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.


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!

Bars and Pubs and Clubs

Dada bar in Sheffield.

Last week, we inter­viewed the founders and own­ers of North Bar in Leeds, arguably the first ‘craft beer bar’ in the UK, and, in the course of our con­ver­sa­tion, asked: ‘So, what makes this a bar rather than a pub?’ After much head-scratch­ing, they had to admit defeat: they did­n’t know. ‘But we know a bar when we see one.’

Here’s a quiz, then: are the fol­low­ing bars, or pubs, or some­thing else?

  1. Dada, Sheffield
  2. Craft Beer Com­pa­ny, Isling­ton, Lon­don
  3. Craft Beer Com­pa­ny, Clerken­well, Lon­don
  4. The Par­cel Yard, Kings Cross, Lon­don
  5. any branch of All Bar One.

A pub has to sell beer, but then so do most bars. A bar is more like­ly to sell cock­tails, but some don’t, and some pubs do. Pubs are more like­ly to be brown, while bars will have white/cream/grey walls, but white-paint­ed pubs and brown bars do exist… no, this isn’t get­ting us any­where.

In the intro­duc­tion to her 2002 book Bar and Club Design, Bethan Ryder defines bars as fol­lows:

They are mod­ern, spec­tac­u­lar forums, under­pinned by the ideas of dis­play and per­for­mance, rather than util­i­tar­i­an, more casu­al places in which peo­ple meet, drink and gos­sip – such as the pub…

We’re not sure that works – North felt pret­ty casu­al, for exam­ple, but is def­i­nite­ly a bar. She also, how­ev­er, says this in attempt­ing to define the night­club: ‘…to a cer­tain extent they have always been what­ev­er a… pub is not.’ Now that, vague as it is, might work as a def­i­n­i­tion of a bar.

As, per­haps, might this: a pub should always feel as if it is in the British Isles; where­as a bar should feel as if it is in Man­hat­tan, Stock­holm, Moscow or Paris.

If you think you’ve got it cracked, let us know in the com­ments below.

Our answers would be 1) bar; 2) pub; 3) bar; 4) some­thing else; and 5) chain pub with pre­ten­sions.

The Hay-on-Wye of Beer?

Kelham Island Tavern (sign), Sheffield

Hay-on-Wye is a small mar­ket town on the bor­der between Eng­land and Wales famous for its thir­ty or so book­shops. Since the 1970s, those book­shops, and then the lit­er­ary events they’ve attract­ed, have helped Hay pros­per. With­out them, it would receive a frac­tion of its cur­rent num­ber of vis­i­tors.

We don’t think there’s quite an equiv­a­lent ‘beer town UK’, but Sheffield springs to mind as a pos­si­ble con­tender.

It has more than its fair share of great pubs and brew­eries: we’ve found that, there more than any oth­er UK city we’ve vis­it­ed, an ordi­nary look­ing pub cho­sen at with­out pri­or research will turn out to be sell­ing some­thing we can get excit­ed about.

Has any­one mea­sured the impact on beer tourism on Sheffield­’s econ­o­my? Has the City Coun­cil con­sid­ered active­ly pro­mot­ing Sheffield as a des­ti­na­tion for beer lovers?

With a lit­tle work, it could it be Britain’s Beer­vana. As it is, any­one vis­it­ing the UK look­ing for good beer should cer­tain­ly aim to spend a day or two there.

Let us know if there are oth­er can­di­dates we’ve missed. Bur­ton, per­haps, has a greater enti­tle­ment.

Mid-morning crowds at the bar

It was 11:45 in the morn­ing at the Sheffield Tap and we could­n’t get served.

Two harassed bar staff – one of whom was a woman with a mous­tache (Movem­ber) – were try­ing to deal with a four-deep crowd of foot­ball fans and beer geeks at the bar. One bloke want­ed to taste a few things. The bar staff were patient about it but the pun­ters behind him weren’t. A cou­ple of low-key rows broke out: “Don’t let that bloke push in front of you! You were there first!”; “No I was­n’t, you nob­head. Shut up!”

Even­tu­al­ly, squeezed into a cor­ner with our Thorn­bridge Pivni (“Pos­si­bly the best break­fast beer in the world” – Reluc­tant Scoop­er), we won­dered whether, when this pub first opened a cou­ple of years ago, any­one ever expect­ed it to be this busy at any time, let alone before mid­day.

The mar­ket for craft beer bars isn’t sat­u­rat­ed yet. If there’d been anoth­er one a few doors down, we reck­on that would have been full, too.

Tast­ing notes (all Thorn­bridge): Pivni (3.7%3.2%) was deli­cious – how we false­ly remem­ber Sum­mer Light­ning tast­ing; Black Har­ry (3.9%) was one of those milds that’s coy about it, pleas­ant enough, but lack­ing oomph; Sequoia (4.5%) was our favourite, light-bod­ied and exot­ic-tast­ing – what Ewoks would drink; and Ver­sa (5%) was a Schnei­der-alike with big banana aro­mas and lots of tof­fee flavour.

Every beer gets a second chance

Both vari­ants of the Brooklyn/Schneider Hopfen Weisse in their beau­ti­ful­ly designed bot­tles

We hat­ed Schnei­der Hopfen­weisse when we tried it a cou­ple of years ago and I almost turned my nose up when offered it on draft at the Devon­shire cat, Sheffield. Nonethe­less, I got my half (a mere £2.80…) and gave it anoth­er go.

It’s always a good idea to give a beer a sec­ond chance. Wowz­ers, Pen­ny. I take it all back. It’s won­der­ful.

It’s like a tur­bo charged wheat­beer with crisp, almost tan­gi­ble hops; bub­blegum cut with grape­fruit. Tru­ly extreme and fab­u­lous for it. Odd­ly, the Ger­man-Amer­i­can parent­age gives this a very Bel­gian aro­ma (booze + spice) which real­ly adds to the plea­sure.