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.

Bailey

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.

The Frog and Rosbif, Toulouse and Paris

frogandrosbif.jpgFrogpubs are a chain of brewpubs in France; they have four outlets in Paris, one in Bordeaux and one in Toulouse. (According to their beermats in Toulouse, they have a new one in Pau, too, but this doesn’t seem to have made it onto their website.)

Each pub brews six beers to the same recipe, although they have slightly different names depending on the pubs. I had the pleasure of visiting the Toulouse branch and the St Denis branch in Paris on consecutive days, and both were great, although slightly different.

Firstly, the beers. One of the many clever things about the business model is that they make both lagers and ales; there is something for everyone. The “blonde” is a beautifully crisp and clean lager, unpasteurised and unfiltered, which tastes like a revelation in the context of all that bloody Heineken. Reminded me of the Helles you get pubs in southern Bavaria.

Next up is the “blanche”, with orange peel. I only had a taster of this in Toulouse, and it the overwhelming flavour for me was lemon.  Would be nice in the summer, I think, but wasn’t for me at that particular time. To complete the lagers, there is a “ginger twist”; as you might imagine, this has ginger in it. I like ginger beer in small quantities, and a half of this was pleasant enough, but I was keen to move onto the ales.

On the ale front, Frogpubs offer a paleish ale (called “Aeropost’Ale in Toulouse, and “Inseine” in Paris), a red-brown ale, and a stout. These were all very interesting, not lease because the taste varied from pub to pub. The Aeropost’Ale was my favourite in Toulouse; it had nailed the English summer ale style absolutely perfectly (if I can generalise about styles like that…) Hoppy, fruity and homesickness-inducing.  In contrast, I preferred the red-brown ale (“Brew de l’Industrie” in Toulouse, “Parislytic” in Paris) in the Paris branch, where it tasted not unlike Fullers ESB. The stout was good in both locations.

Both pubs had a similar mix of international students, locals and expats – I spotted at least one German party in both. The Frog in Toulouse doesn’t have a kitchen, but has the great business idea of hooking up with two local restaurants – one of which is a curry house – to keep the punters fed. The Frog in Paris offers fancy-looking pub grub which seemed to be very popular with French and expats alike.

Notes

Locations of Frogpubs, descriptions of beer and other fun stuff can be found on their website. You can read about the history of the company and even buy someone a drink online.

Belgian Beer in Biarritz – La Tireuse

I seem to be having a lot of luck with my stopovers.

As Sunday tends to be pretty dead in France, I had been wondering whether choosing Biarritz as a stopover was wise. However, it turns out to have considerably more life on a grey November Sunday than many other French towns.

It also has “La Tireuse”, a bar with 20 handpumps loaded with Belgian beer. They’ve gone for a selection that avoids the usual, featuring a range of styles from the bigger “independent”* breweries – which you don’t often see outside Belgium, particularly not on tap.

So from Brouwirij Leroy they had Leroy stout (not my kind of thing – too sweet) and Yperman (described as an “ambree” – lovely stuff). From Bocq there was La Gauloise Ambree, St Feuillien Bruin, and from Van Eecke there was Watou’s Wit, Kapittel Triple and an old favourite, Poperings Hommelbier.

Also intriguingly, they have a beer called “La Tireuse special” – I can’t find reference of this beer on the internet. They told me it was brewed in Belgium, but I don’t have enough French to find out if it was brewed especially for them. It’s a “light” blonde, 5.6%, with quite a strong hop flavour. It was very tasty.

The bar staff are extremely friendly and happy to provide tasters, descriptions and recommendations. There is also food, with a nod to Belgium and Germany in the menu (Flammkuechen, Spaetzle, and great big hunks of meat and potatoes).

Fabulous.

Notes

*I’m not sure what independent means in the world of Belgian beer – independent of what? – but all of these breweries are classified as independent on various web forums, as well as in their own publicity material.

La Tireuse is on Rue Mazagran, at the top of Place Ste Eugenie, in the centre of Biarritz. Photo to come.

Boak

Belgian beer in Burgos – La Espiga

Burgos is the kind of place that guidebooks describe as “likeable”. It has some nice old buildings including a stunning cathedral, and lots of bars and pubs. You probably wouldn’t go out of your way to visit, but it’s handy for travel in between Madrid and the Basque country.

As I had only chosen it for a stopover based on the rail connections, it was a very pleasant surprise to discover La Espiga, a genuine beer lover’s paradise. I’ve been to a number of places in the last couple of months in Spain that claim to be “beer paradises” or “beer temples”, only to discover they’re yet another weapon in Heineken’s Spanish armada, and that the exciting international beers on offer extend to Adelscott and Desperados.

Trois PistolesNo, this was the real deal. Around 10 beers on tap, including La Trappe Dubbel, Spaten Bock, Kwak and Liefman’s Kriek, and between 50-70 more in bottles. The selection was mostly the usual Belgian big boys – the Trappists, the Abbeys, the Deliriums, the Hoegaardens, but there were some more unusual offerings, such as the Unibroue range from Quebec.

There was a guide to the various beers, and the staff were knowledgeable and prepared to make recommendations. Beer menus are something I’m very keen on, as they help and guide the budding beer enthusiast – it’s amazing how many good pubs with big selections don’t bother with this step.

Best of all was that it was absolutely heaving with locals of all ages, enjoying a range of beer. Perhaps there is hope for the beer scene in Spain afterall. Maybe the Spanish beer revolution will begin in Burgos – I also noticed a German bar, and the internet cafe I visited had Barbar Miel and Kapittel Watou in the fridge.

In the meantime, here’s to you, La Espiga. I put this up in the hope that another beer lover who winds up in the area will google “beer + Burgos” or perhaps even “cerveza + Burgos” and will discover you too.

Notes

  1. Cerveceria La Espiga is on Calle de San Juan, right in the middle of town. Cibercafe is on Calle del Pueblo (?) which meets Calle de San Juan at a big arch.
  2. Burgos is about 2.5 hours from the French border and 3.5 hours from Madrid on the train.
  3. French keyboards are the most annoying in the world. All the letters are arse about face. It has taken me an hour to type this.

Boak (homeward bound…)