For a beer with a national profile Thornbridge Jaipur can be surprisingly hard to find on draught. That’s a shame because it’s still wonderful.
We came across it at The Old Fish Market in Bristol last night, a Fuller’s pub which often has one or two guest beers from larger independents.
It’s a funny pub, the OFM. On the one hand, it’s the closest in feel we’ve got to something you’d find in the City of London or Westminster. That is, a bit soulless, and a bit shiny. It also has London-style pricing – five a pint territory.
On the other hand, being fond of Fuller’s ale, it’s great to be able to get a pint of ESB whenever we want one. It’s also in reliably good condition and nicely presented.
Accordingly, Jaipur was about as good as we’ve ever had it. Pale gold with a firm white head, it had all the contained vibrancy you want in a great pint of cask ale. That is, steady on the surface, but electric on the palate.
The particular noughties C-hop character feels almost nostalgic now. Traditional. It’s hard to believe how startling it seemed more than a decade ago. But, still, peach and orange and pine – what’s not to like?
We couldn’t even object to paying £5.15 a pint, especially as, at 5.9%, it’s not a beer that encourages a long session.
There should be a pub in every town that always has it on.
We don’t need to tell you that it’s been yet another strange old year, which makes passing judgement tricky.
We’ve been to pubs, but not as often as we would in any normal year.
And our choice of pubs has been dictated by how handy they are to get to, along with weird criteria such as cleanliness and ventilation.
Cask ale has been on the menu but for a large chunk of the year, it came in takeaway containers – is that a fair way to assess it?
We haven’t been abroad since autumn 2019 and our intake of foreign beer has been dictated by what’s available in local shops, or by mail order.
But, still, all that has given us room to think and make (ugh) mindful choices.
We’ve also really appreciated the beers we have been able to enjoy in pleasant surroundings, with anything like a hint of a normal atmosphere.
As always, we’ve chosen our own categories, deviating from the master list set down a decade ago. Let’s get into them.
Beer of the year
Lost & Grounded Running With The Spectres Baltic porter takes the crown.
It really is a great beer, and consistently so. We can’t go to the taproom without having at least one half pint per session (it’s 6.8%).
We also enjoyed it from the can at home and on draught at The Elmers Arms, where it was so good we ended up having several, hangovers be damned.
We’d also like to encourage more breweries to make strong but straightforward (that is, not pastrified) stouts and porters. Years on, we’re still haunted by the majesty of Fuller’s Past Masters 1910 Double Stout, basically, and want more of that kind of thing in our lives.
Brewery of the year
It’s Kirkstall Brewery of Leeds.
e were in the city for a week and drank more Kirkstall than anything else.
The beer range was excellent, from superior takes on trad styles to really out-there stuff that could put an East End railway arch brewer to shame.
The quality and consistency was enough to take us back to the taproom when we could have been ticking other pubs.
It will also probably be enough to take us back to Leeds sooner rather than later.
Pub of the year
It’s The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, East London.
In various degrees of restriction and confinement, we often dreamt of being there. When we could get to London, we went out of our way to visit, and then we stayed for at least two more beers than we’d planned.
It has a great range of beer in fabulous condition, and is simultaneously somehow spacious and cosy.
Takeaway pub of the year
A special category for this year and, please, let’s hope only this year.
When lockdown kicked back in at the start of this year, when pubs were closed even for takeaway, The Drapers’ Arms went above and beyond and started offering a delivery service of cask beer sourced from a selection of local breweries.
So, throughout the craziness of winter and spring, we had access to cask ale, some of it new to us. They even delivered to our new house once we’d moved.
Packaged beer of the year (that isn’t Westmalle Tripel)
It’s Fuller’s 1845.
Everything about it sings autumn-winter warmth.
We ploughed through the eight bottles we ordered and if it wasn’t for the fact that we are actively trying to support smaller breweries over multinationals, we would have ordered another case immediately.
If you’ve not had it in a while, do give it another try.
Bonkers beer of the year
Another new category.
Though most of the time we like to drink fairly conservative styles, every now and then we crave something silly. And we’ve had some good stuff this year.
The standout was Gelato Tropicale, an Ice cream sour from Kirkstall Brewery, which tasted like rhubarb and custard in an utterly addictive way. Subtly sour, subtly sweet, it was beautifully balanced, in its own mad way.
If they hadn’t had so many other good beers on we’d have drunk more of it but, as it is, it earned a lot of oohs and aahs, and a repeat order.
Foreign beer of the year
Westmalle Tripel continues to be the Best Beer in the World, but this year we were also introduced to Westmalle Extra, which we think delivers about 80% of the flavour with considerably less chance of a hangover, at 4.8%. So it’s that.
Blogger of the year
As with last year, a massive shout out to anyone who’s managed to blog regularly, or at all, in this strange, distracting, disconcerting year. You are all stars.
Baltic porter, Schwarzbier, Helles, Kellerpils, Dunkel, Altbier, Saison, Tripel – Lost & Grounded’s embrace and mastery of Continental beer styles continues to delight us.
For our third round of drinking out since things sort-of reopened on 12 April we went, again, to their taproom about ten minutes from our house. It’s peaceful, well managed and, of course, convenient. That we are developing a crush on the beer doesn’t hurt either.
Long Story, a table beer at 3.2% with pronounced Belgian yeast character, was less successful, with a stale, papery note haunting its tail. But Ray was less bothered by that than Jess; perhaps you’ll love it.
We then moved on to the Schwarzbier, Amplify Your Sound, at 5.2% and £5.50 a pint. Billed simply as ‘dark lager’, you might expect a Dunkel, but this is definitely a degree beyond that – vinyl black, with a coffee-cream head. There is perhaps a passing note of grassy hops but, in the main, this is about the treacly bass notes. Mild without the mud; more well-polished Porsche than Morris Minor.
How often do you see a Baltic porter on offer? We reckon that, for us, it’s been maybe five times in our entire 14-years of beer blogging. So, even if you’re already feeling a bit giddy and 6.8% seems scary, even if it’s £6.50 a pint, you’re obliged by law to order at least a half.
Fortunately, with Running With Spectres (a play on the name of their regular beer Running With Sceptres) Lost & Grounded have nailed it. Rich without being sickly, figgy pudding fruity, it feels like a dignified rebuke to the marshmallow sundae imperial stout merchants. You could also label it ‘double stout’, we reckon – another style that barely exists but which tends to be more warming than intimidating.
Between L&G and Zero Degrees, we’re a little spoiled in Bristol for serious attempts to brew in European styles. But we’d still welcome perhaps one or two more – especially someone who might fancy cloning Jever.
The latest coronavirus restrictions now prevent pubs from selling takeaway alcohol, subject to clarifications or U-turns like those that came along under pressure from lobbyists last time, so that looks like an end to our Drapers Arms takeaways for the foreseeable. But at least our final pint was a fantastic ESB.
Severn Brewing Extra Special Bitter just straight-up delighted us: it was dark, fruity and, above all, bitter.
Discussing it, we decided that often when we have a beer describing itself as ESB, it just isn’t bitter enough and it ends up tasting like mild or porter.
Just based on the name, ESB really should be a turbo-charged version of bitter, with some of the dials turned up. In practice, we suppose that means the hopping has to go up to balance the increase in maltiness.
Of course, having had that conversation we looked up our notes from last time we tried Severn’s take – a helpful side effect of maintaining a record of our favourite beers for Patreon round-ups – and found that on that occasion, we did describe it as like a sweet, fruity best mild.
We enjoyed it, but definitely noticed an absence of bitterness.
And, in fact, there were some even earlier notes, from right at the start of 2020, which can probably be summarised as “How DARE they bestow upon this merely adequate brown soup the mighty name of ESB!?”
This made us wonder if freshness might be a factor – that if the beer is a few days or weeks older, it might have dried out and matured.
We thought about the differences in Fullers’ ESB, the template for them all, and perhaps we’ve observed the same thing. Sometimes there’s noticeably more depth of flavour and a richer mouthfeel and, at its worst, it can taste distinctly muddy.
Is ESB fundamentally more of a diva than ordinary bitter? Or maybe the fact that it’s strong (Severn’s is 5.2%) means it tends to hang around a little longer and is more likely to change and evolve at point of sale?
If only we could test this theory out in some pubs across the country over the next couple of months. We’d be well up for seeing out winter with a focus on this barely-a-style.
In fact, we can still do that: if anyone has got any good suggestions for ESBs that we can order online, do please let us know.
You know how Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the highest grossing movies of 2020? Our Golden Pints this year is going to be a bit like that.
We’d usually have got about a bit – maybe a trip to Sheffield or Manchester, a day or two out in Cardiff, perhaps a couple of weekends in towns or cities completely new to us.
This year, however, the extent of our exploring has been:
Stockport in January
Stroud in February
A couple of trips to London in the summer
Broadstairs in September
Having been reluctant to use public transport, we’ve barely even been able to explore Bristol and only managed 12 entries in #EveryPubInBristol.
What we did do was drink a fair bit of beer, albeit mostly on the sofa or in the weird little mock pub we constructed in our front room, and we’ve managed to muster a few opinions. It made life bearable but… It’s not the same, is it?
On top of all that, being critical of any business in the midst of this catastrophe feels like bad behaviour. Everything is ten times harder than usual but, between supply problems, the challenges of delivery and complicated, ever-changing restrictions, it’s no wonder if things have wobbled.
Anyway, let’s get down to business.
Best Bristol pub
It’s still the Drapers Arms, even though we haven’t sat in to drink since March.
Thanks to the takeaway offer, we still manage to visit twice a week, and there were points when a two-minute chat with Zee, Vince, Garvan or another regular in the distanced queue felt like a life-saving social interaction.
We’re moving house soon, to another part of Bristol, and have already scoped out our route for popping back for pints at least once or twice each month.
Best pub beyond Bristol
It only really feels fair to judge pubs we visited under pre-lockdown conditions so, for that reason, we’re giving this award to the Prince Albert in Stroud.
We only visited four pubs in Stroud and it felt as if there were plenty more to see but when we go back, we’ll definitely hike up the hill for a return visit to this one.
It wears its left-wing heart on its sleeve (posters for radical walking groups and all that) but was also a cosy, pubby pub and, perhaps because of the ruddy great hill that keeps outsiders away, had a village feel, too. Like the Plough in Easton transplanted to the Cotswolds.
Best cask beer
When we drank Karst by Cheddar Ales back in early March we thought, oy oy, and noted it as a contender for Beer of the Year. We were similarly impressed when we had it again in October.
It’s a rye beer, and whereas a lot of these tend towards the harsh or medicinal, this is perfectly put together. Almost treacly but not overly sweet, it manages to balance both liquorice and peach notes while still tasting like a well-rounded, beery beer.
Best bottled beer (that isn’t Westmalle Tripel)
Keeping things Belgian, as most years, the splendid bottle of Pannepot Special Reserve that we had in early November was an overall highlight of the year.
We’ve had a rollercoaster ride with de Struise beers over the years being bowled over on first encounter but having found them muddy on more recent encounters. The Special Reserve is an absolute triumph though.
It smells like Harvey’s Imperial Stout – oaky and ancient. It tastes of treacle, wine and rum and raisin ice cream. Will subsequent bottles taste the same? Who knows. But that one bottle, at that one moment – magic.
Best lockdown beers
Here’s a new category to recognise the reliable and reliably uplifting beers that we ended up ordering on multiple occasions.
It’s fair to say that Westmalle Tripel found its way into our kitchen more frequently even than usual.
Slightly closer to home (actually, it isn’t, it’s about 20 miles further away, according to Google) we greatly enjoyed ordering mini-kegs of Fyne Ales Jarl. Not only is it a great beer but it was also impeccably packaged, each home-drawn pint taking us back to happy sessions in Glasgow.
Everything we’ve had from them has been very good and some have been outstanding. They’ve got a great range of styles and everything is well executed. It’s Cheddar Ales.
Best beer blogger
First, we want to express our respect for anyone who’s managed to write anything beer-related this year. Even with two of us and half an archive in our spare room, we struggled at times to generate the energy to produce anything whatsoever. So if you did write something, well done you. Give yourself a pat on the back.
We normally allocate this award by looking at the people we’ve linked to the most in our weekly roundups. However, this misses out someone who we don’t link to very much because his content is almost entirely beer reviews, not news or commentary – yes, it’s the ever-punning Beer Nut. We’ve been particularly grateful for the constant stream of business-as-usual, non-plague-related content this year.
Best beer book
There have been some great books published this year but, for sheer ambition and importance, it has to be The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing by Lars Marius Garshol. You can read our full review here.
Best beer publication
We wanted to underline how impressed we’ve been by Pellicle this year. Editors Matt Curtis and Jonny Hamilton have made such an obvious effort to make room for new voices, commission pieces that come at the subject from new angles and, crucially, to pay people for their work. The fact that something from Pellicle has appeared in our weekly round-up most weeks speaks for itself. We’re supporting them via Patreon; you might consider doing the same.
Now round-up and reflection season has begun, you can expect to see our regular summaries of our own best writing, our favourite bits by others and maybe something highlighting the best Tweets of the year, if we find time.