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breweries pubs

Getting to know Kirkstall Brewery in Leeds

After a week in Leeds, we’ve decided Kirkstall Brewery belongs in the top rank of UK breweries.

What sent us to the brewery tap on our first night in town was, frankly, panic. On a Saturday night, even in these strange times, Leeds city centre is a lively place – all hens, stags and overflowing pubs. The Kirkstall tap was the first place we could find that was (a) open and (b) beyond the Big Night Out circuit, beyond the ring road.

And what a beyond it is – under the concrete of the A58, past casinos and hotels, past wasteland and the derelict remains of the Arla Foods HQ, just before the vast studio where ITV films Emmerdale.

Set into a square-edged modernist building in gleaming black and glass, showcasing stainless steel brewing kit, the tap itself is like an oasis: warm light, warm brown wood and the smell of pizza on the air.

A sort of magic has been worked in the space with greebling and structure magpied from elsewhere. Antique mirrors and enamel signs add depth and a sense of history, set against panelling, screens, stained glass and engraved glass salvaged from long gone buildings.

It feels like a pub. Or maybe more like a German beer hall. Perhaps a touch too bright, perhaps a touch too open, but certainly somewhere that invites you in and makes it hard to leave.

The range of beer is impressive, too, with five cask ales, and eight or nine on keg, as well as a handful of outside brews. The styles available range from traditional (bitter, pilsner, imperial stout) to modern – ice cream sour and blood-orange hefeweizen.

On our first visit, we zeroed in on Kirkstall Pale Ale (bitter, £3.60/pint), Three Swords (pale and hoppy, £3.80/pint) and Pilsner (£4.20/pint). All three share a precision and clarity that says this is a serious brewery with serious quality control.

Pale Ale provides what you want from Tetley’s: somehow both simple and complex, with malt you can get your teeth into, and a finish that makes you sigh with satisfaction. It’s as hoppy as it can be without the hops breaking out and making a fuss. It was the best beer we drank all week, we think, and might be a contender for beer of the year.

Pilsner came a close second, with a fresh green quality that took us back to Franconia.

Three Swords, by comparison, was merely a bloody good example of the type of beer also produced by Saltaire, Ossett and any number of other Yorkshire breweries. But note – bloody good.

You might have rolled your eyes at the mention of ice cream sour above. Well, guess what – that was also a rather brilliant bit of work. It’s called Gelato Tropicale and is one of those rhubarb-and-custard beers: sugar, a touch of acid, lots of vanilla. It prompted a ‘same again’ from Jess.

It wasn’t all perfect. We didn’t enjoy Black Band porter as much as the others. It struck us as a bit harsh with too much coffee and an aggressive bitterness that made getting to the end of the glass a challenge. But we suspect others might love it and it certainly wasn’t badly put together.

On our second visit, the night before we left Leeds, we had to try the 12.4% imperial stout, Drophammer, at £4 for a third of a pint. Our immediate impression was that someone has been playing around with historic Courage Russian Imperial Stout recipes. We were impressed but, still, it prompted some debate: at that strength, at that price, it should be something pretty special, but we weren’t sure it quite reached those heights. Almost, though – almost.

As a side note, it’s worth noting that Stuart Ross, late of Magic Rock, is now brewing at Kirkstall. Not much fuss has been made about this – we picked it up from Twitter – but he’s a brewer who knows what he’s doing.

And another note, while we’re at it: we also drank a couple of Kirkstall beers at Whitelocks, where they tasted similarly fantastic; and at Bundobust in Leeds, where they didn’t. So don’t be surprised if you encounter it at your local and struggle to match our gushing above to your experience. No beer is bulletproof, especially not cask ale.

Disclosure: in 2014, when Brew Britannia was published, Kirkstall brewed a beer for the launch event at North Bar. We didn’t pay them, they didn’t pay us.

Categories
breweries

Are cult beers a thing?

I’ve been reading Danny Peary’s Cult Movies, published in 1981 when the idea of a cult film was quite new and, inevitably, it’s started me thinking about what might qualify as a ‘cult beer’.

Here’s how Mr Peary defines a cult movie in the introduction to the book:

Of the tens of thousands of movies that have been made, only an extremely small number have elicited a fiery passion in moviegoers that exists long after their initial releases… Cultists don’t merely enjoy their favorite films; they worship them, seek them out wherever they are playing, catch them in theaters even when they have just played on television, see them repeatedly, and are intent on persuading anyone who will listen that they should be appreciated regardless of what the newspaper or television reviewers thought. Strike up a conversation about movies anywhere in the country and the titles found in this book soon will be flying back and forth in frenetic debate. And as likely as not you’ll end up forcing someone to watch The Late Late Show to see a special favorite of yours or find yourself being dragged to some repertory theater to see a picture your well-meaning abductor has viewed ten, twenty, or a hundred times.

I certainly recognise something of the attitude of the beer geek in that description: “We just need to get a train and a bus, then it’s a short walk through an industrial estate, but trust me, it’ll be worth it…”

There’s also something appealing about the idea of a descriptor that sidesteps all those conversations about ‘craft’.

It’s not about whether a film is well made, says Mr Peary – “often the contrary” – or which studio made it (though many cult films are independent productions). What matters is that it has dedicated, even obsessive fans.

And perhaps also that it’s not readily available everywhere, all the time. You need to put in a little effort to enjoy it, especially if you want to see it on a big screen.

That’s why in Peary’s world, Citizen Kane can sit on the same list as Emanuelle alongside The Warriors a few pages on from Bedtime for Bonzo.

If cult beers exist, if that’s ‘a thing’, we might end up with similarly unlikely bedfellows.

Bass is probably a cult beer – a big name in its day but hard to find in its natural habitat, the pub.

Orval is, surely? Especially with all those instructions about storage and service. In fact, doesn’t Belgium rather specialise in cult beers all round?

Batham’s, too – the way people go on about it!

Schlenkerla Rauchbier, which people either love or hate, feels like a contender.

It would be easy for this to turn into a list of canonical beers, though. What’s not on the list? Anything you can easily find in a pub or bar in most towns, I suppose, which puts Guinness out of contention, even if it has T-shirt wearing fans.

What do you reckon might count as a cult beer? Something you’ve queued for, hunted down or gone well out of your way to drink.

Categories
Brew Britannia breweries

A pale’n’hoppy timeline

Yesterday we re-shared an article we wrote back in 2015 about the emergence of the pale’n’hoppy style of ale in the UK. As you might expect, people had plenty of other suggestions for pioneering contenders; we’ve used that info to pull together a list.

You’ll note that we have also thrown in some notable IPAs because the line between the two styles is pretty fine.

It’s not exhaustive – these are just the names that popped up on Twitter yesterday. There are some here we don’t think count as PNH (e.g. Tribute, which isn’t especially pale) but we’ve included them for completeness.

Various relatively pale bitters e.g. Boddington’s | < 1980
Franklin’s Bitter | c.1979 | Cascade (US)
Goose Eye Pommie’s Revenge | 1984 | Fuggles, Goldings (UK)
Exmoor Gold | 1986 | Challenger, Goldings and Fuggles (UK)
Hop Back Summer Lightning | 1989 | Goldings, Challenger (UK)
Dobbin’s (West Coast) Yakima Grande Pale Ale | 1989 | Cascade (US)
Deuchars IPA | 1991 | Willamette, Goldings, Fuggle (UK, US) (source)
Butterknowle Conciliation | c.1991 | Challenger (UK)
Roosters Yankee | 1993 | Cascade (US)
Oakham JHB | 1993 | Mount Hood and Willamette (US)
Kelham Island Pale Rider | 1993 | Willamette (US) (source)
Durham Magus | 1994 | Challenger, Goldings (UK)
Dark Star Hophead | c.1996 | Cascade (US)
Ossett Silver King | 1998 | Cascade (US)
St Austell Tribute | 1999 | Fuggles, Willamette (UK/US)
Crouch Vale Brewers Gold | 2000 | Brewers Gold (UK)
Pictish Brewers Gold | 2000 | Brewers Gold (UK)
Crouch Vale Amarillo | 2003 | Amarillo (US)
Castle Rock Harvest Pale | 2003 | Cascade, Centennial, Chinook (US)
St Austell Proper Job | 2004 | Willamette, Cascade, Chinook (US)
Meantime IPA | 2005 | Fuggles, Golding (UK)
Thornbridge Jaipur | 2005 | Chinook, Centennial, Ahtanum (US)
BrewDog Punk | 2007 | Chinook, Ahtanum, Crystal, Motueka (US/NZ)
Oakham Citra | 2010 | Citra (US)
Fyne Ales Jarl | 2010 | Citra (US)
Brodies Citra Pale | 2011 | Citra (US)

As we said in the Twitter chat yesterday, it’s not about who got there first or ‘invented’ the style – it’s more a matter of a slow evolution.

In general, it’s interesting how often people assume a beer is older than it actually is – and how often people remember as pale and citrusy beers that evidence suggests were brownish, with UK hops. (As far as we can tell – brewers are often coy about this stuff.)

If you’ve got suggestions, feel free to comment below – and if you can provide a reliable (referenced) ‘first sold’ date and info on hops, that would be great.

Categories
breweries opinion

Recognition, demand and supply

It’s probably too soon to make this point but… Some breweries have done better than others in the past year, haven’t they?

It’s been a rotten year for everyone, obviously, but nonetheless it feels as if there have been, relatively speaking, winners and losers.

Now, because it’s bad taste to boast, not many breweries are admitting to having adapted to the difficult circumstances of 2020 with any success. We did, however, notice this interesting piece on an accounting industry institute body’s website:

All that time spent on spreadsheets modelling scenarios paid off in May. This is when we switched our bars/taprooms to bottle shops. As only one staff member is needed to manage a bottle shop, it’s kept costs low. They’ve done an amazing trade because they’re based in suburban areas. With everybody working from home, customers regularly visit on their daily walks.

And Jeff Alworth has covered some similar stories from the US:

We breweries of course sell beer by the case, and here in Oregon you can buy three cases at a time, per person.  So it’s pretty easy to stock up with minimal trips out of your house. I don’t think any of us realized this advantage when this all started. But in my mind it explains everything about why breweries were able to better survive this economic/epidemic crisis. Sure, delivery helps. But restaurants can do that as well and they haven’t fared nearly as well as we have. It’s funny, because it reminds me of the fact that for hundreds of years one of the main reasons people drank beer was because it’s safer than water. During this past year it’s been safer to pick up beer at the brewery than food at a restaurant—again due to the packaged durability of beer.

Breweries that rely entirely on the pub trade have obviously been at a disadvantage but those which rely on a certain type of pub trade even more so. The cut-price cask ale merchants, that is, whose beers nobody is ever delighted to see on the bar, but which they might tolerate at £2.50 a pint when everything else is a quid more expensive. Makers of rough and/or dull beer designed to please landlords with margin to make rather than drinkers. Let’s be honest, we’ve got Wickwar in mind, now deceased, but you’ve probably got a local equivalent.

Those which have done better, we suspect, are those whose names live near the front of everybody’s minds – the ones with fans, the ones that people will cross town to drink.

We ordered a box of Oakham beers this week, for example, because we haven’t had a pint of Citra in more than a year and missed it. In the past year we’ve also ordered from, among others:

  • Thornbridge (reliably great)
  • Good Chemistry (local, interesting beer, reminds us of The Good Measure)
  • Lost & Grounded (local, proper lager)
  • Fyne Ales (Jarl, Jarl, Jarl)
  • Elusive (varied styles, always interesting)
  • Cheddar (local, solid, reminds us of The Drapers Arms)
  • Bristol Beer Factory (local, reliable, reminds us of The Grain Barge)
  • Harvey’s (Sussex Best is the best)
  • St Austell (in honour of Roger Ryman, reminds us of Penzance)

We have tried to find ways to explore new breweries – selection boxes from online retailers, our standing order with The Drapers Arms delivery service – but when you’ve got to choose your weekend beer no later than Tuesday, you tend to stick to what you can trust.

As well as good beer, and the ability to distribute packaged beer directly to consumers, the breweries on the list above are known and liked. (Or were, at least, until the small brewers duty relief disaster.) They’re either old and venerated almost by default or they’ve invested serious time and energy into making themselves known through strong branding and an active online presence.

It will be interesting to see what’s on offer in UK pubs this time in 2022. Could there be (again, feels rude to say it) a survival of the fittest effect? Or will we find ourselves missing beers we couldn’t order to drink at home, or forgot existed?

Categories
breweries

Brewery merger amnesia

The recently announced ‘joint venture’ between Marstons and Carlsberg made us think about how modern brewery mergers are much more commercially savvy than 1960s and 1970s equivalents.

Nowadays there is a recognition that local brands are important and that if you keep then more or less the same then, after a while, people might forget that there is a new parent company.

A while back, for example, we were corresponding with a journalist about modern bitter brands and he was completely unaware that Marstons had taken over the brewing arm of Charles Wells.

More embarrassingly, I momentarily forgot that Magic Rock had been bought out by Lion in March 2019 – and I’ve written about Magic Rock at length on multiple occasions.

To be fair, it isn’t featured at all on their lovely pictorial history page, or on their about page, so maybe they forgot too.

We’ve also astonished friends by breaking the news to them that Camden and Beavertown are no longer independent. Those takeovers were big news for beer geeks but outside the bubble, people either missed the announcements, or instantly forgot.

And in one case, they were gutted about it, too: “Oh. I thought I was supporting a local independent brewery.”

You might say it’s too early to tell how things will play out with some recent takeovers. The Big Six in the post war period usually allowed a year or so before closing down breweries and rebranding products. (See: Usher’s.)

And consumer preferences change. During the takeover mania of the 1960s and 70s, CAMRA lambasted Watney’s and Whitbread for doing away with local brands. Now, you might argue that at least their uniform packaging and design was honest.

When there’s actual ownership and rights splits, provenance can be more obvious. So, for example, when Asahi bought the Fullers’ brewery, there was a requirement to set up a separate Fullers Brewery website to maintain the distinction between that and the pub operator. And that website does mention Asahi at a couple of points.

Interestingly, though, the first search results for “fullers beers” still takes you to the pub company’s website, so if you weren’t following closely, you might just assume it was business as usual.

All of this underlines that transparency isn’t a one-off event – ownership needs to be clear to consumers from packaging and promotional material on an ongoing basis.