“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!)
I’ve drunk in pubs where I’ve seen on twitter that they proudly announce “Yay! [Insert beer name here] delivered this morning – on the bar tonight”. I defy anyone to tell me that it is physically possible to rack, condition, settle, and serve a beer in less than 24 hours (Marstons FastCask I hear you cry! That’s a different kettle of fish all together).
Now, we have reason to trust Mr Razzall’s opinion, because the pub he runs is owned by Mark Dorber, of whom he is something of a protégé.
Dorber was, for a time, the most famous cellarman in the world, having had a starring role in Michael Jackson’s 1990 television series The Beer Hunter. In the very first episode, he demonstrated to Mr Jackson how to care for Bass Pale Ale in the basement of the White Horse, Fulham. Dorber started working there as a student in 1981 and almost immediately took over management of the cellar, as he told us last year:
I hadn’t been there long when someone said, ‘The Everard’s has run out,’ and no-one knew what to do about it. I knew Everard’s beer from a pub in Salford, so I said, ‘I’ll go down and sort it out.’ I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I suppose I applied an academic approach. I spent an hour on the phone to the head brewer at Bass talking about cellaring and cask-conditioning…
With 30+ years experience under his belt, and an approach based on (a) meticulous care and (b) a frankly elitist view of beer appreciation which brooks no mediocrity, Dorber’s opinions are not to be dismissed lightly.
Myth (mostly):“secondary occurs at the pub”: It is perhaps a legacy of historic practices that people believe breweries ship beer to pubs before substantial secondary fermentation has occurred. I hear this still happens sometimes… but in almost all cases: no. Most breweries do their best to ensure secondary has progressed sufficiently before the beer leaves the brewery.
We’re very much in favour of questioning assumptions, and will continue to watch this conversation with interest.
I like traditional English session ales and Adnams’ Bitter. I’m a big fan of coffee stouts such as Dark Star Espresso, and not-overly-hopped beers with ‘new world hops’, e.g. Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold. I’m from Suffolk and live locally, and have been a CAMRA member for 10 years. I’m also an occasional home-brewer and frustrated blogger/writer.
1. The Fat Cat, Ipswich
An Ipswich institution for nearly 20 years and three-time local CAMRA branch pub of the year, the Fat Cat was the town’s first new freehouse pub. Providing a traditional homely pub setting that has no television, fruit machines or music to disturb the hum of pub chatter, it is based about a 20 min walk from the town centre.
It serves a wide selection of continually changing cask ales (15+ on average) from its well stocked tap room, often including beers from its Norwich-based sister brewery, also called Fat Cat. There is also a good selection of European lagers, ‘real’ ciders, an assortment of Belgian beers in bottles, and a variety of wines.
Food comes in the shape of lunchtime rolls, or the shot-put sized home made scotch eggs (absolutely worth trying). From Sunday to Thursday, plates & cutlery and cutlery are also procided to patrons who want to bring food from local takeaways — a very popular choice all year round in the evenings.
During the summer, the well-kept beer garden provides additional seating space and occasional bank holiday weekend barbecues.
2. Dove Street Inn, Ipswich
A multi-award-winning cask ale pub for ten years, the Dove was most recently named Great British Pub Awards Cask Ale Pub of the Year 2013. It serves a wide range of ever-changing cask ales including some from its own range brewed in the micro-brewery opposite, along with a selection of draught foreign beers, ‘real’ cider and wine.
There are regular beer festivals featuring 60+ beers in the beer tent, which is modelled on a German beer garden or cellar and provides a pleasant outdoor seating area in summer.
Landlady Karen’s home cooking and occasional weekend barbecues provide great food, with vegetarian options, and weary visitors can even book into the adjoining bed and breakfast which sits above the homebrew shop. The pub also runs its own loyalty card scheme.
3. Lord Nelson, Southwold
Adnams is synonymous with Southwold and Suffolk, and the Lord Nelson is where the locals go to drink. A three bar pub near the seafront, it serves the best pint of Adnams’ you’ll find anywhere in the county, and also does the best fish and chips too, with the fish in Broadside batter. During the winter, a roaring open fire keeps the worst of the North Sea coast’s wind and bleakness at bay while in the summer, the hidden beer garden expands the capacity of this very popular pub.
4. The Beerhouse, Bury St Edmunds
While Adnams is synonymous with Southwould, Bury St Edmunds is home to Suffolk’s other major brewer, Greene King, but The Beerhouse is one of the few pubs in the town where you’ll be unlikely ever to find their beer. Eight hand pumps provide a varied selection of cask ales alongside four ciders. Among the beer selection are often beers from the pub’s own brewery, the Brewshed. There are simple pub snacks and the pub has a nice outdoor seating arrangement which softens what is essentially a former car park, and where spring and winter beer festivals are held.
5. Butt & Oyster, Pin Mill
Featured in frequent visitor Arthur Ransome’s book We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, the Butt & Oyster is a Grade II listed building and features in CAMRA’s national inventory of historic pub interiors, retaining many of its original features from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The pub is situated on the edge of the western shore of the Orwell and, at high water, the river laps round the base of the building, and it is said yachtsmen could once be served aboard their boats by leaning in through the pub windows. These days, the windows merely provide picturesque, panoramic views across the Orwell Estuary, which attract many artists and visitors.
Primarily supplied by Adnams, beer is sold from four casks on show behind the bar, and the menu, as befits its location, is built largely around the local seafood. It gets incredibly busy and popular in the summer months so booking a table is essential.
6. The Triangle Tavern, Lowestoft
Billed as the most easterly real ale pub in the whole of the UK, and situated on Triangle Market near the town centre, the Tavern is the spiritual home to the Green Jack Brewing Co. It offers a minimum of six Green Jack ales every day with as many as four further guest ales and two real ciders at any one time across two bars, front and back.
The front bar has a more relaxed traditional look and feel with an open fire, and is where occasional live music is played on Friday nights. The back bar is more modern with games machines, pool table, and jukebox, and is where the world-renowned annual professional world thumb wrestling championship is hosted. Beer festivals are held throughout the year.
7. The Cherry Tree, Woodbridge
The building dates from the 17th century, though the tree itself no longer remains. With its traditional oak beams and sloping ceilings, the pub has a character that’s hard to fake in a town with plenty of history to shout about. The pub offers a selection of eight well-kept cask ales, the majority from Adnams, though several guest ales are usually on offer. Traditional food made with locally-sourced ingredients and a warm, family-friendly atmosphere makes this a popular local destination, with regular quiz nights and an annual beer festival. Accommodation is also provided in a converted outdoor barn.
8. The Nutshell, Bury St Edmunds
Listed by Guinness World Records as the smallest pub in Britain, it is Nutshell by name and nature. Though it might sound a tight fit, this one bar pub, at 15ft x 7ft, has enough room to seat ten people and half as many again standing quite comfortably, though the record is claimed to be 102. The ceiling is covered in currency from around the world highlighting its status as a tourist attraction. Among many other novelties is a mummified cat found by builders carrying out renovations. This being a Greene King pub, the two cask ale hand pumps serve only their beer, usually IPA and Abbott Ale, but it is kept well, making this one of the best places to sample it in its home county.
‘I have always hated the actual brewing process,’ said Martin Griffiths of Penrhos Brewery in an interview with CAMRA’s What’s Brewing in March 1983.
Rather a startling admission, but many ‘lifestyle’ brewers — those who like the idea, but aren’t capable of achieving some kind of Zen enlightenment through endless cleaning — probably come to feel the same.
Griffiths (bow-tied and moustachioed, like a TV antiques expert in the accompanying photo) had a radical solution: he turned control of the brewery over to a computer. Or, rather, to ‘a suitcase-sized microchip brain’ known as BPC — the Brewery Process Controller:
Martin’s apparatus is so accurate that it has a temperature read-out to 0.1°C on any point of the brewing process… Other features include automatic and remote manual control over flows, temperatures and boiler operation, as well as an automatic log of brewing.
Big breweries, like the colossal Bass Charrington plant at Runcorn, had been computer controlled for some time, but the new wave of small British breweries seemed to rather pride themselves on using sticks and bathtubs. Did a computer quite fit the image?
Griffiths had grand plans to sell BPCs to new businesses in the then blossoming American microbrewery scene, but it didn’t come off, and Penrhos ceased trading later in 1983.
The founding of Penrhos Brewery, and its significance in the story of British beer, is covered inBrew Britannia.