Beer & Balls: Yorkshire Meatball Co, Harrogate

IMG_2030We’ve had a couple of days off last week; purely to catch up on home stuff (ie getting ready for our new arrival in late August) and, on a more selfish note, have a couple of days out. Which, as you all would have guessed, mostly involves eating and drinking.

So, we visited Harrogate  - the main reason being our interest in the Yorkshire Meatball Company. In these times of ‘Yorkshire’ everything, it seems (and don’t worry, I know i’m perpetuating that beer angle as much as anyone…), I was genuinely interested to see what this young restaurant had to offer. I mean, who doesn’t like Meatballs? Exactly. But can you base a whole business around them?

The restaurant itself is bedecked in rough wood; light to dark, pine to mahogany, and the welcome was warm and informal. As we perused the menu (which we’ll get onto in a second) our eyes were drawn to the chandeliers; cheese graters and colanders clustered around bare bulbs. Nice touch. Overall, it’s a lovely space to dine in; a little acoustic music in the background, and friendly staff in branded t-shirts giving an attentive yet chummy service. Perfect for lunch.

One major angle that the YMBCo gets right is the provenance of their ingredients; it’s all from Yorkshire. Fish from Ramus. Yorkshire cheeses, wine from Yorkshire Vintners and bread from Hughes. The meat comes from Sykes House Farm and the beer list is provided by Yorkshire Ales.

IMG_2046Yes, there’s a beer list, and perhaps now you can guess that I had an ulterior motives for coming here; I wanted to see what a restaurant with a decent beer list did with it. Well, there’s plenty to choose from; Yorkshire Ales have picked two beers from most of the major beer styles so, if you so wish, you have a decent course-by-course range. You can expect to see beers from Saltaire, Geeves, Great Yorkshire/Cropton, Bradfield, Treboom, Wold Top, and Wensleydale amongst others – plus a smattering of Cider.

So far so good; if you’re a little informed or reccgnise some of the breweries on the list. As it happens, the waiter saw that I was opting for lighter beers and recommended a new arrival from Wold Top (Hello Velo) to guide my hand a little, but perhaps some notes or even recommendations on the menu would be good, too. Still, it was a good shout from our waiter and the kind of thing I want to see; a little helping hand for those who want to try things out.

As we happened to be visiting during the week that a cycle race is coming to the county (really? I wouldnt have known!) there was a slightly truncated menu; served with a Gallic flavour rather than the regular smorgasbord of Meatball delights. We chose beef and pork balls in a Bourguignon sauce; the balls meaty yet succulent, the sauce winey, rich and packed with softly sweet root vegetables, bacon, pearl onions and garnished with mash.

Alongside that, we picked white bean and lemon balls, crumbed and deep fried, sitting in a Provençale sauce with creamed lentils on the side. The balls – crunchy then yieldingly soft, sung with high lemon and fresh coriander notes – kind of like a European falafel, if you will. Where the beef balls were robust and hearty, these bean balls were zippy, light and moreish.

IMG_2042Carried away by the flavour of the food, I ordered a Wharfe Bank Yorkshire IPA for the bean balls; my thinking being that the slightly asian herbing would lend itself to the punchy IPA. It didn’t; the two flavours fought on the palate, cancelling each other out. Instead, Great Yorkshire’s bittersweet Yorkshire Lager (which I’d ordered as an aperitif) cleaned up perfectly; the more neutral flavour scrubbing the palate and readying me for the next course. Lesson learned.

Which was cheesecake. Vanilla cheesecake balls with a raspberry coulis, to be exact. Oh yes.

Now, here’s the thing. If you offer a range of beer – and your guests indulge themselves in it – these little discoveries happen. My smooth, buttery cheesecake, chilled and drizzled with tart berry sauce, were perfectly complimented by the Wharfe Bank IPA. Smooth, strong and carrying and aroma of orange jelly, the IPA’s long, bitter finish lifted all the cream without dominating it, as well as dovetailing nicely with the tart berry. Beer and dessert? Yup, no problem.

So there you have it. A good meal, a beer and food preconception busted – and a resolve to go back and try the full menu. Which, as a new business, is all you can ask for, really. YMBCo also deserve a pat on the back for offering a decent, local beer range, too – hence this post. It fits their ethos, and looks completely natural alongside their menu.

Oh, and in answer to my question at the start around basing your whole business around them, it would appear so. I hear new Yorkshire Meatball outposts will be appearing across the region shortly, so keep your eyes peeled.

 

Festivals and Pub Openings

hemsworth_festival_logoHemsworth brewer Hamelsworde are holding their own beer festival in late July at Hemsworth Community centre. With an overall aim to promote the use of British hops, the list of breweries taking part is excellent – a Yorkshire-centric list including Geeves, White Rose, Revolutions, Imperial, Bad Seed, Atom, Wharfe Bank, Five Towns and Great Heck amongst others. It’s certainly worth checking out – I’ve been impressed with what I’ve tried from Hamelsworde recently. Colin Brown ale is a robust, raisin-led strong brown ale with rounded sweetness and a nutty finish – and if you’re in the mood for something lighter I can recommend the range of new-world hopped beers they are currently exploring -  fresh, zingy pale ales.

All the details for the Hamelsworde Festival are here.

K6T1tKuO_400x400Now enjoying it’s third year, Leeds Independent Beer Festival is a must-attend for beer-hunters in the north. Before that hits in September, however, the gang behind it are holding a ‘Carnaval’ to celebrate the Grand Depart on the 28th and 29th of June. Although more of a food and drink festival than the beer festival proper, the European beers on offer in particular look excellent. North and Magic Rock will also be hosting a permanent bar under the town hall - The Magic Spanner - which opens on the 27th June.

Finally, the 27th also sees the opening of The Hop Saltaire, Ossett’s latest pub acquisition. Formerly The Tramshed, this cavernous pub will no doubt benefit from Ossett’s guiding hand, as most do! So if you’re up in Saltaire, do pop in. It’s not the only pub Ossett are opening this month, either - The Fox in York has enjoyed a refurbishment and also opens this week.

 

 

Beer in Audio & Video

microphone….Just a quick post to highlight a couple of blogs I’ve been watching and listening to this week whilst writing. First up, Sarah Warman’s YouTube channel shows the green shoots of a talent for talking about beer in front of a camera. Sarah works for BrewDog by day, but her own videos are a breath of fresh air in the ‘lone person talking to a camera drinking beer’ format that most video reviews use. However, the ace up her sleeve is the handful of videos that she’s created for the Jamie Oliver-sponsored Drinks Tube Channel.

Benefiting from the channel’s slicker editing tighter production and pacing, these videos are exactly what I want to see from a ‘beer’ section on a mainstream TV channel; an engaging, unpatronising presenter, a good length, pitched at (and the is the most important bit, people) a level somewhere between ‘novice’ and ‘curious’, and featuring beers that are obtainable without being the norm. If there’s any producers out there looking for a new ‘talking head’ for the screen, Sarah’s your girl.

Second is Jeff Pickthall’s long-term podcast project Beerlines. Weighing in at a good half hour-long, it’s much more along the Radio 4-type of  programme (which is the intention), and in many ways it’s the other side to the same coin as Sarah’s videos; packed with detail, colour and background, engaging and reverent to the subject. Although it’s only one episode in, Jeff deserves a pat on the back (or a pint, perhaps!) for bringing this all together. The hosts (who, in this episode are Jeff, Des De Moor and John Duffy) certainly read with aplomb and have picked interesting subjects to kick things off. One to watch. Or listen, perhaps.

Ilkley Brewery: Pedal Power & Passion Fruit

photoIt’s pretty difficult to avoid the Tour de France in Yorkshire at the moment. Yellow is everywhere – and when I say that, I mean it. I can’t remember the last time a whole region pushed something with such fervour. And i’m sure it’s wonderful if you’re a cyclist. I’m not – but I am a beer drinker, and that means lots of specials and cycling- themed one-offs to try.

We’ve still got a month or so to go yet, but it’s probably easier to list the breweries who aren’t promoting it than those who are. And why not? Beer excels as a promotional tool or reason to go off-piste in these kinds of situations.

Obviously it helps when the brewery itself is on the route, and Ilkley Brewery are one of the many that those lean men in lycra will be powering past come the Grand Depart. Ilkley’s ‘Tour Beer’ – Marie Jaune (4.5%)- is one that certainly deserves a mention. Why? Because although following the (it must be said) well-worn formula of pale, french-hopped or continentally-yeasted (is that even a word?) beer that 99% of breweries are opting for, it carries a much fresher, lager-esque quality to it. In fact, after an afternoon’s chilling in the fridge, it could have subbed for a lager; straw-pale, lively, a tight, white head, and that flinty, almost mineral quality on the nose that I look for in beers like this. Sweet, then grassy to finish, Marie Jaune will be an absolutely blinding thirst-quencher if you’ve queued all day to watch Froome, Cavendish and Contador zoom by.

It’s a little different from the norm (in much the same way that the continental, spicy-yet-wheaty- coolness of this beer won me over) and much the better for it. In fact,it’s on the list already to (whisper it) fill my fridge to enjoy the upcoming World Cup - with apologies to the cycling purists.

Another little gem that Ilkley have brewed of late is De Passie, a 7.8% abv (deep breath) ‘Imperial Passion Fruit White IPA‘, which they concocted in collaboration with Rooie Dop and Oersoep Breweries. Now, if you’re given a bottle of this, your first thought is ‘Ok.. this had better taste of Passion Fruit or you’re on a hiding to nothing‘, but I’m happy to say that the Yorkshire/Dutch team have nailed that quibble – and more besides.

The aroma is heady with fresh passion fruit and mango; so much so that it’s akin to a carton of Rubicon Mango juice. Pouring brilliant gold, a few quick swirls reveal a pear-drop complexity sitting under all that fruit in the aroma that brings a smile to my lips immediately. Light in body yet bursting with that tropical fruit personality, De Passie is a joy from start to bitter, pithy finish. In my opinion, it’s one of the tastiest, most balanced beers Ilkley have produced, and, alongside Mary Jane’s French penpal, it’s out there now.

 

Disclosure: both beers were given to me by Ilkley along with their submissions for the follow up to Great Yorkshire Beer, which I’m currently working on. 

Brew Britannia by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey

brew_britannia_3d_mockupI don’t often review books on here (purely because I’m published…it feels kind of odd) but it’s an understatement to say that I have been waiting for this book to appear for some time – so I’m going to anyway. I’ve been following Boak and Bailey’s progress with it since they announced the deal, and the subject matter interests me greatly; my beer culture, in my lifetime.

Given the range of the posts which have been appearing on B&B’s blog since they started work on the book – a torrent of offshoots, loose ends and interesting nuggets found during the research for Brew Britannia – I was expecting a dense, fact-rich tome, much more akin to Martyn Cornell’s cornerstone book Amber, Gold and Black. Instead we get a almost breezy, fast-paced romp through modern, thoroughly British beer culture set amongst the sociological and economic backdrops of those times.

The ease at which the book the book can read – whilst packing in a fair amount of data – is the book’s strength, and testament to the duo’s writing chops. Focusing – to me, anyway- on the people behind the beer rather than ‘the numbers’ is the real ace in the pack, however. Peter Austin, Sean Franklin, Brendan Dobbin and David Bruce all deserve their own books – let alone chapters – such is the richness of their tales of reform and rebellion.

The genesis of CAMRA is told in a refreshingly frank way, something that’s perhaps been missing in print up until now. Sure, plenty of writing about CAMRA is out there, but there’s always seems to be ‘an angle’ to it; either pro- or anti-. Here, the interviews with the likes of Michael Hardman are ‘as they are’, and seem much more honest as a result. The inclusion of an appraisal of the Society of Preservation of Beers from the Wood (both past and, in a poignant coda, present) shines a much-needed light on them at a time when many people simply don’t know they exist.

The chapter on BrewDog seeks to smash a few myths – albeit ones created by Watt and Dickie themselves – and offers some interesting lines of thought on the Scottish brewer’s indelible contribution to modern beer in the UK. Despite feeling a little rushed towards the end, the final third does well to bring the whole story up to date. Again, much like CAMRA, I wonder if anyone will finish the book down with a new perspective about BrewDog and their place in our beer culture? Likewise Tim Martin’s JD Wetherspoon’s empire – which is, surprisingly, only mentioned fleetingly.

The events in the decades that it spans all have very real, very tangible imprints on today’s beer culture in the UK, and as a beer blogger in these times I found the chapters and mentions regarding people I have met  - Stuart Ross, Sean Franklin, Zak Avery, Barrie Pepper – a real cause for celebration. By bringing this book out now rather than in ten year’s time, B&B have created a very ‘live’, very workable document for those wanting to explore the stories of the people within. This is a rare quality for a ‘traditional’ publication to have – and I have to commend Aurum for showing a little faith in the book’s story at a time when publishers only seem to want conscise guides and how-to books (trust me, I know – this is an area I know all too well!).

I’ll leave my review at this, veering off-track slightly: a few months ago, I left some comments on an excellent blog by Chris Hall about  the denigration of ‘Beer Hipsters’, something that, at the time, I personally felt was becoming a little bit out of hand. I stand by my comments today – that I’m, at heart, a traditionalist; a modern drinker who is scared that, in a few years’ time, a whole seam of beer drinkers who have helped bring beer to audiences that it has struggled to in the past, simply up an leave in favour of something new. That there’s a family of drinkers who won’t go visit a pub that only serves cask ale, or will maybe even never touch cask ale, or – even worse – certain beers purely because of the branding.

…That there’s a group of drinkers who have no interest in the truly inspirational pioneers who fought, gambled and took huge personal risks to transform beer into something new or simply make sure it never dies. That there’s journalists out there who are being sent from their desks by panicking news editors to ‘get across this craft beer thing‘ to ‘put the tick in the box’, and doing the brewers and beers a disservice by doing so with poor work despite vital mainstream column inches. Social media and blogs makes us all experts these days, as in food, fashion and pretty much anything else. How useful that actually is remains to be seen.

Brew Britannia is the perfect book for these times, for this audience To understand where it all comes from, and how everything, much like a Pete Frame Family Tree that the authors are so enamored by – is connected. Welcome publicity is given to minor yet-significant milestones such as Mash & Air, Passageway Brewing, Belgo, and my own beloved North Bar. Without one, you don’t get the other. Brew Britannia is an excellent book; investigative, frank, even-handed and, above all, vital to both the beer geek and the neophyte alike.

 

A Perfect Fit: Truefitt Brewery

IMG_1710

Beery surprises. Everyone loves them, right? That little thrill of finding something new and having your expectations turned upside is surely what enjoying beer is about; always knowing that somewhere out there is a brewery you just might be missing out on. Despite constant reminders from Andy Mogg that Truefitt Brewery’s beers (more or less his local brewery, as well as doing the design work for them) were very good – and indeed, getting better – it’s still taken me a while to actually get my hands on some.

Matthew Power’s beers bear all the hallmarks of ‘local hero’ brewing; a full range of the best-selling styles, beers named after his environs, strikingly colourful pumpclips which certainly stand out from the crowd. Most importantly, the beer is good. Very good. Truefitt beers carry a weight – in the body particularly – that recalls Oakham and Five Towns Breweries. Hops are sprinkled liberally throughout, of course - but these are really, really balanced beers.

Take the 4% abv North Riding Bitter. Not one to get excited about, you might say, but I defy you not to enjoy this ruddy-cheeked gem. Sweet, with tonnes of freshly-baked brown bread flavour in the body and finishing with complexity that comes as a complete surprise – hints of coffee and berry fruit – I immediately wanted another. And then possibly another.

Erimus (3.6%) is a light, summery Pale Ale with a mild-mannered nature and sweet finish, whereas Truefitt Trembler (a double IPA weighing in at 7.4% abv) may be the beer that hop-heads are overlooking in favour of more exotic, imported fare. Fiery amber in colour and boasting a reassuringly thick, tongue-coating mouthfeel, the nose is all strawberry jam and oily pine needle, which translates almost identically into the finish, adding long, rolling bitterness and a touch of alcohol as it fades away. Matt tells me the hops in this recipe are a moveable feast; he uses what’s available to him at the time. All the more reason to drink a bottle of this every few months, if you ask me.

Overall, I’ve been impressed with Truefitt’s beers. Perhaps it’s time for them to start travelling a little further up and down the UK; not that Matt is resting on his laurels. Last weekend saw the opening of the Truefitt Tap, so if you’re in the wilds of Northallerton, you could do a lot worse that drop in and get acquainted. Good luck, Matt.

 

These beers were given to me for inclusion in the follow up to Great Yorkshire Beer, which I’m working on as we speak.

A Power Trio from Brixton Brewery: The Kindness of Strangers

BB-Electric-Label-AW02PDFI’ve only visited Brixton once.

But when I think of that visit – in a dour, rainy 2003 Autumn, I think of one thing; the kindness of strangers. I was there to see one of my favourite (at the time) musicians – Ben Harper, the Californian master of proto-slide guitar, he who navigates his deep, rumbling Weissenborn slide guitar through oceans of blues, folk, reggae and rock before landing on your shore in a heady, intoxicating mix. I’d been a fan for a while, and when the chance came to see him and his band – the Innocent Criminals – at the legendary Brixton Academy, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

So we (my girlfriend and I – later to become my wife) travelled down with a gang of mates and spent the weekend in London, taking in some sights and – if I remember correctly – eating some fantastic noodles in Greenwich. Anyway, gig time arrived and we – us gang of awed northerners – arrived in the cavernous space of Brixton Academy.

After a support band that suffers every support band’s worst nightmare – to be ultimately forgotten – Ben Harper and his troupe of revivalists took to the baroque stage, hitting us with hit after hit after hit…and Louise couldn’t see any of it. She’s is only just five feet tall, you see. She’s petite. This leads to a clear line of sight being something hard to come by at a gig, even on Brixton Academy’s gently sloping floor.

Still, she’s a veteran of gigs by this point -, and used to it by now. Tip-toes are the order of the day, mixed with a near-constant jockeying for position in the assembled throng. Yet at this gig, something odd happened. A chap in front of us turned around, recognised Louise’s’ predicament and…well, made way.

Not only did he sit down, he encouraged his friends to. His friends asked their friends… and soon, we had a space in front of us – ensuring a great view of the stage and the band. People around us asked if ‘we were ok’ and ‘if we could see‘. It was something I’ve never seen since and doubt I will again. Now, I don’t want to cast aspersions on the average fan of Ben Harper, but it’s fair to say there was a lot of Red Stripe consumed and even more pre-gig smoking going on. But still – intoxicants aside –  when I think of Brixton, I think of these awesome people and what was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. Not so much the great band, more the night. The people of Brixton – and beyond, I dare say, made it. It was a night when faith was restored in humanity, and we talk about it still.

…and it’s that that I think of when I spy these bottles – amongst others – sitting on the shelves of Sourced Market this week. A warm glow of recognition nudges my hand and so I buy them, hoping upon hope that they’ll won’t let me down.

I’m glad to say they don’t. It’s easy sometimes to dismiss the look of craft – much like the oft-cited pornography argument – but when the odd outfit creeps through that celebrates provenance and links into the community like Brixton have done, it makes you realise that there’s still great work happening in the capital. The labels ‘pop’ with vibrant screams of colour, the names of the beers celebrate Brixton’s multicultural history and tie them to the postcode. In a time of seemingly identikit London brewers, Brixton rise above the din for this writer. They seem a little more considered, a little more thoughtful.

securedownloadStill, the proof is in the tasting; Electric Avenue IPA (6.5% abv) offers that familiar, modern IPA punch in spades; thick, chewy mouthfeel, amber in the glass, and plenty of sweet fruit – mango chutney, perhaps – in the nose, finished off with a surprisingly clean, almost herbal (grassy, minty) bitterness at the finish. The hops in the aroma are pungent, and the beer disappears way too quickly accompanied by a punchy, spikily hot Pepperoni Pizza. High praise, indeed. 

Atlantic APA (5.4% abv) may boast Simcoe and Citra hops but I mis-diagnose the presence of Nelson Sauvin (before reading the label), such is the fresh, green grape and gooseberry notes in the aroma. Golden, refreshing despite being quite sweet, this pale ale is a beer I could drink a lot of. This bottle suffered from a touch of oxidisation, but no worry – this only became apparent toward the end of the glass and I would buy Atlantic APA again in a heartbeat. Vibrant, cool and light.

Windrush Stout (5% abv) was the real winner, though. I chilled it for an hour or so prior to drinking - purely due to the heat outside - yet I was still presented with an aroma of burnt malt, malt loaf and blackcurrant; the body remained light and incredibly fruity. I kept expecting a little vanilla to pop up but it never did – just waves of red fruit, a whisper of woodiness, and a long, clean bitterness. As the beer warmed, a little bready yeast note came into play, just to fill things out. Named after the ship that brought the first waves of West Indian immigrants to London, Windrush is a seriously good beer.

I enjoyed all these over a gorgeously balmy early summer evening  - accompanied by  a few Ben Harper CD’s and fair amount of reminiscing, of course. That’s beer at its best, if you ask me.

 

 

Wharfedale launch “The Ales Way”

leafletWharfedale Brewery – the smart microbrewery sitting at the back of The Flying Duck, Ilkley – have continued their commitment to boost their local pub community by launching The Dales Way, a pub guide to pubs in the surrounding Wharfedale area. The guide has been produced with the Pride of The Dales bus service in mind – something that the team behind the brewery are keen on.

‘Whilst encouraging more people to visit the pubs and use the bus company with added frequency, the ale trail is intended to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace which should allow people plenty of time to visit the many wonderful  shops, café’s and restaurants as well.’ says Jonathan Shepherd, Wharfedale’s Managing director.

I know that, since setting up last year, one of the goals of Wharfedale Brewery has been to support the businesses around it, which isn’t something you hear much on today’s ‘mission statements.’ The iconic ‘Dales Pub’ – all stone flags, welcoming open fireplaces and impeccably-kept cask ale isn’t a myth either – but they are open all the time. They aren’t theme parks – and they need patronage all year round.

Looking down the list, I’m mentally ticking off the pubs which are personal favourites; The Red Lion at Burnsall, complete with the gentle curl of the Wharfe just outside the front door, a popular stop off for us when taking the dog out for the day. The Craven Arms at Appletreewick - where I recently enjoyed a pint of Dark Horse’s Hetton Pale that can only be described as transcendent. The Fountaine Inn at Linton, The Buck Inn at Buckden.  The Blue Bell Inn, Kettlewell. All perfect stop-offs this summer if you venture into the Dales.

You can also complete the ‘crawl’ in full, picking up stamps as you go to recieve a t-shirt at the end, if you wanted to tackle all of them. It’s a lovely idea; if you find your self enjoying a pint in the Flying Duck this summer, pick up a map and go see one of the others, too.

Craft Beer: The 100 Best Breweries in The World

fwg36.cover_p1_p1…Apologies for the lack of posts recently – that thing called real life has gotten in the way somewhat of late and between working on the follow-up to Great Yorkshire Beer, preparing for the arrival of our first child in late August and the demands - which are many – of being a full-time slave to a maniacal Border Terrier, there’s not been much time for TGS.

Still, distractions are most welcome and a pleasant one came in the form of an approach in the new year from Craig Heap and Chris Hall (later joined by Ruari O’Toole and Matt Curtis) to come and pitch in on their latest commission from Future Publishing - Craft Beer: The 100 Best Breweries in the World. I’d really enjoyed the first one, so jumped at the chance. I wrote the profiles for the Yorkshire contingent, such is my calling these days.

So, here’s the plug. Why should you buy it? Well, it’s a good read, to be honest. Obviously I would say that, but there’s still that moment where you don’t know what the end product is going to end up like when you do something like this. To open the copy and realise that it’s pretty darn good mixes relief and joy in equal measure. Know someone just starting out in exploring beer? This would make a great gift.

…and yes, I realise it’s another list-type affair  - and that means you *have* to leave people out. And really, you have to believe us when we say that we almost got into knife-fights about inclusion. I got the same comments following the publication of GYB, as I expected. But we do stand by what’s in there, and believe me when I say the positive feedback we’ve had far outweighs the odd grumble. It’s published on a major scale, promotes great brewing, and reclaims a little shelf-space from the myriad wine and food magazines.

I’m still amazed that there isn’t room in the market for a  quarterly magazine about beer. I also sense, in a way, that the time has passed for us to prove that, now. One-offs like this are the closest we’ll get –  in my opinion – to something for the mainstream. Demand was there, and we were happy to fill it. Rest assured – the gang put a hell of a lot of work into it.

So, you can read accounts from Matt, Chris and Craig (including some nice ‘bonus content’ from Chris) if you’re still interested in how a group of bloggers got the chance to be involved in something a little more permanent. Do check them out – they’re a good read. As is the bookazine itself.

You can pick up Craft Beer: The 100 Best Breweries in the The World at WH Smith’s and online here

Cheshire Brewhouse: Engineering A More British Pint

Cheshire-Brewhouse-LogoA few weeks back, I was invited along to Saltaire Brewery to judge the annual NCB competition. I haven’t done any judging for a while but I jumped at this one, as I’ve been an advocate of homebrewing for a while now. The link between the grass-roots community and the ‘pros’ is plain to see; not only that, but my interest was piqued by the sheer range and quality of the entries. With homebrew being judged and supplemented by even more homebrewed beer being served from cask and keg in the bars, this was a mini-beer festival with a difference – one for the conference leagues, so to speak.

Throughout the throng of brewers and entrants stood one man; Shane Swindells, brewer at Cheshire Brewhouse. Despite being ably hosted by Saltaire Brewery, Shane was the man in charge, corralling the 10-strong judging team through the day and onto the awards. Having been impressed by his incredibly balanced, easy-drinking beers, I had a chat with Shane to get the lowdown on Cheshire Brewhouse. He’s a man of many talents.

‘In a previous life, I was the son of a Pub Landlord, so I’ve been around beer since I was six years old. But when I left school I did an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering’. he says. ‘I didn’t like it very much though – so tried several other jobs, after leaving including selling novelty items in Blackpool tower, working the pubs and clubs as a semi-professional singer and running a motorcycle salvage company, amongst other things. I fell back into engineering though after a number of years and retrained in electrical engineering.’

In 2005, Shane joined Molson Coors at Burton Brewery as a multi-skilled Engineer.  It was here that his interest in beer resurfaced. ‘I ended up building a one-barrel brewery at home purely so I could learn how yeast and fermentation worked… so I could be a better engineer at Burton. I learned a great deal, as well as finding that I could also brew pretty good beer to boot! ‘

securedownloadHe then joined the Northern Craft Brewers. ‘(Joining) The NCB was very important as I could take my experimental brews to people who had brewed for many years & were very knowledgeable and take their advice. I was also able to develop my palate by trying the many different styles entered into the many competitions they organised. I was subjected to possibly every beer fault possible through helping to judge the smaller competitions we ran. Our ex Chairman Bill Lowe has been a “National Guild of Wine and Beer Judges” Judge for many years and tasting beers with him and many of the other members enabled me to learn a lot about appreciating beer better – and brewing better – in a relatively short period of time.’

Although he doesn’t brew at home any more, Shane finds time to come back to the group and offer his knowledge to the masses; which brings us right up to date.

Cheshire Brewhouse was born in 2012, built of home-engineered kit and recycled parts – as much a matter of necessity rather than anything else.  ‘I decided that as I had next to no money - and because I worked as a multi-skilled engineer on and off for 23 years -  that I would source and fabricate the brewery myself. My copper came from a trout farm in Abergavenny, and I have (re-used) dairy tanks from Cornwall, Huddersfield & Scotland. I’ve chopped and changed things over the last 18 months to improve the process as I go along. The only things I haven’t had a hand in are the pumps and heat exchanger - pretty much everything else is my own work. My T.I.G welding skills have improved no end as a result!’ he laughs.

All very romantic and quintessentially Heath-Robinson, but the beer that Shane makes is testament to his focus and commitment to doing things his way.  Cheshire Brewhouse has a small but perfectly-formed core range with an English streak a mile wide.

‘I think there are far too many blonde, hop forward, citrussy beers brewed with foreign hops in the marketplace!’ he says, almost surprisingly in the age we live in. ‘I also found it increasingly difficult to find balanced cask beers - so that’s where I started.’

cheshirebrewhousa‘My light Pale ale – Cheshire Gap (3.7% abv) -  is hopped with plenty of floral Bodecia & East Kent Goldings. Engine Vein is a 4.2% abv copper-hued best bitter hopped with a decent late charge of First Gold and balanced with biscuit malt.  Draft Burton Ale – or DBA (4.6% abv) – is a  Burton-style strong bitter hopped with Target & Styrian Goldings. Finally, my stout,  Lindow (4.5% abv) is lightly hopped with Target hops & balanced with a hint of vine fruit from the malts.’

Despite the fact that Shane cites Ken Grossman as a major inspiration (Those guys are just amazing…. what Ken Grossman has built up - from his eco-friendly values to his exceptionally high quality beers - is amazing…), another tenet to Cheshire Brewhouse is Shane’s effort to be part of his local community in terms of reach and sourcing ingredients.

‘I source the hops and malts for my 4 core brews from companies in England, with malt and hops grown & malted in east Anglia & Worcestershire. At least 80% of my current production is sold direct to independent pubs and bottle shops within 35 miles of the brewery. Even my my bottles, packaging and label stock from within 20 miles of the brewery. I am also part of a Cheshire Brewers Co-operative where we try to help each other out with shared deliveries, collecting each others’ casks – that sort of thing. Small is good.’ he laughs.

He’s also working on an interesting-sounding, home-smoked porter as we speak. ‘The malt is being smoked for me at The Cheshire Smokehouse, and I’ll also be using some more unusual fruit sugars as an adjunct to add to the background complexity.’

In short, if you want to try Shane’s cask ales, you may have to go direct to the source – which isn’t a bad thing, if you ask me. From his first beer going on sale at The Lord Mountbatten in Congleton, you can find Cheshire Brewhouse regularly at The Young Pretender,  The Lion & Swan; and a little further out in The Beer Emporium in Sandbach or Beer Dock In Crewe.

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