Twelve beers of Christmas: #4

Our guests have gone, there are only a few hours of the old year left and I'm ready for another beer. What better way to see out 2008 with the only ten-year-old beer in my cellar - a bottle of J W Lees Harvest Ale.

I picked up a stack of these a couple of years ago, no idea where from. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but became the beers that I never really wanted to break open (my inherent beer guilt). But I can only manage one more beer tonight, so there's a certain romanticism about rounding out the year with a ten-year-old beer.

It poured like a good scotch, a deep smooth amber that had weight to it - like an oily single malt does. There was fiery alcohol escaping, fumes pent up for a decade and rollicking rampant as they were released. There's a body segueing from deep tea brown to ruby red at the base, a whirl brings a tight light beige head, leaveing sticky legs down the snifter. A fresh Christmas cake dough scent is suddenly swamped by alcohol that I can feel in the back of my throat- it actually makes me blink.

Watching the head dissipate into a galaxial swirl, a moire pattern collapses into no more than a mere tea stain on an unbuffed mahogany desk. Seemingly I can't tire of playing with this beer. To the lips, then. Here be black treacle, candy sugar, brandy, thick fresh caramel, a carbonation pinpricking and just the most amazing sustained sweetness.

That was all half an hour ago. Now, the head has left and so has any underlying alcohol harshness. Instead, there's a placid glass of dark sherry and light spices. There's still tight alcohol that you can actually inhale into beneath your eyelids if you sniff hard enough. The complexity has unwound, the code broken, malt and hops: sweet.

I have no more ten-year-old beers left in the cellar. Just a nine-year-old. And an eight-year-old. And those beers are - J W Lees Harvest Ale 1999 and 2000. They'll be the taste of Christmases to come.


Twelve beers of Christmas: #3

It's a cold New Year's Eve and I'm several beers behind in this 'twelve beers' malarkey. Truth is, I've not been in the mood over the last two days - too tired, a palate jaded by overly spicy food. But now I'm ready for a real Christmas cake of a beer by the fire as I warm my chestnuts. My wife will settle for anything as long as it's a quad. So, hello St Bernardus Abt.

Actually this is beer whilst on the go - my in-laws have just arrived for drinks and nibbles. They're having a Wii so, whilst the falafel's in the oven, I can tell you the five things about St. Bernardus that I absolutely adore.

#1: It's not Westvleteren. It might be close, given the historical similarities, but by not being Westy I can order it online, friends and relations can buy me bottles and the price doesn't get driven through the roof by beer hunters on some ale-lust-for-glory.

#2: My wife loves it. How foolish I was to think that she'd be more attracted to fruit beers. Now, every Belgian bottle that I crack open is met with the question 'is it a quad?' - and she has an air of faint disappointment if the answer's no.

#3: They get the job done. Basic website, no overblown marketing on the bottle label, even though they have a history that most breweries would boil their heads for.

#4: I don't suffer from beer guilt when drinking it. Some bottles I want to share, some bottles I want to age, some lone bottles I want to cling on to like an only child. Some bottles I want to neck back, some bottles I want to drink with fey abandon, some bottles I want to hand out to strangers in the street. When I drink any of those I suffer from beer guilt. Not Saint B - I enjoy the very thought of the bottle top hitting the table, the pillowy head filling and not spilling from a chalice glass. The first whiff of coffee and yeast. And.....

#5: The sheer RaisinNutSpicySherryDoughyOrangeAppleyExcitingCaramelCoating fun of that first sip.

And there you have it. The last sweet drop drained. The stuffed vine leaves nearly all gone. The evening's about to grind through the gears, all champers and salmon and rhythm and blues. It'll be fun but not as much as a fireside, a flickering candle and another Saint B.

Thanks to for another damn fine beer


Twelve beers of Christmas: #2

I've been at a wedding this afternoon. Free champers and wine tempered the presence of Mansfield Smooth on the bar. To be honest, spending three hours previous imbibing a gutfull of Thornbridge Jaipur at the Old Poets Corner, Ashover, helped tremendously. But now I'm back, from outer space, and I want to be lost in hops. Ladeez and gintelmin, I give you - Struise Mikkeller.

OOOOOHHH MIIIII GODDDDDD. My tabs are laughing so much they have fallen off and wandered into a crap Sony advert. Frankly, I've had this beer next to me for ten minutes and I don't want to dare taste it. The aroma is just spellbinding. Remember as a kid how you'd drag your almost-skateboarding scrapy knees down to the ice cream van? Imagine if they'd been piping out huge fecking whirls of vanilla and HOPS HOPS HOPS into a tight malt pipe.

A sip gives a velvet feel soon perverted into a hop shag. If Heston Blumenthal brewed beer, here's where he'd end up. Cream - HOP - lemon - HOP - baked vanilla - HOP - leaking yeast - HOP - dwarves taking turns to do handstands - HOP. (and before you start- yes, that is a bottle of Thornbridge Bracia in the background. It's what I have knocking around the kitchen on a regular basis. Because I'm a beer cnut. Get over it)

Sense out of me? You may as well go shag a pillow. This is a field of hops ploughed thoroughly with an earthy mien. I want to die now and wake up in eternity, face down in a bucket of this stuff. It's a Terminator of beers; never stops, doesn't understand the concept. I have a thumbful of this beer left and the only thing that's stopping me throwing myself out of the window for the lack of more of it is that I live in a bungalow.
I have to leave now. I have an appointment to satiate my ravaged taste buds. Except that I've just messed my pants in excitement and drank the exquisite dregs in one.


I now have to go find a beer that's OK enough to see me through clear until midnight. Thornbridge something will suffice. In the meantime, anyone who hasn't discovered the sheer bliss that is Hem, do try to keep up. Some of us have to go and drink great beer and go one-two-three-two-two-three.


Twelve beers of Christmas: #1

Ho ho ho. My twelve beers of Christmas has to start somewhere; Port Brewing's Santa's Little Helper seems an appropriate place to start. But I'm sick to the back teeth hearing about how wonderful these American beers are - are they just a heap of hype or do they have the balls to back up the braggadocio?

Beers like this have a good rep on website such as ratebeer. Sometimes, I feel this is the result of our colonial cousins bigging themselves up, particularly when the beers are imperial stouts, 'belgian' quads or quintuple hopped IPAs. Othertimes, it seems to be by the virtue of such beers surviving the long journey over the pond and falling into the hands of over-eager acolytes.

I *want* to be impressed by beers like these. I really do want them to be a lush canvas swiped by landscaped flavours. Not a madly overhopped, over-alcoholic mess. SLH (as henceforth it shall be known) starts off promisingly - a viscous pour, tight carbonation, a mocha top subsiding to a mushroom wisp. There's a strong coffee crema aroma with prominent alcohol.

(here's an aside - needing to check spellings in this story, I went to fetch my breeze-block sized dictionary. Rather than Googling the words or spellchecking them. Now, there's old skool for you).

That first taste - surprisingly thin. Slight coffee, a vein of light fruits... swamped by a bittering of burnt chocolate and burning alcohol. Is the depth and complexity hiding behind the admittedly cool serving temperature or does this bottle need a couple of years to mature the edges off it?

Another glass an hour and a half later tells a different tale. My better half dives into the snifter and proclaims the presence of orange peel. I'm finding more plump raisins in there than before. The carb has subsided, leaving behind a calmer beer with a tad more molasses and a keener hop finish. Still trickles across the palate rather than sticking to your ribs, but at least now the booze is warming rather than excoriating.

The coffee, too, has decided to step back on the palate and let fat boozy fruits through to play. There's still that last-coffee-cup-in-the-pot feeling, but this beer's now playing to a tune kept taut by a highly strung quartet; roasty malt, warming alcohol, biting chocolate and washy coffee are all in time with each other. No more dropped bollock notes or inappropriate cymbal crashes.

Over the period of three hours, SLH morphs from brash cousin, through to assured nephew and ends up as gentle uncle. It becomes a safe stout; undeniably well crafted, just that I wish something from those mad first few sips had kept kicking all the way to the end.

Thanks to Phil at for this beer.


Competition: And the winners are...

The results are in. Competition was tough. Literally some people entered and bored the colon out of me with your whinging views on perfect pubs. I've decided to ruin my Boxing Day to announce the results. Humbug. Humbug! Humbug Stout, anyone?

Simplicity and tradition seemed to be your watchwords. Pubs games scored highly. I'm not too keen on darts - particularly the shiny-bloused bingo-winged contingent. Something with local rules that at first glance resembles one game but actually plays completely differently is always fun (bar billiards etc). Although I still think Fin's suggestion of Cheese Skittles sounds more like a bar snack.

Speaking of which, many of you rightly identified decent food as an essential item. I liked Louise's notion of fresh fish - but then to keep it freshest the ideal pub would have to be by the sea. And I live ninety miles inland. And I would quite like to get to this pub without an expedition. Simple foody stuff wins me over, so cyclingjohn's suggestion of "huge chunks of Yorkshire cheeses and pork pies with crusty cobs to help yourself" sounds ideal. Bonus points to Scott, though, for being the only one to suggest pork scratchings. There is no finer accompaniment to a pint of stout than a fried pig's eyebrow that almost liquefies when you bite into it.

Animals were a contentious point. Many of you were keen to see a cat or dog knocking around. Although I don't agree with him, Gazza gets a bottle of beer the next time I meet him for eloquently describing dogs as "filthy, trip-hazard shit machines". Andrew mentioned my ideal pub animal - chickens. You can't beat an in-house egg machine.

Music was a divisive issue. Sloshing pints into the mosh pit proved as popular as the sound of silence. I liked harrisoni's idea of "low level classical/jazz", though only because it conjured up an image of recumbant trumpeters. But cyclingjohn got a stack of points for the suggesting "no noise boxes, including juke/piped/children".

Random (i.e. possibly drunken) ideas were most welcome. Some actually made this miserable old toper chuckle. Andrew for suggesting lock-ins ("just to be Old School"). Fin's spontaneous singing. Gazza's seasonal special crisps from Seabrooks. Dubbel gets mucho kudos for "at least one ridiculously fit girl-next-door barmaid who is utterly oblivious to leering eyes". All of which, however, pale by comparison to magicdave6's suggestions; "Wood is key in soo many factors so i'll just say woodish nature" made me think of the pub coming alive like a Green Man. And who could argue with his Aristotle-ish observation that it must be "somewhere that has beer"?

So then, who tickled me enough to win the bottles of imbibing fluid? Well, for his blunt and honest suggestions that culminated in the sublime point of the perfect pub being one that "Uncle Mort would favour", the goodies go to cyclingjohn. And because our sponsors ( are generous old salts, a case will also wing its way to Fin as well, as he almost described exactly the kind of pub that I frequent almost every week.

Thanks to everyone who posted or emailed. Thanks to for the prizes. And if you chortled at any point when reading this story but didn't enter - next time, you know what to do!


Birthday bash #1: Brum

I was over in Birmingham last month as part of my birthday celebrations. With my none-too-reluctant cider drinking wife, we managed to fit in a visit to my favourite three pubs in Brum.

An early arrival into Brum on Monday allowed us to drop our cases off at Malmaison and head for an early lunch. I was keen on taking Bec to the Old Joint Stock and wanted to get there before the braying office hoards arrived. It's a Fullers pub, possibly their northerly-most outpost, and I was in search of cask London Porter.

A fabulous contraption lifted Bec's wheelchair up the steps at the rear of the building and we were soon ensconced inside. It's a Grade II listed building, beginning life as the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank in 1862. Converted to a pub in 1997, the new Pevsner guide calls it a "subtle, scolarly and beautiful Renaissance palazzo" though the deep coved ceiling is "spoilt by prominent floodlights". Certainly spoilt my photos, although the black & white bodge jobs in Photoshop still give the impression of light and space. High ceilings, chandeliers and the central vaulted bar certainly impress the eye. And the beer was good, too; London Porter (a seasonal beer for November) was still on and I rampaged through several pints. It's got smooth roasted coffee, solid malts, a wisp of smoke and an assured hoppiness. It went well with my mutton, shallots, rosemary & port pie although - as always happens when I eat here - I fancy it would have been better with Bec's choice of pie (steak & stilton). The pub kept busy until five to two, the office workers eventually wending their way deskwards, leaving us in peace. Another pint was drained, slowly, before deciding on a Reluctant change of scenery.

Then, a happy coincidence. Leaving the Old Joint Stock by the rear exit places you by the 'smokers door' of the award-winning Wellington. Well, it would be rude not to have called in, being so close by.... a hefty step to negotiate, though, so thanks to the narrowboatman who held the doors for us. It's a blandish interior, betraying its roots as a wine bar. But two things stand out; a bar with 15 handpulls and the widescreen beer board. The bar offers several regular beers (including offerings from Black Country Ales and the exquisite Wye Valley HPA) alongside an ever-rotating variety of guests from across the country. Those beers are all displayed on the electronic board, giving an indication of the beer's colour alongside price and ABV. If you really want to pee yourself off, you can see the board via this live feed and watch as those beers you really fancy are all drunk by thirsty topers.

The Welly keeps busy, as befits a city-centre pub stacked to the gills with this much real ale. No food is served - you bring your own, the pub provide cutlery. And, yes, in the past I've seen groups sit down to a full Chinese banquet deleivered by taxi to the pub. Useful stuff is for sale behind the bar - crisps, scratchings, beery books, snuff. There's always some cider / perry on offer, and Bec was happy with the Barbourne cider she tried.

I settled for the Crouch Vale Eureka, simply because I've never had an indifferent beer from that brewer. And this didn't disappoint; clean sweet malts with a creamy hop feel tipping the balance. With almost a dozen other beers on the bar, half being scoops, I stayed Reluctant and had a few more Eureka moments. Nothing else really appealed to me - to me honest, I don't think the beer range at the Welly is as adventurous as it used to be. As long as Nigel's got one good beer here, though, I'm happy to imbibe. More about the Welly later.

The afternoon brought bratwurst and gluhwein at the German Christmas market. The evening ended with a champagne and chocolate supper. And Tuesday breakfast was celebrated in the way shared by all parsimonious topers - a full microwave-up at the nearest Wetherspoons. It's always tempting to wash the cholesterol down with a pint, particularly when the likes of Titanic Iron Curtain was adorning the bar. But I was on best birthday behaviour today so first drinkies would have to wait until lunch when we docked at the Anchor.

Bit of a trek into Digbeth as I always go down the wrong road and end up on a ten-minute loop to find the place. But the trip is well rewarded; another Grade II listed building, designed by renowned Birmingham architects James and Lister Lea, clad in terracotta and crammed full of deft touches such as cut glass mirrors, stained glass, corridor tiling and a rare surviving partition screen. They were gearing up for a festival that weekend but there was only one beer that I wanted here - Hobson's Mild. A deserved CAMRA Supreme Champion Beer of Britain in 2007, I love its approach; sweet malts studded with fruit and nuts, smoke stitched into the fraying edges of the palate, all roasted at one step removed. Balanced, quaffable - an epic mild.

With just the two of us in the smoke room and the juke box at our mercy, it was a cracking place to while away an hour or so. Wish we'd been hungry enough to eat here - their snap is the stuff of legends - but the beer was lunch enough for me. And real cider here too; Bec, in her own words, recalled enjoying "somebody's Farmhouse jobby". Sounds all too agricultural, to be honest. I rarely make it down to the Anchor when I'm in Brum and have never been down to the White Swan, another highly regarded pub close by. Looks like I'll have to organise a proper Reluctant Scooper rambling around here in the new year.

Tuesday evening saw us off to the Birmingham Town Hall for my birthday treat - Tony Hadley in concert. One of my wife's favourite singers. Hmmm. I was always a Duran fan myself, but the ex-Spandau lungsmith belts out some great choons and I've learned to love him over the last few years. And of course I get to see the pocket rocket 'Reverend' John Keeble on the drums as well. It was a good gig, Kelbie were a solid support act and Tone mixed up old Spandau faves, classic crooner tunes and a few well-rocked-up songs from the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs. Highlight of the night had to be JK on the mike up front for 'Sweet Home Alabama' with Tony discharging himself superbly on drumming duties.

Wednesday brought lazy morning shopping before lunch back at the Welly. With a Philpotts shop just down the hill, we picked up some gargantuan sarnies and secured ourselves a table at the back of the pub. It was a busy day - groups of a dozen or so would drift in and out, knots of office workers surfaced with their Phillpot bags too. And a couple of boatman were here again; we had a chat as I was interested what the cork 'conker' on their keyring was for. They explained you only needed to drop your keys in the canal once; after forking out for a locksmith, you then bought a cork conker so that they'd float if they ended up waterwards again.

Bec was back on the Barbourne again as I picked a few beers at random from the board. Coastal have a reputation for repeated rebadges, but when the beers are as good as Welly Gold I'm not complaining. The Ossett Silver King was strangely underpowered by comparison. And Kinver Caveman had some strong caramel malts that gave me something to chew on.

Too soon it was time for a dash back across town, pick up some chocs from Harvey Nicks and catch the train back home. The focus of these three days wasn't the pubs themselves, but they all played to their strengths; solid ale and huge pies at the Old Joint Stock, eclectic customers and beer range at the Welly, no-nonsense fayre at the Anchor. I'll revisit in 2009 for a more adventurous rambling.

PS - Malmaison was one of the most laid-back and comfy hotels I've ever stayed in. Heartily recommended. And, Tone - if you're reading, don't forget you can send me bottles of anything from Red Rat anytime you like ;-)


Twelve beers of Christmas: Preview

It's Christmastime, so I need to raid the garage. Twelve beers over the twelve days of holiday I have left sounds like a plan.

There will be three beers each from England, Belgium, the rest of Europe and the United States. Some old favourites to revisit, some new brews to try, some stuff that I've been looking for an excuse to crack open. Thornbridge, Mikkeller, Westvleteren, Lost Abbey... beers from these and more are all waiting to be opened. It's gonna be a blast - don't forget to check back each evening for the latest brew review.


Fest of fun: Leicester pubs

When two of my favourite pubs in Leicester got together to host a joint beer festival, it would have be rude not to give it a bash. Lured by madly strong Oakham ales and some dark Beowulf lovelies, I braved the chill wind to meet up with old muckers John and Brian at Vin IV (formerly Out Of The Vaults) and the Swan & Rushes.

It was cold in Leicester. No hail, no snow, just marrow-freezing dullness. Forgetting that the Alehouse opened at 11am - and they had a festival on too - left me tramping the shopping centres for an hour. A haircut filled the time, conducted by a barber who was the Daily Mail incarnate. I'd have pointed out the flaws in his anti-immigration policies but he did have a particularly sharp pair of scissors in the vicinity of my jugular.

Twelve noon brought me to the Swan just as the doors were opening. Too early for beers from the stillage, I instead decided to treat myself to a bottle of Anchor Our Special Ale, their Christmas ale. Licks of ginger, hints of pine, deep caramels... it's a satisfying beer for this time of year.

Tracking down John and Brian, it transpired they were en route to Vin IV, having called by the Swan when it was closed earlier and kept moving. Time for a few dark beers and a bit of snap, then. Wickwar Station Porter and Elgood's North Brink Porter were dispatched in quick succession. The former was a little on the bland side - perhaps due more to the chillly stillage outside as I've had this beer before in finer form. The Elgoods on handpump inside was superb; deep, deep ruby bodied with rounded rich berry fruits in the flavour. Dry chocolate and wet espresso filled out the profile of an accomplished beer. A proper cheese and onion roll (both ingredients thick cut) and a pork pie (possibly from Lanes, one of those flat, pliable ones) made for a decent lunch.

And then there was Oakham. Sadly their latest IPA, X-Terminator, wasn't ready ("it looks a little lumpy" said Grant Cook (at least, I think it was licensee Grant, I really ought to find out these things). My next trip to the stillage was far more fruitful, though. Not only did I get to meet blogger Pan-C from ale-affinity - without whom I wouldn't have known about the fest - but I was able to try what for me was the real draw of the day. Warthog was a collaborative brew between Green Jack and Oakham for last year's Peterborough CAMRA festival. It was 13.5% then.... so there's every chance that it could be knocking on for an extra percent-ish by now. Sticky tropical fruits to the nose, a high register alcohol note carried away on a hop tip. A slight cool haze to the copper body. It was thick but not viscous, no oily residue but instead a lovely light feel - still coated your teeth but as a veneer sheen rather than a gluey gloop.

Then, hops...... the lightest, fruitiest, smackingly-alpha hops that had no right to be present in a beer of this style and age. Frankly, I couldn't understand where the hops kept coming from. I had to keep sipping. And still the hops came, marching regimentally out the glass and into your gob as if they'd been in reserve too long and were desperate to pillage across your palate. I know many people who'd detach vital appendages if it allowed them to taste beers like this. If this uber-hopped barrel-aged barley wine were from San Bindeebondoo in the good ol' US west coast, certain beer review sites would be hailing it as a world-beating beer. Let me tell you - it *was* a world-beating beer, which goes to show that English brewers ought to be laying down beers in this style and bottling it to show that we're not as boring as our pilgrim brethren may make us out to be.

Suitably fortified, I dragged my hop haze off to the Out Of The Vaults. Or Vin IV as it's now known (again). John and Brian had just arrived after a trip to the Criterion and we soon got stuck into the beers on offer. They seemed to enjoy their choices from Fernandes, Hoggleys and Riverhead. My Kelham Island Winterlude was tasty enough, but the Beowulf Grendall's Grog being too heavy on the thick malts for me. Bees Ginger Beer was disappointingly underpowered for my palate - I'm keener on the boldness of Marble Ginger.

The Beowulf Christmas Cake 2008 was easily the better beer in this part of the festival for me. Decent rich fruits, a chewy malty base blunted by keen hops. By now, we'd given in to the lure of landlord Paul's homemade chili, mopped up with hunks of bread. I'd usually opt for a crisp pale beer to wash down a chili, but the Beowulf provided a surprisingly effective counterpoint with its fruitiness soaking up the spices.

Too soon, we needed to amble down New Walk for the train back to Derby. No prizes for guessing that the Warthog was my beer of the day. And the chili was one of the best trays of pub grub I've had this year. If only I'd been able to try them together.....


Ramblings: Derby, Sunday, again

Dogs return to vomit. Christmas makes madmen of the out-of-season sane. So whilst the rabid herd trudge the soiled High Streets, I'm off to my old drinking grounds for dodgy jokes, annoying whistling, the vague smell of shit and an unexpectedly tasty pint.

Days like these start in a Wetherspoons. For the unfortunate Magners drinker, they probably end here, too, in a pool of vomit / ocean of bitter recrimination / puddle of squandered remission. At least the Babington Arms caters for the breakfast-loving toper as well as the wannabe ASBO enthusiast. Occasionally, I'll have a pre-10am pint to wash down the microwave-up and toast, but today's Leatherbritches and Falstaff fayre doesn't tickle my palate. Here be the lager boys who didn't get to bed last night. At least, not their own, as they're busy texting apologies to their Mums when they think their mates aren't looking. Here too are the nth iteration of today's trackie-clad slackers, rosy nosed tweed-ish drunkards who insist the world was a better place when they could beat the wife and contract emphysema indoors. Both groups hate the fecker who raised taxes and denied them their uncivil liberties. It's just one lot doesn't know who this Thatcher character is. The yoof of today eh?

With a startling outbreak of middle-class affectation, I leave the pub to go get a large strong cappuchino, read the Observer review section and then fail to find any suitably freshly-baked baguettes. Honestly, Jez, what *is* this world coming to? Shortcutting to the pub involves getting through Westfield, the could-be-anywhere-in-the-capitalist-world shopping centre. It's hitting full-on centrifugal mode, aisles a blur of misplaced consumerism, jaded shoppers plastered against walls when their cards have been ripped clean of credit. Unwilling to purchase, I am swallowed up into the place and irritate my way clean through, shat out via the smokers' alley at the back.

Ten minutes of a chill wind and I'm at the Brunswick. The attraction of this pub on a Sunday is threefold; no diners, barbed banter and a decent dark pint. Landlord Graham will be off-duty and moaning about the football results, regular Lou will be moaning about losing bets to Graham, other barflys will moan about anything the Daily Mail has been moaning about. And then, like a butterfly braving a stormy afternoon, someone will air a few words that brighten the bar and replace bile with delight. Today, Lou asked Ralph (the cook) how he made the parsnip soup. "Well," said Ralph, "I take a parsnip. And some water. And blend them. And that's parsnip soup". And no-one was too sure what was funnier - Lou's question or Ralph's studious answer. But laughs like drains were exhibited all round. I nearly decorated the table with an as unyet-digested mouthful of Brunswick Black Sabbath. So I guess pub humour is where you find it.

No coal fire at the Brunnie - "times 'r 'ard" says Graham - so I shuffle fifteen paces into the Alex for warmth and beer. Alan was dragging his fire into life with wet wood; reluctant flames still spark, though. No other customers to enjoy it, mind; half an hour of my failings to crack the Azed crossword are accompanied only by a pint of Dark Star Winter Solstice and Alan's off-key whistling as every twelfth dart misses the board and rattles the floorboards. The pint is one of the finest seasonal brews I've had this year, packed with gingery bits and surprisingly aggressive hops. Indeed, it's the kind of beer that tests keenly my Reluctancy on a cool afternoon; upriver I must go, though.

It's a turbid Derwent today, heavy rains lend the water a stewed-tea feel. Sadly, that has an obvious implication for riverside pub The Smithfield - storm drains rise and the whiff through the bar needs something hoppier than Durham White Something to neutralise it. It has a fair crack at it, though, as I'm not gagging my way through reading the Morning Advertiser and The Publican. Quiet here, too; landlord Roger says would be happy to see more pubs close as he'd get more customers. Not sure that they'd leg it over the river, though, even for his excellent beer. Trade tales are exchanged across the bar between licensee, brewer and consumer, all three feeling that they're taking it up the keester from the taxman. It's times like these you wish for a recently-redundant tax inspector to walk into the bar, but you can't have it all.

Another five minutes upriver to the Royal Standard and dreams of dark beer. Amazingly, I didn't have to take pot luck on their recalcitrant guests as Trev Harris had deigned to brew a black 'un. Christmas Porter was velvet enough with some rich fruit notes lurking in the edges. Last described by a Brunswick regular as a cross between "a wine bar and I don't know what", the Standard is a bar masquerading as a pub with the un-nerving habit of serving decent real ale whilst alienating a number of real ale drinkers. More room for me, then; I'll still dispute Harris's pricing policy (charging over two quid a pint for his own weakest beer) but the place is affable enough. The atmosphere isn't painted on the walls - indeed, it's whatever you bring along with you; old friends, extended family, bitter partner, sweetheart, well-thumbed broadsheet.

My bus leaves from round the corner and I'm surprised to have spent three hours on this slow crawl. Then again, this has been a dog-eared slipper of an afternoon, knowingly comfortable with a stubborn sole.


Competition time!

This Scrooge Scooper has teamed up with to offer a case of beer as first prize in this site's first competition.

You may know the article by George Orwell describing his imaginary perfect pub, The Moon Under Water. I'd like to know the ten qualities you look for in your perfect pub. Post them up here as comments. Or email to me using the address listed under the 'Contact US' tab. The one that tickles me the most will win a case of beer courtesy of Extra special random bonus beer prizes may be available if someone comes up with a particularly leftfield selection.

To enter, you need to be UK resident and over 18. Entries to be posted in by midnight Thursday 18th December - winner will be sent the beer in the new year (postage to UK addresses only). Don't forget, you've got to be in it to win it so crack open a bottle and start posting!


Thornbridge Brewer's Challenge

The Thornbridge brewers have been involved in 'friendly' competition over the last four months. Each was tasked to produce a new brew that would showcase their skills and tastes. Drinkers were polled, scores collated and cask sales monitored to work out which of the brewcrew would claim first place. I tried them all at various venues and decided that Katipo was my firm favourite... did the wider beery world agree with me when the results weer released yesterday?

Back in June, Dave Pickering was the first to step up with Barbary. I tried this in the Coopers Tavern, Burton, before I knew about the challenge. And a superb brew it was, atypical perhaps for a summmer beer with yummy malts and chocolate dustings all around. Slight spice and smoke too.

July saw Stefano Cossi's Hop Shock unleashed. Hugely popular at the Derby CAMRA festival on handpump, it was a decent itchy-scratchy pale that was more surprise rather than shock. Tons of hop in the nose but strangely restrained on the palate.

Newest brewer Matthew Clarke was let loose in August and came up with Karnival. In the American pale ale style, I found it to have a typical Thornbridge hop stamp albeit with a crepe sole rather than a steel toe-cap. An assured brew that ticked the boxes.

Bouncing into September came the Tigger of Thornbridge, Kelly Ryan, with Katipo. Named after a rare spider found in his home country of New Zealand, this was a rich porter riven with Belgian raspberries. When I first tried this at the Burton CAMRA festival I nearly fell off my seat - and it was only my second drink of the day. It had an outstanding feel, reaching a point when the fruit oozed effortlessly through the chocolate. Scooping plans were then abandoned and I drank as much of it as I dared to before a reluctant train journey home. Sampled again at the Brunswick festival it revealed more plump and juicy fruits before the quick bitter finish. And again at the Nottingham CAMRA fest where it was served rather cool but hot hands allowed that berried sting in the tail to surface again.

So it's a delight to find out that Katipo took first place in the Brewer's Challenge. "I've always been a fan of fruit beers," said Kelly, "and whilst brewing in Scotland and being surrounded by wild raspberries, I imagined that their sweetness and tartness would be a great mix". He found the competition to be fun; "it brought out a bit of competitiveness and cloak and dagger-esque recipe formulation!".

A worthy winner, Tigger; here's hoping you get the chance to defend your trophy next year! And here's hoping that Katipo will be brewed again soon, a cool winter deserves a rich fruity beer to cheer rosy nosed topers!


Toper Talk: Beware of the ticker?

Tickers. Scoopers. For some they are the epitome of CAMRA man. Yet whilst some branches love them (think ticker-tastic fests like Nottingham or Tamworth) others are openly hostile. Meanwhile, ticker/scooper attitudes towards CAMRA veer from dewy-eyed adulation, through grudging acceptance for economic reasons to rabid criticism. Earlier this year the Telford and East Shropshire CAMRA magazine stirred up Scoopgen users with an article that portrayed tickers as "a heinous band of tramps and vagabonds". Are they that bad? Are they an easy target? What makes them tick? Let's find out...

It was that article in a local CAMRA newsletter (and reproduced on Scoopgen) that started me thinking about tickers. With tongue slightly in cheek, 'Brockton' bemoaned tickers for being ill-mannered bottlers of beer rather than 'real imbibers'. These 'tramps and vagabonds' were described as being "clad in 70s anoraks", having a "graveyard of decaying yellow teeth", being prone to "incomprehensible mumbling" and giving off "an odour akin to a Dickensian chiropodist's waiting room". Nice.

Comments about the article on Scoopgen were unsurprisingly critical; "another example of generalisation tarring everyone with the same brush" said one; others wondered why the likes of 'Brockton' even bothered to join CAMRA. Super scooper Gazza's response to the article was that "some of this thing is slightly close to the truth but it's still quite sad... that some CAMRA people think it's okay to slag off a section of the real ale drinking public who know (generally) more about beer and breweries than 99% of CAMRA members, drink more cask ale than most CAMRA members and do the most to support micro brewers".

To be fair, I've also been critical of some tickers. Because I find people who yak on about beer all day to be deeply boring. Because some of them impose their ill-formed opinions around the bar whether you're interested or not. Becasue if the festival list suggested that Groyne's Olde Scrotum would be on and it's not, they start throwing their bottles out the trolly, metaphorically speaking. But there's a wider issue that I struggle with.

It's the numbers game. I used to be an active member of, adding reviews of beers to the site and going out of my way on many occasions to sample new brews. But that was driven by a desire to try beers of differing styles - the number of rates was a consequence of the journey, not the reason for it. I stopped rating every beer I tried in 2005 (about 18 months after I started) and stopped counting altogether soon after. Even when I was rating, I'd tend to drink a pint of a favourite beer than two halves of unknown brew.

Maybe I'm a scooper who doesn't write stuff down. After all, Scoopgen defines the hobby as "the term given to sampling as many different real ales as possible, within the scooper's own personal rules". And those rules are arbitrary; as Gazza says, liable to change "at any time to suit whims and experiences". This is all starting to sound un-nervingly like Werner Muensterberger; he recognised in his book 'Collecting: An Unruly Passion', that although "the inner pressure for more and more acquisitions... exists in all collectors, neither personal style nor circumstance are ever identical".

There's clearly a collecting bug amongst tickers. 'Beige' Phil Booton writes of the "simple delight at adding a new name to the collection". Gazza has called scooping "trainspotting beer instead of trains". But is there more to ticking than the numbers game? Well, Gazza himself makes the point eloquently in his essays on scooping; he may have been seeing the country and having a good laugh, but he was driven by wanting to try the next beer; " didn't matter if I'd found a superb beer in a pub, I'd always want to try another just in case it was better".

That's a key point for me. If I love the beer I'm drinking, I don't feel the need to forsake it for the 'other' beer; that's why I'm a Reluctant Scooper. But are most tickers really tasting the next beer along to see if it's a better beer... or just to ink another name in their battered notebook? Gazza may have been driven by the pursuit of quality, but most of the tickers I see seem driven by quantity - with hitlists determined solely by availability. They seem to have what he calls the 'collecting gene or mentality' - and I think that's what I'm missing.

Sure, I had a collecting streak as a kid - stamps, chocolate bar wrappers, Panini football stickers) but... I want to say that it all stopped when I grew up. Perhaps that's where the anti-ticker criticism stems from, that any form of obsessive collecting is seen as immature. Certainly, pyschoanalysts and philosophers have seen collecting as a method of filling some kind of void. Muensterberger saw the experience as "an enriching respite from the sometimes frustrating demands of everyday life" and that the dedicated collector may be acting in response to "the trauma of aloneness". Baudrillard found that it was "... men in their forties who seem most prone to the passion... (it) may be seen as a powerful mechanism of compensation during critical phases in a person's sexual development". So, is ticking is something carried out by frustrated middle aged men as some kind of compensatory activity?

I think there's more to it than that. The psychology of collecting may offer some clues. The concept of an 'acquisitive instinct' has been questioned as studies have shown a sociocultural diversity in people's relationships with material goods. Similarly, individual-centred frameworks ignore explicit social features of possessions. Perhaps a social constructionist perspective can help - whereby the collection is a symbol of identity whose meaning is socially constructed. Ticking that rare brewery on your way to ten thousand beers only functions as a symbol of greatness to a reference group that shares the same belief.

As much as the critics of tickers like to make out that they are just a bunch poorly-clothed social inadequates, possibly bordering on Aspergers Syndrome, the truth of the matter is that there's a sense of society and community amongst tickers. Unlike true Asperger's sufferers, groups of tickers display a true sense of shared enjoyment and achievement. Indeed, I'd go so far to say that it's the social aspect that feeds the hobby - if tickers couldn't give and receive gen, swap bottles, share pork pies and meet a friendly face in a far-flung pub then I don't think they'd do it. After all, what's the point of ticking if no one knows nor cares about it?

Yes, tickers can be annoying, tiring, boring, boorish, under-informed, over-opinionated. But that's people for you. Like the guy sat behind me at Silverstone barking on about relative exhaust diameters when all I want to hear is the roar of a Mosler; the art snob deconstructing Rothko when I'm trying to lose myself in its murk, the convention fan who says I simply must read x's new novella coz 'he's, like, awesome!!!' (lather, rinse, repeat).

I'd rather drink with a mild-mannered ticker than a lairy lager boy. So, tick 'em if you need 'em, guys (and gals). Just don't go drinking all of that Groyne's Olde Scrotum - it's one of my favourites.

This column was brought to you under the inebriating power of Brunswick Black Sabbath, foresaking three new scoops just so I could have lashings of the stuff.

Dim and distant psychology recollections courtesy of a polytechnic tutor who's name escapes me. But I do remember that she used to drink cider and black.

And the photo is one of the numerous caricatures hanging in the cellar bar of the Flowerpot, Derby - click through to see a larger version or go see for yourself at the pub. I might even buy you a pint if I'm there...


Ratebeer shafted again

Hackers akimbo at ratebeer again. I haven't been able to post on the forum or send beermail. Google now classes it as a harmful site. As I'm stuck on IE during the day, I'll have to wait for later and see if Firefox + noscript is still a viable option.

On the off-chance that any of the London crew stumble by this post, apologies but I won't be down on Saturday for the crawl.

If anyone has any good security practice for viewing ratebeer through IE that they can share, please do so.

Clicking 'read more' would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Told you!