Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before

Marble. Oakham. Thornbridge. Brewdog.

Four of my favourite breweries. If a pub is serving one of their beers, that's probably what I'll end up drinking. Sometimes, there may be two of those breweries on offer. Very occasionally (like Derby's Flowerpot on a good weekend) there may be three to choose from. Rarely do I see all four together.

So the beer boards I saw yesterday had me salivating. A pub with six casks on handpull and another seven served on gravity straight from the cellar, offering a stellar lineup of some of Britain's best beers. The effortlessly-drinkable Marble Pint. A bundle of bitter fruits in Oakham Citra. Some lush, copper-hoppy goodness of Thornbridge Lumford. And the grassy-edged, toffee-middled, floral-riven experience that is Brewdog Punk IPA.

Drank in that order, with another sneaky Pint at the end, it was quite possibly the finest afternoon's cask beer drinking that I've ever had. In a pub that was comfy, clean, buzzing with friendly locals. And a ladies netball team. And a bunch of raspberry-cider drinkers wearing the shortest skirts and highest heels known to man.

So, that's a pub offering top-quality beers from my favourite brewers on a regular basis. With comfy chairs. And engaging customers. With a bus stop right outside. Three guesses where I'm going to be on a regular basis from now on...

The Queen's Head, Marlpool. And they have a Facebook page too. I'll see you at the bar...


Respect The Hops

I've been here before with exhortations about Russian River's Blind Pig. But here goes again.

Hoppy beers invariably taste better when fresh. When you get the chance to drink hoppy beers that have tucked away a few air miles, you ought to drink them at your earliest convenience.

So tonight, I will mostly be revelling in the humulus lupulus overload delivered by two US brewers; 21st Amendment's Brew Free! Or Die IPA and Captain Lawrence's Captain's Reserve Imperial IPA. The latter I had at the Great British Beer festival last year, indeed I drank it until I was decidedly wobbly. The former - well, Nico and Shaun's 'tasty crack can' has been something I've lusted after ever since hearing their Brewing Network ads. It's IPA, chock-full of six lush hops, all in a can. In fact, I'm chugging it back right now.

You got hoppy beer? Drink the mother-suckers. Your palate will thank you for doing so.

ps - the fresh fresh fresh bottles of Viven IIPA and Brewdog Punk IPA earlier on were all rather fine and dandy too. Thanks to Phil Lowry for the Belgo-US hop shocks and a yay! to Asda for stocking Punk and making my early morning shopping worthwhile.


Barrow Hill Rail Ale Festival

Barrow Hill in a nutshell; a beer festival held in a working locomotive shed. Sounds like madness? Well, there’s a fair few reasons why it works so well:

Only a queue or two – Well, the forty-minute queue for the free bus wasn’t too bad- it was a sunny day after all – although the bus-bores in front of me and the train-bores behind me left me wish I’d brought my mp3 player with me. What I now don’t know about exhaust parameters and the finer points of timetabling of 1970s West Midlands routes isn’t worth remembering. But at the fest, the queues for tokens were short and bar service was swift. Yes, even when it was Dom from Marble who was serving.

A really good foreign bottle bar – With the notable exception of GBBF, foreign bottles beers are often treated with disinterest or disdain at many British festivals. Here, the list was small but perfectly formed, with delights such as Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA for a hopshock, the De Molen-Mikkeller collaboration ‘Mikkel & Menno’ for a peachy perfume fix and Emelisse Stout for a roast explosion.

Liver and onions - Yes, there was real ale sausage. Yes, there was hog roast. But there’s something special about a cob stuffed full of just-cooked-enough liver and slippery fried onion. The sort of nom that ought to be available at more fests.

Local beer for local people – Plenty of beer from around the country was on offer, but with over two dozen breweries in the county they were right to showcase some of Derbyshire’s finest. Old favourites such as Thornbridge Jaipur vied for attention alongside new brews from the likes of Barlow, with all of the Derbyshire Brewers Collective represented. And there were some real gems; imagine a beer as complex as Mikkeller Jackie Brown but with less alcohol, so it’s more quaffable. That’s Ashover Mrs Brown, that it.

Smoke, steam and diesel – of course, the combination of heritage buses, working locomotives and real ale can bring out the worst kind of corduroy-clad saddo. But there’s something other-worldy about sitting on a wall in the blistering sun as two locos hiss and cough and chuff and splutter past you. And to sit in the compartment of a corridor coach, drinking beer with strangers as the train is pushed/pulled to the end of a non-descript cutting and back again, is surely one of the most esoteric pleasures at a British beer festival.

A brewer or two. Or three. Or more – It’s not unusual to find a brewer or two at a beer festival; professional networking, quality assurance and all that… So it’s always a pleasure to meet up with a few, chew the fat, put the world to rights and have semi-cogent conversations about flocculation. Perhaps. Janine, Matt, Kelly, Dom, here’s to you; it’s always a pleasure to share a beer with guys and gals who are passionate about what they brew.

Eclecticism – Sandal wearers who didn’t all have beards. Transport ‘enthusiasts’ and stag parties. Brass bands, R&B, impromptu a capella. Small brewers (Leila Cottage), large brewers (Fullers). Few festivals have this broad attraction. Barrow Hill had it in spades.

Ice cream on a bus – simple as that. An ice cream van is parked next to the bus stop. Result; me and Matt Clarke from Thornbridge, the last ones on, end up standing up, eating ice cream, not falling over, not depositing our cornets into the driver’s lap. The perfect end to a beery, sunny day.

If you were there, you don’t need me to tell you how good Barrow Hill Rail Ale festival is. If you weren’t there, why not? You’ve just missed one of the best events on Britain’s ale calendar. Just don’t miss out in May 2011!


Lines on the Occasion of a Grand Twissup in Burton

Twas in the year of 2010 and in the 15th day of May
Which the lovers of hops and malt will oft say
Especially those that visited the Twissup in Burton
“It was most magnificent”, of that they are certain

The meeting point was the illustrious Coopers Arms
Which was very full indeed of many beer-related charms
Although when a certain Scooper drank the last pint of Jaipur
Many in the queue behind we heard to say “Oh No!”

An ascent of the Shobnall Maltings tower was then expedited
From there the whole glorious town of Burton could be sighted
The breweries, the Town Hall, the Coopers Shopping Centre
And several ale establishments into which the group would soon venture

Off to White Shield Brewery where the inimitable Steve Wellington
Showed all his ‘old faithful’ copper and mash tun
Later the feast of food laid out was indeed supreme
Although some fool laced his P2 stout with very clotted cream

With bellies full of beef dripping fried chips and sausage
The group strolled in the sun to the next brewery at Burton Bridge
Within the rosy-faced topers professed a fondness
Of Bruce’s Porter, Festival, Bitter and Golden Delicious

Many decided later to go forth on a ramble
Onwards to another public house, the Wetmore Whistle
Sadly to say, from reading what they Twit
It appears that the beers they tried were pretty well not up to the standard expected

Some hardy topers at the Burton Bridge tarried a while
Before making their way to a bar known as the Dial
A watering hole diverse; customers such as those not yet shaving
Accompanying women whose tans were sprayed on that morning

Ignoring the stares of those drinkers jejune,
Our Tweeters were soon all drinking Blue Moon
Many opted for a slice of fruit in their beer, an orange
Which from a drinkability perspective added immeasurably to the challenge.

As the evening wore on, the Tweeters drifted apart
With some travelling home to assuage their sweetheart
Others stayed to drink more Molson-Coors portfolio product
And fall asleep in curry houses, inciting rude group conduct

Success to the organisers of the Grand Burton Twissup!
For making the day flow smoothly without a hiccup.
Our thoughts now when on buses, on trains and at aerodrome
Will be on how beer dispense is shortly to be revolutionised at home...

With the merest of apologies to William McGonnagal


Twelve reasons why I love beer

Spending an hour or two in a pub with ex-pat friends; fat chewed, micky taken, gossip shared, frothy pints providing the perfect social lubricant

Sitting in a snug, the cricket commentary on the radio just loud enough, the crossword just taxing enough, the peanuts just salty enough, the beer just bitter enough, this toper just content enough

A lazy boozy afternoon with workmates, visiting pubs and bars I’d never usually set foot in, proving that good drink can be found in unexpected places; Belgian ale, German lager, Somerset cider, English IPA

Scooping with the greatest reluctance; twenty beers to try in Derby’s Flowerpot, four pints downed, all the same beer – the pith and pine and smooth caramel of Thornbridge Seaforth

Mowing the lawns because a cold beer tastes even better when you’re watching robins bounding after insects over freshly cut grass

Deciding that the only thing better than drinking a bottle of West Coast USA hop-bomb IPA is to drink three in a row. Blind Pig, Pliny, Racer 5; fresh, fresh, fresh

Tripping around London and grazing my jaw as it dropped to the floor - the opulence of the Princess Louise, Holborn; the contemporary cool of the Cask, Pimlico; the voracity for quality keg in the Rake, Southwark

Discovering that, sometimes, just one bottle of beer can deliver all the flavour, aroma and bitterness that your palate asks for at the time. 330 millilitres of Brewdog 5AM Saint; my prescribed dosage for an evening’s hop satiation

Sharing a pint with a brewer who is contented and confident; those qualities being reflected in his beers

Drinking local, hoppy, fruity, pale-as-maiden-water beers by a city river in the patchy sun, slowly demolishing a chip butty slathered in melting butter

Standing on top of a maltings tower in Burton-upon-Trent, trying to imagine how the town must have looked in its glory days; riven with railways and belching, stinking, fascinating brewing

Drinking brewer’s homebrew; boiled in a saucepan, fermented in a water bottle, un-named, unknown ABV, no style prescribed - just beer. Just because. The only reason is just because.

There's my last twelve days. One post. Less is more.

Why twelve? Well, beer is My Life Story


Give it away now

Warning: this post contains images of West Coast USA beer porn.

How fantastic does it feel when someone gives you beer? If you're participating in the Twitter beerswap, you know what I mean. You've bundled off a parcel of goodies to someone and in return you're receiving random beer. Unless you're the poor sod to whom I was supposed to send beer last year when beerswap first ran. And I forgot. Shit. If I can remember who you are, I'll pull a bottle from my super secret stash and send it to you.

When you meet up with beery people, there's often a flurry of bubble-wrap and bottle for furtive exchange under pub tables. Brewers and writers who want to spread the word, local beers that are common as horse muck to one man but rare as rocking hoss shit to another, or imports from far-flung shores that make their way around the chain.

Think of those great beers you may have been given. How you'd probably never have got to try them if it wasn't for some benevolent soul.

Now think how great it feels to be the one who dishes the beer goodies out.

We've all got good beer near to us. Pick up a couple of bottles, stash them in a bag and the next time you meet up with friends from further away, pass those beers on. Spread the malt & hops. You'll find it's contagious.

My good friends Scott and Mary Frost will be winging their way back to California soon with a selection of Thornbridge and Hopshackle's finest. Meanwhile, I'll be choking some of these beers down this weekend. Cheers, Frosties!


Review: CAMRA Good Beer Guide 2010

It's been in print for as donkey's years. It's crammed full of 4500+ pubs, brewery profiles and sizzling gypsies (well, two out of three ain't bad). But in this digital age, can the Good Beer Guide hold its own or will it all get pretty bitter?

Let's start positive. As a guide book, the Good Beer Guide (GBG) gets the basics right. Logically ordered for easy access (pubs, breweries and beers all in alphabetical order) with clear type and comprehensive symbology, the guide is easy to use although at 888 pages it's literally more than a handful. Mind you, as I'm not being precious about books I tend to dis-assemble  - that is, rip chunks -out of it so that I only have to carry around the county sections that I'm interested in. Having a myriad of authors - the many local branches who submit entries to this national guide - gives the GBG a homely, quirky feel that's a million miles away from some homogeneous guide-by-numbers publications that I could name. There's plenty of detail, often peppered with history and local flavour, routinely packed into the 100-ish words describing each pub.

Top marks for presentation and content, then. But the devil is in the detail. The GBG suffers the same problems that afflict printed guidebooks in general; the info is out-of-date as soon as its published. We're into May now and the Guide has 2010 on the cover but it was published in September 2009. From what I can gather about branch selection policy, the entries may have been submitted for publication as early as February that year. Surveying for those selections could even have been in late 2008. As summer approaches and guidebook sales are at their peak, thirsty topers may be relying on information that's eighteen months old already.

In fairness, the CAMRA website makes a stab at updating details but I fear there's been many more changes to opening hours and ownership than those reported. Perhaps there's the rub - although membership may be 100,000+ I suspect the active element who notify branch and national of such changes are very low in number. In the past, I've asked CAMRA to consider an on-line version that's more suited to updating but that probably won't happen for two reasons. If they can't get regular updates from some branches already, what hope do they have of keeping a web-based version current? And any electronic version would surely lower sales of the printed guide, putting a dent in the CAMRA coffers.

Selection for the GBG is an issue, too. With only so many pages to fill, the number of pubs that each branch can submit for guide inclusion is limited. I get the feeling that good pubs serving consistently good beer sometimes fall out of the GBG simply because it's not their 'turn' to feature this time around. A quick Google search of branch selection criteria highlights inconsistencies; CAMRA's National Beer Scoring System really ought to underpin selection but too often it's qualified by vagaries such as "a certain number of visits", "a certain mark for inclusion" and other factors "taken into account". I feel that a consistent, transparent selection process would improve the stature of the GBG and do away with the 'cronyism' accusations that are often made against it.

There's an easy way by which the GBG could increase the number of featured pubs by almost a third if it wanted to - scrap the breweries A-Z that takes up nearly 200 pages. With new breweries starting up on a regular basis and the beer ranges of all brewers in constant flux, I don't see the point of filling a quarter of the book with this kind of information. Yes, I know it's a good BEER guide but surely its raison d'etre is to identify the best pubs, clubs and bars serving that good beer. Websites like Quaffale and Beermad have far more comprehensive and up-to-date gen on breweries and beers than CAMRA could ever manage, so perhaps the GBG ought to stick to the knitting and just offer more pub entries - if the branches believe there's a demand not satisfied by the current quota.

The Good Beer Guide is an imperfect resource. Even so, like a knackered old labrador it still deserves space on the back seat of the car -  for the time being.

Thanks to CAMRA for the review copy.


Bottled Up: Marble Decadence

I love beers and brewers who seek to challenge expectations. Marble turn out a solid range of keenly-hopped organic beers from two breweries, one in the back of a Grade 2 listed pub and another underneath nearby railway arches. Their beers are always forward with flavour and style; sometimes, they take brewing to another level. Decadence is proof positive that world-class beer is alive and well and living in Manchester.

As with many great beers, Decadence has a history. First brewed in 2007 as a small batch to celebrate the breweries tenth anniversary and one-thousandth brew, Marble decided to rework the recipe in 2009 and bring the beer to a wider audience. Lashings of chocolate malt in the double-brew mash vie with berryish Willamette and stacks of the New Zealand hop Rakau to produce a complex imperial stout.

Bitter chocolate is undercut by something fruity - it starts off hedgerow-like and ends up more exotic, more plump and fulsome and passion-fruity perhaps. A coffee-wash banters with just a smidgen of salt, soy and liqorice before juicy hops turn the lactic tang into an ever-dryer finish.

The beer's presentation is as stunning as the flavour. Marble's in-house designer, John Macklin, wanted Decadence to look as good as it tastes and it doesn't disappoint. The intricate silk screen design caresses the bottle as it it were lace. Renowned Dutch brewers De Molen supplied the corks, which have been caged before sealing with wax to optimise the beer's cellar life.

The beer went down well with a steak pie when I drank it a few weeks ago. Dominic from Marble says it's a perfect accompaniment to gamey meats and rich stews. I think it will go with anything it damn well wants to. Let's be honest, any beer borne of a brewday where Metallica's 'Death Magnetic' was playing constantly is going to be chock-full of attitude. It's assertive without being cocky. It knows it truely deserves a place at the top table.  Decadence has escaped from Marble's arches and is now taking on the world - and about time.


Five Beers You Must Try Before You Diet

April's attempt at dieting was almost successful. Tuna pasta salad, good. Bananas, good. Shadow boxing, good. But then... eight pints around Sheffield along with a full Sunday lunch, bad. Several bottles of imperial stout with bars of Valrhona chocolate, bad. Just one more chunk of Stilton with a large pork pie and several pints of bitter, bad.

Time to get serious in May, then. But before I do, and seeing as it's Bank Holiday tomorrow, it's time for a few beers. I'd be surprised if most of this motley crew don't appear in the books that I'm currently reading for review here; Zak Avery's "500 beers" and Adrian Tierney-Jones' "1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die". I'm looking forward to seeing what they have to say about them. I'm also fairly keen on drinking the beers too :-)


I will not bow to any sponsor

"It's like people only do things because they get paid, and that's just really sad."

Table by Ikea. Coasters by Denby. Beer, glass and polo shirt by... err... the name escapes me.


Spitfire: 20 years of punning good fun

I've always had a sneaking appreciation for the Shepherd Neame Spitfire adverts. Visually arresting, the World War Two-themed posters and TV commercials have courted controversy at times but have stayed (nearly always) on the right side of the advertising guidelines.

This year, Spitfire is twenty years old and to celebrate it's been given a new website that showcases those classic ads as well as offering you the chance to make your own. Those spiffing chaps at Sheps also have beer to give away - a case of Spitfire could be yours if you watch the video below and spot which famous English landmark features in the film. Send your answer by email to

Honesty note: I received a case of Spitfire Ale in return for writing this article - that case will be donated to a Help For Heroes picnic fundraiser that I'm attending at the end of the month. Thanks to Shepherd Neame for their continued support of this charity.