Comfort Beers: Fuller’s, Young’s, Sam Smith’s

We were in London last week to pick up an award, see friends, work in the library, and look at pub architecture. That didn’t leave much time to drink beer.

When we passed the Red Lion on Duke of York Street at 6 pm it had burst its seams, spilling suited drinkers all over the pavement and road. We returned at 9 by which time it was quieter and we slipped into the coveted back room. It’s an amazing pub, the Red Lion — really beautiful, full of cut glass and mirrors and warm light. There’s a reason Ian Nairn gives it a whole page of soupy swooning in Nairn’s London. The woman behind the bar pulled the first pint, paused, and said, ‘I’m not serving you that. It doesn’t look right.’ She turned the clip round and suggested something else. Impressive. Oliver’s Island, pale and brewed with orange peel, continues to be decent enough without igniting any great passion on our part. ESB, on the other hand, seems to get better every time we have it — richer, more bitter, ever juicier. Same again, please. It gave us hangovers but it was 100 per cent worth it.

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Tucker’s Maltings Beer Festival, At Last

It’s been running for 24 years but we only made it to our first Tucker’s Malting Beer Festival, in Newton Abbot, Devon, last week.

In the last few years when we might have gone, we’ve either been working or on holiday. But maybe we’d have made more effort if we liked beer festivals more, which we don’t, because:

  1. Eight different beers is about the most we can handle between us in one session so 250 is over-facing.
  2. Our two favourite places to drink are (a) the pub and (b) our sofa; hangars, barns, industrial spaces, town halls, churches, and so on, come way down the list.
  3. There’s too much flat beer, not helped by being served in unwashed glasses that get stickier with each passing hour.

Propaganda-style mural at Tucker's Maltings.

Having said that… Tucker’s Maltings was fun. It’s one of those events that isn’t just about beer, and that isn’t just popular with CAMRA members and tickers.

It generates a merry buzz around the town of Newton Abbot, a place which isn’t otherwise on the tourist trail — ‘It’s a funny old place’, as one attendee said to us — much as Walthamstow Village Festival used to in the days before full-on gentrification, or as Bridgwater Carnival does in Bailey’s home town.

There were faces we’d seen at other festivals (for example, a contingent from Cornwall CAMRA), gangs of young lads with sculpted quiffs and muscles on display despite the chill, ageing hippies, ageing rockers, ageing punks, rugby fans, a stag do or two, students from Exeter University, local dignitaries (Newton Abbot’s mayor is a venerable old gent with something of the German burgomaster about him), and teams of brewers from up and down the West Country in branded polo shirts having it corporately large.

People were drunk, in the 18th-century Dutch painting way, and occasional bouts of dancing, particularly that half-walk-half-boogie merry people sometimes do while carrying brimful glasses.

Whatever the spark of life is, the quality that puts the festiv- in festival, Tucker’s Maltings has it. We’ll definitely go again.

Disclosure: we paid for entry to Friday afternoon’s session and for beer tokens; Guy Sheppard of SIBA/Exe Valley, who is on the organising committee, bought us a half each while we interviewed him; and we were given free entry to the first hour of the session that followed.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 April 2016: Revitalisation and More

Here are the blog posts, articles and news stories we’ve found most interesting in the last week, from the revitalisation of CAMRA to the difficulty of describing lager.

→ This week’s big news is that the Campaign for Real Ale has launched a project to review its purpose. We’d suggest ignoring the melodrama which was only ever intended to generate press interest — CAMRA is not going to disappear and is extremely unlikely to change its name — but do take some time to respond to the consultation which is open to both members and non-members. We’re going to mull this over and write something on the blog next week; in the meantime, you could do worse than whizz through Brew Britannia, especially chapter six, by way of background, and there’s also a chunk on CAMRA’s navel-gazing in our massive blog post from last summer.

Close-up of the CAMRA logo from the 1984 Good Beer Guide.

→ Possibly related: every few months Rob Lovatt, head brewer at Thornbridge, drops a thought-provoking bomb of a blog post and, this time, has turned his attention to cask-conditioned beer:

When I moved to Thornbridge, I hadn’t really had any real experience of producing cask beer. I came from a brewing background of mainly Germanic styles, which were filtered, carbonated and packaged in keg or bottle format. I naively thought that producing cask beer would be a doddle compared with the challenges of filtration, or the trials and tribulations of running a bottling line day in day out.

→ Kaleigh at The Ale in Kaleigh has notes on Manchester’s new local-beer-only micropub, The Brink:

Manchester is home to so many breweries these days, but it can be fairly difficult to know where to get hold of their wares. Many of the city centre’s other beer bars focus more on options from far and wide which, in my view, isn’t a bad thing but it’s always nice to drink local and I think this would appeal to visitors to the city in particular.

St John's Wood pub by Alec Latham.
SOURCE: Alec Latham’s blog.

→ Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer reflects at length upon the ghost pubs of St John’s Wood, London, with lots of lovely photos:

The rate of pub closure in the area was made clear to me when, in summer last year in the nearby Church Street Estate, I happened to see the contents of what used to be a pub called The Perseverance (I know – the irony) being sold on the street outside… Around the same time, a pub just around the corner called The Globe closed but re-opened as a fully qualified modern craft beer bar. It seems that either the business adapts quickly or disappears. The greatest tragedy is when the building is transformed into something it was never meant to be like the estate agents. You know that as a place where people dwell and drink together, it’s gone forever.

→ Justin Mason considers the state of beer and brewing on his blogging beat, which is Essex:

[There’s] an awful lot that is troubling me… The first thing that I come across time and again is inconsistency. Whether it be from cask or bottle I know that I’m certainly not alone in wanting the same taste that I remember from the last time I had the beer… I’ve been embarrassingly caught out more than once introducing friends to a beer after extolling its virtues only to find it a shadow of the previous pint.

→ There’s reassuring evidence from Jeff Alworth that having his blog sponsored by Guinness isn’t going to stop him being interesting, even when he’s writing in part about that very same brewery:

You learn a lot when you visit a country. One of the things you learn is what beer people actually drink. In Ireland, for example, we imagine that basically everyone drinks stout, the majority of it Guinness. Nope. Just like everywhere else, lager is king, with as much as (statistics vary) 74% of total volume to something just over 50%. Heineken, not Guinness, appears to be the best-selling beer in Ireland.

Lager tank at the Four Thieves.

→ Joe Tindall at The Fatal Glass reflects on the difficulty for the dedicated tasting note writer of finding anything to say about pale lager:

The complexity of a barrel-aged imperial stout means that tasting notes write themselves. Drinking one, there’s so much going on that you hardly have time to jot down one thought before another hits you. Lager is comparatively simple – this is a large part of its appeal, but it doesn’t make for great writing.

→ Stan Hieronymus’s contribution to the 110th beer blogging Session was clever: what if Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson was still with us and on Twitter? (See also: George Orwell’s Beer Blog.)

→ With apologies for egotism, we’re also going to suggest that you read the piece about Cornish (or, rather ‘Cornish’) swanky beer we wrote for Beer Advocate last summer which is now available to read online:

“Swanky was a brew of sugar, hops, ginger, wheat, malt, and yeast. It had to be allowed to work for three days in the bottles before the corks were tied down with string.”

→ A few people have asked us to point them to a calendar of UK beer events. It’s hard to keep something like that up so they tend to come and go but the latest to give it a shot is Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Cohen. One to bookmark.

→ And, finally, this looks like fun:

Opaque Bitter, 1986

“We like to think that Nicholas Breakspear, the only English pope, was a member of this race of inspired brewers, for Brakspear’s draught bitter is undoubtedly the best to be had in England. It is not, of course, clear and cold or thin and gaseous. It is flat, opaque, warmish and tastes of hop fields in the English summer. It also has the supreme advantage of making you slowly, but not too slowly, drunk.”

John Mortimer, ‘That Elusive Ideal: The Perfect Pub‘, New York Times, 5 October 1986

(N.B Original has American spelling of ‘draft’.)

A Surprise Infatuation

We didn’t expect to like this beer but, blimey, we really do.

We found it on our local Wetherspoon, The Tremenheere, where we go a couple of times a month in search of something a bit interesting. Quite often we end up turning round and walking out, unexcited by the choice of Abbot, Doom Bar or Ruddles. We nearly did that this time but something told us to stop and give Jenning’s Sneck Lifter a try.

They’re not a cool brewery, Jenning’s, not least because they’re part of the Marston’s empire these days. We’ve always found their bottled beers a bit dull and the cask — most often Cumberland Ale — fine without being thrilling.

Perhaps it was the fact that we felt sorry for them having been flooded but more likely it was the realisation that, despite having it mentally filed under ‘usual suspects’, we couldn’t remember actually having tried Sneck Lifter from cask. We’ve heard the name, of course, and we think we’ve had it in bottles, when it barely registered, but, no, we’re pretty sure never cask-conditioned.

It’s hard to say, really, why it excited us. Something about it suggested those Fuller’s Past Masters beers so, to a certain extent, it’s that it tastes antique — like a pint of mild that’s made it across the gulf of time from before World War I. (The brewery pitches it as a ‘winter warmer’ but it could just as easily be branded ‘strong mild’.)

More specific tasting notes feel a bit redundant because, really — it’s just a satisfying beer — but we’ll try.

It’s strong by British standards at 5.1% ABV, and fairly dark — so red it’s almost black, from certain angles. It’s easy-going but rich, in the same territory as Adnam’s Broadside. That is to say, plummy, raisiny and rich without being full-on luxurious. It’s sweet in a way that feels nourishing but before it has chance to become sickly, a countering dry bitterness starts to build up in the mouth: it is balanced in the sense of having flavours tugging two ways rather than as a synonym for bland.

What we’re saying, we suppose, is that if you see Sneck Lifter on cask, you should give it a go, even if you’re a Jenning’s/Marston’s sceptic.