Twelve beers of Christmas #11: Thornbridge Bracia

Yes, I know it's almost the first day of spring. I enjoyed a bottle or three of Thornbridge's finest over the festive break but never quite got around to writing about it. Too busy drinking the stuff, you see. So, time to dig out the old notes and then crack open another bottle to see if the rapture still holds fast...

You know how you never forget your first time? My first taste of Bracia was at the brewery in November 2008, the impossible smoothness of the beer being as impressive as the brewers' enthusiasm for it. Kelly Ryan gave me a bottle to take away which I intended to have over Christmas, but it seemed too good to drink so soon. Fortunatley, they were able to slap labels onto a production batch in time and so I was able to pick up a dozen bottles direct from the brewery.

This beer is a Thornbridge labour of love steeped in history. Its inspiration lies in an alterstone inscription found at another Derbyshire country house, Haddon Hall; Bracia possibly referring to a honey-sweetened high-alcohol beverage drank by the occupying Romans. That connection inspired Italian head brewer, Stefano Cossi, to develop a rich beer infused with chestnut honey sourced from the foothills of north-east Italy.

Into the glass, Bracia bursts forth with molasses and creamy coffee. An initially sticky beige head came unglued into a frogspawn of stubborn bubbles above a burnished brown body. And onto the nose, in waves, came honey like no other. Not sickly sweet, not funky fresh comb, just wafts of that chestnutty tang.

A first sip revealed softer sensations, the chestnut flavoutr carried sharper on the underpeel feel of a waning oraange, all tempered by easy honey rewarming on the palate. Fifteen minutes later - yes, I can actually leave a beer this long - rewards are reaped as the crema topping is capable of being whipped up again and flavours of damp honeycomb and milky chocolate come through. Like a Crunchie dipped in cold coffee, the beer left some lovely cream on the lips with a prickle of sweetness at the end and enveloping nuttiness on the way down.

After half and hour, flavours even out to a coffe-laced sorbet with honeycomb flakes, a soft and frothy praline ebb and an assured sweetness that melts away in the mouth.

So far, so orgasmic. It would have been plain rude of me not to sample some alongside chocolate, so I dug out some single origin Amedei samplers that I treated myself to for my birthday. The Venezuelan had a superb freshly sweet aroma with notable clear honey traces that complemented the Bracia well. The Ecuadorian offered pronounced powdery cocoa, accentuating the nuttiness of the beer.

What an epic beer. There was virtuoso honey, subtleties of nuts and coffee revelling in a fantasia of flavours. It had taken me an hour to enjoy the bottle; the next one was polished off within thirty minutes but by then I knew the tune. Bracia offered a bittersweet symphony; I look forward to the same notes (albeit not neccessarily in the same order) when I try another bottle in a few months time.


Toper Talk: The Scooper's Prayer

Scrawled on the back of a beer list left on a bus, seemingly prepared by an elder for an acolyte...

"Our circuit,
Which art in Yorkshire,
Sheffield be thy name.
This weekend come,
Scoops will be done
Int' Harley as they are int' Welly.
Give us each day our daily tick
And forgive us for bottling
As we forgive those who bottled before us.
And lead us not into kegged pubs
But deliver us from smooth flow,
For thine is the Brew Co, the Pictish and Thornbridge.
And never, no never,
Greene King".

If this is soon seen on an XXXL t-shirt sat next to you, just remember where you saw it first.


Toper talk: The Toper's Song

There's only so many choruses of 'Delilah' and 'If I Were The Marrying Kind' that a drinker can take. If you want bawdy, politically incorrect banter with a hint of historic provenance and just enough folk heritage, you need The Toper's Song.

The Toper's Song is an arrangement by Peter Warlock of a song featured on an eighteenth century ballard sheet sung by that most excellent English clown, Joseph Grimaldi. Warlock himself was himself a noted toper and man of many facets. Indeed, Warlock was but a pseudonym of Philip Arnold Heseltine, a noted critic, author and self-taught composer who studied at Eton and Oxford, wrote about Delius and produced a raft of songs influenced greatly by his love of Elizabethan music.

Heavy-drinking joviality was a way of life for Warlock at time The Toper's Song was written, as he enjoyed a wild, boozy time in Eynsford, Kent in the company of friend E. J. Moeran. Music critic Ian Copley was impressed just enough to say that the song had "sufficient individuality and harmonic piquancy to lift it out of the ruck of anonymous commonplace".

Sadly, I don't know if that's true. I haven't been able to find an album or download of The Toper's Song. But you know how sometimes you don't need to hear a tune for it to resonate inside your head?

See if you know what I mean when you read the lyrics;

"The landlord he looks very big,
With his high cock'd hat and his powder'd wig;
Methinks he looks both fair and fat,
But he may thank you and me for that,
For 'tis
O, good ale, thou art my darling,
And my joy both night and morning!

The brewer brew'd thee in his pan,
The tapster draws thee in his can;
Now I with thee will play my part
And lodge thee next unto my heart,
For 'tis
O, good ale, thou art my darling,
And my joy both night and morning.

But if my wife should thee despise,
By Jove, I'll beat out both her eyes,
But if she loves me as I love thee,
A happy couple we shall be,
For 'tis
O, good ale, thou art my darling,
And my joy both night and morning.

Thou oft hast made my friends my foes,
And often made me pawn my clothes;
But since thou art so night my nose,
Come up my friend and down he goes,
For 'tis
O, good ale, thou art my darling,
And my joy both night and morning."

If you want to find out more about Peter Warlock, try some of these links:

- some of his work featured on

- extracts from over thirty of his songs recorded by Hyperion

- Geoff Grainger's extensive website

- a short biography on the Pristine Classical site

Lyrics courtesy of

Illustration by Hal Collins, taken from the ever-excellent 'Merry-Go-Down' by Rab Noolas - another Heseltine pseudonym (read it backwards). Much, much more from that anthology "collected for the use, interest, illumination and delectation of serious topers" will feature here in the future.


Fest of fun: Leicester 2009

Old friends, new breweries, cool beers, hot curries... is Leicester Beer Festival a marriage made in heaven?

Let's make it clear from the off; I lurrrve the Leicester festival. Great array of beers in good condition. One large room for the stillage and vertical drinkers, one large room for the tables. Stacks of good food. Great atmosphere. It's one of the very few fests that I'm willing to give up a day's annual leave to attend.

The day was set up in Derby with an excellent freshly-cooked breakfast at On A Roll and my usual large, strong cappuchino at Caruso's. Into Leicester, one sharp haircut obtained and I was ready for a day of lush imbibition.

There's really only one sensible way to start a fest like this - order a pint of Thornbridge Jaipur and go for a wander all along the stillage to see what's on. Mental notes made of replacements and substitutions, greetings swapped with familiar faces, all in the company of an IPA as good today as it's always been. Catchy line, that.... somebody ought to use it in an advert.

Comrade Brian and Cycling John had already secured a table and were doing unspeakable things to a Blue Monkey. More about that later. I was ready to take a few snaps, having charged the camera battery the night before. Perplexed therefore that the camera wouldn't turn on. Embarrassed to find that the battery wasn't actually in the camera. Relieved that I'd decided to lump the larger camera along as well. Still, not as bad as Brian and the time he took thirty-eight snaps of a stripper. On a camera that should only have taken thirty-six pictures. If it had actually had a film in it....

And then, from deepest darkest Northamptonshire, Mark arrived. Blogger, Ratebeerian and looking a bit like Brian O'Driscoll's long-lost cousin, we suffer each other's company a few times each year. And rather than talking about page views, bounce rates and all other such blogging guff (as tends to happen in our scene that celebrates itself a little too much), we do the decent thing and double up.

Now then, matron. I know what you're thinking. We're not like *that*. OK, I caught him ogling my moobs once, but they do get pert when clad in Lycra. Doubling up simply means sharing beers - two halves bought, drink half of one then swap over with your oppo. Result: you get to drink quarter pints (just enough to get a fair impression of the beer) and so a wider number/range of beers can be sampled in one day.

We're keen to experiment (stop that sniggering! I won't tell you again!), so we tend to buy some old favourites alongside output from new brewers.

So, those beers in no more than six words each were...

Opa Hey 'Best' Bitter. - smelled of melted Twix, tasted better

Great Newsome Holderness Dark - murky with some freshly squeezed glue.

Barrowden Black Five - bits of licorice, solid chewy body.

Bottle Brook Red Chinook - some smart hops but rather flattened

Art Brew ibeer - bludgeoning vanilla and some hop itch

Bollington Oat Tom - fat oat notes sumped in berries

Blue Monkey Evolution - deep gold with light lush edges

Five Towns Niamh's Nemesis - light looking, heavy punching hoppy IPA

Old Spot Spot O' Bother - festival-winning chocolate and cocoa joy

Atomic Firebox - Chili? Pineapple in warming chutney lumps.

Potbelly Captain Pigwash - washy indeed, thin compared to Beijing

Dowbridge Bomum Mild - inoffensive, unobtrusive. So, a good mild.

Bragdy'r Nant Monkey Nells - Some easy-going chocolate. Not bad.

Monty's Sunshine - eh? Less-than-sorbet flavours here.

Malt B Smarties' Night Porter - Washy coffee; where's the richness gone?

Brewdog Devine Rebel - Too much, too young. Needs ageing.

And, as for the pint of Brewdog V2009... Sticky and harsh. Three months more?

All this beer drinking detracted rather from my socialising. So, apologies to Andy Sales for never getting round to catching up with him for a chat and a photo as promised. Apologies too to the Young CAMRA Collective, having promised Brad I'd be over to say hello I never quite made it to the other side of the hall. Except for a curry (hint; vegetable curry at the fest is better value than meat. Still good and spicy and you get plenty of it).

Of course, I still found time for a pork pie; well, two actually, as the first one was cut into quarters and disappeared between the gannets round the table. Cheers, guys! I then ended up buying a third alongside a delectable Stilton cob for the short journey home

Beer of the day? Five Towns Niamh's Nemesis. An assured, refreshing IPA whose light body belied the Cascades of flavour within. Admirable mentions to Old Spot Spot O' Bother and Bollington Oat Tom too.

So, is Leiester beer festival a marriage made in heaven? Well, it offered something old (Jaipur), something new (Five Towns), something borrowed (Bonum being Latin) and something Blue Monkey. I'd say that was close enough. Though with all that beer and lashings of curry at the top table, I'd have to take pity on the poor bride....


Twenty questions

Not been working on the site much recently. So here's a gentle segue back into the swing of things - a twenty-questions-thingy that I picked up over on the beermerchants blog.

my perfect day would begin with…

warm sun flooding through the window, the sound of birdsong and/or breaking waves, the aroma of frying bacon and freshly brewed coffee and the contentment that comes from knowing you have a day where you can do as you please.

the most beautiful beer region I’ve visited is…

Derbyshire. Rolling fields, limestone valleys and misty moors all studded with microbreweries.

if I wasn’t into beer I’d be a…

sadder but thinner person

the last bottle of beer I drank (not just tasted) was…

Lost Abbey Judgment Day

my favourite beer hangouts is/are…

the cellar bar of the Flowerpot, Derby, on a Sunday afternoon (hot beef and mushroom cob, several pints of Headless, the papers and an occasional blast of Pearl Jam)

the garden of the Royal Oak, Ockbrook, after a bracing walk (steaming boots, good Derbyshire beer and a Stilton cob)

anywhere in the Valley of Beer, Sheffield, when I fancy a change of scenery and a bit of banter

my cellar is mostly composed of…

dusty bottles of Rogue, shelves of Thornbridge barrel-aged, assorted Brewdogs and half-empty selection boxes from

if you were coming for dinner I’d cook…

beef stew in winter, crab salad in summer

and to drink with it I would serve…

Thornbridge Ashford or Westmalle Dubbel / Thornbridge Kipling or Sierra Nevada IPA

and other dinner party guests would be…

whoever wanted to share a drink and a laugh with us

my biggest blind-tasting faux pas was…

almost vomiting my first-ever gueuze over the host

the blind-tasting moment I would prefer to concentrate on was…

the unalloyed joy of Cantillon

one thing that might surprise you about me is…

I used to be a facepainter

if I was a brewer, I’d make my beer in…

small batches, with love

other than beer, I have a secret passion for…

writing on the sole of my slipper with a Biro on a Saturday night instead of going to the pub.

my favourite holiday destination is…

North Norfolk. I drop down through the mental gears on arrival and stay in a state of merry sedation for the duration. Great seafood, great beers, cheerful people.

I think beer is great because…

"the only reason is just because"

the best movie or TV show of all time is…

Quick Change.

in summer in the garden I’d drink…

Thornbridge Kipling. Or Jaipur. And, hopefully, this summer, it'll be bottle conditioned.

my favourite piece of music would have to be…

Mahler's Ninth Symphony

my best bottle of beer ever was probably…

Thornbridge Saint Petersburg Whisky Reserve Islay Cask

I am currently (craving) drinking…

even more Jaipur

And if you fancy twenty really beery questions, give this a go.

The cartoon btw is by Leslie Illingworth, © Atlantic Syndication Partners and can be found alongside more of his work at the National Library of Wales website


Beer DIY: Derby-It-Yourself

Literally *some* people have asked me: just what do you get up to on those Derby rambling Sundays? Well, you wanted it - here you go.


For the record: Brunswick Inn, Brunswick Valour (damn tasty, BTW). Alexandra Hotel, Castle Rock Screech Owl. Smithfield, Whim Flower Power. And the sound of Midland Road, the A52 and the River Derwent. But not necessarily in that order.


A night on the 'Dog

A quick flit over to Leicester for the first night of their CAMRA festival. Just time enough for a couple of brews, so let's make them all from Fraserburgh's finest - six of the best by Brewdog.

The One Drank With The Curry:
Trashy Blonde, 4.1

Is this Peroxide Punk as was or something different? Clean, pale hops, kept the curry in check.

The One That Is Out To Impress: Zeitgeist, 4.9

Tastes more like a quenching mild every time I try it. Decent mild roasts are fairly refreshing. Need to get a bottle into the fridge and put it to the post-lawnmower test.

The One Where Silver Splits The Blue:
Riptide, 8.0

This just rolls... say it softly; Paradox is fine and dandy but the silky unmuckedaboutness of the smooth chocolateyness here stamps Epic Win every time

The One With A Hung Jury: V2009, 9.0

There's a floral cream akin to herbal sorbet before the hops exercise their full cones down your throat. Sticky as if hop-needy insects are genetically programmed to sniff you out and suck on your gums. Yet no over-alcohol; damn if this isn't closer to hopped wort, a body beaten back by puckering citric. It's either genius on a maturing horizon or a big fat fecking mess. Will try again tomorrow, natch.

The One That Wasn't Paradox Smokehead:
Paradox Isle of Arran, 10.0

Has a thick edge of sweetness on the turn that doesn't butter my parsnips. Does the Paradox yada-yada without the va-va-voom of Smokehead or Islay.

The One I Forgot:
Devine Rebel, 12.5

Shit. Here's a barley wine brewed with Mikkeller and I forgot to go back for it. But I can't remember seeing a cask label for it?!?

The One I Bought From The Offie Table:
Brewdog Storm, 8.0

Islay Casked IPA? OMGWTFBBQ elevnty-one. Will now have to have a 'nothing but Brewdog' weekend and drink this alongside all the other stuff I've collected in the last six months.

Time for bed. Serious curry eating, er, I mean drinking to do back in Leicester tomorrow.


The Session 25: Lager, lager, lager

So many things to see and do. Planned an article on this yonks ago. Now all I have is a fridge full of supermarket pale fizz, a few dirty secrets to spill and the insatiable desire to throw my hands in the air and chant "let your feelings slip boy/but never your mask, boy". Confused? Good. Open this in a new window and read more where it tells you to...

Let's be honest: lager is shit. It's a pitiful excuse for alcohol. Drunk from tins, drank by neds, sold in slabs, made in labs. It may have a rich history but it's been forcibly abducted by the English and had up the chuffer. There are amoeboids avoiding osmosis with passing cells just in case it involves this fizzy pizz of stuff.

But - you'll never guess. I love it. I fooking love it. There's my first big dirty secret smeared all over t'internet. I will happily cock my pinkie in the air and sample an oak-aged imperial stout with the best beer wankers of the world. But - sometimes - nothing compares with a pint of larger and a bunch of mates down the golf club.

Are you still reading? I'm serious. I love beer. If you've been around the site, you'll know that. I love artisinal brews, I love festivals with rare cask ales, I love bottles from far flung continents in outrageous styles.

Yet there's something ingrained in my beer history. Lager is the beer that was my first love, my reluctant partner and my wayward mistress. Ayingerbrau as a child turned me to cider. Whatever ended up in the snakebite as a student brought me half way back. Stella gave me an opportunity to piss my hard earned wages up a porcelain wall.

I've never been to Plzen. For me, lager is a big chemically mess. And I love it for that.

For me, this Session is about accessible lager. So I popped round to the three supermarkets within a mile of home and picked up a bottle from the shelf. Here, my dear topers, is the result:

#1: Czech Lager, Co-Op. "Premium lager brewed in Bohemia". An InBev clone. Worringly, "cleared using polyvinylpolypyrrolidone". This may make it suitable for vegans, but this "most interesting derivatives of acetylene chemistry" is somehow scarier to me than using bits of fish to clear a beer. But you know what? This gets the job done. Sweet bready nose, just a bit cardboardy, it still has a hop and a crunch in the end. Like the lingering granny who never left you alone in the lounge when you were trying to finger your first girlfriend, I hate this beer right now yet respect it for what it teaches me.

(Some would say it teaches you to drape a pillow over your granny's mouth and then Apply Some Pressure. I couldn't possibly comment.)

#2: Czech Premium Lager, Adsa. Looks like the last one except this has more floaty mould on top. I have to be honest - cats have left better odours behind in litter trays. It's unearthly sweet. Sweet, sweet cardboard. Perhaps I under-geared the aroma - it's cardboard with a diabetic urinary issue. The only good thing about this beer is my vicinity to a drain into which I can swill this effluent down. It's THE most unpleasant beer I've had in recent memory, And that includes Greene King IPA. Da truff, dog.

#3: Ostravar, Somerfield. Ah, the joys of non-supermarket-branded lager. No cheating, mind (what's all that noise, we'll have no cheating round here), Somerfield can't afford own brand and FFS THANKS because Ostravar is, ladeez en gintelmen.....

Lawnmower Lager.

BTW - as Katie White keeps suggesting to me, I do imagine all the girls, the boys, the strings and the drums, the drums, the drums, the drums.

Sweetbready yet still hoppy. Creamy and hoppy. Dry and hoppy. This does the job. Just like lager #1, here's 5% shit that makes you fuzzy whilst giving your taste buds something to toss off to.

And now we get to the real dirty shit. I love lager - that much is true. When I go to one of my favourite bars, a bar with three handpulled ales, including the sublime St Austell Tribute, I drink... Stella Artois. Now served in a vase with a stem. Want to know why I have it? Well, the cask beers are good, and I mean GOOD; well kept by someone who knows what they're doing and turns over enough to keep it fresh. But Stella... I've been drinking it here for years and it just... works! I arrive, go to the bar, don't have to order it coz it's being poured for me, sit back, relax, enjoy. I've had days on the ale (only miles away to brewery taps offering 16 beers) and then ended up here for one of their killer burgers and lashings of Stella.

Ostravar is - to be honest - the poor cousin of Stella. But, to be blunt, it's still a fuckign tasty bottle; I'd give my left testicle for something this good at the clubs I've been to recently for gigs.

So, there you go. Lager. Shit yet lovely. And I didn't even get around to trying Derbyshire's finest (er, only) county-brewed lager, Moravka. But that's what weekend rambles are for, eh, peeps?

Last words go to Underworld (although we all know that no words are necessary: NUXX is over-rated but still ingrained into our psyche):

"I just come out of the Ship/Talking to the most blonde I ever met
Shouting lager, lager, lager, lager/ Mega mega white thing"

And here endeth the lesson.


I ate all the pies

It's British Pie Week- apparently - so what better way of celebrating this thinly-veiled marketing campaign for JusRol pastry by ignoring their product and having a proper pie instead? And beer, of course. After all, pie without beer is like, er, any other food without beer. Pointless. With the possible exception of cinnamon yoghurt. But that's not realy food, that's just milk that's gone off in the vicinity of spices. Anyoldhow, back to pies. Mmmmmm, pies.....

Let's take a look at the ingredients. Pukka Pies are the choice of chip shop drunkards and canteen diners across the land. I was tempted to buy some taste-the-finest-special supermarket jobbo, but I can't resist a Pukka portion. Especially the black-tray all-steak version; after all, last year's Publican Food Report named steak pie as the best selling pub food dish, so it seems fitting to have one today. I'd have made some lazy mash (bake potatoes, mash them with butter) but I plumped for an even lazier version - Asda readymade with just enough cheese mixed in. And you can't have pie and mash without mushy peas, although at 47p a tin I'm assuming they were mushed by choirs of seraphim and cherubim wearing raw silk slippers stained with saffron.

Now the hard part, which beers to choose. Pints, definately. Something robust enough. I don't fancy anything stoutish, though. There were some bottles knocking around the back of the cellar from last year's trip to Norfolk... they looked as if they'd do the job. Fox Branthill Best seeemed big and bittery; Elveden Ale looked, er.... like a stone flagon, so I was assuming it would have big bittery insides too.

The Branthil Best was cracked open first whilst the pie was baking. I bought this at The Real Ale Shop last year, the malts in the beer being grown at the farm where the shop is based. It poured with a good, rough brown body and gave huge carbonation on opening. There was certainly a tasty malty wash to it with some nuttiness and fleeting oats eeking out. And only 3.8%; it carried a fuller body than I'd expect at this ABV. I was thinking about how those rich malts would work with the deep steak gravy in the pie. Sadly, I was drinking more that I was thinking and managed to down the pint five minutes before the meal was ready.

So I was forced to open the Elveden Ale. To be honest, I only bought this because of the stone bottle - when I'd put together a box of beer at The Real Ale Shop, this looked too good to leave on the shelf. It was advertised as "strong ale with a fruity aroma and hoppy finish" but - WOW! - it was so much more than that. A literally brilliant body, marmalade gold iridescence, a wispy white head. Then the most sublime melon liquour nose, sweet fruit salad edges, hints of strawberries near nettles, hop prickles in the finish. Only one problem with this beer - it was too good to enjoy with steak pie.

The beer was left to one side, then, as I tucked into a plate of pie-mungous lovliness. The Pukka pie had decent chunks of meat slavvered in a sticky gloop that may have been gravy.. but as it was tasty enough, it's best not to enquire. The cheesy mash was cheesy enough without being overpowering. The mushies were... OK, but probably needed a bit of vinegar in there to give them an edge. But it's great to have a Pukka pie that's not been sat in a chipshop hotbox for three hours, slowly steaming itself to death. The pastry had plenty of bite and the filling hadn't been skimped on.

To make things even better, once the nosh was out of the way I got to spend twenty minutes savouring the Elveden Ale. Tons of gentle melonish flavours, undercut with sweet citrics. Herbal notes too - couldn't nail which one, but it gave the whole beer a lift up. More Pukka's are needed with more beers. And I've just thought of pairing a fish pie with the Nelson-Sauvin-like Thornbridge Kipling. Can every week be pie week, please?


Ramblings: Leicester

I was almost ready for another Derbyshire ramble. Except that the weather wasn't great, I was knackered and my boots were still caked in sheep shit from the last yomp. Although I'm off to Leicester soon for my first major CAMRA fest of the year, I fancied the change of scenery so I thought I'd go and roll around a few pubs there.

All of my good city-beery days start with a Spoons breakfast. At 0915 I'm the first food customer in the Babington Arms, Derby, but the baked beans are still lukewarm; seems that Spoons specialise in barley baked beans. Hey ho. With nosh, tea and toast dispatched, I needed a beer to get the blackberry jam pips out of my teeth. I was tempted by the regular 99p pint - no, not Greene King IPA, that seems to have been 'coming soon' for quite some time. Here in the Bab it's quality; Wyre Piddle's Marco King of the Watusi is a reasonably robust bitter that was a favourite of the old soaks here even before the price drop.

Instead I ended up with a Reluctant Scoop. I was up in Lincoln late last year but saw no sign of brews from the city's first microbrewery, Cathedral. Here at the Bab they had Red Imp on offer, so I thought I'd chance a half. A deep brown body with a tight cream collar, it started sweet with an initially indifferent finish. As it started to warm, there was a hint of an odd fruit lurking; strawberry, perhaps? Plenty of inherent creamy bitterness made for a half-decent first beer of the day.

Turning 10am, the Bab was starting to get busier, mainly with old men hacking pleghm whilst ordering cooking lager and being bullish about the Rams' win over the 'red dogs'... so it was time for this Tricky Tree to leave. Derby railway station is in the middle of a rebuild, perished fifties concrete canopies being ripped out and replaced. In today's half-light the utilitarian greyness of the platforms makes the place seem emptier still, as if expecting the passengers and trains to provide all the colour.

At least I get to ride a HST to Leicester. A train that lives; the throb of the engine at rest, springs squeal as it wallows over the points. No fear, dear reader, I'm not turning into a 'rail enthusiast'. It's just that there's something about the roar of a HST compared to the nothingness of Meridians....

Into Leicester on time and a slow walk taken into the centre. Ten minutes along the mainly pedestrianised roads shows off a rich variety of architecture - Baroque blocks now split into offices and shops, the Venician Gothic of the old Leicestershire Banking Company, Victorian Gothic of the clock tower and Queen Anne influences into Silver Street.

Which brought me to The Globe. Quiet in here early doors apart from a couple of regulars. I love the feel of this L-shaped street-corner pub, nooks with odd benches and upholstered chairs, lino and flagstoned flooring, a wide bar for vertical drinkers and a couple of stools for barflys. I secured a broad table next to the bar where the beer choice offered no reluctancy for me; this is an Everards house so a foaming pint of Tiger was called for. I drink it rarely as the only Everards pub I frequent on a regular basis is Derby's Brunswick where they happen to have a beer of five of their own on offer...

This Tiger looked bright indeed in its branded glass complete with the beer's Cyclops profile. Sparking orange with a tight, uniform white head there was a sweet nutty aroma (perhaps just a little Thorntons toffee-ish?) with a first gulp countering with a dry malt and hop itch. In fact, the hoppiness surprises me. Having left the beer alone for five minutes whilst taking some photos, the hops almost leaping out of the glass on my return, an assertive rather than aggressive aroma. I liked the sweet creamy feel too, a great session bitter with balance rather than blandness.

The picture on the wall opposite was intriguing, framed labels of Everards bottled beers (Pale Ale, Nut Brown, Meadowsweet Stout, Amberlite Ale) as well as soft drinks. One of the labels was for 'Kiddiette', no idea what this is/was. If anyone does, please let me know.

Onwards to the Criterion where, for 1245pm, it seemed unearthly quiet. This two-roomed pub, current Leicester CAMRA pub of the year, has always been bustling when I've been there before. To be honest, on recent visits I haven't found the cask offerings that inspiring. I don't know if this is to do with Rugby Brewing taking over, although the award-winning staff remained the same. My temptation was to try a continental bottle from their reasonable range though they didn't seem to have any bottle menus out today. Their newly-imported Belarus beers were advertised on the blackboard (Krinitsa, Syabor, Bobrey) but instead I stuck to a pint of tried and trusted Oakham Oblivion. Certainly a beer in fine form, clean tasting with generous citric hops. I finished off my crossword, licked the last hop juice from my lips and kept moving.

The Swan and Rushes is only five minutes or so down the road - it's great to have a city beer crawl where the pubs are close together. A little busier in here, a bunch of old buggers around the bar, though the beer selection seemed to be suffering from the post-Tigers blues. It looked like the Leicester rugby faithful had hit the ale hard on the day before, leaving just four or five beers on today. Thankfully, one was a welcome scoop for me - let's face it, any new Oakham beer is a welcome scoop for me. The Heckler was worth breaking my rules for, a pint just seemed right. It was standard Oakham fayre but when standard is golden body, perfumed hops and soapy/itchy mouthfeel , then so what?

A few faces from earlier in the day came in, with the bar looking more like a middle-aged men's Sunday luncheon escape committee meeting. Beers were sunk slowly and rumours swapped as Dylan warbled in the background, something from his vaguely in-tune and not-too-sentimental era.

On then to Out Of The Vaults. I mean Vin IV. Which henceforth I'm going to call Out Of The Van. Busiest pub of the day, even though they were hardly hanging from the rafters. There were some quality scooping options here with goodies from the likes of Kelham Island, Belvoir and Elland but I was Reluctant to go without my usual pinta here, Beowulf Dragon Smoke Stout.

With the late afternoon sun slashing off the city council office windows opposite, it was a pleasure to revel in a dark beer as the sun began to fail. Twos and threes of studenty types and tickers came and went; I was happy to sit back, chill out and enjoy the beer. Dragon Smoke has that full on coffee/chocolate vibe in abundance and I gave in totally to its lure - another pint of Brownhill's finest was ordered on the basis that the railway station was only a ten minute stroll up New Walk and the trains were fairly regular. I stuck around long enough to listen to the two blokes next to me deconstruct an intimate relationship in an honest and blameless way. And so I had another pint whilst I was earwigging.

Eventually I had to pack in and drag myself back to Derby. The train was chocked full of students and day trippers returning from Laaaaaandan but I was more than happy to stand by the coach door with an open window and enjoy the fresh dieselly breeze. When you're almost leaning out of the window (don't try that one at home, kids), your lips take on a life of their own as they're buffeted at 100mph.

A final pint of White Feather at the Brunswick rounded out another beery day. It was certainly a change of scenery, though it's worrying to see such great pubs so quiet. I imagine things will be a little busier when I return to the city next week for the CAMRA festival - look forward to live reports and obscene photos!


Chocolate and beer: Thornbridge Brock and dark nutty stuff

It's the last of the Brock. Four days down, the last of the nine pints tasting as fine as the first. There's a latent choccie note lurking that spurs me into another pairing, so the chocolate bag is raided for something suitably dark.

I picked up a bar last week in Sainsbury's made by Seeds of Change. They produce a range of organic foods, including chocolate, and invest a percentage of their revenue into research and promotion of bio-diverse agriculture. Their dark chocolate with hazelnut and walnut sounded ripe for pairing with a dark beer.

The Thornbridge Brock is a smooth stout that seems to only have an annual outing. Shame, really, as it's impressively dry and lightweight drink. The drop from my makeshift stillage gave it a decent fluffy head and a waft of roasty chocolate. Kelly at the brewery had told be to ignore the 'best before' date, saying that a month beyond it would make for a tastier beer. And, he was right - the chocolate notes are deeper than I remember, seems to be a fuller body too... though of course that could be down to recipe-tinkering this time around?

A nibble of chocolate next. Fairly thin bar, the crunchy nut bits making for a good gritty, brittle feel. The chocolate reveals itself late on the palate, decent depth with just a hint of sweetness from the hazelnut. It's one of the most moreish bars I've tried recently, not so bitter that a row or two will suffice. I had to slow myself up, otherwise it would have disappeared swiftly.

These work well together, the cream edge to Brock starts dragging the vanilla out of the chocolate. The smooth silk palate of the beer complements that shard-driven dryness in the chocolate and coaxes out a sweetness that seemed to be subdued before.

Here's a first for me - still got half a pint left but all the chocolate's gone. I'm almost tempted to go open the bar I bought for my wife (milk with apricot and cashew) to see how that pairs up.... but I've got my eye on a tripel to go with that ;-)

And because one of you will ask... yes, the chocolate balanced on top of the glass *did* fall in, I *did* use my fingers to recover it and it *did* taste a little of beer. Mmmmm. Beer chocolate....