Twenty breweries: Humpty Dumpty

When I first holidayed in Norfolk, I had straightforward expectations of the beer I'd find; classic English bitter. Adnams and Woodforde's sold plenty of it, I drank plenty of it. But some days, particularly the blistering hot ones, my palate wanted a little more zing. That's when I realised that beery happiness is egg-shaped.

Reedham may seem to be a sleepy village on the Norfolk Broads but Humpty Dumpty have been busily brewing there since 1998. Something that Stephen George, Craig Fermoy and the team have really nailed is a host of great quenchers - perfect for the end of long meandering Norfolk walks whether you're on the coast, on the Broads or tramping round Norwich on the tourist trails.

And they're Norfolk and proud of it. Their Maris Otter malt is from Teddy Maufe's famed Branthill Farm. They brewed an IPA in support of the Wherryman's Way long-distance footpath. They work the farmer's markets, they have a bar at the Royal Norfolk Show, they are fervent supporters of the village's beer festival. They may just be the hardest working brewery in Norfolk...

Why try? The lighter-ABV beers are thirst-slaking; the stronger stuff is proper 'feet-up-at-the-end-of-the-day' beery enjoyment.

What to look for? Those quenchers I first found, Little Sharpie and Lemon & Ginger.

Where to buy? Norfolk. Humpty Dumpty have a brewery shop on-site, the Real Ale Shop at Branthill Farm and Beers Of Europe stock their bottles, the Lord Nelson at Reedham always has a cask of theirs on. Then there's the farmer's markets at Aylsham and Beccles. And you may find some at the Berney Arms Inn - a pub you can't drive to but can walk, sail or take the train to. You'll be glad of a pint when you get there...


Twenty breweries; Hopshackle

Some brewers demand the centre-of attention, illuminated by the faces of smiling acolytes. Some brewers just get on with the job of brewing great beer. Nigel Wright is firmly in the latter category.

You get the feeling that if Nigel plied his trade in a city rather than Market Deeping, his beers would literally be on the lips of many more drinkers. But he seems content to meet the demands of the local market whilst venturing forward with wider distribution for his bottled beer.

Hopshackle get on and do what some brewers just dream about; re-invigorating classic styles whilst still forging ahead with hop-forward experiments. American-style ales, historic porters, robust bitters, single-hopped IPAs... no edgy marketing, no Twitter hype, just well-made, tasty beer.

Why try? Not afraid to experiment whilst paying absolute attention to quality.

What to look for? The Historic Porter is a complex mix of roasted notes, tart fruit and liqorice licks. For a hoppier hit, Resination takes on the Americans at their own game and offers intense bitterness tempered by floral, herby flavours.

Where to buy? Cask may prove elusive outside of the South Lincolnshire area. Bottles can be bought, including an excellent mixed case from Ales By Mail.


Twenty breweries: Fuller's

I can almost here the naysayers out there now. "But.... FULLER'S? They're a... a... BIG BREWER! IN LONDON". Well...Big Fat Deal.

One of my locals, the Royal Oak in Ockbrook, often has Fuller's beer as a guest. And we're about a hundred miles away from the brewery. In that bit between the M25 and M62 that is neither Darn Sarf or Oop Norf. And still the London Pride tastes fermenter-fresh. Head brewer John Keeling even came along one weekday evening for a two-hour 'Meet The Brewer' session. I applaud that commitment. Some of our local brewers wouldn't cross the road to go and talk to their customers.

It's easy for some beer 'lovers' to cock a snoot at breweries larger than a bathtub. I tend to concentrate on beer quality - after all, isn't good beer is where you find it? I like London Pride, I love ESB and I could quite happily drink London Porter until my extremities dropped off.

At Nottingham CAMRA Festival last year I stood drinking the cask Porter cask until my legs almost quit. I've spent happy afternoons in the Churchill Arms, Kensington, London, supping keg Porter as life's rich tapestry of clueless tourists and avuncular locals unravelled before me. I've stood outside the Artillery Arms, on the fringe of the City, loving Discovery with rogues and traders (not mutually exclusive). Great pubs, with great mates; great times enhanced exponentially by great beers.

Fuller's is the taste of London, wherever you happen to be drinking it.

Why try? To remind you that brewers of size can still brew tasty beer.

What to look for? Style-defining ESB and the gorgeous-however-it's-dispensed London Porter.

Where to buy? Bottles in major supermarkets, countless pubs across London and the south and one of my favourite haunts, the Old Joint Stock in Birmingham.


Lawnmower beer: 2011

You may have a lawn the size of a paddock or a postage stamp. You may edge with sharp shears or a clumsily-wielded strimmer. You may ride upon your mower or push the recalcitrant bastard up and down a slope that makes Carolina Cherry seem like a bowling green.

And you may ask yourself: why do I love mowing?
And you will tell yourself: lawnmower beer.

Sticky grass still on your fingers. The sun fading over next door's fence. And a cold beer straight from the fridge, probably not making it as far as a glass before you guzzle three greedy gulps. And then, sigh. Beery contentment.

This year's lawnmower be for me is Brewdog Punk IPA. Yes, it ain't what it used to be and it ain't as bitter and it's alcoholic Um Bongo blah blah meh. I know all those things. I've said all those things.

And I don't care.

In the way that when I spot a clump of stubborn grass that's sprung back up in the lawn's far corner, I don't jump up to scythe it down. It lives to be mown another day.


Twenty breweries: Dark Star

Some breweries make their name on the strength of two beers - one light, one dark - that become a toper's turn-to whatever the time of year. Others achieve it by a depth and breath borne of imagination, experimentation and collaboration. It took me a few years to realise, but Dark Star have made their name both ways.

Their Sussex goodies used to escape rarely into my Midlands drinking heartland. When - if - they did, it was one of two brews; Hophead or Espresso. And on finding them I would drink deep and long. For they were the fruitiest sub-four-percenter and the most-rounded-choc-and-coffee beers that I could drink. And you know what? They're still the best golden ale and coffee stout on offer, on cask, in the UK.

And there's more. Perhaps it's the pubs that now offer a wider range, perhaps I'm now drinking in better pubs, but the seasonal and special Dark Star beers are becoming a common site round our way. And what beers they are - none of your dodgy re-tweaked seasonals here but styles old, new and re-interpreted; saison, smoked porter, Mai bock, green-hopped IPA. Add in collaboration ales with the likes of Thornbridge and Kernel and it's clear that Dark Star are at the zenith of the contemporary English brewing scene.

Their new website is kick-ass too. And their clothing range is stuff that you may actually want to wear. Even me. Brown hoodie in extra large, please, if anyone's feeling generous.

Why try? The regular beers redefine 'regular beer' and the specials are, er, special.

What to look for? Hophead, Espresso Stout, Summer Meltdown

Where to buy? Consult their beerfinder; not only where they've delivered to but what beers and how many barrels. An outstanding innovation. And there's always the Evening Star in Brighton, birthplace of the brewery in 2001, which I will finally get to visit this year. Honest.


Reluctant Scooping: Leicester

Leicester is afforded special status in the Reluctant Scooping scheme of topering. It's where I drank my first doppelbock. My first Dogfish Head. It always offered a heady mix of ye olde traditional pubs and somewhat-leftfield bars. But it's been a couple of years since I was last in town. Does Leicester still love its beer? There was only one way to find out...

The Pub

Casks on offer: 12-ish
Potential scoops: 6-ish
Keg beer on offer: 12-ish?
Potential scoops: 2
Scoops drank: 0
Favourites drank: 1 (Brewdog 77, two pints)

Yes. It really is called The Pub. Before the owners moved across New Walk, their former bar (Out Of The Vaults / Vin IV) often served two beauties by Beowulf - Finn's Hall Porter and Dragon Smoke Stout. They're the beers I'd have plumped for if my eye had been on cask. But I didn't even look at the handpulls. Instead, I fancied something cool and just-so-carbonated as a thirst slaker on this sunny Sunday. Brewdog 77 lager hit the spot. So much so that when alcofrolicchap turned up, I had another pint of it.

The Pub is one of those long, narrow bars that looks and feels cool in an almost-trying-too-hard kind of way. I was content to go sit out in the sun, drink lager and watch the world amble by. I'll revisit their cask offering one day.

The Globe

Casks on offer: 4. Possibly.
Potential scoops: 1
Actual scoops: 0
Favorites drank: 1 (Everards Sunchaser, one pint)

I've always enjoyed visiting this multi-room, often-bustling pub in the heart of the city. Then again, I've always enjoyed picking lint out of my navel and flicking it at people on the bus. I don't come here for the banter by the 'characters' at the bar (read: shouting Sex Pistols lyrics with the emphasis firmly on the last syllable of "Pretty Vacant". I don't come here for a mediocre guest beer (lots of pumpclips of interesting ones on the wall, never seen them on when I've visited). I come here for a damn fine pint of Everards.

Sunchaser was the right side of cool - maybe it was the 'extra cold' version? It certainly felt more-than-just-cellar cold. Great condition, in its branded glass. Good beer, well presented. Whereas alcofrolicchap's Burton Bridge Spring Ale seemed to have sprung itself flat somewhat.


Casks on offer: difficult to tell
Potential scoops: ?!?
Keg on offer: six-ish
Actual scoops: 0
Favorites drank: 2: (Punk IPA, one pint; Augustiner Edelstoff, 500ml bottle)

The problem with the Criterion? It's like bumping into an ex-girlfriend; you both drifted apart, you both met someone new, now she's no longer the bubbly bundle of fun you once loved but slightly jaded and world-weary. You want to put your arm round her and chat about the old times but you both know it won't cheer either of you up.

This used to be my favourite pub in the city; interesting casks well kept, odd keg offerings at a time when there wasn't so much variety knocking around as there is today, a chunky bottle menu that became the syllabus for my Belgian beer education (intermediate level). Now the place seems to be quieter, the casks more predictable, the bottles scarcer. Alcofrolic and I enjoyed the last pints of the kegged Punk and some bottled Edelstoff outside by the giddy vista of the ring road. And I felt wistfully bitter...

The Font

Casks on offer: four
Potential scoops: none
Keg on offer: some-ish
Actual scoops: 1 (Stella Black)
Favorites drank: 1 (Stella Artois)

There's only two reasons we visited this bright and breezy student-centric bar. Hand-cut chips. And Stella Black.

The chips were chunky, hot and really potatoey. The Stella Black was a car-crash in a chalice. Worse thing I've had in my mouth since I chewed a verruca. I had to have a pint of, er, 'normal' Stella to get the syrupy gloop taste out of my mouth.

(Now is not the time nor place to discuss why Black is so execrable or why I'm still drinking Stella Artois. That time will be after I've had six pints of the latter one afternoon and feel like mouthing off ).

Swan and Rushes

Casks on offer: about eight
Potential scoops: some
Keg on offer: probably
Actual scoops: 1 (Dupont Monk's Stout)
Favorites drank: 2 (Orval, Cantillon Vigneronne)

One fine day, I will make the Swan and Rushes my first port of call when in Leicester. I will have a game of bar billiards, chew the fat with the bar staff and sip an Orval at a leisurely pace. Today, however, it was the usual last-pub-mad-dash.

An Orval slipped down quicker than a Manchester United striker in the penalty area. I think I asked alcofrolicchap how quick he could drink gueuze. A bottle of Cantillon Vigneronne was procured and drained in short order. That's all the beer I was here for. And well tasty they were, too. Though I did then find the time for a Monk's Stout by Dupont; it seemed a fairly plain-Jane brew, though to be fair my tastebuds had just been wrapped round the back of my ears by the Cantillon.

So here's another pub that seen some better days. It's been on and off the market for years and would really benefit from a period of stability. Having said that, it's got a well-worn-slipper feel about it, comfy and inviting. And the staff are great - knowledgeable, interested, amiable. The barmaid that night, Erica, was keen to try the Vigneronne and happy to chat about geuze. You just don't get that in many other places.


Scoops: 2
Favourites: 7
Verdict: Really Very Reluctant Scooping.
Beer of the day: Orval. Obviously.

There's still plenty of good beer to be found in Leicester. It's just a rather subdued scene. Someone needs to give the place a swift kick up the victuals.

Perhaps a Leicester Tap, anyone...?


In praise of farmers' markets

I love farmers' markets. Not because I'm a fervent supporter of low-carbon, organic-certified, local-hero produce. I just love damn tasty food and drink.

But the one thing that's often a let-down is the beer on offer. Maybe some slightly flabby bottle-conditioned stuff from a brewer who isn't really local but puts themselves around a lot. Perhaps some 'hilarious' Old Fart or Big Cock from Direct Beers, truely the purveyors of the "worst beers in the world".

Belper is just up the road from where I live and attracts a more eclectic collection of traders than the market held in nearer-by Derby. Coffee roasters, fancy mushrooms, duck-egg and quail-egg scotch eggs... and proper beer. Amber Ales have a stall and offer bright beer to takeaway in two or four-pint jugs. Now that strikes me as a sterling idea - especially when the first thing I want to do when I get back from the market is tuck into a long, grazing session with the stuff I bought so a cool pint of beer goes... just so.

Four pints of Amber Pale, now hopped with Santiam to give it a melon/peachy edge, punctuated a sunny Saturday afternoon of lunching, lawnmowing and laid back choons. I dare say it would have kept in the fridge for a day or so but when beer tastes that good, why wait?

If you know of any other farmers' markets that offer quality beer - cask or bottle - do let me know.

And if you happen to be in Belper, do pay a visit to Liquid Treasure. With the likes of Thornbridge, Orval, Saison Dupont and Jever in the fridges I hope we're in for a long hot summer.


Twenty breweries: Crouch Vale

It wouldn't surprise me if 'Crouch' became rhyming slang for pale and hoppy ale.

Since winning the CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain award in 2005 and 2006,"Brewer's Gold" has become Crouch Vale's flagship ale and the standard to which many new microbrewers aspire. Since 1981, Colin Bocking and the Crouch Vale crew have been supplying the South East with plenty of hoppy beer as well as a few darker delights along the way. But it's the paler beers that have made their name, being resolutely unfraid to use quality German and American hops to great effect.

Their seasonal brews often showcase hop varieties and are renowned for both their quality and their unpredictability; the website states that their offering is subject to change due to "ingredient availability issues and strange brewers' whims". Which sounds a perfect plan to me.

Why try? They're the very definition of pale, hoppy ale.

What to look for? Brewer's Gold, the rarer Brewer's Gold Extra and any of those adventurous seasonals.

Where to buy? Their heartland is Essex and the South East but as wholesalers with an extensive network the beers do escape across the country. Bottles
can be bought online from Ales By Mail.


Spring; sprung

Randy bird mating calls - fluid warbling. A recalcitrant petrol lawnmower being kick-started. Air temperature just the right side of cool. Magnolias opening their petals and showing their class. The whiff of fish & chips wafting from the kitchen.

And a pint of Whim Armadillo, sublime tropical, effortlessly drinkable, thoroughly incorrigible.

There are many great beer experiences in the world. But it's hard to beat a perfect pint of English cask beer in an English pub garden at the start of an English spring.

Royal Oak, Ockbrook, 1848, Thursday April 7th 2011


Twenty breweries: Castle Rock

The first beer I helped to brew. The first blonde ale I truly loved. The best pubs in Nottingham. Castle Rock are responsible for all of these.

The first beer was Large: brewed for a Robert Rankin fan get-together (to be honest, I knew little about the author but a mate of mine organised the brewday and knew I was keen to get involved). I can remember being covered in malt and I can remember the first four pints of Elsie Mo in the bar after. Just.

The first blonde was Trammie Dodger, a special for Nottingham Beer Festival in 2003, which later morphed into Harvest Pale, CAMRA's Champion Beer in 2010. Nectar. Sheer nectar.

The best pubs; Vat & Fiddle for a swift pre-train pint, Kean's Head for a legendary Scotch egg, Lincolnshire Poacher for the occasional Brewdog cask, Victoria at Beeston for peace & quiet.

Castle Rock beers formed a major part of my cask beer education. The monthly specials still keep me on my toes. And Harvest Pale: I may not think it's quite what it used to be, but you never forget your first time... and everybody changes.

Why try? The best brewery in Nottingham by a landslide.

What to look for? Harvest Pale! And Elsie Mo, the foreshortener of many a lunchtime session.

Where to buy? Nottingham. See the pubs mentioned above. If you see me there, I'll stand you a pint...


(I Wish I Could Brew Like) David Watts

I know exactly why I included 'David Watts' on a recent compilation mix.

"fah-fah-fah fah-fah fah-fah-fahhh..."

That was my internal metronome, just as I'm on the cusp of becoming a casual, when you carried the tunes in your head, before electronics inserted them in there for you.

"fah-fah-fah fah-fah fah-fah-fahhh..."

On the train home from London the other week, drinking good beer and thinking about how the UK doesn't have a cult of personality when it comes to brewers but how there is a fair chunk of inspiration / desperation / unrequited manlove within the industry... here's one for all the doe-eyed acolytes out there.

"I am a dull and simple brewer
Cannot tell gueuze from old ale
And I have never met Greg Koch
And I wish I could have all he has got

I wish I could brew like David Watts
fah-fah-fah fah-fah fah-fah-fah...

And when I lie on my pillow at night
I dream I could brew like David Watts
And lead the brew team to victory
Hit my grav readings and pass the lot

I wish I could brew like David Watts
fah-fah-fah fah-fah fah-fah-fah...

He is the head of the brewery
He knows his RIS from his IPA
He is so keen and fancy-free
And I wish I could have all he has got

I wish I could brew like David Watts
fah-fah-fah fah-fah fah-fah-fah...

And all the geeks in the neighbourhood
Try to go brew up with David Watts
They brew their best but can't succeed
For he is of pure and noble breed

fah-fah-fah fah-fah fah-fah-fah..."

muso notes - it's where the velveteen sentiment of Ray Davies meets the staccato punch of Bruce Foxton. I loved it then, love it still, and now I love it even more having found this video from the heady days of Revolver (any of you pop-pickers remember that?)


Twenty breweries: Brew Company

Brewing in Sheffield is not an easy business. The city has probably the most discerning real-ale customer base in the country; getting your beers onto the bars and keeping them there is a real challenge. You could buy a pub and so own your own outlet. You could brew house beers for other bars and pubs. You could walk the streets, speak to landlords and drum up sales that way. Pete Roberts of the The Brew Company does all three.

And whereas some Yorkshire brewers are content to just tinker with recipes to provide endless ticker-friendly variations of the same beer, The Brew Company are prepared to be bolder. Single hopped showcases, seasonal specials, brews inspired by travels and trains of thought... they like to produce assertive beer with character and flavour. Their brews run through the city's 'Valley Of Beer'; house beers for one of the best known bars, specials at the scoop-tastic pubs plus one-offs at their own place (the Harlequin).

Such demand is proof positive that, even in a city the size of Sheffield, there's more than one way to skin a cask...

Why try? Quality regulars and adventurous specials

What to look for? Hop Ripper or St Petrus Stout

Where to buy? House beers and specials at the Harlequin, Devonshire Pale at the Devonshire Cat, many Sheffield pubs stock regular and/or seasonal brews


Twenty breweries: Brewdog

Brewdog = Marmite.

I can't think of any other British brewer that polarise opinion in the way that Fraserburgh's finest do. Stoats stuffed with freeze-distilled beer. Dwarfs protesting outside Parliament. A Bar With No Cask. Never backwards at steamrolling forward with PR that complies to the law of contrary opinion.

Plenty of mouth is one thing. Do they have the brew trousers to match? Well, in four short years their beers have passed into the lore of British New Wave Of Hoppy Brewing. The steady hand of Martin Dickie has pushed Punk IPA and Riptide to the fore as worthy competitors to Jaipur and St Petersburg as brewed at his former employer, Thornbridge.

With an assertive export programme, ceaseless experimentation with ingredients at both extremes of the ABV spectrum and their own bars starting to bloom, Brewdog may or may not be forging a 'craft beer revolution'. Call it what you will; as long as you can call the end product 'damn tasty beer' then I'm behind them.

If only I could persuade James Watt that a beer actually brewed with Marmite might work...

Why try? Leftfield brews that you can't fail to have an opinion about.

What to look for? Punk IPA, 5am Saint - both on keg. And Paradox, the whisky-aged stout.

Where to buy? Their own bars and website, plus a host of top ale pubs and bars such as the Sheffield and Euston Taps.


The Warmest Room

The old house had a larger garden, which was both a treasure to behold and a pain in the arse. Half an hour's lawnmowing felt like worthy work; goldfinches and greenfinches brought a certain vibrancy to the place. But there was always a border to be weeded, a bush to be trimmed, an edge to be tidied.

Nowadays in the new place there's more traffic noise, a postage-stamp lawn and a still-to-be-steam-cleaned patio. I can hear plenty of birds but they don't seem to want to stop over. Perhaps it's the magpies close by. Perhaps it's because there's a dead blackbird on the garage roof. But the sun room is south-facing, the hydrangeas look healthy and that patio will make for a decent BBQ space later this month.

And some things never change. It's the warmest day of the year so far and I'm sat in the warmest room, overlooking the garden with a cold beer. Bridgeport IPA is full of sticky bitter citrics, has a wildly aromatic nose that dies violently and just enough marmaladyness.

To everyone in the UK who, when the sun came out today, automatically thought of sitting back and enjoying a beer - here's to you.


The Session #50; What makes me buy beer

Wracked as I am with the sort of snot that could glue a tuba player to the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall, it's batter up time. It's the Session. It's the fiftieth Session.

What makes me buy beer?

Let's keep this simple, folks.

Habit - which I flogged to death a while back. I love those regular beers in regular places. Many of which have become regular beers through...

Stupidity - which fuels the purchase of terrifically imbalanced, blunt-tasting, limited-release-for-a-reason beers. Often at the behest of...

Drunken bullies - who are often found in pubs and bars I frequent - Oi! Johnson! Do as you're told, drink this and bloody enjoy it. Or moreso in recent times on...

Twitter - which lets me know what brewers are brewing, what pubs are serving, what drinkers are drinking and the happy confluence of a great beer on sale in a great pub being enjoyed by great people. Or perhaps it's an odd bottle available from an online store ; come on down...

Phil Lowry - who, with his beermerchants hat on, is responsible for me trying my first ever US West Coast beers and craft Italians, for convincing me that little-known Belgian brewers like Viven are world-class and for feeding my gueuze habit.

And so it goes.

My medication beckons. Nurse, the screens!