Thursday, 21 December 2017

A refuge

What's in a pub that makes it a pub?  There are hundreds of odes to the warm, inviting local, a shelter from the tumultuous skies of life, a welcoming place to anchor yourself to in the aftermath of a bad day. There are pubs as worn as your oldest pair of docs and there are pubs with doorhandles bent to the shape of your grip. There are pubs refurbished and awkward and eager to please and there are pubs that threaten to close at 11 but never get around to doing it. All of them have their own minor impact in our lives as beer drinkers.

One day recently, the hours passed with a tragedy each. Nothing worked, everything was stressful and I was too far from my sofa. No matter how awful I felt, my bad luck was eclipsed over and over again, by the awful misfortunes of others. Christmas is a hard time for many and this is starkly apparent in London where we were for a weekend, stopping on each corner to give change to those without a place to sleep, wishing them well, hoping they'd afford at least one pint somewhere warm that day. On the last day, when a person was hit by the train we were due to travel home on, the second poor soul to meet this fate during my short trip to London, it became a bit too much to bear. The thoughtless overheard conversations of irritated commuters aimed at this unknown individual sent the early afternoon into a spin. I realised I don't have a single good memory based in Euston Station. We left quickly in search of a pub. It's what we do.

I don't want to talk about a quick sit down somewhere disappointing to quell a panic attack. Let's skip forward two hours.

We stepped off our alternative train in Leeds. Working in the Wetherspoons in the train station during my uni years means the dead centre of the city feels like looking into the creases of a friendly face, no matter how many revamps and rejeuvenations it goes through. I made a promise to come back soon before we even left the station. It's a ritual, I never keep it. Leeds and I are growing further apart by the day. One day I'll have to admit that I'm no longer a local.

Ignoring the new pedestrian layout, I strode confidently to a place I knew would comfort us, Tom towed behind in my wake of enthusiastic, know-it-all buoyancy. I had forgotten the side-street I needed to find it, knocking my confidence slightly, but after a U-turn and a look at Harvey Nick's Christmas displays, there it was, our temporary port - Whitelocks. A white building in a flagstone yard, standing exactly as it did when it was known as the Turk's Head a hundred years ago or more. It was as if it didn't realise I'd not been back since I'd last taken my empties to the bar some three years ago. Sometimes it's jarring to realise the world carries on without you.

Bustlingly busy, but nowhere near intimidating or loud, Whitelocks remains one of the most actively welcoming bars you could visit. Not a single familiar face stared back at me - it has been three years after all - but people moved to accommodate us and our clumsy overnight rucksacks.

We ordered halves - we only had twenty minutes - and I chose Leeds-based Eyes Brewing's Barbe Rouge. Intriguing branding (I work in marketing) sold it first, but learning that the brewery's mission statement is to continue a foray into wheat-focused beers brewed in the UK made me warm to them even more. I like a USP. (Did I tell you I work in marketing?) Despite not being on the "current beers" list at the brewery itself, the beer tasted fresh enough and had a pleasant pepperiness, underlining a classic Belgian white ale style.

As is always the way when you're drinking to a short deadline, our house floated into view just over the horizon. No time for another. We had to head home.

Why am I telling you all this? I suppose I wanted to try and put into words how I choose the pubs I love. For me, the measure of a pub is in its comfort. A place I feel able to walk straight into ranks much higher on my ratings list than a place that's overwhelmingly unfamiliar. A pub should be somewhere you can step into and feel undeniably relaxed, no matter what rarities they stock, no matter their famous clientele, no matter which fashionable postcode they sprang up from. I can be in another town, another country or on the other side of the world and my pub requirements remain the same - to be welcome, and to be comfy. I'm sure I'm missing out. But what if I told you I didn't really mind?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Kirkby Lonsdale's got a tap room!

Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery has a tap room. Did you know that? I didn't. I go to Kirkby Lonsdale pretty often - maybe twice or three times a year, maybe more if it's a good summer and we want to look at the bikes - and I had no idea.

Kirkby Lonsdale is a place I love. A small town, tiny really, it sits on a meandering curve of the River Lune next to the borders of North Yorkshire and Cumbria, and was in fact part of the ancient county of Westmorland once upon a time. This means it's in the best place in the world - my homeland. The Lune valley is consistently beautiful and whether you're looking into the peat-tannin water rushing under Devil's Bridge or walking alongside the Crook and Bull Beck in the full force of a rare 28 degree August day, it's the type of place that feels like it's doing you good, somehow, right down into your bones.

Nostalgia is a helluva drug.

Grey day, still lovely.
I decided to take a new friend on a walk beside the river to Kirkby Lonsdale to show her my childhood stomping grounds. From Tennessee, I'm fairly certain the rivers and forests she knows are far more exciting and astoundingly beautiful that the sleepy Lancashire ones I know, but Ruskin's View is pretty nice and worth the short haul up the hilariously-named Radical Steps. She agreed, you'll be happy to know.

After the usual mooch around town (and to the Army surplus shop, obviously) we tried to think of a place to eat cake, and that's when we came across the sign for The Royal Barn.

Inside an imposing door with an upbeat handwritten sign stuck to it, the place is a beautifully restored barn, once part of the large coaching inn behind. Oiled wood beams sit mellow and cosy over raw limestone walls and artfully-placed "found" items - a cartwheel, a huge old pub sign, milk crates used as ingenious little shelves. I really liked it.

What really welcomes you in is the smell. Over in a far corner sit three gleaming tanks, including one glorious copper-topped mash tun, doing their job quietly and diligently, pumping out vigorous malty smells. Occasional plumes of steam gave a pleasantly industrial feeling about the place, as though you weren't skiving off but actually part of a very important day's work.

The bar itself is pretty. Two rows of cask pulls offering the full range of Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery ales and two cask ciders sit in front of an impressive range of bottled beers - including several Schlenkerla Rauchbier - and then on top of that, a row of keg taps for an ever-changing flow of craft choices. Oh, and there's a bunch of gins they bring out on ticketed gin nights and a good coffee machine. I particularly liked the keg taps because they had objects on them rather than badges - a camera, a bike pedal, a cog. Again, winning me over with industrial appropriation. According to the friendly barlady, the tap room has been open for about a year, but took around four years in the making. Chalk signs around the bar top talked me into a pork pie with piccalilli.

Sat with a pint of Ruskin's Best Bitter my friend laughed at me because I apparently was smiling like an idiot. What I enjoyed was that, clearly, even a small place like Kirkby Lonsdale has an appetite for a tap room. Even Kirkby Lonsdale has the space for interesting tastes and even a small maker like Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery has the bravery to say "fuck it" and do it with new artwork, high ceilings and reclaimed furniture instead of tartan armchairs and brass stag heads. We know we live in the countryside. Please, no more brass stag heads. It's made me excited for the future of bars and beer in rural communities up here in the North, where places like this aren't welcomed as you'd expect they might be. Especially, it has re-ignited a not-so-secret dream of my own. Time to dig out that old business plan.

I am bad at taking photographs but I promise I'm going to practice and get better.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Unlikely Pubs I have Known and Loved: The Sunset Lounge, Blackpool

The Irish Sea spreads out into a vanishing horizon, no ships, no land, no pointed fins breaking the surface in an exciting moment of man-meets-beast. Just endless waves rolling quietly to a stop against the flat sand and sloping concrete of Blackpool's promenade. On a clear day, ridges of wind turbines line the glistening grey of the distant sea but today, there's just the mottled, overcast water of an average Lancashire Saturday. It's the emptiest place in town, the one place in this overcrowded, garish, unrepentant tat market that offers an almost 180 degree view of nothing.

The view from North Pier
If it wasn't for the piers, particularly North Pier, Blackpool wouldn't keep drawing me back. Sat stoically but lost in age and welcoming bored strollers in all weathers, it's a place in-between places. A non-place. Behind the arcade machines and under the polystyrene chip dishes are relics from a time when live entertainment over the sea was as exciting as going to the moon. Despite the tattiness, an air of dignity clings to North Pier like its patina of salt spray grime. It used to be a grand place to take tea and dance to organ music and if you ignore the wind whipping against your cheeks for long enough, the curled wraught-iron lamps could tell you as much.

© Copyright Gerald England
Maybe it's because I'm from a decrepit seaside town myself that I have such wilfully rosy observations about Blackpool. I just can't help feeling that as cheap and nasty and dirty and noisy as it can be, it's still, essentially, a destination for fun. At one time, mill workers would come to paddle in the sea, escaping their responsibilities for a week each year . Now account executives and nurses and retail managers fill those same gaps, spending hen dos and birthday weekends and Big Nights Out and family Saturdays away from the grind in bars and on the Big One. It's not Valletta, standing proud and mysterious on golden city walls above a shining azure ocean, but nobody said it was. This is Blackpool. Shut up and drink your Carlsberg.

What I like most about North Pier is the pub on the end of it. Walk all the way down to the bottom of the pier, ignoring the gaps in the boards, and you'll reach The Sunset Lounge. Protected from the sea winds and year-round bad weather by perspex and gloss paint, it's a huge expanse of a pub, and is nearly always mostly empty inside where the darts boards and maroon carpets are. Despite clearly being big enough to host two wedding receptions simultaneously, there are three toilets in the ladies' bathroom and the last time I was there, none had locks, toilet paper or a cushion for screaming into. I have never seen a single adult in the "pub" part of The Sunset Lounge. This area is for kids with red sugar dummies and Slush Puppy-stained t-shirts to hide under tables in.

Outside, past the bar, is the same expanse again but with a polished dancefloor that's always occupied. On a good day, you might be lucky enough to witness the true madness of the organ player, using a thousand pedals and a thousand keyboards to play the same song a thousand times, injecting a bit more speed and terror into each rendition. Insane organ music 50ft above the sea bed helps to ease you into the feeling that you've completely lost your mind, so several jagermeisters are usually recommended to help get the brain lubricated. Today though, a crooner with a Korg is serenading pairs of pensioners ballroom dancing on the parquet, CDs for sale, £7. Find him on Facebook.

The organist. Didn't believe me, did you?
The best place to sit is on a picnic bench on the fringes of the lounge. Near enough to the bar (which is always well-staffed by friendly young people who know exactly what this place is) and far away from the busy arcade. On a sunny day - yes, they happen - the Irish Sea becomes the Mediterranean and bottles of Birra Moretti come out. It's a glorious place to sit and drink. You could begin to think it was beautiful.

You sit on the benches with people who make you happy and you soak in the surreal atmosphere of mis-matched patrons letting their hair down on a tiny wonky island far away from Monday morning and you laugh until you cry. And when the bar runs out of bottles of the beer you like (they're doing better with craft but there's still not much) and you're sick of shooting Archers out of highball glasses, the sun has set and you've taken a thousand bad orange photographs, it's time to head to the Edwardian carousel next door. They let adults on if you're polite. You can scream as much as you want once you're sat on your winning horse, switching and play-fighting while you spin like you're the star in a chintzy Western.

This is a place you visit on a whim. This is a place for Buckfast in your pocket. This is a place where you will always feel 17, rebellious, out of credit and finally living your own life. This is place that knows how bad the world is, and refuses to take part. I wholeheartedly respect that.

Photo by Tom Strawn

Friday, 1 September 2017

Another Excellent Edinburgh

We've been visiting Edinburgh surprisingly often over the past few years. Without warning its sooty bricks and cobbled streets spooling down into the valley of its great craggy hills got into us, like a second home. I get cravings to see the castle lit at night from Grassmarket and sandstone shining with rain underfoot. I get secondhomesick after a few months away.

It's a small city, only 500,000 people live there, but I'm constantly lost. Every visit, I find myself in a new area, sometimes with marble and wrought iron, sometimes with allotments and gravestones, realising that this overgrown village really is an historic and grand capital city. My sense of direction is famously bad, but in Edinburgh, I switch it off entirely and enjoy the mystery. Thinking laterally is one thing, but coping with the 3D road layouts of a town built in storeys is too much to ask. I guess this is the reason that Edinburgh always feels like an adventure to me.

One of the best aspects of Edinburgh, without question, is the pubs. Whether it's about to chuck it down, the festival is getting a bit heavy or - my personal favourite - the frozen wind is burning your face and you need a place to melt off the sleet, there's always a doorway to duck into and a cosy place to set down a pint and sip a rum. Oh, yeah, I don't drink whisky in Edinburgh. There's far too much emphasis on stunningly well-stocked rum shelves in every single bar for that.

One stunning example of exceptional Edinburgh pubspitality is The Bow Bar on Victoria Street near Grassmarket. A small blue haven on the opposite side of the busiest pavement in town, it claims to have been established in 1987, but feels like it's been around forever. 

Artwork, bar's own

Here I tried my first local pint of my trip; a fun and zesty IPA by Campervan Brewery based in a garage in Leith. I like to think the name is a nod to the often-litigated Elvis Juice, but it was more easygoing than that, taking orangey citrus twists and involving them in really well-crafted cask ale velvetiness rather than setting my heart on fire with grapefruit acidity.

Tom chose Titantic's Plum Porter, which if you say you've not tried, I'm not sure I believe you. It's delicious, it's festive (hey, I get excited for Christmas in May) and its soft plumminess has won it about a thousand awards over the years. Now you've remembered how good it is, aren't you looking forward to Porter Season too?

I'd begged to visit and the plan was to pop in, drink up quickly and move on to meet friends over on the other side of town. It's not that sort of place. Absorbed in the calming atmosphere of gossiping old guys, gently rustling newspapers and gleaming brass, it would have been easy to spend all day here at our tiny table by the door. This is not a pub for plans. This is a pub for salted peanuts and stories. I took the opportunity of our first-pint-of-the-day contentment and the supportive surroundings of what I was sure was my new favourite pub in the world to quietly propose to Tom. It was a bit of a surprise to both of us.

A comforting room clad in dark wood, blackboards crammed with tiny handwriting and topped with an Amsterdam-brown ceiling was where I chose to pop the question. Safe from the crowds at the castle (which had the plastic arena seating for the Tattoo out anyway) and sheltered from the blustery wind of Arthur's Seat, here we were with our finished pints, hearts beating a little faster, nobody any the wiser. Thinking about it, it's not that surprising after all. I couldn't have planned it better.

What I also couldn't have planned better was to come back from fixing my eyeliner in the loos to this:

An excellent substitution for champagne. Tom says it's the best £18 round he's ever bought. My Oude Geuze Boon A L'ancienne was deliciously, lip-smackingly sour, a geuze I know and love. Tom's was the cheesily-named Mariage Parfait, a juicy burst of sticky cherry goodness with the dry straw-and-berries aftertaste I always associate with lambics. Quick to point out - not the fat, pampered strawberries you get at Wimbledon, but the sour bites you find when you pick your own, doused in vinegary funk under the aroma of farm-fresh straw (EDIT - which Tom informs me is actually brett - you learn something new every day.) It's a hard taste to describe and harder to convey that this description is actually a positive one, but it's the best I have.

After this we hit the festival, drank pina coladas from hollowed-out pineapples on East Market Street and headed to the Paolozzi pop-up under the arches.

Despite the oh-so-bellissimo name, Paolozzi is actually a Munich-style lager brewed by Edinburgh Beer Company. They say: "Edinburgh flair and Italian technology." It's certainly a lot more interesting than your standard lager (or the sound of technology-beer, which sounds boring, dubious and concerning) with distinct and satisfying maltiness and a fluffy head that stuck around for ages despite the plastic pint pots. I'd been after trying to find some since I'm a genuine lager/pils fan and when a man threw a flyer at us about the place, we ran for it, ducking men and women on stilts and dodging escape artists like our lives depended on it.

Fluffy head, faux lawn
Men on unicycles everywhere
Under the arches was a relaxing place to sit and chat and I hope despite its pop-up nature it becomes a more permanent fixture. It was fun to sit out on wooden pallets in a beautiful city surrounded by countless monuments, follies and architectural wonders and pretend I was in a cool but derelict part of Manchester. It somehow made me feel even more at home. I was extremely happy to see artisanal coffee vans on site too - it meant I could stay longer while everybody else nerded out over grind settings.

After this, we wandered the streets collecting comedy show flyers, ate at Wings (with chasers of Red Stripe) and got extremely drunk in Kilderkin down at the bottom end of the Royal Mile, a pub with a rum list that could floor a concrete pirate. I'm afraid this is where our first day's drinking diary comes to an end.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

When an afternoon turns into a weekend

One sunny Friday both Tom and I took the afternoon off work and rattled our way to Manchester on the straight-through train. Tom's my fella, if you didn't know. The straight-through train to Manchester is one of the reasons we decided to live in Clitheroe, but we hardly ever use it. This was our chance to prove we are Living Our Lives to the Fullest.

The weird thing about going to Manchester is now, it feels exciting. When once it was the city I lived in (okay, I lived nearby in Stockport, but back then Stockpot wasn't on the cusp of being cool so you didn't admit it) now it's a faraway land of cool places to eat and drink, people with envious tshirts and good bands. Thankfully, on stepping off the train, I soon spotted a familiar Paul Weller-style haircut, and relaxed. It's still Manchester.

Trainbeers - an essential part of train travel
We were ravenous after only eating jalopeno pretzels with our trainbeers, so marched with hunger and speed across town to Mayfield behind Piccadilly Station to Grub, an outdoor year-round food festival that I've long-coveted a meal in. If you haven't heard of them, take a look at their Twitter account. They're fun.

We were met by the friendliest security guards ever to wear hi-vis armbands, who handed us brightly-coloured leaflets and told us about all the food that was on offer. Tom had been apprehensive about the place - it does seem out of the way and a bit daunting if you're not keen on confidently striding into seemingly derelict buildings like I am - and this warm welcome was much appreciated. I decided to buy him a pint to further improve the mood.

Grub has a brilliant bar. I mean it. For an outdoor, pop-up sort-of place, I'd forgive them for having a few pumps out of service or a slight can shortage, since that's what I'm used to. Oh no. They weren't having any of that sort of thing. The choice we were faced with stumped us for a little while and when we finally ordered, we were off. I was so excited I spilled mine down my face immediately. Luckily it's the type of place that laughs with you, not at you.

So, the Kuwa Niwa Wit Beer by Derbyshire brewery Torrside Brewing (who brew right near the Swizzels Matlow sweet factory, how cool is that?) was delicious and the perfect start to my afternoon. Refreshing, citrussy (I got a limey-lemongrassy vibe, Tom more of a lemony-lemon verbena ting) it also had a moreish yeastiness, which I love. Shame I poured a third of it down myself.

We ate from a mezze stall called The Ottomen which quite frankly, was an obscene and salacious display of olives, dips, dolmeh and various flavoursome carbs, glistening unctuously in the sunshine. "We'll take it all," said Tom, reminding me why we're together.

After stuffing our faces with hummous, halloumi, flatbreads and various other delicious middle-eastern delights, we decided to move on to Beer Nouveau's tap room just down the road. Located in a railway arch, I was absolutely relishing the opportunity to walk through an industrial-looking urban area for a change. Maybe I was drunk by this point.

The first beer I tried was Beer Nouveau's own version of JWL XXX from a wood cask. "From the wood" if you're feeling like sounding fancy. Either way, it was in wood and it tasted great and set us up for plenty more pints of ridiculous beers brewed in Steve Dunkley's impressive DIY brewery.

A post shared by Origami Brewing Company (@origamibrewing) on
Another reason we'd headed there, on top of Beer Nouveau being a favourite of mine and wanting to drink in a railway arch, was that Mancunian newcomers Origami Brewing were having a takeover on "their" side of the brewery and I wanted to fully investigate. Origami are cuckoo brewers, and currently they are brewing their unique beers in Steve's space, which adds wonderfully to the friendly and collaborative atmosphere of that part of town. To continue the birdie theme, it was also nice to see origami cranes decorating the tap room to celebrate their beer 1000 Cranes. Clever, huh? Speaking with the whole team, particularly brewers Lauren, Erin and Pamela, it was clear to hear their passion and dedication to their new vocation and we couldn't help but like them all a lot. We spend a long time talking to them. We apologise directly if we (Tom) asked too many technical questions.

One Origami beer that stood out for me was their Raspberry Wit because it was a total head-turner. Easy to drink but with a decent hit of fruit balancing out the light and crisp twang of wheat beer style. I loved it. So much so that I forgot the time, drained another, got onto Steve's collection of meads and missed the train home. Not that we cared too much - we stayed until kicking out time, wandered into town and found a punk gig and a few cans of Red Stripe at the Star and Garter. In the morning once we'd slept it off we headed into the Northern Quarter for a restorative breakfast at North Tea Power  - amazing, make sure you visit - before heading back home late, but full of love for Manchester.

At the train station we saw the signs, and flowers, showing that love we felt for for Manchester stretches beyond even our own small valley 20 miles north. It stopped us in our tracks a little. We looked up to the small doorway where Victoria Station was still shut off and we silently appreciated our impromptu night out together a little more. Hey Manchester, you're the best.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Beer Talk with Steve from Beer Nouveau

In our small corner of Lancashire we don't often get to see the faces behind some of our favourite brews. Manchester isn't far away, neither is Leeds, but you have to get the train if you want to drink, and a train journey is sometimes all it takes to convince your group that you might as well "make the most" of being in a bigger city. Before you know it, your carefully planned afternoon of taproom visits unravels and you find yourself staring into a floor-length mirror in a shop you never wanted to go to.

So we brought one of them to us. On a very pleasant May evening, Steve Dunkley from Manchester-based brewery and taproom Beer Nouveau came to visit The Ale House, bringing with him a selection of his beers and a brain full of diverting anecdotes. It was good to see him in the pub, encouraging locals to try heritage recipes they'd normally shun in favour of hoppier carbonations.

He had a certain way of deftly popping beer myths, floated into the room by visitors and eager beer lovers, that I really enjoyed. No messing. No, Guinness doesn't use burnt hops. No, rum porter doesn't have rum in it. Pop, pop. I like a good fact.

The first Beer Nouveau offering I tried was half of Steve's Victorian EPA, straight from a wooden pin. It had been causing a bit of a fuss before I'd gotten there and was already the popular lass at the party. No problem, I was there to observe anyway. Served still and sparklerless, it had a really pleasant wineyness from the oak barrel, adding depth to subtle bitterness. Steve was keen to point out all these tasting notes to me since I'm an amateur and it was interesting to taste something from the past, recreated faithfully over 100 years later.

We then sat down in the bar lounge (the room with the blackboards in) to listen to Steve's lesson on the next beer I tried - the Beer Nouveau Rum Porter. We learned that in the past, this recipe was made using only brown malt. In 2017, brown malt simply isn't a thing anymore, so Steve's recipe recreation calls for pale and chocolate malt to bring about the right base.

Thing I learned: Porters are called Porters because they were what porters drank. I thought this was a myth. Turns out to be happily true.

Another thing I learned: Rum porter is not made with rum in the recipe. Traditionally, it was made using leftover rum barrels, of which there were thousands back in the 1800s, on account of the Navy's allocation of rations to its seamen. (I nearly wrote "employees" there, but you're all grown up enough to deal with the alternative.) The leftover barrels were perfect for brewing a standard dark beer and they even imparted a mysterious, sherry-like flavour into the liquid inside. It didn't take long for this to become desirable rather than accidental.

Steve took to brewing when he was 14, through a mixture of necessity and curiosity. Aged 14, he obviously couldn't buy beer, but he wanted to drink it. So, after buying his dad a beer brewing kit from Boots the Chemist for his birthday that went unused ("My dad is one of those people with absolutely no hobbies - except adoring my mum," he said,) the beer kit was used, the beer was brewed and it was alcoholic and disgusting. It led him to think about how he could do a better job without the limitations of a kit, and an interest for yeasty, malty concoctions stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The last beer I'll mention is the Trademark IPA, which I loved. A lovely spiciness with a hoppy zing, it was hazy, unfined, floral refreshment. Steve insisted that despite our queries, it wasn't based on an American pale ale, instead choosing to base it on a Scottish recipe, full of flavours just as robust as any APA.

Moment of the night: A diplomatic local talking a noisily disgruntled regular old gent into trying the Victorian EPA and the NDROG promptly agreeing it was excellent. His feedback on old ales from the 50s and 60s was no doubt valuable to Steve (or at least a welcome relief from his previous stance of ignoring everybody in the room and shouting his mouth off about peace and quiet.)

We're hoping to have more Beer Nouveau beers on offer at the Middle Earth Beer Festival on 16 - 18 June. In the mean time, I'm going to work on my tasting skills. If I left it to a person I'll leave nameless to teach me, I'd be describing the Victorian EPA as "cidery", which actually won't do at all.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Beer Nemesis

Boak & Bailey wrote a piece on their beer nemesis last week and I wanted them to do a series on the types of nemesis you meet in pubs, beer festivals, bottle shops and online. They graciously declined. I kept thinking about it though, wondering who mine might be, and the answer came to me over the weekend.

“Oh, you’re not having that are you love?” Says the doubter, taking a half-step back from the bar for emphasis. You insist that you are. He’s looking you in disbelief over the rim of his glass while he drains the last of his ruby red pint. “Not for me that one. Nasty stuff. Was sure it was off until he-” he’s jabbing his thumb at the owner of the small bar, “told me different.” The bar owner shrugs dramatically in your direction. There’s no convincing some people. You take your pint and sip it before the liquid settles, to prove a point. The doubter rolls his eyes, muttering something to his friend and you turn back to your table, packet of crisps and glass in hand, all the great things you should have said to change his mind filtering up to the back of your throat. It’s all very well coming up with frothy epithets once the moment’s over.

My nemesis is The Doubter. I work for a small pub in Clitheroe and I get defensive when I hear people slating beers that I enjoy. I lumber into conversations to try and change minds and win over the unready. Simon, the owner of the pub, has managed to turn his regulars into Neck Oil fans, which in our part of the world is no small feat. It’s on keg and not cask, for starters.

So it’s my own fault then, if I’m ever disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm for a particularly exciting single hopped or artfully-soured masterpiece. I bite every time, taking it personally, shooting looks at the men who dare to pass comment between themselves about my hazy, unfined beer as though there’s something wrong with it.

“Doesn’t it knock you sick, that?”

“It’s those ones that give you a hangover.”

“Cloudy that one. Not pouring right.”

There’s a certainty in The Doubter that their opinion is the only one. They know how each beer should pour and they know instinctively how it should taste. You can only protest so much. I spent my last night out at the pub convincing all the people stood around the bar to try one particular IPA (Navigation Kea - a stunner.) One converted, but four people were mad that I’d made them spend £3 on something less sessionable than they expected. I took the flack - my bad.

They still drank all of it though.

Friday, 12 May 2017

The Clitheroe Beer Festival

For the first time, Clitheroe Beer Festival has moved locations to Holmes Mill, or what's locally known as "The Mill", a huge renovated space on the edge of town, directly downstream from my house via the Mearley Brook. If I had a dinghy, I could float there. As it happened,  I don't, so I walked.

This is my friend, the lovely Jason @dappercellerman who happens to be the bar manager at Holmes Mill. He and his loyal crew have been tapping and venting and prepping and testing and pouring and cleaning all week to prepare. It was him who kindly popped my name on the guestlist so I could have a sneaky peek at what was to come.

Aside from me there was a selection of local pub and brewery owners, loyal CAMRA members and other special guests upstairs in the very nicely decorated beer festival area.

I spoke to Bowland Brewery brewer Simon Gill (the guy on the right in the picture above) about the mill and hosting the festival. He poured me my first beer while I got my notebook out.

Beer 1: Deeply Vale Deviant DIPA - 6.5%
I started my evening with a DIPA because why not? I was massively impressed with this. Really pleasantly bitter with a sweet note that doesn't overpower - I often say (nobody agrees) that DIPA juicers tend to taste a bit overly rotten-fruity to me. I think I'm a bit sensitive to it. Anyway, Deeply Vale swerved that and also managed to hide the strength too. After a third of a pint I was very enthusiastic about whatever it was I was talking about.

Simon told me that he brews on Bowland's smaller kit. The brewery moved to the vast expanse of Holmes Mill around 18 months ago and once they re-perfected the recipes in their core range to suit the massive new fermenters, they let loose on some more experimental projects on a tinier scale. It's Simon's hope that more creative beers take off in the area, encouraging more of the local drinkers to try something new.

"I'm looking forward to using the freedom we have now on the smaller kit and seeing what we can do with it," were his words, I'm pretty sure. I wrote them down when he dashed off - he'd insisted on running to the brewery to grab me a taster of new brew Hypnotic Hopnotic (4.5%), the light and refreshing creation of Craig, the brewery's production manager.

"We're looking to can special editions to show off the creativity of the brewers here starting this year. And Lagers! I'm hoping we can start to brew a world-class lager too." Something for Alec Latham there, perhaps.

It's nice to hear a local brewery that's so ubiquitous, at least within the Ribble Valley area, is allowing its talented brewers the space to experiment. I look forward to tasting some of their wilder things later this year.

Beer 2: Roosters 24/7 - 4.7%

Famously hoppy and delightful, I didn't actually ask for this one but you can't really argue if a brewer brings you a beer to your table with a wink. I've had it in cans before but this cask version actually did taste lovely and fresh, pulling out even more juicy dryness (is that something that can happen?) with a nice smooth finish. Big fan.

At this point a CAMRA couple shuffled along the table to join me, under the subtext of borrowing my pencil. I'm not normally a pencil-user, but my phone was running out of battery and I needed it for the camera function because I'd left my Olympus' memory card at home. Quality reporting as ever. So, scribbling ostentatiously with a pencil in a notebook like some sort of antiquated scribe, I drew attention to myself. The couple wanted to know what I was doing and which beers I liked. They were a quietly interesting pair, well-dressed and faintly awkward in a room of mingling industry-types and acoustic guitar music. Likeable. I, of course, returned the question.

Wife: It's a lovely space here. I enjoy my blonde beers and it's good that there are so many of those. Yes, I stick to my blondes, nice and light.
Husband: I love an IPA. Not too strong though, I don't like the very strong ones.

They both used my pencil to write their choices of winning beers on competition entry slips, keeping their answers very secret, and then left for home.

Beer 3: Heavy Industry Electric Mountain - 3.8%

How could I not gravitate towards a beer named after a hydroelectric power station and visitors centre? As a sessionable bitter, it was actually quite outstanding. Cask bitters usually leave me a little cold, but there was enough zip and zing in this to keep me interested.

At this point I was interrupted by men, who wanted to talk to me about brewing beer. I enjoyed their company for another twenty minutes, in which time I learned a lot about them but I'm not sure I introduced myself in the end. It doesn't matter, they were both quite polite. Either way, I blame the pencil once again for attracting undue attention.

When I could get a minute, I slipped to the bar.

Beer 4: Se7en Brothers Stout Porter - 5.2%

I'm just going to transcribe my notes faithfully for this part, as I'm sure I knew what I was on about at the time.

Beautiful. Smooth and toasty, chocolate in waves with a bit of coffee. Not enough to think "ooh, this is very coffee-y" but enough to warm you through. I know I like it.

So it's fair to say it was a hit.

Then, because I was getting tired and a bit hungry and I felt like being a menace, I ordered my next beer and got Jason over to break into the conversation a bit.

Beer 5: Wishbone/Elusive Brewing Parallax IPA - 7.5%

"Go wild, then go home!" I said, and a guy at the bar gave me an approving pint-lift. I'd been recommended this as soon as I walked in, and I wasn't disappointed. Complex and sweet with a bitter finish, I've written "strong and you know it". Let that be a warning to you. I called a man out on his beer kit exaggerations (I think the word I used was "BUSTED!"), shook hands because they had been nice people, and strolled home, stopping for a battered sausage and curry sauce supper. All in all an excellent evening.

The Clitheroe Beer Festival is an annual mainstay in our small town and this years' takes place on the 12th and 13th May at Holmes Mill, Clitheroe.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Earning it

The Lake District is one of my favourite places in the world. I say that about a lot of places, but the Lake District really is at the top. I spent the first ten years of my life in Morecambe, and if you've been to Morecambe, you'll know that its most redeeming feature is the stunning views of the South Lakes from over the bay (plus the sunsets which I will always maintain are the best in the world, no competition.) From that viewpoint, there's a ridge of knobbly pikes that stick up just a fraction higher than the first layer of rolling hills of South Cumbria and on a good day, you can see them. Those are the Langdale Pikes.

Great Langdale is one of my favourite places in the world. Driving up through the Yorkshire Dales (one of my favourite places in the world) with its macho flat-topped giants and weather-grizzled limestone turrets, the distinction between the two neighbouring counties becomes ridiculously exaggerated. In contrast, Great Langdale is a magnificent ice-cut valley littered with Herdwick and uniquely beautiful drystone, with huge and handsome mountains rising up in greens and slate from the ground in a 360 degree panorama. Up close, the Langdale Pikes demand a bit more reverence. And then there's the pubs.

Walking in Great Langdale is handy, because most routes end at a good pub. If they don't, it's not much of a stretch to make sure they do. We played it safe and camped up at the National Trust campsite a quarter of a mile from the number one location of our visit - The Old Dungeon Ghyll.

Once a cattle shed on a thriving Victorian farm, the owner extended his sideline inn business into a hotel and bar and it's remained the same ever since - cow stalls and everything. Unfortunately I didn't get a good picture of the exterior, it was cold enough to shrink our lungs like crisp packets on a fire and also happened to be half ten at night. When I go back later in the year I'll take one in the daylight, how's that?

The pub itself is decorated with climbing effects collected over what could easily be a century - has recreational climbing been happening for that long? Hand-crafted wood and steel implements rest dustily in yellowing cabinets and above the main entrance like a coat of arms. Proudly retired.

In the Old Dungeon Ghyll, you hear a lot about climbing, scrambling and hiking exploits. Try to eavesdrop a conversation or two and you'll hear a 60+ year old daredevil talking fondly of the time he nearly lost his skull to a granite cliff face. In many ways, climbing is like fishing. 

I chose a Pennine Kinder Scout, with the sole aim of warming up. Rather than a thick, velvety style I'm used to from a porter, it was a really pleasant dark maroon ale, if such a thing exists. Malty and easygoing and with a slight earthiness. Just like the Pennine moorland it's named after, I hope.

The next day we walked. We walked and walked for hours on the first really sunny day of the year and it felt really good to be edging closer and closer to the sky. We climbed Pavey Ark by lunchtime avoiding Jack's Rake (because I'm not a scrambler - at least not yet) and ate flapjacks overlooking Grasmere and Windermere from our snowy mountaintop.

Three hours later, we'd checked off Harrison Stickle and made our way downhill, sunburnt and thirsty, to Sticklebarn Tavern a the bottom of the beautiful Stickle Ghyll. The National Trust-run Sticklebarn Tavern is very Ambleside-y, in that it's well-presented, spick and span, has nice touches of interior design and aspects of gift-shoppery. These are in no way criticisms - it was a really welcome place to crawl into after five hours of walking.

There's something about a post-walk pint that makes every single difficult step and accidental fall disappear. (I fell through a very small snowdrift up to my waist and although we were alone on the hill for an hour, somebody actually managed to see me do it. Typical.) Add beaming spring sunshine and a really very lovely beer garden into the bargain and you're basically guaranteeing yourself one of the best pints you've ever tasted. The Hawkhsead Lakeland Lager was immensely refreshing and lemony - perfect, since all I'd wanted was a Bluebird Bitter shandy and had to compromise. Not enough places sell Bluebird. 

I'd love to tell you what Tom is drinking here, but I can't remember, and mostly only wanted to share this picture because of the cute Lakeland house with the shortest, fattest chimney ever built in the background.

Great Langdale, then, is perfect if you like walking, but the pubs are also well worth investigating. I'd recommend doing both.