Ramblings: Leicester

A mizzly day in November is always a good for a wander around a city and knock off a few beers. There's something about clinging dampness and biting winds that encourage reluctant scooping for me - usually because it brings on a dash between pubs for a hasty half and a beaten retreat away from the wet-dog odour of desperate ticker.

So, as all good beery days begin - to the shops. Red Zebra, Derby's biggest and best bottled beer suppliers, have extended into the new Westfield shopping centre, allowing the owner David Simmonds to expand the beer range at their Guildhall market stand. David was very enthusiastic about his ever-growing range, particularly with more local microbrewers now eager to have their beers stocked. Continental beer lovers are well looked after too, with some interesting German staples and seasonals finding their way onto the shelves.

I didn't need much arm-twisting to pick up a couple of bottles; a 750ml bottle of Wissey Valley's Auld Thingy and a bottle of Thurn und Taxis Roggen, both beers that I haven't sampled before.

By now, the mizzle was turning to drizzle, so I hastened to the Babington Arms. Their dark ales festival was due to launch on the Monday, so I thought I'd plump for something at the opposite end of the scale - Leeds Pale Ale. Only my second from this newish brewery; I had their Midnight Bell the weekend before at the Flowerpot and was greatly impressed. This certainly was a lightale, just managing to retain enough bite and dryness.

With the weather cheering up to a slate gray , it was time to let the train take the strain, But, as it would it rude to walk past and not call in, time was made for a swift half in the Brunswick.

And the sight of something I've never seen before - no Brunswick beer! Cooling problems earlier in the week had forced Graham to ditch the lot, lest any batch had been contaminated. So, it was like a beer festival at the Brunnie, with all pumps put to guest beer usage. My Reluctant Scooping skills were severely tested, but all this damp in my bones demanded something rich and fruity - Burton Bridge Damson Porter. Always ready to ignore a scoop when I can have a lush glass of this stuff.

On then to the station to meet up with a drinking pal of mine from the Brunswick, 'Cycling' John Horton. We hadn't seen each other for a few weeks - my new job has put the stoppers on lunchtime imbibing - so we caught up on gen and gossip. Into Leicester, a brisk stride down New Walk and onto the first port of call here - the Swan And Rushes.

And who should be by the bar but that renowned beer blogger, the Wooton Wonder himself - Mark 'no-body calls me maeib' Edwards. Glad to see him; after all, the plan was to meet him here!

It was festival time here, with some interesting British casks, albeit not overly rare (though there was a beer from relative newcomers Bridgenorth). Most were a little bland around the edges - even the Potbelly beer (Jingle Bellies). who usually turn out a tasty brew. Mind you, temperature was a killer, beers from the cellar were very cold, the stuff from the stillage outside was almost frozen. Sadly, that's where the Belgian guest draught beers were, which knocked all the subtly out of them, though the Gordon's Xmas beer wasn't too bad. Beer of the fest for me was the Thornbridge Hark which offered a redeeming gingerness. The food was a little on the light side as well - last year's hearty cooked meals had given way to a rather miserly bratwurst but (at least it was tasty and hot).

We decided to venture forth and find warmer beer. The Criterion is a must-visit pub on any Leicester visit; by 2pm it looked like half of Leicester had the same idea. With musicians warming up in the lounge, the bar area was busy. Nevertheless, a table corner was commandeered and we then sallied forth to the bar. So how come I eneded up with the blandest beer, Bartrams Green Man.? I've had some cracking Bartrams bottled beers, but this was thin and untainted by any tasty malts.

Mark was soon hankering after a bottle, and I only had to gently twist his arm into trying a bottle of Flying Dog Dogtoberfest. I found it was decidedly average - usual FD approach, subtle as a box of frogs. Whereas with other styles they can just use bludgeoning amounts of hop and carry it off, here it just made for an over-brown beer.

There was only one way to put a atop to this bland beer madness - go for some keg larger. Just round the way from the Criterion is the Shakespere's Head, a wedge of confused Art Deco abandoned in the cleavage of the ring road. Walking inside was almost like entering a middle-range hotel, all plush and self-consciously smart. Thankfully, the bar was full of sweary labourers who had scattered various supplements from the Sun all around the room. John was here to sample Oakwell Old Tom as at unfeasibly cheap price, even for the Midlands. Mark and I are made of more adventurous stuff, mind; only their finest lagers would suffice. Sadly, their finest lagers seem to have run out and instead they'd hooked up some cunning Heath Robinsonesque device to siphon the urinal flow straight into the lager lines. At least the Oakwell Lager had a faint whiff of a lager malt. Or was that just the drains? Mark's Oakwell Acorn Lager had a chemical sweetness to it; ever wondered what the blue cubes in the urinal bowl taste like?

(If you really want to know how I know what the blue cubes taste like, that's a another story. Like drinking the aftershave given to me by a Richard Branson look-alike in Amsterdam. So many stories, so little.. er.. enthusiasm to keep telling them)

Now, it's still raining, it's approaching time to go home, so it's shit or bust. One of the great things about Leicester is that, if you're on the way back to the train station, there's a cracking pub. Out Of The Vaults, therefore, was our last stop.

Remember - all good things come to those who wait (and ignore Guinness). A stonking selection of stuff here with plenty of dark beers. At the end of the bar sat one of my absolute favourites - Beowulf's Dragon Smoke Stout. Pure class. The rugby (Wales v South Africa) was just starting, Good beers, good sport, good atmosphere, good friends - pubs don't get better than this.

Mark had to go to catch his bus into the heart of darkness - sorry - heart of Northamptonshire. John and I just had time for a round of E&S 1872 Porter before making a breakneck march back to the station, just in time for the Derby-bound train.

We soon trundled into Derby, and with no Brunnie beer on offer it was into the Alex for a quick snifter. John was keen to try a beer he'd enjoyed the day before (the name of which escapes me) and I (as ever) could not resist the Thornbridge Jaipur. After all, when a beer drinker is tired of Jaipur he is tired of life....

Overall, a typical Midlands beery day in an above average Midlands city- some average beers, some dire, some surprising, some outstanding.