Just a quick one this, as this ‘Bookazine’ (not sure if I like that word yet…) is out now and seems to be selling fast – so I just wanted to get some thoughts down whilst you have the chance to buy it.
I’ll be honest: I like Chris Hall and Craig Heap. Their blogs are excellent, and I’ve shared more than a few pints with them both. Both The Good Stuff and Great Yorkshire Beer are name-checked in the ‘further reading’ section at the back of the magazine, too. But I hope, dear reader, that you are reading this blog because you trust and put some faith in what I say – which is that Craft Beer: 365 Best Beers in The World is an incredibly entertaining read.
Yep, I like it. Which is a relief because if it would have been poor, I’d have had some explaining to do. Luckily, the duo have created a great primer on the Craft Beer scene that will appeal not only to the people who are just dipping a toe into the murky world of beer, but people with more than a passing interest, such as myself.
Two things stand out for me: firstly, the beers are arranged by season – which is not only tick-friendly (the magazine then becomes handy all year round) but also makes so much sense that you wonder why it’s not more common. Secondly, the balance of the selection is perfect – this isn’t a book for the fickle beer hipster. Bohemia Regent Prezident rubs shoulders with Hardknott Cool Fusion, Cairngorm’s Trade Winds dances opposite Magic Rock’s Clown Juice, St Peter’s Mild buys a pint for Wild’s Scarlet Fever. That’s how it should be; all are connected and all join the dots in the world of beer that we choose to spend so much time in.
The reviews are bright and breezy without coming across like your dad at a disco, and the personalities of both Chris and Craig are evident in every review. There’s a little food, recommend retailers, some light, potted history and some fun little Top 5′s – such as beers to show off with. All the boxes are ticked.
The beer world isn’t without books borne of partnerships; Tom Sandham & Ben McFarland, Ray Bailey and Jessica Boak, Stephen Beaumont & Tim Webb. The fact that Chris and Craig have taken this chance and produced a fine, modern and – most importantly – accessible – distillation of Craft Beer for such a specific market is really something to admire. Perhaps another partnership is born.
Craft Beer is out now and is published by Future Publishing.
Kirkstall may be one of the busiest suburbs of Leeds – leading away from the city and to the Abbey and Horsforth heading north-west, or up into the student heartland of Burley and Headingley heading north-east – but it’s not what it used to be for pubs. Aside from the resurgent West End House and The Vesper Gate (owned by Sizzling Pubs), there’s not much for the beer drinker on this busy junction.
This wasn’t always the case. I remember the Kirkstall Lights being a cheap, popular local in the late 90′s (I lived in nearby Burley whilst in college at the time) which did a decent sideline in live music, and stalwarts of the area cite long-gone drinking dens such as The Morning Star, The (somewhat infamous) Star & Garter, The Abbey Inn and The Rising Sun (the recent fire at which was a real shame for those interested in design; one of the first Tetley’s houses (its gorgeous interior was destroyed finally after a year or so of being used as an ersatz furniture warehouse) as ‘decent drinkers’. The George IV sits idle, rotting away behind ornate glasswork, at the very bottom of Kirkstall Road.
So it’s heartening to see a new pub (housed in what used to be The Old Bridge Inn) being taken over by local heroes Kirkstall Brewery and turned into what is ostensibly their brewery tap. You get a sense that the area needs The Kirkstall Bridge Inn (not the Old Bridge, as the signage outside confusingly still states); not just for the students who now inhabit what used to be the original, bustling brewery overlooking the canal, but for the residents of Bramley and Kirkstall, too.
After a long development / refurbishment, it finally opened at the end of the summer – and it’s been worth the wait. Inside, the pub itself is unrecognisable from it’s somewhat tatty, unloved former self. There’s cosy nooks, plenty of dark wood and the walls gleam with original and reproduced breweriana, most of which came out of Steve Holt (Kirkstall Brewery’s owner) extensive private collection. New seating and partitions have been created, and the overall feel achieved is that of a large, single-roomed pub with plenty of privacy – which is quite an illusion to pull off. Speaking to Steve, I know he’s proud of it – but has promised more to come in the way of decoration.
Bar-wise, it’s as you’d expect from Kirkstall Brewery; Three Swords Pale, BYB and the luscious Black Band Porter were all in fine fettle, and to be expected as permanent. There’s Kirkstall’s lager and Framboise on keg, and, at the time of my visit, a couple of guests from The Tapped Brew Co. The fridges groan with Vertical Drinks’s US and Belgian roster; Stone, Oskar Blues and, of course, Sierra Nevada all being present and correct.
Downstairs, the transformation is even more striking; the dark, dingy ‘basement bar’ now a second bar; stone-flagged and spacious, leading out to the canal-side beer garden. It feels like part of the pub, despite being underneath it. There’s no food, but local food vendors such as Bundobust and Fish & are enjoying long-term winter residencies, which solves that problem. Wilson’s (frankly excellent) Pork Pies are also available for those wanting something more traditional.
So, overall, an excellent addition to an over-populated but under-used part of Leeds. Let’s hope the students and local residents take the opportunity to pop in rather than heading into Leeds – I know my canal-side weekend dog-walk just got another welcome little stop on it (dogs are welcome in the basement bar).
It’s not just change at the pub, though. I took the opportunity to have a chat with Matt Lovatt – part of the new brewing team at Kirkstall- to see how life has changed since I last interviewed Steve Holt and Dave Sanders for Great Yorkshire Beer. Dave Sanders recently left the brewery and made the short hop towards Bradford, joining the team at Saltaire Brewery.
Matt’s one of the army of talented homebrewers being given a chance to step up. ‘I’d never been employed in a brewery before. I have home brewed for about five years now with varying levels of success. I had just moved house and was toying with the idea of setting up a vanity brewery in my garage when I was asked if I was interested in working at Kirkstall.’ he explains.
He’s already finding the challenge of commercial brewing lies not only in recipe formulation, but brewing to schedule and at a level of consistency that the drinkers demand. ‘(There’s) plenty to learn – and also to unlearn. Home brewing is great but scale, free time and attention span tend to lead to occasional, eclectic brew days! Returning to a recipe can seem like a wasted opportunity. By contrast, at Kirkstall I’m really enjoying getting to know a set of core beers and working out what makes (and keeps) them what they are. We recently hit capacity so we are also in the process of scaling up which presents its own logistical challenges.’
There’s not just Matt on the team - Alex Dodds is the Head Brewer. Starting out managing pubs (including Wire in Leeds and a stint with Market Town Taverns, he got his break in brewing as Brewery Manager at Wensleydale a few years ago and moved to Kirkstall in 2012 to assist Dave Sanders. He and Matt are joined by Tom Summerscales, who started at Kirkstall within a week of graduating from Heriot Watt this year. Tom is also a keen home brewer and has had some previous experience at his home town brewery, Ossett.
So, what are the new -look Kirkstall crew working on at the moment?
‘Our first priority is to be able to make more of the beer that has already proved itself. Beyond that, some other things in the pipeline include keg Three Swords (which, at the time of publishing, has made an appearance) and some seasonal specials for North Bar (whose house Pale ale, Prototype, is a perennial favourite and brewed by Kirkstall).’ Explains Matt. ‘A pet project of mine is to get a pilot plant going at the brewery. If all goes to plan it should be possible to indulge some experimentation to complement our established range.’
So, very much a case of new brew team, new challenges for Kirkstall Brewery. Not least the addition of a new pub to showcase their wares. Much like Kirkstall bringing brewing back to an area of Leeds once known for it, the pub should hopefully bring a few drinkers out of the city centre and Headingley. Trust me, it’s worth the visit.
Alongside Mild, Bitter is the beer style that probably troubles people the most; the definition is broad, somewhat cumbersome and with no ‘sexy’ aspects to it. Yet Bitter defines a UK region like no other, such is the proliferation of other styles today. No-one calls Joker IPA an ‘Alloan IPA’, nor is Marble’s Lagonda a ‘Manchester IPA.’ But Marble do (proudly, I might add) brew a Manchester Bitter, and you can’t deny you’d call Harvey’s Sussex Best the epitome of, well, Sussex. But as the question was posed to me a while ago, I’ve been asking myself: what is Yorkshire Bitter? Is is still around anymore? And what does it mean to me?
Well, It’s a beer of the pub. There’s something about a pint of Bitter that speaks of draught beer; a dimpled mug on a stained beer mat in a library-quiet inn, contented in etched glass and dark wood in those times inbetween dinner and post-work rushes. A cliche – and one that could exist in any county in the country – I know, but one worth trotting out when thinking about what the beer means to me. Bitter is unfussy, strong of heart and backbone, and the best – when fresh – are defiantly bold, and as forthright in flavour as a Yorkshireman’s political views.
I’d perhaps cite the Yorkshire Square as a key element to what makes our Bitter ours. But the fact is, there’s Yorkshire Bitter out there being produced by our enterprising brewers without the aid of those slate (or, mostly these days – steel) squares. Still, we have our own regional fermenting method – and that’s always worth giving a nod of the flat cap to. In fact, only Black Sheep and Sam Smith’s use Squares these days; one wonders in this age of interest in all things fermentation, whether the square could be seen as a niche instrument for fledgling brewers looking to find a little space in the current booming market. It is, after all, a type of open fermentation.
So, let’s consider those knee-jerk emotional responses, shall we? When I think of Manchester Bitter, I think of a beer lighter in colour than its counterpart from the White Rose county, and perhaps with a clean, smooth body and a sharp, bitter finish. Yorkshire’s Bitter, on the other hand, makes me think of brown; autumnal amber, always served with a tight collar of foam and a nutty, sweeter body underpinning a slightly bready, subtly floral aroma.
I think of slabs of my uncles’ Stones Bitter, unfashionably orange, piling up in the kitchen at Christmas, or that smiling Huntsman glaring at me through his monacle on bartops across smoky pub rooms visited with my parents. The way that, travelling from Leeds to Haworth to see my mum, the pub signs change from red-brick Tetley’s to the green and gold sandstone of Timothy Taylor’s once you hit Shipley. The intimidating red neon of the Tetley’s sign drawing our gaze as we walk to The Adelphi. It’s powerful stuff, for sure.
Problem is, once I start codifying it like that, I’m struck by the Landlord conundrum.
Fellow Yorkshireman Michael Jackson described Landlord (in his usual, wonderfully florid terms) in 1992 by remarking ‘…that barley-sugar maltiness is never cloying; that resiny hop character offers the perfect edge. They are deftly balanced without cancelling each other out. This is more the balance of the fighter versus the boxer. Or the Featherstone Rovers’ loose-forward versus the Keighley scrum-half.’ Landlord is one of (alongside Black Sheep’s Best,Theakston’s Best & XB and Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter – which is perhaps hamstrung by generally only being available in Smith’s pubs on draught) the major Yorkshire Bitter on our bars now, and enjoys perhaps a more artisanal feel than Tetley’s did post-Carslberg. As you know, Landlord is anything but ‘fudgy’ – pale, loaded with sweetness, and a soft, rolling bitterness.
It’s brewed with 100% Pale malt, but it’s a Yorkshire Bitter. More quenching that Tetley’s, I feel Landlord is the beer that illustrates the region’s diversity in bitter. The fact that I think of it Pale Ale doesn’t really matter; it’s semantics. It’s all Bitter. It just so happens that one of the most popular in Yorkshire is one of the most different.
Can a bitter still define a brewery in Leeds, Huddersfield, Hull, Wakefield or Sheffield in 2013? Has it really been usurped by paler, hoppier cousins? Is it still the sole interest of the older generation? Is it difficult to market? I once had a pint of Tetley’s that, simply, was trancendent. It was in the Victoria pub, and remains not too dissimilar to this in terms of being knocked off your feet by simple, plain beer. I’ve not drunk it since it left Leeds, and although I don’t want to concentrate too much on Tetley’s here (what’s done is done) – it defined Leeds for a long, long time. As we all know, however, there are some promising heirs to the throne, if you will.
Leeds Brewery’s Sam Moss still thinks there’s something to the term – hopefully the pavlovian equivalent of a hug; a tug of a string that’s tied to many a Yorkshireman’s past. ‘I think that for many drinkers in Yorkshire – and perhaps this is becoming an increasingly older demographic – a ‘pint of best’ is still the ‘go to’ choice as they walk into a pub. Maybe this is something which is a peculiarly Yorkshire phenomenon, but I think that there is something endearingly reassuring and comforting about settling down over a great pint of Yorkshire Best Bitter.’ he says.
Yorkshire Bitter is the bedrock on which our region’s fantastic beer culture sits; a style we once held proud but perhaps don’t shout about as much any more. Richard Boston said of us in Beer & Skittles (1977) ‘Yorkshire people, chauvinists about beer as about everything believe they have the best beer in the country.’ It was probably our Bitter that we were espousing. He also said of Theakston’s Bitter ‘…Is a pale yellow, and its taste arouses controversy between its admirers and detractors.’ What Boston meant by that, I’m not sure; there’s a suggestion that the beer wasn’t quite playing ball – perhaps too light, too strong, too mild or too bitter. A controversial bitter? There’s a thought.
Bitter is worth fighting over, too. Roger Protz has done a great job of telling the battle of Barnsley here.
I’m going to pin my colours to the mast here: i’m incredibly fond of Acorn’s Barnsley Bitter. A simple, tawny pint with a hearty, rousing profile, it’s a modern classic as far as I’m concerned and, in that frame of mind, I contacted Dave Hughes (Acorn’s head honcho) and asked him how he felt about such an unassuming pint; how it was born and whether it was important to Acorn these days. The answer was fairly emphatic.
‘Barnsley Bitter is the reason Acorn Brewery was born.’ Dave states, matter-of-factly. ‘Back in 2003 I was working for Elsecar Brewery, but the business closed and production of their Barnsley Bitter was moved to Blackpool. I was made redundant along with everybody else. The thought of Barnsley Bitter being made in Blackpool and also the thought of returning to my former profession as a chef drove myself and my wife, Jude to open Acorn Brewery. ‘
‘We brew our interpretation of Barnsley Bitter using the original Barnsley Bitter twin yeast strains.’ he continues. ‘…We also use the finest Maris Otter malt, crystal and pale chocolate roasted malts and have used English Challenger hops – purchased directly from the same hop farm – for the last 10 years.The consistency of the raw materials have helped us to create a Yorkshire bitter that we are very proud of. It accounts for 30-40% of our trade and highlights to us that there is a great market still out there for a classic Yorkshire bitter amidst the ever growing popularity of golden ales and IPA’s.’
Bu it’s not just Imperial Stout, Saison and barrel-aged oddities nipping at the heels of Barnsley Bitter. There’s…well, other bitters, actually. It’s like stepping through the looking glass; the term might be getting dropped in favour of ‘Amber‘ and ‘Classic‘-type terms, but it’s still there. Take Ilkley’s Joshua Jane (a nod, of course, to the Hunstman and Ilkley’s moor-wandering heroine), which began life as a trial brew of a Leeds Homebrew competition winners (by Matt Lovatt and Dave Broadford, who have gone on to brew for Kirkstall Brewery and Northern Monk respectively) and has recently made it into the permanent bottled range.
Slightly dryer than you’d expect , loaded with biscuit and bread and a zippy finish of grassy hop. It’s a great example of a Bitter brewed in 2013, and I asked Chris Ives how it sells. ‘Joshua is a permanent beer and volumes brewed have been steadily climbing all year. We brewed it because (we felt) there were too few good examples of a contemporary Yorkshire Bitter.’ I would place emphasis on the contemporary. JJ does boast a sprinkling of New World hops, and as a result takes a more modern twist in the finish. One wonders how many of Ilkley’s more image-conscious drinkers realise they are enjoying a bitter? Semantics, again…
…And of course it sells. Good beer always will, Bitter or not. When interviewing Lee Pullen, landlord or the excellent Old Cock Pub in Otley a little while ago, he confessed that ‘…I love chestnut-coloured beers, but they can be hard to find. We love ‘em here.’ , in response my remark about how his bar was well-represented in the color range. Wharfebank’s Martin Kellaway said something similar in my interviews for Great Yorkshire Beer – how Slinger’s Gold would cater for those customers who absolutely want a bitter – not pale, not dark. Brown. Fruity. Softly tangy. It was in demand, and lo, it was brewed.
Leeds Best is one of the few that’s not been renamed. Sam Moss elaborated: ’Although Leeds Best doesn’t sell anywhere near as well as Leeds Pale, it has a really loyal following of drinkers across Yorkshire and always sells well in our pubs so we have no plans to delist it anytime soon. I think it’s an important part of our range and a brilliant beer – in fact I have had many conversations with people who think that it is our best product. Interestingly, Leeds Best in bottles absolutely flies off the shelves.’ Last Christmas Leeds Best was Sainsbury’s best selling small brewery bottled beer in their Yorkshire stores; it’s has just won a listing in Tesco. Saltaire Pride – Saltaire Brewery’s Bitter – also won a listing in Tesco in the summer.
If you were to line up (for example) Leeds Best, Black Sheep Best , Acorn Barnsley Bitter, Sam Smith’s OBB, Theakston’s Best and Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, the wealth of flavour and variety that you would find in those beers would be as remarkable as any that you would be likely to find in a line up of the any other style. All in my very humble opinion of course – although Martyn Cornell puts it much better in Amber, Gold & Black : ‘The best Bitter beers leave the drinker satisfied and yet still happy to have more. The harmony of complex flavours that the finest examples contain, even at comparatively low alcohol strengths, is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to bibulous pleasure.’
I will say this much, however; perhaps the days where a brewery would see a Bitter as a flagship beer are gone. Those seeds were sown before the ‘craft ‘ boom – I can certainly recall a time where ‘Pale n’ Hoppy‘ was the default style for flagship beer for a nascent Micro before the “Craft Beer Revolution”. The difference was, they’d eventually pop a brown beer into the range. These days, a whole generation of brewers are probably thinking that brown does equal boring if you’re not talking about a hybrid style – and a true Bitter or Best - as completely superfluous to their needs.
I, for one, wouldn’t want to see Bitter as a style being taken for granted – but in Yorkshire at least, it isn’t. Bitter is alive and well up North; so here’s to Frothingham Best, Saltaire Pride, Copper Dragon’s Best, Kelham Island Pride of Sheffield, Kirkstall BYB, Mallinson’s Stadium Bitter, Rudgate’s Battle Axe, Theakston XB, Hop Studio XS, Revolution’s Reward, Bradfield’s Brown Cow, Great Heck Navigator…. and all the others knocking around.
Here’s to Yorkshire Bitter.
Ironically, this weekend has seen the soft opening of The Tetley, the new ‘art space’ that’s now housed in the shell of the brewery. This post was part of Boak & Bailey’s Longreads weekend – I’m sure there will be a round-up of the other posts on their blog in due course.
Actually, that’s unfair. I’ve got a lot of love for Christmas Beers, as it happens – they cement beer’s versatility as a gift -and the season is ripe for translation in ale. Rich, warming, hearty. Comforting, even. A little special. The season, the mood, the food – I all feel they are genuinely enhanced by Christmas Beers. No matter what side of the craft fence you fall on, you find breweries from Mikkeller to Moorhouse’s , from BrewDog to Shepherd Neame and all points inbetween brewing this loved seasonal special. In fact, I reckon you’d be hard pressed to find a brewer not brewing one (and looking forward to it) most years.
You can’t escape the novelty factor though; its everywhere. The labels, the positioning in shops – both independent and supermarket – puts them aside from the rest, going for the market that doesn’t regularly buy beer but perhaps wants a stocking filler. If I’m being honest, I usually avoid them, but this year I decided to don the Santa hat, attach the antler headband to Wilson, and see what’s out there. Best of British Beer offered to send me a few, as did Shepherd Neame, and I picked some more up from Beer-Ritz and on my general travels.
Stonehouse’s Wit Christmas certainly got things started well. I enjoyed this 4.5% wheat/witbier a lot; the nose backed up the added ingredients added to the copper; nutmeg, clove, orange and lemon peels. Sweet at first – nearly, ever so nearly a little too sweet – it then dries right out on a crisp, citrus-led wave and invites another sip. A golden glass of winter cheer, it’s a different, tasty palate-cleanser after a rich cheese board. You know, when Dr Who’s on.
Batemans’ Rosey Nosey (4.9% abv) is a beer I genuinely like, Christmas or not. I think the way the softly fudgy malt base, plummy middle and crisp, snappy finish that it has is really, really balanced. There’s not much more to it than that, but I don’t want to disparage it by saying that. It’s a good beer, and an easy win.
Back up to Yorkshire for Hop Studio’s humbuggy Noel (There’s ‘No L’ in Christmas, to read the label properly), which occupied much the same territory as Rosey Nosey but with a more muted profile; brown, sweet and with a touch of cinnamon at the finish. Ilkley’s Mary Christmas (4.7%abv) was perhaps the most flavourful of the Yorkshire contingent; a stronger version of the titular pale ale, doused with cheery pine-needle spark and apricot richness. A genuinely interesting Pale Ale.
RedWillow’s Cheerless (5.5%abv) seems to give us the same curmudgeonly vibe as the Hop Studio contribution, but the porter within the bottle had a decent enough dried chocolate/figgy aspect to make you smile whilst hiding its strength. And we all like those baubles adorning the Willow, right?
Bristol Beer Factory’s Bristletoe (5.5%abv) was a beer that, down the last drop, I couldn’t make my mind up about. The label boasts that 7 malts are packed into the mash to give you the deeply ruby beer you hold before you – and it’s tasty enough, for sure. But, for me, the yeast thrusts such a ‘Belgian’ note through the beer that I had to really search to find the plummy ,raisiny notes I knew were lurking within. Don’t get me wrong – it was good – but not what I expected. Perhaps one to give to someone who’s a fan of Flemish reds, in fact. They’d find some common ground; and I got thinking that this wouldn’t be one to pair with the Turkey, perhaps – but a nut roast or herby terrine, if you’re that way inclined.
Best of British Beer have taken the interesting step of collaborating with a few of their local breweries to produce beers just for them. Staffordshire Brewery’s Bobbin’ Robin (with the cutest label of the lot, by far!) is solid enough; a 4.8% brown ale with brown bread and malt loaf in the sip, and a smooth latte-like finish. Cheddar Ales weighs in Mulled Over (4.5%abv), which truly defined the ‘Pudding in a glass’ category; porter-esque in smoothness, silky and sweet, with all the almond, cherry, raisin and cinnamon you could want, before adding a little dose of milk chocolate at the end. Plenty rich for the strength, the quality of the mouthfeel set this beer apart. Lush. Festive Totty is also doing the rounds, if you’re a fan.
I have to set my stall out when it comes to Revolutions Fairytale of New Yorkshire; Wilson and I adorn the label. That’s right; in all of our maudlin black-and-white glory. Luckily for me (very, as I agreed to be the local label guy before the beer was brewed) the beer turned out well; mahogany in shade and woodsy with smoke and oak on the nose, you get a sweet, dark molasses heart before touches of cinnamon pepper the finish. It’s good - there’s a lot of flavour in there for the 4.5%abv – but don’t take my word for it; pick some up from Beer-Ritz.
Shepherd Neame’sChristmas Ale (7%) displays a deft touch. Strong in almost every area, it’s perfectly balanced; sweet, bready malt, figgy, fruity notes and a crisp finish that disappears as quickly as it arrives to leave a sweet, warming taste and feel on the tongue. It’s crying out for a cheeseboard packed with robust cheddars for it to wrestle with. Delicious.
Two villains tied my mammoth yuletide tasting session (well, sessions – this wasn’t an afternoon’s drinking). First up to bat, Backyard Brewhouse’s Bad Santa (6.8%abv), which turned out to be the surprise package of the lot. About as dark ruby as you can get before black and swaggering to the table like the titular drunk, foul-mouthed St Nick impersonator, the beer’s aroma was a knockout; liquorice and molasses in perfect harmony – a dose of blackcurrant too. In fact, my notes say ‘…like those liquorice and fruit sweets’. This theme carried onto the body, where all that fruit was joined by a little coffee and plum loaf, and just a hint – a hint, I say – of woodsmoke. With a little spike of alcohol warmth on the finish, Bad Santa was a really, really strong beer to enjoy for my first taste of what the gang from Wallsall have to offer. I’ll be picking up more from them.
Ridgeway’s Insanely Bad Elf (11.2% abv) is the strongest of the popular christmas beers from the South Oxfordhire outfit, and a sipper it certainly is. I actually didn’t mind it too much, although there’s not much finesse here. Sweet – almost stickily so- has barley twists and pear drops on the nose and the body, backed up by enough sweetness to please a confectionery-shop owner from which those old flavours came from. It finishes up with a little sweet Orange peel to clean things up a little, before a lengthy, bitter finish. But, like I say, I didn’t actually dislike it – perhaps I was getting in the festive mood.
S0 there you go. My thoughts on a small slice of what’s out there. I had fun, to be honest; although I’d like to see more Porters, Stouts, Old Ales and - zipping along to the other end – lighter beers representing Christmas from our UK Brewers. Let me know what you think if you pick any of these up.
There’s something in the stark, pentagonal pumpclips that makes Five Points‘ beer stand out on a bar. Perhaps it’s the clean, practical feel of them, or the names of the beers, perhaps – Railway Porter, Five Points Pale. Words that roll off the tongue; linguistic primary colours, simplicity.
After a somewhat troubled start (the first few beers I tried from them had not traveled well to the northern wastelands), I’ve really enjoyed the recent beers I’ve tasted from the Hackney-based brewery (which, Loiners will be interested to know, is owned by Ed Mason, the guy behind the recent refurbishments of Whitelocks and The Deramore Arms). Pale (4.4% abv) is very much your modern, sunny Pale Ale – a bright, citric nose sitting on top of a boiled-sweet/hard candy body. Not t0o thin, not too bitter, not too sweet – although the finish is more persistent that you’d expect.
But it’s the Railway Porter (4.8% abv) that captures my attention. Pouring a raisin shade of mahogany, the aroma is deeply comforting – a little leather, some oily sap but predominantly powdery, sweet chocolate. That chocolate gets steamrollered on the sip by woodsmoke and bramble, leading to a fruity, green finish, which is powered defiantly by East Kent Goldings.
Perfectly autumnal, Railway Porter is a keeper; the beer equivalent of warming up after a crunchy walk through a park on a cold day. Preferably in a pub, of course.
It’s entirely fitting that, above the bar in the freshly-appointed dining room of The Old Peacock, you’re watched over by the framed, faux-aged visages of Billy Bremner, Paul Reaney, Eddie Gray, and other luminaries of a Leeds United team that shone like no other. Although the hand of that team has at times weighed heavily on the shoulders of subsequent players lucky enough to don the white shirt at Elland Road, The Old Peacock honours them; celebrating them and their memory with taste and style.
The Peacock’s gone through the mill in its years in the shadow of Elland Road’s south stand. It hadn’t avoided the old clichés of ‘football ground/local support’ clubs; serviced and run by fans for the fans; it fell short of attracting any trade other than those who chose to go in it. That’s not all bad; a “boozer” it was and a “boozer” it remained – but it lived and died on matchday takings. Changes of ownership, abrupt closures and a general malaise about the business itself didn’t help. On matchdays it was the place to meet if you wanted to sit in a pub (or, more acutely stand in the car park), but other than that…well, even if you were a home supporter, there where times where it felt like an exclusive place to drink.
So when news filtered through that Ossett Brewery had joined forces with the current owner Greene King and were going to take the place over, things had to be good, right? Ossett aren’t short of expertise in this area – they’ve won awards for their pub estate, with The Hop chain in particular proving that live music and real ale are natural bedfellows. But what exactly did I expect? Well, I expected decent beer – and not much else. A lick of Paint. New staff. We’ll get onto that later…
It’s difficult to talk about The Old Peacock (which is the new, yet old, name) without pointing out that the place is now somewhere that you’d want to drink in more often than matchdays. A simple concept – in fact, the only concept that will make pubs like this trade well – but so many get it wrong.
Jon Howe, author of All White; Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players, agrees. “The problem is that, in the other 340 days a year when Leeds United aren’t at home, the pub becomes just another establishment struggling to drum up trade in a low-income area where many people would prefer to drink at home. What Ossett Brewery have done is recognise The Old Peacock’s unique heritage and put a bit of thought into how they can exploit that 365 days a year. There aren’t many good pubs in Beeston. There aren’t many good pubs next to football grounds, anywhere in the country. The Old Peacock is now a vibrant pub that doesn’t just treat fans as a commodity to be exploited, much like the club’s previous owner did, in fact.”
“The Old Peacock adds a sense of refinement to an area that previously lacked it…” continues Jon, “…And the pub provides a welcoming atmosphere with great music that people might want to come back to, maybe even on a non-match day.”
The refurbishment is stunning, frankly. The way that Leeds United has been weaved into the fabric of the pub is brilliant; overt in the wallpaper on the far wall (a sepia collage of newspaper cuttings, trading cards and Leeds United ephemera) and the gorgeously florid Peacock mosaic on the floor ( which took over two weeks to complete by local artist Leyla Murr, using some 8000 pieces of glass), subtle in the yellow and white floor tiles and the clever dropping of the despised red from Ossett’s logo that adorns the windows. The dining room adds pictures of the brewers of Ossett and a gallery of old pump clips made into wallpaper that ties the whole feel together. It’s beer, beer and food, beer and football.
The overall effect is that – if you’re a Leeds United fan – you instantly smile; you spend first five minutes of your first visit pointing things out, wandering around, having a look what;s on the menu, and such. And if you don’t particularly care for football, it’s not in your face – you’re just drinking in a very smart new pub.
Jamie Lawson, the driving force at Ossett Brewery and this venture, couldn’t agree more. ‘The Old Peacock had been on my radar for a while – after all, it’s no secret that I’ve always been a big Leeds United fan. It had definitely seen better days prior to our refurbishment, but the whole team at Ossett Brewery were determined to return it to its former glory. We wanted to make it a place where everyone from locals and football fans to families and business people could come for a nice pint of real ale and some quality food, which I think we have achieved.”
I spend a little time chatting to Thanos Dimou, the softly spoken, enthusiastic bar manager who is more than happy to regale us with the story of the roller-coaster ride that the last few weeks have been. Despite being with the company for a while, it’s the first pub he’s actually run.
Thanos’s pride in the place is clear as he talks. He was here during the building, and saw the place become what it is now. I wonder aloud if there was any thought to strip the football ‘theme’ out of the place entirely, I ask. “No, not at all. As you know, Jamie is a Leeds United supporter, so all the little things you see (at which point he gestures around us) was all part of the plan from the beginning. We’ve kept the heritage of the pub… but want to make it a 7-days-a-week pub” Thanos re-confirms.
“It’s refreshing to see how the locals have actually taken to the place.” he smiles. “I’ll tell you something – one thing happened recently that was really touching. When we opened, these two guys came in, got a pint, clinked glasses and looked around with huge smiles on their faces. One of them then turned to other and said, ‘I’m home.” Those two guys are now regulars – one of them was actually walking out of the bar as we walked in. One wonders how often they drank in here on non-matchdays before. ‘The people of Beeston have been so respectful; they’ve embraced the change.’
It’s not only locals who are dropping in and planting their stakes in the ground. Thanos tells us of the recent visit of a gang of marauding Norwegian supporters (Leeds have a voracious Scandinavian following) who overran the place before a game recently, erecting flags in the car park and buying Peacock shirts to take back home with them. “They were fantastic. They had banners, flags, everything…they were here all day. They loved the place – it’s wonderful (as a bar manager) to see that.”
Beer – wise you’ve got the Ossett range that you know and love : Blonde, Silver King, Excelsior and 1919, a ruby-hued, sweetly malt-led house beer, brewed for the pub itself and commemorating the year of the club’s birth. Wine, lager (still the best-seller on matchdays) and ciders adorn the fridges and keg-tops. Make no mistake, this is Ossett’s show – the only concession to Greene King is the presence of Golden and Speckled Hen on the bar.
The food offering is excellent, too. On our visit we ate tasty, fresh Fish and Chips in gargantuan portions, and they cosy up alongside the likes of burgers, hot & cold sandwiches, and separate Pie and Grill menus, all at decent prices for the portion you get. The kitchen is now open – plan and faces what used to be known as the ‘members area’ (then a smoky room that you couldn’t go in), now a large dining room fronted by an impressive brick arch. You can eat anywhere, but the two spaces flow nicely; too many pubs with dining rooms seem to create invisible barriers – but not here. The staff, Ossett Brewery-shirted and busy, bustle about pulling pints and balancing plates of food as they go. Thursday is steak night, and Sunday roasts are gaining in popularity.
‘Although the physical refurbishment is complete our food menu will change regularly and we’ll continue to welcome new guest ales’ says Jamie. ‘…Plus, we’ll plan more events that will keep our existing customers coming back for more – we’ve already welcomed legends such as Eddie Gray through our doors.’
There’s been a pub on this site since the mid-1800′s, and the current one has been standing since 1963. Since then, the pub has undergone many, many changes. Let’s hope that this one is the last; Ossett have done wonders with it. But don’t take my word for it – go see for yourself.
You can buy Jon Howe’s ‘All White: Leeds United’s Greatest 100 Players’ via Amazon, and his webpage is here. You can see more (and buy) of Leyla Murr’s artwork on her site, where you can also keep up to date with her exhibitions. Since this article was published, Ossett have also opened The Hop in York, and Leyla has created another mosaic for the Rat & Ratchet pub.
Whilst in Edinburgh this summer I embarked – over a breakfast, of all things – on a rant about the proliferation of Saison and ‘Quasi-Saison’ into the market this year (apologies still to Craig, Chris and Sam who had to sit through it). I don’t rant much (on here, anyway), but I had gotten a little sick of the tang of Saison yeast being thrown into anything (especially IPA) and the beer being labelled as such. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for bending the rules from time to time, but the core of my rant was that I just craved tasty, simple, herby Saison. It may be a matter of semantics for some, but for me it was as simple and as selfish as that.
In fact, it got me down so much I was actually avoiding beers with the ‘S’ word on the label or pumpclip. Until Bad Seed’s Saison (6%abv) arrived in my hand and gave me my faith back. The beer pours cornfield gold; and I sat and took in the aroma for what seemed like an age – lemon rind, a hint of vanilla, the citrus-spice of raw ginger. On the sip, it was smoothly sweet until a rush of dry, coriander and pepper heat swipes the malt away at the finish, which is gentle; risingly bitter with a fresh, grassy herbal note. The alcohol is well hidden although there’s a faint warming note after the sip, which only adds to the robust-yet-light feel of the beer. Complex? Yes. Easy – drinking? Certainly? Well-brewed? Resoundingly so. No bells and whistles; just a bloody good Saison.
Bad Seed are based in Malton (famous for its food festival – and of course being the birthplace of my dog, Wilson!) and haven’t been going that long – James Broad and Chis Waplington only set up in the summer – but their beers are already garnering some formidable buzz. What struck me the most – once I’d gotten past the initial pleasure of the beer in the glass in front of me – was how clean the beer was; how well brewed it was. Small needn’t be a byword for lazy in terms of the condition of your beer, no matter how ‘innovative’ it may be in terms of flavour. No such qualms from Bad Seed. Go buy some.
…So we got to London, Louise and I, ready for a weekend of food, drink, laughs and relaxation. It was our wedding anniversary weekend, which we were combining with seeing Wembley for the first time and catching up with dear friends transplanted from the north to the south. I was extra-excited because I was looking forward to introducing Louise to some places (and by that I mean Pubs) I’ve grown to love on my (admittedly more frequent than hers) visits to the Capital. This wasn’t a pub tour, you must understand… this was about joining the dots; bringing people a little closer.
Despite the glitz and the glamour of the countless new breweries setting up in London, only one held a shining beacon in the forefront of my mind as one to ‘tick’, you will; Truman’s. I’d been following the progress of the revived ghost brewery with a little more interest than most, for what reason I’m not sure. Maybe it was the new-yet-old backstory, the chance to perhaps taste something with an echo to the past. A pot of gold at the end of a rainbow; something to seek out. I wrote the word in heavy, capital letters in notebook: TRUMAN’S. I even underscored it to give it the weight it deserved.
I was introduced to The Queen’s Head last year by Mark Fletcher. We were in London for the Beer Writer’s Guild Dinner, and as soon he uttered the words ‘…It’s a well-kept secret, if you ask me…’, I was hooked. We made the short journey from King’s Cross to the pub, my fingers crossed in my coat jacket that it would remain as charming as the first visit. It was. Friendly staff, good beer and a comfy chair to relax after the journey south. The Queen’s Head is my kind of pub; endearingly scruffy, genuinely affectionate about beer without feeling elitist or try-too-hard, and Louise was impressed, too. I clocked within seconds that there was no Truman’s on offer. Still, early days yet.
The Parcel Yard manages to combine function and style without going too overboard in every department; big enough to ensure a seat (well, when I’ve been in, anyway), nice decor and, of course, that exhaustive range of Fuller’s beer on the bar. This place had the grand honour of providing our pre-game lunch – an occasion which it rose to without breaking a sweat. More super-friendly staff (who says London is cold?) and the likes of Pork Sandwiches (my own personal catnip), Eggs Benedict and Fish Goujons, all washed down with pints of the muscular Bengal Lancer and sprightly Seafarer’s Ale. Every ounce the ‘Train station pub’ without feeling it, The Parcel Yard is now a comfy option for me when visiting King’s Cross.
We met our friends in The Stapleton Tavern; a pub that had already reached out to us via Twitter as they caught on to our conversation – despite sounding a little strange, this was actually reassuring. A large pub with a huge dining room attached, we soon caught up over a few pints and a tasty lunch with huge portions (maybe they heard we were from the north, and thus piled the food on to satisfy our barbarian needs). Beer-wise, my pint of Dark Star’s Hophead were as familiar as the company; an old friend that, despite seeing it from time to time in Leeds, never tastes as good as it does in the south.
My eye was still searching for that Truman’s eagle, however… but he hadn’t landed in Finsbury Park, it would seem. Hardy’s & Hanson Bitter – itself a heritage brand now owned by Greene King – was surprisingly good, too; sweet and chewy with a snappy finish. Dilly the Jack Russell sat diligently with an air of someone who found this all incredibly interesting.
Bellies full and jaws aching, we took the dog for a walk around the park before saying our goodbyes for the day. Not before, as my friend suggested (surely knowing that there was no way I would say no) ‘one last pint?’ in his local. The local, in this case, was The Faltering Fullback, a ‘Rugby’ pub if ever there was one, and one of the most individual pubs I’ve ever supped in. After gawking at the exterior for five minutes – a suburban pub festooned in greenery, replete with fountains flanking the door – we ventured inside to find a pub packed with drinkers watching the game on a screen in the back room, and the tables full of people enjoying themselves. The foliage outside makes you feel as if you’re drinking in a greenhouse; but one where everyone in the street has invited themselves over for a beer.
This was not a quiet pint; this was a lively, jolly drink in a pub that should be full at this time on a Saturday. My round; I ushered our group onto a just-that-second vacated table and turned to the small bar, only to be confronted with the Truman’s Eagle, wings spread, ready to take off. The pot of gold (well, glass of gold) had been found; through no concept or design, just good ol’ fate. We dispatched the shimmering, sweet beer with a smile on the lips and raised a glass to the Faltering Fullback and serendipity.
Here’s a heads-up for a piece I’ve just had published over at the excellent Food & blog; it’s about The Reliance pub in Leeds, but focuses on their home-cured meat, rather than beer. It was good to write about something other than ’just’ beer, and certainly something I’ll do again if the right opportunity arises.