Reflections on our Northern Tour

Revitalisation beer pump clip.

Last week’s visit to the north of England (Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield) was actually as near as we’re getting to a holiday this year.

We figured that, even if we didn’t get chance to plug Brew Britannia, we’d at least have fun drinking decent beer in great pubs and bars, and seeing the sights. But, as it happened, we were invited to appear and/or speak at a few venues.

psbh

At Port Street Beer House on Sunday afternoon, we were in competition with blazing sunlight which had turned Manchester into a dead ringer for Barcelona. Nonetheless, several people turned up to share a beer with us and buy advance copies of the book.

It was great to meet everyone, but we have to admit that we were especially pleased to make the acquaintance of Len, a reader who usually ‘lurks’, and who settled our nerves with a few kind words in the first few minutes.

We also found ourselves thinking that someone — maybe us — ought to write a proper portrait piece about 6TownsMart, whose commitment to, and first-hand knowledge of, Belgian beer is awe-inspiring. ‘Brewers as rock stars’ is a well-worn angle, but dedicated drinkers deserve some attention too.

At North Bar in Leeds on Monday, we got to try the Kirkstall Brewery beer Revitalisation, thoughtfully developed by Matt Lovatt from some vague thoughts we put in an email. We drank lots of it, and it prompted plenty of conversation among the Leeds crafterati, as well as finding favour with a few of the locals with more conservative tastes. We’ll write more about it in a substantial post about Boddington’s to follow in the next week or so.

We did our best to give a reading, but our puny voices struggled a bit against the non-stop partying which characterises the venue. Someone made us drink tequila, and Ghost Drinker plied us with wonderful, wonderful gueuze. We signed and sold a lot of copies of the book, which saved us lugging any back to Manchester, though the 20 copies of The Grist we acquired were heavier and more awkwardly shaped.

We had two engagements in Sheffield. First, at the Thornbridge-owned Hallamshire House, on Wednesday night. This was the first actual ‘talk’ we gave. Forty or so people, many of them actually there for a German student’s birthday drinks, listened politely as we spoke about the origins of the term ‘craft beer’. Some sidled up with questions, including, to our delight, the German birthday boy, who wanted to know why porter was so hard to find: “Ah,” he said on hearing our off-the-cuff answer. “This is the same as with Dortmund Export.”

We were delighted to meet Jim Harrison, one of the founders of Thornbridge — he is a very charming man — but cringed as we watched he and his wife read what we’d written about them in the book from across the room. They didn’t take offence, but seemed perhaps a little hurt that we’d portrayed them as ‘lordly’: “I came on the bus tonight.”

As the crowd thinned, we were joined by Thornbridge brewers Rob Lovatt and Will Inman, who indulged our naive questions about processes and yeast, and politely disagreed with a couple of our thoughts on Thornbridge’s beer. Very civilised.

The cafe next door to the Hop Hideout.

We finished on a real high note with a ticketed talk at the Hop Hideout on Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. It is a tiny but lovingly-managed specialist beer shop in the corner of a larger unit selling vintage… stuff, so the talk actually took place in the cafe next door. With blinds drawn, it felt like a lock-in or speakeasy, and talking to a crowd who wanted to be there was a real treat.

Over the course of a couple of hours, we tasted:

  • John Smith’s Bitter — a ‘palate cleanser’ and reminder of the ‘bad old days’.
  • Chimay Rouge — the first ‘world beer’ to hit the UK, in 1974.
  • Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — highly influential on the use of hops in British brewing.
  • Marble Dobber — the kind of beer British brewers made once they’d ‘got’ New World hops, and with a tentative connection to Brendan Dobbin.
  • Camden Hells — exemplifying the post-1990s trend for ‘craft lager’, and exploring questions of provenance.
  • Wild Beer Co Ninkasi — exploring the ‘outer limits’ of diversity in British beer, and finishing on a showstopper.

Most people seemed to agree that Chimay was cruelly overlooked these days; that SNPA was still a really good beer; that Dobber was on fantastically good form; and that Ninkasi was extremely complex and interesting. Watching someone smell the Cascade aroma of SNPA for the first time was a treat, too.

We’ll be in London in the week commencing 16 June and will hopefully be able to announce a programme of appearances in the coming days. We’re also at Beer Wolf in Falmouth, Cornwall, on 28 June from 4pm. Come and see us somewhere, at some time!

20 thoughts on “Reflections on our Northern Tour”

  1. Nice report. Was hoping for a note or two on Holt’s, Hyde’s or Robinson’s bitter, especially the first two. One would think, or hope, their palate has continued on almost unchanged for generations and might be useful to contrast with to the newer-style APAs.

    Gary

    1. We didn’t have time to conduct a comprehensive survey, Gary, what with speaking engagements and recovering from speaking engagements, but hopefully you’ll find our post on Boddington’s interesting. We had fun researching that.

  2. Okay many thanks and look forward to it. Proud to say I drank Boddington’s cask in Manchester about 10 years ago and it was wonderful.

    Gary

    1. I’m proud to say I drank Boddingtons in Manchester 40 years ago. It was all cask back then, and I’m certain it had far more character and flavour than it did during its final days under Whitbread!

      1. True – but Boddingtons managed to cock it up all on their own with no help from Whitbread!

  3. Not sure that Dobber has any connection at all with Brendan Dobbin, tentative or otherwise.

    1. We understand that he installed the original brewery at Marble and devised the early recipes.

      We don’t know, but we also assumed he supplied their original yeast strain. As we say, tentative, but we think it’s fair anyway to use it as an illustration of the Dobbin school of brewing, i.e. SNPA-inspired, c.5.9%, ‘New World’ hops. They certainly acknowledge the influence.

      We did wonder if it was named in his honour, but it seems it’s a reference to (groan) the biggest marble in the set. (Rob Derbyshire has heard otherwise, however.)

      1. Well, he’s heard otherwise from people on Twitter!

        I think it’s fair enough to say there’s a Dobbin connection, though, if only an indirect one – he helped the original Marble brewers set up, & this is the current lot’s star beer.

        In reply to Gary: Holt’s bitter these days is brownish and drinkable – very drinkable; it’s got a distinctive flavour but it’s not in-your-face, and IIRC its strength is down at 3.9% or thereabouts. The first time I drank it – 25 years ago or so – I remember it as being dark and almost undrinkably bitter; I was sitting in an old pub armchair with polished wood arms at the time, and immediately made the association between the look and taste of the beer & the look and taste of furniture polish. I avoided it for the next decade or so, so I don’t know if the change was abrupt or gradual, but I think it’s been dialled down a fair bit over the years. As for Hyde’s, I don’t often drink the standard bitter, but I think it’s also a brownish, lowish-strength, unassertive bitter – quite unlike the yellow, sour-ish beer I remember drinking (quite frequently) in the 1980s. Of the three, I’d say Robinson’s bitter has changed the least. (You didn’t mention the fourth local brewery, Lees’, but I wouldn’t have been able to help you there anyway – until recently they only had a couple of pubs I ever went anywhere near, and I never went in those.)

        1. Sorry Phil but I really don’t think there’s any real Dobbin connection at all here to be honest. So he intsalled the original kit and devised some of the original beers – none of which are now brewed. The kit on which this beer is brewed is not the same one and Brendan had no input into this beer’s recipe.

  4. Yes Brendan did install the kit and devise some of the beers (the original McKenna’s Porter was identical to his Yakima Grande Porter). I do however think you are stretching the Dobbin connection to breaking point with this one. And, yes it is named after a big marble regardless of what anyone else may have heard. I was told this by both Jan Rogers (the Marble owner) any my mate James Campbell (who was head brewer at the time and who devised the recipe). It was in fact rather entertaining trying the various trial brews before the final recipe was decided on. You will also note that Marble recognise the influence of Tony Allen – one of the real pioneers and still going strong 32 years later. Did you interview him?

      1. Well, he set up Oak Brewery in Ellesmere Port in 1982. He moved this to Heywood in 1991 and took the name Phoenix Brewery (after the old brewery whose premises he uses ). He’s been quietly making a large range of beers (from hop forward golden bitters to big dark stuff) for years. Link here:
        http://ste843.wix.com/phoenix#
        As I said one of the original pioneers – not sure if there are many others from that time still actively involved in the industry. I think you may have missed a trick here.

  5. Dave Rawsthorne, HB at Titanic, has been round the block a few times- set up Holt, Plant, Deakin in the 80’s making Holt’s Entire- really hoppy for its time.
    Dobber is a Marble original.
    Mr Dobbin an inspirational brewer with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a remarkable palate.

    1. HI James – yes I’d forgotten about Entire. I bet B&B also overlooked the Butterknowle beers – also contemoraries of the Dobbin brews and just as hop forward (and again using New World hops I think). I have fond memories of Conciliation Ale and High Force.

    1. Unfortunately, yes — it was a last minute purchase — but it did the job. (I.e. tasted of next to nothing except a faint ‘nastiness’.) If we do it again, we’ll specify the normal version rather than smooth.

  6. + 1 on a portrait of ‘6 Towns’ Mart – he’s forgotten more about beer than I’ll even know, and to cap it all off, a true gent and lovely bloke to boot.

  7. Sorry I missed you at PSBH, by the way – I had it in my diary, but family commitments supervened. We’ll be in Cornwall in August (briefly), so hopefully our paths will cross then.

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