Category Archives: pubs

The Batham’s, at Last

great_western_wolverhampton

On more than one occasion, we’ve been asked, “Have you tried the Batham’s?” On answering “No,” we’ve had the distinct impression that our credibility as commentators on beer has been reduced to zero.*

Of course we wanted to try it anyway, having heard from various sources, on numerous occasions, that the small West Midlands family brewery produces beers which are delicious, with a hard-to-define ‘mojo’. And we’re not immune to the ticking instinct, either.

Having travelled for 6+ hours from Penzance to Birmingham, we weren’t, however, quite in the mood for a further hour of buses and trains to get to the brewery tap at Stourbridge and turned, instead, to someone with local knowledge.

Tania’s suggestion was the Great Western next to Wolverhampton central station — 20 minutes on the train, plus five minutes walking. Perfect!

A cute, flower-covered pub surrounded by railway architecture and industrial wasteland, it was decorated throughout with memorabilia from the GWR, which once passed through the city. (Its western terminus is, as it happens, Penzance.) On a sunny Friday evening, it had a pleasant buzz, and a mixed clientèle perhaps just tending towards late middle age.

And there it was: Batham’s Best Bitter (4.3%). We ordered two pints along with a pork pie (‘real’, not ‘craft’), a hot pork roll and some ‘Bostin’ Cracklin‘’ — if you don’t like pig meat, food options are rather limited in the evening — and set about getting acquainted.

The_bathams_474

There are some mental contortions to go through when tasting a legendary beer for the first time. On the one hand, it’s easy to end up tasting the hype, and praising the Emperor’s new clothes. On the other hand, it can also be easy to end up feeling let down. We tried to forget all of that and just drink it.

It was certainly very pretty, scoring 11 out of 10 for clarity. As for the taste… Well, we were momentarily surprised by a pronounced honey note, but couldn’t help but be impressed. The balancing bitterness developed as it went down, and there was almost a suggestion of nutty grains between the teeth.

Ultimately, though, it had that quality which makes writing about beer difficult at times — something impossible to put into words, but which is perhaps a result of freshness, or a subtle combination of barely-perceptible aromas and flavours. A certain magic.

But…

Much as we enjoyed it, we did find ourselves wondering how much of its reputation was down to the beer’s relative scarcity, and the glamour of time and place. It didn’t strike us, fundamentally, as that much different, or better, than the products of many other family breweries.

For example (and we’ll probably get told off for this) in Manchester, we attempted to approach Robinson’s Unicorn (4.3%, golden) with similar detachment, and actually rather enjoyed it. If Robinson’s restricted its supply, and if it was only served in pubs like the Great Western which kept it in tip-top condition, perhaps it too would have a cult reputation.

We can’t wait for the chance to drink a few more pints of Batham’s just to make sure, though.

Further reading: Barm’s recent post about pub-crawling in Dudley is a cracking read, and this 2012 piece by Pete Brown was probably where we first really registered the existence of Batham’s.

* “What credibility?” &c.

Falmouth: A Beer Geek Destination

Seven Stars, Falmouth.

In recent months, we’ve been asked several times by beer geeks where they should visit in Cornwall. These days, there is a clear answer: Falmouth.

This small coastal town (pop. 27k) now has enough going on that, even if it can’t compete with London or Manchester, it could be said to have a ‘beer scene’. There’s certainly plenty to keep a beer geek entertained for a few hours.

A pub crawl

Here’s our suggested route which takes a very manageable 20 minutes or so to walk end-to-end, right down the main street.

1. Five Degrees West, Grove Place, TR11 4AU

A pub that wants to be a bar, 5DW is a good place to tick off cask ales from smaller local breweries such as Rebel and Black Rock. There are usually some Belgian and American beers in bottles, though nothing out of the ordinary.

2. The Front, Custom House Quay, TR11 3JT

For a long time, Cornwall’s primary real ale destination. In the face of competition, it seems a bit less exciting than it used to, but is still a great place to find a wide range of real ales, including many lesser-spotted beers from local stalwarts Skinner’s and Sharp’s. (We’re not enamoured with either brewery, but that’s a matter of taste.) There are also several interesting ciders. There’s no kitchen but you are positively encouraged to bring along your own fish and chips or pasties from one of the nearby shops.

3. OPTIONAL: The Oddfellows Arms

To extend the crawl, or to adjust the balance towards real ale, take a detour to the Oddfellows Arms (2 Quay Hill, TR11 3HA) for pints of well-kept Sharp’s in a resolutely pubby atmosphere.

Beerwolf Books, Falmouth.

4. Beerwolf BooksBells Court, TR11 3AZ

We loved this discount-bookshop-pub mash-up from the off and it keeps getting better. We particularly appreciate the range of cask ales from outside Cornwall (e.g. Magic Rock, Salopian, Dark Star, Burning Sky) but this is also one of a handful of places which regularly stocks beers from the Penzance Brewing Company, based at the Star Inn, Crowlas. Bottled beers include Hitachino Nest, Rebel Mexicocoa and Belgian classics. There is also a choice of ciders. Its cosy atmosphere is better suited to winter than summer, though.

5. The Seven Stars, The Moor, TR11 3QA

An old-fashioned pub which has been listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide since the 1970s, the Seven Stars probably won’t appeal to the ardent craftophile: it’s speciality is perfectly kept Bass Pale Ale. There are also guest ales, sometimes adventurous, but it’s not really about ticking or novelty. If you don’t stop here for at least one pint, you’re missing something great.

6. Hand Bar, Old Brewery Yard, TR11 2BY

Falmouth’s very own ‘craft beer bar’ is the very opposite of the Seven Stars — modern in style, with an emphasis on the diversity of beer. Run by a former employee of North Bar in Leeds, it feels as if it has been transplanted from a more metropolitan setting, and is popular with students. The beer can be expensive, but not unusually so for this section of the market, and there are usually some genuine rarities to be found on tap or in the bottle fridges.

7. OPTIONAL: The Bottle Bank (off licence), Discovery Quay, TR11 3XP

Right back at the other end of town, near 5DW, this off licence offers a very decent range of interesting beers from breweries such as Siren, Hardknott and even Mikkeller. It is also a good place to pick up the Sharp’s Connoisseur’s Choice range.

8. FOR TICKERS ONLY: The Seven Stars, Penryn, TR10 8EL

This otherwise unremarkable pub in Penryn, 15 minutes from Falmouth by bus, is the local outlet for Spingo Ales brewed at the Blue Anchor at Helston. We have enjoyed pints of Ben’s Stout here, in an atmosphere of glum distrust…

Beyond Beer

Apart from beer, Falmouth also has decent beaches, coastal walks, shopping, an excellent museum and plenty to stimulate the history buff. It also has some great places to eat, including, at the Meat Counter, the most convincing posh burgers and hot dogs we’ve had this side of Bristol.

In previous years, we’ve provided lists of our favourite Cornish pubs (2012 2013) and beers (2012 2013). All the places we mention in those posts are still worth a visit, and the general standard of Cornish pubs is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind Tribute, Betty Stogs and Doom Bar.

The Launch and Sinking of a Flagship

Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown.
Burger King, Leicester Square, by Matt Brown, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

Next time you find yourself picking the gherkins out of a Whopper® in the Burger King® on Leicester Square in central London, take a moment to appreciate the building’s place in British pub history.

In the 1950s, Whitbread, like many other breweries, were desperate to revive enthusiasm for the public house — to show that it could be part of modern life alongside satellites, pop music and trendy coffee bars, and wasn’t just a quaint relic of a bygone time.

Read more after the jump ↠

Dissecting a 1984 Local Beer Guide

What can we learn from the small book Real Ale in Devon published by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale in 1984?

Book cover: Real Ale in Devon, 1984.1. It is evidence of the increasing availability of ‘real ale’ in this period. With a hundred pages, this volume is as big as the first edition of the national Good Beer Guide, published ten years earlier. The introduction notes a huge boom in the number of ‘real ale outlets’ since the previous edition, and there 1050 listed in total.

2. Beer agencies were important players in the development of a beer geek culture. That is, distributors (middle men) who brought interesting outside beer into the region (Samuel Smith, Wadworth, Fuller’s, Theakston) at a price. Businesses of this type still exist, notably supplying kegged beer to the emerging ‘craft beer’ market currently neglected, or misunderstood, by larger distributors.

Vintage Sheppard & Mason beer agency advert.
Note cut-and-paste Letraset fail at bottom right… And here’s Mr Sheppard on Twitter.

3. Bass is an honorary West Country beer. Since veteran observer the Pub Curmudgeon pointed it out to us, we’ve seen lots of evidence to support the idea that, beyond Bristol, Draught Bass was the traditional ‘premium’ alternative to poor quality locally brewed beers. This book describes it as ‘one of the commonest real ales in Devon’.

4. It was easier to get strong dark beer than pale’n’hoppy. There are several ‘strong winter’ ales listed, but nothing described as straw/golden coloured. Small brewers back then seem to have staked their reputations on producing heavier, headier beer than the thin, weak products turned out by big brewers. Marston’s Owd Roger old ale/barley wine had people rather excited.

5. There were several stand-out exhibition pubs. Where most pubs in the guide hada single real ale on offer (e.g. Whitbread Bitter), several leap out of the text with long lists. The Royal Inn at Horsebridge had nine ales, including some brewed on the premises; and the Peter Tavy at, er, Peter Tavy, has fourteen in its listing. There are quite a few others with similar numbers, and many more with six or seven.

6. The phrase ‘guest beers’, so important in the 1990s, was in use by this time. It is the antidote to the big brewery tied house model and an expression of a certain type of beer geekery, perhaps stimulated more by novelty and variety than a simple ‘decent pint‘.

7. We need to think a bit more about cider and its place in the ‘real ale revolution’. Devon’s CAMRA activists were evidently particularly keen to defend and promote ‘real cider’, but, by this stage, seem to have had more success bringing beer from Yorkshire and London than in preserving the true native drinking tradition.

8. Blackawton was the trendiest brewery in the county. It was Devon’s first microbrewery, and one of the first in the country, founded in 1977. We wonder if the presence of Blackawton beer in a pub wasn’t a kind of Bat Signal for beer geeks, rather as a Magic Rock pump clip is today.

9. If you didn’t like Courage, Plymouth was not the city for you. See also: Bristol.

(And a personal footnote: Bailey’s parents’ pub in Exeter sold Whitbread Bitter on hand-pump. Described as a ‘Town local’ in the text, it also, sadly, features in the addendum: “[The] following pubs should now be deleted…”)

We’re very grateful to Neil Bowness (@neil_bowness) for sending us a copy of this book which he tells us his mum bought for 20p at a church fair. Bargain!

Greene King Mild At Last

Greene King sign

“It’s taken us longer to find a pint of this than it did to get hold of bottles of Westvleteren 12,” Bailey said in anticipation of his first sip of Greene King XX Mild.

Those robots among you who are able to judge beer purely on its flavour won’t understand how several years of hunting and hype influenced our ability to assess this pint of humble mild with any objectivity.

It seems odd to use the word ‘hype’ in relation to mild from a little-loved regional brewer, but that’s what we’ve been subjected to, in a quiet, rather British way — “Even if you don’t like GK IPA, you must try their mild,” uttered in a tone usually reserved for “There are some rather interesting carvings in the nave…”

We got our chance in the wake of a Brew Britannia reading in Cambridge last week when Pintsandpubs and Beertalk kindly agreed to walk us to the Free Press, a cute, historic back-street pub with a reliable supply of XX, on the way back to the station.

It was a bit of an odd experience, to be frank. The pub had several interesting cask ales and a nice selection of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beer in bottles, so turning up with two well-known beer geeks and ordering mild earned us some funny looks. Those looks got even funnier once the Westvleteren comment had slipped out.

You won’t be surprised to hear that GKXX is not as good as WV12, but then it has only 3% ABV compared to the latter’s 10.2%. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it watery, and cask-conditioning rendered it no more complex or exciting than the various kegged milds we enjoyed (we actually did!) in Manchester the other week.

But it is a drinking beer.

If you’re prone to tasting and thinking but want a night off, it’s just the thing: your notes will be done in two sips (dark brown to ruby, chocolatey, sweetish) leaving you free to sling it back in volume, with your brain free for chatting, reading a book or completing a crossword or two.

Forcing ourselves to find something else to say, we spotted a resemblance to a Wadworth mild we tried a couple of years ago, and to home brew we made using our own interpretation of a 1938 Starkey, Knight & Ford recipe. That makes us think that it (a) contains a proportion of flaked maize; (b) uses a good slug of brewing sugar; and (c) probably hasn’t changed much in the last 60-odd years.

The final verdict: if we lived in Cambridge, Bailey would probably drink it all the time, but Boak will be quite happy if she never tastes it again. (See — we don’t always agree!)

And that’s that itch scratched.