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Blogging and writing Brew Britannia

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!

Categories
pubs

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.

Categories
marketing

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.

Categories
beer reviews pubs

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.

Categories
American beers beer reviews Germany

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.

Boak