QUICK ONE: An Unexpected Beer in an Unexpected Pub

The Beaufort Arms, off Durdham Down.

Trying to visit every pub in Bristol takes us out of our way sometimes, as on Saturday when the mission nudged us up a side street towards The Beaufort Arms.

It’s on a steep, narrow lane called, oddly, High Street, which feels more like part of some windswept coastal village than somewhere two minutes walk from Whiteladies Road. Backstreet pubs are an endangered species in general which made this one seem all the more noteworthy.

“It’ll be poshed up,” we thought, but as we approached we saw plastic patio chairs lined up on the pavement outside, signalling otherwise. A young man was sat on one of them eating a Miss Millie’s fried chicken meal from a box nesting in a carrier bag, swigging from a can of energy drink.

Inside we found a single large room psychically divided into public bar vs. games-room/deadzone. Everything was brown and warm, dim and well-worn, the walls covered in nick-nacks and in-jokes, photographs cut from newspapers and holiday postcards from regulars. The accents were West Country, not west London. Most people seemed to be drinking cider, including cans of Natch, the availability of which divides a certain type of serious, old-fashioned Bristol boozer from the designer-gin and craft-beer lifestyle exhibitions.

In this context we were rather startled to see Theakston Vanilla Stout on offer. No, scratch that: we rather startled to discover the existence of Theakston Vanilla Stout, and even more startled to find it here. Not as startled as the woman behind the bar seemed when we ordered a pint of it, though, along with a half of St Austell Tribute as a safe fallback.

Our astonishment intensified further when it turned out not only to be in good condition, but also a quite brilliant beer. We (Jessica especially) have been fascinated by Tiny Rebel’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter for the past few months, half-repelled by its kitsch, artificial character, but unable to stop dipping back in. This Theakston beer was in remarkably similar territory, loaded high with sickly candy-bar flavouring, but somehow also irresistible — full of beans if you like, ho ho. But also cleaner than the Tiny Rebel beer, and without any pretence of being hoppy. If Young’s Double Chocolate is to your taste, or those Saltaire beers that seem like they’ve had Nesquik syrup squirted into them, then you’ll enjoy this one, too.

That’s two impressive “cask craft” (their phrase, not ours) beers from Theakston in the past year, for those who are keeping count. And another pub for our growing list of The Proper Pubs of Bristol.

Magical Mystery Pour #31: High Weald Charcoal Burner

The second Sussex beer chosen for us by Rachael Smith (@lookatbrew) is a 4.3% ABV oatmeal stout from the High Weald brewery of East Grinstead.

We bought our 500ml bottle for £2.75 by mail order from South Down Cellars.

Rach says:

High Weald has been on the scene since 2012 and recently underwent a massive re-brand, which seems to have thrust the core beers forth and more into the local spotlight than ever before. This oatmeal stout is a favourite of mine on cask where it takes on a creamy character. It’s a great session strength brew, smooth, with all the classic characteristics of chocolate, coffee, a touch of smoke and balanced sweetness.

We don’t advocate judging books by their covers but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a moment to appreciate a nice bit of graphic design.

The label for High Weald Charcoal Burner: farmer chased by Dragon.
SOURCE: High Weald website.

High Weald’s labels look like cover designs for Nonsuch-era XTC singles and (we’d guess) were inspired by those for US brewery Odell’s. Printed on textured paper, they look even nicer.

When we opened this work of art there was only a faint air-kiss of carbonation and it looked flat as it poured. Then one of our favourite things happened: a just off-white head magically materialised out of the black body of the beer.

The beer smelled smoky, autumnal and enticing.

High Weald Charcoal Burner.

The flavour was less immediately impressive — that stale note we so often get in packaged beers from small breweries dominated for the first mouthful or two, muting the other flavours so that the beer seemed almost bland. Throughout the middle stretch, things improved and we started to throw about words like rum and chocolate. At the very end there was another dip — it began to seem merely sugary, like the dregs of a cup of sweet, creamy coffee.

 

Overall, we felt fairly warm towards it. It’s a stout, of which there aren’t enough, and a decent one at that. A few tweaks would improve it, though — more body to hold the sweetness, or more bitterness to match the body. As it is, it reminded us a bit of a watered down imperial stout. But remember, we are fussy devils. At any rate, we’ll certainly try more beers from High Weald if we get the chance and (that now familiar catchprase) look forward to trying this on cask one day, perhaps near an open fire.

Magical Mystery Pour #3: Chocolate Cake

Magical Mystery Pour logo.The third of four beers recommended to us by Dina is Siren’s Caribbean Chocolate Cake stout, a collaboration with Florida’s Cigar City.

In her sleeve notes Dina says:

Oh, hi dark chocolate stout, I enjoy the way you feel. It’s like sleeping on black satin sheets in a forest on a moonlit night. In the Caribbean, I suppose, but I get more western South Dakota. I am recommending this one to you guys for a bit of luxury. Go on, you’re worth it.

Its ABV is 7.5% and we bought our 330ml bottle from Beer Gonzo for £4.25.

It looked lovely when we poured it — clingy black with a stable berg of red-brown crema. Espresso with chocolate ice cream on top. (The pic below makes it look beige; it wasn’t.)

The aroma was subdued amounting to no more than a whiff of roasting nuts.

Continue reading “Magical Mystery Pour #3: Chocolate Cake”

The Mystic Power of Guinness, 1959

There’s been a fair bit of Guinness chat around in the last week what with Ron Pattinson’s series of posts on Park Royal, our filleting of a 1971 article about draught in the UK, and Gary Gilman’s series of posts on various aspects of its flavour and history.

Now we’ve come across a short piece by humourist Paul Jennings published in The Times on 10 November 1959 which provides, first, further evidence of the status of Guinness before it became ubiquitous and (in the view of many or even most beer geeks) bland:Guinness smile advert, 1939.

It seems that Messrs. Guinness are convinced that the most widely remembered of their famous posters is the one with the workman carrying off the girder. Well, that is not the first image that comes to me… I think first of those great big glasses of Guinness with a moony smiling face in the froth… This smile is the nearest they have got to expressing the true mana of Guinness — that great Irish mystery and paradox, the light froth from the unimaginable dark heart of the liquid, the light from darkness, like the laughter and wit that well up from the Irish soul itself… I, like any other non-Irish consumer of Guinness, drink it because it is there… [in] the sense in which Mallory said that Everest was there. I might drink beer automatically, but Guinness is a thing, it has to be reckoned with. Drinking Guinness is a conscious act, like playing the piano or reading poetry, only much easier.

(Note, by the way, what looks almost like an early example of saying ‘a thing’ being a thing…)

In addition, he also provides some observations on packaging and public perception that bring to mind the present-day chat around contract brewing and transparency:

It is a fact that three-fifths of the Guinness drunk in this country is brewed at Park Royal, that great functional-looking place that looked like an atomic power station before atomic power was invented when it was opened in 1936. It is full of vast stainless steel vats and marvellous pipes and machines and science graduates… [and] has had a head brewer a world-famous statistician — but all this was kept very dark because, as everybody knows, or thinks he knows, the special quality of Guinness comes from the waters of the Liffey… Now that they have started selling some Guinness in cans, for instance, it is reported that in pubs in Wales they think the cans have come from Dublin, whereas the bottles contain rotten old English Guinness.

Finally, he goes on to suggest that, even though St James’s Gate brewery was just as hi-tech and sterile as Park Royal, there was some truth in the myth because export brewing (that is, for hot countries) did take place there:

[The] science graduates have worked the amount of ‘x’ you must put into a bottle of Guinness for it to taste as a bottle of Guinness would taste to a man in the Red Lion, to a man in a tin shack in Borneo, after it has been humped and banged half-way round the world. If you can manage to get some of this Export Guinness before they have exported it, you will find that this means quite a lot of ‘x’.

That’s a nice way of putting it and makes us think that Guinness today really could be saved if they turned up the X dial.

Unlikely Wow Factor

taddy_porter_474

It’s been a while since a beer delighted us, without quibbles and caveats.

That’s how life goes, of course: most beers — or films, books, cakes, or whatever — are absolutely fine without necessarily triggering swooning fits.

But still, we have made an effort to try a few new beers lately, hoping to find a gem, and placed orders with Beer Merchants and Beer Ritz with that in mind.

Multiple IPAs and US-style pale ales from British breweries, however, triggered the same reaction: “It’s fine, but nothing to write home about.” (Or, rather, to write a blog post about.) Grassiness; occasionally yeastiness; one-dimensionality… none gave us chills.

Maybe we’re just tired of beers which are all about hops, though, because  the two beers that did cause us to sit up straight, included to make up the numbers in our order from Beer Ritz, are members of the stout family: Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and the same brewery’s Imperial Stout.

Now, these beers are by no means new to us, or to anyone else. When we used to drink in London, hardly a week went by without a bottle or two of the former, while the latter, being rarer, was a beer we would go out of our way to find. (Tip: the Dover Castle, Weymouth Mews, always seems to have it.)

And Sam Smith’s is not a trendy brewery, nor even very likeable — something which, being human, can influence our opinions.

The taste, though! In both cases, the word that springs to mind is luscious, and both share a tongue-coating, silky, fortified wine feel in the mouth.

Taddy Porter (5%, £2.62 per 550ml) is the kind of beer that we would like to be able to drink more often on draught, in the pub. Just over the line from brown into a black, and a notch beyond sessionable, it is boldly flavoured without being attention-seeking, the emphasis being on flavours of sweetened cocoa and plummy, dark berries. If you’ve ever soaked dried fruit overnight in black tea as a cake ingredient, you’ll get the idea. Perhaps the best bottled porter on the market today?

Imperial Stout (£2.16 per 355ml) makes more sense as a ‘double stout’ — not so dark and heavy as to insist on a fancy glass, a smoking jacket and the undivided attention of the drinker, but perfect for nights when you want just one beer before bed. The flavour is somewhere between chocolate brownie and Christmas pudding, with just a suggestion of something bright and green, like gooseberry, ringing in the background. Resolution: we should always have some of this in the house.

The source of the ‘wow’ in both beers is hard to pin down. Our best guess is that, being cleanly and simply made, without a fog of off-flavours and confusion, the flavours of dark malt and dark brewing sugars are really allowed to shine through, in instantly gratifying fashion. But that’s just a guess, and there’s not much point in asking Mr Smith to elaborate.

Like the 60-year-old we once saw steal the show in a nightclub by performing a series of expert line dancing manoeuvres across the centre of the dance floor, one of these beers in particular — Taddy Porter — has made itself a contender for our beer of the year, in the unlikely company of Magic Rock/Lervig Farmhouse IPA and Bristol Beer Factory Belgian Conspiracy. We’ll schedule a proper taste-off for December.