur as it’s one of the more subtle (some may say bland) of the Wits I’ve tried.

Garrett Oliver says: citrusy flavours work well with Wits.

The verdict: This worked very nicely, although I might go for a less subtle Wit next time. Incidentally, this beer goes fantastically well with orange-flavoured dark chocolate.

2. Roast Chestnut soup + Meantime London Porter

Why selected: I thought a nice roast porter should work with roast chestnuts (stunningly original there, eh?) and went for Meantime mostly because it comes in nice snazzy bottles, but also I remember it as being bitter and smoky, which was what I wanted.

Garrett Oliver says: “British porters are rich, elegant beers that… are capable of matching many more dishes than one might imagine” and lists scallops, chargrilled meat, Shepherd’s pie and subtle chocolate deserts.

Verdict: This would have worked if I hadn’t added sherry to the soup. It made the soup taste wonderfully Christmassy, but clashed with the porter. That’s my fault, rather than the porter’s.

3. Turkey (plus trimmings!) + La Chouffe Golden Ale

Why selected: Wasn’t really sure, but I felt that a good-bodied blonde Belgian (fnah fnah) was what I needed for the main course. I went for La Chouffe Golden Ale as I didn’t want anything too extreme, and I remembered this as having an understated but satisfying flavour.

Garrett Oliver Says: With turkey, Biere De Garde, dunkel, dubbel, Oktoberfest Marzen, American Amber Lager, Belgian Pale Ale. He also mentions La Chouffe (as a Saison) and suggests it with Indian food (really?), barbeque, Thai, duck, cassoulet and rustic sausages.

The verdict: It’s a lovely beer, but not quite right with the turkey. I think you could go two ways with this — either go for something more extreme (a good trippel?) or perhaps go something lighter, like Palm.

4. Christmas Pudding + Delirium Christmas beer

Why selected: We had Delirium Christmas a few weeks back, and were impressed with its dark, spicy warmth, and thought that it would go well with spicy & sweet Christmas food. At 10%, it should round off the meal nicely.

What Garrett Oliver says: Haven’t found anything on Christmas pudding, and I’m not sure how he’d classify the beer. He recommends Delirium Tremens with a whole host of savoury stuff, but DT is pretty different from the Christmas beer.

Verdict: Didn’t work. For some reason, the beer tasted completely different when up against the pudding. There may have been some differences between bottles (yesterday I served from a large bottle, and there are some that maintain that Belgian beers taste different in large bottles to small bottles). Or it may be that it just couldn’t cope with the mighty pudding, which had been maturing for a year and a month. The pudding brought out the worst in the beer — the carbonation (too much!), the comparatively light body, and the sweetness — without delivering the warm spicy kick I’d hoped for.

I don’t know what would work with the pudding — maybe a heavier Belgian (St Bernardus 12?) Think I have a way to go with this food and beer matching business.

By the way – hope you all had a lovely Christmas.


Mulled beer

London was an eery place yesterday. A thick fog descended, leaving visibility of only 10 metres in my neck of the woods. The streets were absolutely deserted – maybe people have left town, maybe those that are around were all hungover.

Anyway, I fled to my local for some signs of life. The beer wasn’t in great nick to I switched to mulled wine, which got me thinking. You have mulled wine, milled cider – why isn’t mulled beer popular?

I’ve had hot beer with spices in Poland, where it’s reasonably popular in the south in the winter. I seem to remember it being quite nice, especially a version with honey and ginger.  It obviously doesn’t taste much like beer, but it was very satisfying after a day trudging through snow.

A quick google search reveals this article on about various historic mulled beers, and they sound extremely appealing.  I particularly like the bit about spicing them up to make homebrew more palatable, as we’ve got a fair bit of only-just drinkable homebrew in at the moment.

Has anyone mulled beer successfully and if so, what would they recommend? Does heating enhance or kill bitterness?


The Rake at Christmas and Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout

If you want to get into the Christmassy spirit in London, a trip to Borough Market is a winner. Geese, game pies, mulled cider, and carol-singers under a tree. A real Dickensian wonderland (just wish they had Dickensian prices). All the better if you go on a weekday afternoon when you should be in work.

Having carefully selected some beers in Utobeer to go with Christmas dinner (more on that after Christmas) we retired to the Rake for a quiet drink or six. We hadn’t been for a few months – it’s rather difficult to get in the door in the evenings these days – and were pleased to see that what was on offer had changed considerably since the last time we were there. Not that there was anything wrong with the previous selection, it’s just good to see change and variety.

On tap; HopBack Entire Stout, O’Hanlon’s Goodwill, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, La Chouffe N’ice, Koestritzer Schwarzbier and I think Maisels’ Weisse. In bottles, another two hundred or so.

yeti.jpgOf the various beers we had, Goodwill was great in that it wasn’t just a standard bitter with some cinnamon in it. Instead, the brewers had gone for citrusy flavours and succeeded in creating a nicely balanced, warming bitter. Similar citrusy flavours abounded in Celebration Ale, which also tasted of peaches. La Chouffe was very tasty, but then at 10% it should be! All excellent beers.

But the star of the show was Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stout (in bottles). Now, we’d had a few drinks beforehand, so I’m not sure in the cold light of the morning I’d be as bold as to say it was the best beer I’d ever tasted (which I said a few times last night to anyone who’d care to listen…) But it knocked our socks off sufficiently that we ordered another one straight afterwards, rather than try a new beer. It’s 9.5% and almost jet black, with a gorgeous mocha-coloured head. It reminded me of an amazing hot chocolate I once had in Spain, which was 85% cocoa solids. Incredibly chocolatey, thick and silky, but not at all sweet. It’s very bitter (it proudly boasts “75 bittering units”) but the hop bitterness blends perfectly with the cocoa bitterness. It’s a sledgehammer of a beer.

All I want for Christmas is…

pie.jpgI’ve been a good person this year. I’ve supported and promoted pubs and shops selling good beer, I’ve recommended beautiful microbrews to people who might not otherwise have drunk them, and I even got round to joining CAMRA.

I don’t really want much for Christmas, aside from the odd nice beer, and peace and goodwill to all men, but here’s my fantasy Christmas wishlist:

  1. The hop and grain harvests to be full and plentiful this year. I don’t think the smoking ban will kill pubs, but £4 a pint might.
  2. UK brewers to do more porters and stouts year round and less summer ales. Oh, and pubs to stock them. I find it strange that even in really good “real-ale” pubs you rarely find a stout that isn’t Guinness.
  3. My local supermarket to change the beer selection more than once every couple of years.
  4. Pubs that don’t want to do good cask ale to discover the wonders of bottle-conditioned beers.
  5. A home-brew shop that gets round to processing your order perhaps the day after you made it, rather than waiting three days before phoning you to say they don’t have the stuff. Thus making you miss your brewing schedule.
  6. The BBC to commission and show a beer appreciation programme. Or any channel really. Get Oz Clarke to team up with some beer writers and see what happens.
  7. CAMRA to stop wasting my subs money on the campaign for a full pint and focus more on the quality of said pint, i.e. perhaps visit a few more of these allegedly good pubs in the Good Pub Guide? See superb rant by Pete Brown on this a few months back, one of my favourite blog posts of the year.
  8. Our first-born lager to work.
  9. To discover that the wild yeasts in the Lea Valley are capable of spontaneously fermenting a tasty beer, thus starting a craze for London lambics.
  10. All the fabulous pubs, breweries and beer shops we’ve mentioned (and many more we haven’t had a chance to) to have a productive and profitable new year. Cheers!