Category Archives: Beer

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.

A New Look for Summer Wine Brewery

DIABLO NEWWhen I think of Summer Wine Brewery, I think of my early meets  – way back when – with James Farran and Andy Baker; listening to the duo as they rhapsodised about brewing, cars, biking, philosophy, films, music…anything, in fact. When they get going, they don’t stop. Summer Wine’s beer is an extension of that; singularly produced, as they want to, how they want to.

For example, ramping up production to levels that, by rights, should have ground their tiny brewery into the ground. It’s only recently that all that hard work seems to have pushed the boys from Holmfirth to the level that they should be at. I’ve been tracking them since day one, and I’ve noticed the change. A more balanced core range. Session-strength pale ales like Pacer appearing – ones that may dial down the IBU’s and alcohol but not the bones of Summer Wine on which all of that hangs. Adding to the brewing staff. Setting up export deals to mainland Europe and beyond. Experiments with cask-ageing. All happening without fanfare; in short, a quiet revolution in the hills of Holmfirth.


They say every cloud has a silver lining. Last year, Head Brewer James Farran suffered a pretty bad fall whilst mountain biking. Actually that’s an understatement. It was nasty. Bones had to be broken and re-set, titanium-plated cheekbone kind of nasty. And – in typical style – once he was able, James used the downtime to overhaul Summer Wine’s image; unchanged since 2009.

‘… It gave me time away from the brewery, and a chance to gain perspective on the brand & other things. So the brand was born at home in the peace & quiet on my Mac.’ says James, who – you might be surprised to learn – is the man responsible for the brewery’s new look. 

‘The old brand was eye-catching, contemporary & got us noticed in the early days. But we’ve now settled into our own skin and the way we do things. We’re really happy with the beers we’re brewing & very confident in our wares – and we’ve matured as a brewery. We’ve left our adolescent phase behind & this is the older, more sophisticated, fun Summer Wine.’ he adds.

I completely agree. Summer Wine’s previous livery was bold, it was eye-catching – in colour and shape. But the new artwork manages to retain that bold, primary-colour feel and shake in a little hod-rod Americana, a touch of Coop, and a pinch of comic-book art. Of all the recent re-brands that many, many breweries are undergoing as they surf the wave of new markets opening before them, I have to say that this is one of my favourites.


‘The idea for the design was to create a distinctive, fun and – most importantly – an engaging look.’ James says. ‘You’ll also notice the amount of information on the bottles is a stark departure from our old labels. This level of information including malts, hops, yeast (are in the beer) tell a story of the beer and give the consumer some ‘ownership’ over what they are paying good money for. We have included IBU’s and EBC’s so people can make an educated choice when they select the beer. Being upfront about everything in the beer is an extension of our confidence as a brewery.’

And that’s important for a brewery now exporting to 15 countries on a regular basis. The labels will be appearing on bottles as we speak, and should filter through to pumpclips and other branding the year progresses. It’s great to hear that James is back at work and brewing like mad – it’s going to be a busy summer.

Celebrating a Stage Winner with Little Valley

IMG_1569It may seem already – a few months away from the Grand Depart – that Yorkshire is already packed to bursting with Tour De France posters, bunting and promotional events, but mark my words: it’s only going to get worse. Whether you’re into cycling (and it seems everyone except me is these days) or not, you can’t deny it’s a coup for the region; those lucky businesses along the route will enjoy a bumper weekend in terms of takings, and visitors from all over the country get to see the best of what Yorkshire has to offer.

Breweries are just one of those types of businesses looking to support the Tour as only they can – by brewing themed beers. Some may see them as novelty, but as I mention here, there’s no harm in it. Events like this should be commemorated in beer;  why not? Especially when that beer happens to celebrate the life of one of Yorkshire’s cycling heroes.

Brian Robinson was born in 1930 in Ravensthorpe, and later his family moved to nearby Mirfield.  In 1952 (as an amateur cyclist) he entered an early version of the Tour – the Route de France – but struggled on the mountain races; his own roads on the Calder Valley, as steep as they are, were no match for the Pyrenees. With typical determination, he persevered and represented Great Britain at the Helsinki Olympics the same year.

The year after he took on Cycling professionally and the years that followed saw his efforts improving. He was eventually picked up by Aston’s Hercules Cycle Company to form part of their racing team and, alongside his team-mates, became one of the first Britons to finish the (now) Tour de France in 1955. The team enjoyed mixed success on the continent and, in 1958, Robinson became the first British rider to win a stage of the tour –  a feat he then repeated the year after.  Not bad for a lad from Huddersfield, I think you’ll agree.

L-R, Wim Van Der Spek, Sue Cooper, Brian Robinson

L-R, Wim Van Der Spek, Sue Cooper, Brian Robinson

Sue Cooper of Little Valley Brewery (which itself sits atop of a monstrous climb) spoke of seeing ‘riders zooming past the brewery window’ on a regular basis, until one day one of them popped his head in. It was none other than Brian, asking if he could have a look around. When Sue and head brewer Wim Van Der Spek, decided to brew a beer for the Grand Depart, their first thought was to involve Brian.

Chance encounters seem follow Sue and Wim around. Sue and Wim themselves are both keen cyclists, and actually met whilst both cycling in Nepal. That chance encounter led to a relationship, a relocation to Yorkshire, and the birth of Little Valley Brewery. Meeting Brian eventually led to the brewing of Stage Winner; a 3.5% pale/blonde ale that’s softly sweet and boasts a dry, floral finish. As Brian said to me at the launch, it’s the kind of beer you want to refresh yourself before getting back on the saddle, and I couldn’t agree more.

Wim described the simple thought behind the beer in typically romantic fashion. ‘Brian’s a gentle guy.’ he said, ‘So I wanted to brew a gentle, soft beer.’ Yesterday – despite the inclement weather – was the first day of Spring, and the beer is spring in a glass, in my humble opinion.

LVB_stage_winner_01I couldn’t agree more. Stage Winner  – resplendent in its King of the Mountains livery -was launched last night at Brasserie Blanc in Leeds and will be appearing in both bottle and cask across the region during spring. Keep an eye out for it, and if you do see it, raise a pint to Brian. He’ll be watching the race with interest  – hopefully with a pint of his own beer in his hand.


You can read more about Brian’s exploits here and here. All you need to know about the Grand Depart, which takes place on the 5th of July, can be found here.

Banana Bread Beer: Charles Wells’ Enduring Oddity

Banana Bread bottle and glassCorner-shops (can you still call them that?) can hold rich pickings for beer hunters. If I’m somewhere new, I often pop into supermarkets or local stores, pick up a paper, and inspect the beer and wine section. Yes, it’s almost always cans of cooking lager and ever-bigger bottles of cider moldering under those fluorescent lights, but occasionally – such is the thrill of beer hunting – a little gem pops up.

When I first moved to the area where I live now, my new purveyor of papers, lottery tickets and snacks had a decent little range of bottled beer; from the big boys, obviously, but there was also a clear-bottled, exotic-sounding Banana Bread Beer. I’d just ‘got into’ beer and was trying to taste every beer I could get my hands on, so I picked one up. Slightly dusty, god-knows how old, that odd little beer seemed to fit perfectly with the slightly 1970’s feel of the corner shop.

Banana Bread Beer. Now, my palate somewhat more refined with a few years of enjoying beer and food under my belt, the name alone still evokes a smile.

Banana bread itself is one of the more versatile treats to enjoy with beer: pairing with a stout or porter brings out the brown sugar notes in the loaf, while bitter and old ale plug the fruit and wheat aspects into the mains and amplify them. Add cream cheese frosting to proceedings, pair with an imperial stout, and you’ve gone from Betty’s-tearoom-on-a-Saturday-lunchtime pedestrianism to something altogether more seductive and sinful.

But Banana Bread beer? The aroma is the first thing you notice. You try to stop yourself thinking ‘Well it does smell like Banana’, but you can’t. It’s there all right; sweet and almost cloying, recalling those foam banana sweets. You prepare yourself for a super-sweet mess of a beer that doesn’t actually happen – instead the body of the beer sings with toasted bread, toffee and raisin notes, and that sweetness dissipates to a decently clean finish. It may not be your cup of tea (or slice of banana bread), but it is a well-balanced, enjoyable beer.

It works so well, and yet this is one of the few examples where the humble banana is used anywhere in brewing.

When you think about the flavour profile of banana, it seems quite natural that it should end up in beer. In her essential book The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit writes: “…By the time the peel is mottled with brown, the fruit’s flavour is reminiscent of vanilla, honey and rum…Banana has a great affinity for roasted flavours such as coffee, nuts and chocolate, and for heavily spiced flavours such as rum.”’

If those flavours aren’t bedfellows for beers of a number of types, I’m not sure what is. There is also the distinct banana-like flavour that’s produced by many yeasts fermenting at a higher temperatures when they throw out fruity ‘esters’. It’s difficult to imagine a German wheat beer or many Belgian ales without those vital banana-y notes at work.

In Belgium the tradition of kriek and framboise use fruit in a sublime balancing act between tart and sweet beers in beers from breweries such as Cantillon, Boon and Lindemans. Elegantly served in fluted or bulbous glasses, fizzing away like Champagne, these beers appeal to a different kind of beer drinker than the UK’s more stately efforts.

Admittedly, younger breweries – influenced by what’s going on elsewhere in the world – have recently been loading fruit into continental style beers. Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss blended their interpretation of Leipzig’s Gose with gooseberry – and Beavertown Brewery created a sour beer with damsons last year. But British brewers have been mixing fruit and beer for a while in our very own way.

Bramble355Normally appearing as seasonal special releases, our older fruit beers combine the hedgerow with bold, robust base beers. Damson and blackcurrant stouts (recently brewed by Hawkshead, Waen, Art Brew and Burton Bridge to name a few) remain popular, making use of the seasonal fall of British soft fruit to flavour the already-luscious stout. Saltaire Brewery pride themselves on their flavoured beers, dosing their blonde ale with raspberry and cherry flavour to create something new.

Yet Wells’ Banana Bread Beer enjoys a larger scale of production that the experiments of the armies of UK’s microbreweries, and also feels distinctly ‘retro’: the beer equivalent of prawn cocktail and vol-au-vents. Except where those dishes have reappeared in cookbooks only with an ironic raised eyebrow, Banana Bread Beer still stands as a proud member of Well’s portfolio.

The beer is more modern than my first impressions led me to believe though, first appearing in 2002. So, what drove the Bedford-based brewers of Bombardier (then Charles Wells, now Wells & Young) – to start throwing banana into their beer? Karl Ottomar, Head Brewer at Wells & Young’s, explains.

“The idea of Banana Bread Beer initially came about as a suggestion from the wife of one of the Charles Wells team – who was a keen banana bread baker.  Research also suggested that bananas were one of the bestselling line items in supermarkets – which provided a basis to test if this could in fact be a popular flavour for beer.”

“…The brewing team began developing a brew which was then tested with drinkers. The feedback was extremely positive and as such, Banana Bread Beer was born. The beer combines all the traditional qualities and style of a Charles Wells beer with the subtle flavour of banana and is now sold all over the world.”

And is it really brewed with Banana?

“It is true! Free trade bananas are added to the mash of the brew and natural banana essence is added at the conditioning stage.” So there you have it: a mix of both the real thing and essence is how that smooth, sweet Banana flavour is achieved.

In its first year of existence, it won the best beer award at the Campaign for Real Ale’s London Drinker Beer Festival. Soon, it was being touted as the gateway beer to lure more women to the joys of cask ale. In fact, when CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival held its first women-only beer tasting poll in 2003, Banana Bread Beer romped away with the top prize, gaining 26 per cent of the votes.

Search for it on YouTube or Google, and you’ll see how thirsty they are for it in the United States, in particular. Sam Calagione, head honcho of Dogfish Head, recently attested to his admiration for the beer when interviewed at the launch of Dogfish Head and Well’s collaboration beer, ‘DNA’. The high regard in which it is held by American drinkers is noted by Jim Robertson in this interview by Sophie Atherton for episode three of The BeerTalkers podcast. Over there, it is sometimes even blended with Young’s Chocolate Stout to make a luscious banoffee pie-inspired concoction.

“Seventy per cent of the sales are in international markets.” confirms Karl. “The USA accounts for 50 per cent of the beer’s sales internationally – and this is growing following the launch of Banana Bread Beer on draught keg there a year ago. It also continues to grow in popularity significantly in Canada with an 83 per cent increase in sales last year.  Brazil, Australia and Ireland are also big markets for the beer.”

Banana Bread bottle and glass white background

I’ve never drunk it on cask, and it looks as if, for now, I’ve missed the chance. “Banana Bread Beer has previously been available in cask as a seasonal beer but is currently only available in bottle in the UK” Oh well.

Still, its availability in bottle brings it into the home, and not least the kitchen. Last year, Dea Latis held a ‘Seven Beers for Seven Breakfasts’ session in London’s hip Somers Town Coffee House. Annabel Smith, one of the UK’s first female beer sommeliers and Training Manager for Cask Marque, led the tutored tasting, which included Wells’ Banana Bread Beer. Inventively, she created a smoothie with it, blending the beer with strawberry. So, Annabel – where did that idea come from?

“The banana and strawberry smoothie was a suggestion by the venue – we had all this rich savoury food and they said ‘how about a healthy option?’” Annabel explains. “As soon as the word banana was mentioned I wanted to compliment it rather than try something really diverse. Initially I considered a beer like Leffe Blond – which has a slight banana aroma – but then I thought, no, let’s go all out for it and match flavour for flavour. I wanted to use a British beer and this was the obvious choice. It has a lovely malty, nutty body but then that gorgeous, almost banoffee flavour hits your tongue and whilst the smoothie was the healthy option, matching it with the banana bread beer made it feel really indulgent and luxurious.”

To Annabel, the beer is a welcome and useful tool in the sommelier’s arsenal, and she feels that is belongs among a group of brews that can illustrate beer’s diversity to people who perhaps don’t drink it often, or have preconceived idea about how it tastes.

“There are so many people in the world – especially women – who say they don’t like beer, partly because they have been conditioned to think of all beer as ‘bitter’ and ‘brown’ (two of the most depressing words in the English language!). One of the beauties of being a sommelier is getting a non beer drinker to try something they would never perceive as beer – or beer as they know it. Kriek is a great example: people say to me “that’s never a beer!” when they first try it, so it can be a useful stepping stone to introduce people to the variety of flavours and styles.”

“Banana Bread Beer is one of those beers that acts as an eye opener for non-beer-lovers. Their senses go into meltdown as they try and reconcile the concept of beer as they think they know it, with the beer as their taste buds experience it.”

As you have probably gathered, I have quite a soft spot for Banana Bread Beer myself. Affection would be a good way to describe it – it’s not a beer I could ‘drink a lot of’ (that dreaded, peculiarly British phrase that doesn’t really mean much unless you’re talking about session beer), but I recognise – and cherish- its uniqueness and latent oddness. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

A fruit beer in an age where fruit beers in the UK still struggle with finding a niche or identity, Well’s Banana Bread Beer has certainly endured. I would bet it’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of people.

Where are the UK Beer Podcasts?

photoI got into Podcasts in a major way last year. I had my interested piqued by listening to a Leeds United one; and then had the Radio 4 Food Programme one recommended by Joss Ainsworth when we were in conversation for this blog post. After listening to a single episode I was hooked, and ponied up a couple of quid for the InstaCast app. Away I went, setting sail for a sonic journey across the digital ocean.

Anyway, fast forward to now: I’ve been a little bit obsessed. I listen to them in the car, whilst cooking and even whilst walking the dog. It’s like a whole new world of information. What am I listening to? Well, everything that I’m interested in. Films, Food, a little music, some sport. There’s some cracking stuff out there – TED’s Radio Hour and Freakanomics Radio are brilliant if you need a little food for thought; Marc Maron, Alec Baldwin (yes, really – fantastic radio voice) and Jeff Garlin’s interviews with comedians and actors are both hilarious and genuinely insightful. Kevin Smith’s Hollywood Babble-On deserves a TV show, let alone a podcast.

Naturally, one of the first keywords I searched for when loading up was Beer. Followed by Booze, Pubs and Brewing. Up popped a decent list of podcasts, ranging from Homebrewing to some YouTube Shows – but mostly all American. And – importantly -varying wildly in terms of quality. I refined my search; I wanted to know what the Podcasting community here were talking about in terms of Beer.

Well, it didn’t turn out well. We don’t seem to want to talk about Beer here in the UK on the ol’ radio.

With the exception of a few episodes of The BeerTalkers (ably handled and well-produced by Sam Hill and Sophie Atherton) and (again, some older) missives from BeerCast, that was about it. I did some more digging, and found All Hail The Ale and The Beer O’Clock Show. There’s a few other beer tidbits knocking about within other food and drink shows, but I’m after a monthly or weekly digest.

So, basically, 2/3 regularly updating Podcasts about beer.

downloadThe best luck I’ve had trawling for Beer stories is within archived episodes of Radio 4’s Food Programme. Sheila Dillon’s keen eye is often trained on Beer and Beery culture, with astute talking heads provided by a cast of regulars including Pete Brown and Fiona Beckett. Looking down the list of archived episodes you can see a holistic approach to food culture that is truly encompassing, and it’s heartwarming to know that, despite TV’s incapability to (at times) even acknowledge Beer’s mere existence, that someone on the ‘outside’ flying our flag. Episodes on Malt, Hops, Yeast, Duty, Low-Alcohol Beers and – yes – even Natural Wine and other drinks (although the similarities between natural wine and cask ale isn’t picked up by the experts in the show) all contain plenty of interest. The 25-minute highlight shows are edited deftly; the balance between pacing and information is by far the best out there.

Admittedly, much like blogs, there’s the quality issue. At their best, Podcasts can be transporting and give colour to stories by clever use of sound and conversation between protaganists. At worst, it can be the ramblings of a lone person in a darkened room speaking to no-one in particular. But there’s so much that could be done with this medium – interviews with publicans, scholars, brewers and drinkers. History shows; profiles of pubs, people, breweries. Insights into the industry. Magazine-style shows a la Hollywood Babble-On that round up that week or month’s news. Food and Beer shows…beer-related fiction, even.

I know what you’re saying: “Why don’t you go make one then, smarty pants?!” or words to that effect. I must admit, the thought had crossed my mind. But Here’s The Thing (to steal from my new pal Alec Baldwin); Podcasts  – the good ones – take time, dedication and co-ordination to create (which, as it happens, is alluded to in the last episode of Beertalkers). Blogging and writing is time-consuming enough; Podcast creating must be much harder. And I, simply, don’t have that time…

…But I’m hoping someone reading this does. If you’re after a niche – this is it, folks. New Media and all that. Listen to what’s out there and get in at the ground floor. Don’t just sit in a room drinking beer and umming and aaahing about it – or if you want to do that, what’s your angle? I know what the beer tastes like, but where did it come from? What’s it influenced by? Go speak to people, go get some stories from the horses’ mouths. Try something different. Make me laugh. Make me nostalgic. Inform and educate me. Blogging isn’t dead – far from it, if you ask me – but this is part of the family. I’d like to hear some new voices coming from my speakers.

My Golden Pints 2013

collinghamartisansLooks like it’s that time of year again, so – determined not to miss this again – I’m going to try and put some thoughts down – if not for the brewers and others involved…for me! I really need to keep more detail of what I drink. Anyway, onwards and upwards…

Best UK Cask Beer – Jesus, fallen at the first hurdle. Where do you even start? I genuinely couldn’t pick just one out, so I’m going to cop out (get used to it, there’s a lot of this coming) and stick a couple in. Rooster’s 20th Anniversary IPA was pretty special on Cask, and one in the eye for people who maintain cask doesn’t do hops, to boot. It’s not a regular brew, however, so I’ll have to stick something else in here, too...Saltaire South Island Pale. A no-brainer at every bar I see it on. Collingham’s Artisan’s Choice was also bloody lovely during the summer.

Best UK Keg Beer – Fyne & Wild’s collaboration Cool as a Cucumber really made me evaluate an entire style of beer (well, low-alcohol beers)  – and if that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.

41GRDQJ-6xL._SX280_SY364_SH10_QL100_Best UK Bottled Beer – two have stood out. Kirkstall’s Dissolution IPA was outstanding; a resinous IPA resolutely British in tone. If I look back at my notes, however, the beer I drank the most of during our hot summer was Oakham’s Citra IPA for M&S. Incredibly good value for money in terms of quality, the whole range this year was pretty darn good. Sorry, rest of the UK – gotta put my money where…well, where my money was. Bad Seed’s Saison and Three Tun’s Cleric’s Cure, and Salopian’s recently released Kashmir also knocked me sideways.

Best Collaboration Brew – Well, this is clearly my own collab with Ilkley on The Good Stuff! In all seriousness, brewing a beer for the launch of your first book is pretty special, and will forever remain part of the great (if a little stressful) memory of that night. Thanks again, Ilkley.

Best Overall Beer – Jesus, this is hard! One beer?!?! Rooster’s Fort Smith has not only been spectacular in bottled form, but cask too. Sublime.

images (2)Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label – only a recent addition, but I think Mark Tranter’s Burning Sky branding is seriously attractive. Saltaire’s rebrand is a lesson to all breweries who want to modernise without losing the life of your original brand.

Best UK BreweryPass. I can’t answer it; there’s too many. As the old adage goes, if it’s on here, then I think it’s pretty special.

Best Overseas Brewery – I actually (purposefully) spent a lot of 2013 focusing on drinking UK-based beer, especially from regions I didn’t have much knowledge of. So not one for me to focus on, but I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve had from Pretty Things, and await their collaboration with Rooster’s with relish. They’re just ….consummate. Tocalmatto’s Re Hop was also delicious; elegant and glorious in that special way that Italian Beers seem to get.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013 Five Points. I like the sheer drinkability of their beers – unfussy, if you like. Just bloody tasty. Underwhelming to some, I know, but I place value in that kind of stuff.

Pub/Bar of The YearYork Tap for me, please. Not only did Jon Chappell and his team launch Great Yorkshire Beer with military precision, doing everything on the night and leaving me to basically buzz around, they’ve been nothing but outstanding all the time. I can never catch them out, whether it’s day, night…the staff, the beer… it’s a great pub, seriously – one of many in York.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013 – It’s a pleasure to finally have Kirkstall’s Bridge Inn and The Flying Duck open recently. Both great additions to Yorkshire’s pub scene. And there’s the small matter of The Leeds Tap (Well, Tapped Brew Co as it’s known as), too…

Best City for Beer in the UK – I’m going to put my rose-tinted bias for York away for a year and go for Edinburgh. It’s just brilliant. EBBC this year was an absolute blast; special people and some special beer in a special city.

leeds_international_beer_festival_2013_posterBeer Festival of The Year – IMBC; although Leeds Independent deserves huge points for such a leap from the previous year’s prototype event.

Supermarket of The Year – Booths; for their continued interest in beer, particularly from the North – their festival this year was excellent.

Independent Retailer of the Year/Online Retailer of The YearBeer Ritz for both, simply due to the fact that they are still my local heroes and ‘go-to’ guys. However, I must applaud Yorkshire’s other indie beer and food shops who not only stocked GYB (let’s not forget, they sell beer, not books) but continued to keep interest going and support the whole project – BierHuis, Yorkshire Ales and Keelham Farm Shop in particular. Thanks a lot, guys.

The-Inn-at-the-TopBest Beer Book or MagazineCAMRA’s Beer Magazine still corners the market on the magazine front – but it’s not available to everyone, of course – and I still think needs a challenger to perhaps provide some good-natured rivalry. Not a beer book per se, but one of interest to people who love pubs, is Inn At The Top by Neil Hanson. It’s his account of running the Tan Hill Inn during the 70’s, and manages to be both wistful are terrifying at the same time. I also hugely enjoyed Melissa Cole’s Let Me Tell You About Beer this year  –  accessible, rewarding and with a range of beers that’s within the reach of the curious shopper.

Best Blog or Website – The death of the Blog has been greatly exaggerated. Some of the most inventive, interesting, up-to-date Beer writing is still happening on blogs, no matter what a small section say. Granted, it may be a case of sorting the wheat from the chaff, but if you’re not diving in then you won’t know, will you? First up, Loaded Kitchen. The sheer quality of  what Maggie Cubbler is doing with food and beer is – in my honest opinion – unparalleled in the blogosphere (and, in some cases, beyond – take that, pro chefs!). Her blog made me take a second look at my own attempts  – and that’s what I want?  The blog looks great, reads great and the food (I’ve had the pleasure of eating some of it) tastes even better than it looks. Not only that, she’s breaking out from behind the screen and doing tastings and events, too – so keep an eye out.

From a purely Beer perspective, the progression of both Chris Hall and Craig Heap has been great to see. Both Chris and Craig have become go-to sites for me for not only the skinny on London and Cardiff respectively, but Beer in general. Chris’s article on Cantillon might be one of the most enjoyable blogs I’ve read all year. The fact  that they’ve recently been given opportunities to contribute to this and curate this speaks volumes of the potential that I think they have.  I’ve also found myself nodding in agreement to a lot of what Yvan Seth has had to say this year – I think we share a lot of the same headspace when it comes to beer.

Finally, Boak & Bailey, ATJ and Tandleman still continue to not only churn out great content weaving in social commentary, history, essays and prose, but still post regularly – which is great to see. Boak & Bailey’s Long Reads initiative has exercised a muscle in my writing arm that was seriously underdeveloped – and for that, I thank them. I’ve even got my subject for the next one all sewn up…

Beer App – don’t use any of them!

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer – He’ll hate me for saying this but I still find Matt Gorecki’s twitter feed to be ‘most like that person is in real life.’ He may not blog much any more – but he’s done some first-rate guesting here and here. Don’t be a stranger, Matt!

Best Brewery Website/Social Media Wild Beer Co’s new site is wonderful.

Here’s to 2014’s list!

Bad Seed Saison: Faith Restorer

photoWhilst 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.

Pot of Gold

IMG_0930…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.

IMG_0928We 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. 

IMG_0909Bellies 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. 

Getting To Know The Northern Monks

Pic: Lorne Campbell

Dave Bishop (L) and Russell Bisset (R) Pic: Lorne Campbell

‘It feels full-time! laughs Dave Bishop when I ask him whether he considers himself a brewer now. ‘ It’s taking over my life, but I do have a full-time job. Russ calls me a brewer, but its feel a little strange, then!’ How about you, Russell?  ‘I’m doing this full-time, but I don’t have a title.’ he asserts. ‘MD or something would feel a little strange.’ Founder, I offer. ‘Yeah, perhaps…’ he agrees, taking another swig of his pint.

It’s been hard to ignore Northern Monk Brewing Co round theses parts in the last few weeks. The promise of a new brewery and a new beer has certainly set tongues wagging, and when it’s someone you know – and have watched fulfill a particular desire – it makes it all the more intriguing. I’ve known David for a while now, popping up at launches, events and festivals. He’s a  talented homebrewer (He and Matt Lovatt created Joshua Jane with Ilkley Brewery – now a regular beer) with a wicked sense of humour. A likeable fellow, he’s been doing anything but seeing the humour in the creation of Northern Monk. As we talk, modes switch into total seriousness – you can feel that both he and Russell are juggling a lot at the moment; brewing, marketing, selling, launching. Talking.

Talking to people like me.

NMBCNMBCo’s story actually starts around four years ago, when Russell Bisset  and another colleague of his entered a Young Entrepreneurs competition. The idea? ‘Well, we wanted to set up a brewery – something modern and new.’ It didn’t win, and Bristol-based Russell went back to his day job, feeling more and more unfulfilled as he went on. Russell’s keen to point out that his expertise doesn’t lie in brewing; developing business is his initial interest – so when he finally had the means to do so, he decided he wanted to resurrect his brewery idea.

Russell relocated to Shipley,moved in with family to save money, and begun to get a feel for the landscape in terms of beer and potential partners. David  came onto his radar purely by his aforementioned reputation. Contact was made: ‘Dave turned out to not only be a decent bloke but also shared my ideas about what I wanted to do. He was also incredibly transparent about where he was (in terms of brewing experience) and where he wanted to be.’ Russell says. Dave’s certainly not the first homebrewer to be scooped up and ‘go pro’ – recently Wharfebank have brought Steve Crump into the team (another award-winning Yorkshire homebrewer) and the likes of Mallinson’s, SummerWine and Revolutions Brewing are built on the foundations of homebrewing.

‘It’s not actually the first time someone’s contacted me with the same proposition, so I actually dismissed the approach at first.’ Dave says. ‘A short time later, I got another email with a ridiculous amount of information on it. I decided it was serious, and that we should meet. It was great. So much work had gone into the project already, and we went from there.’

The one thing missing was a brewery.

The proposal was a simple one; NMBCo would follow in the footsteps of Revolutions, Steel City, Mikeller and many others by brewing on someone else’s kit. In this case, Ripon’s Hambleton Ales provided the hardware.

photoSo why not open a brewery? I ask. ‘We just felt that if we started small (in terms of capacity), it might take a long time to grow. At the core of what we want to do is simply make good beer; by taking a cuckoo approach we feel that we can find our feet and experiment somewhat.We personally feel that our money was best spent perhaps making the beer; investing in ingredients and growing expertise rather than physical kit. It’s an approach we are happy with at the moment.’ says Russell, before reiterating that of course, a brewery is on the cards in the not-too-distant future.

So, Hambleton is the home of Northern Monk – for the time being at least. Other breweries were approached but Hambleton were the most receptive to their ideas and Nick Hambleton has been providing feedback – good and bad, as you’d expect. ‘Nick probably doesn’t need us there, but he seems to really understand what we are trying to do, and lets us get on with it.’ says David. Hambleton are doing the bottling, too, so the entire process is being handled in one operation. Dave explains how great Hambleton’s have been in terms of feedback, advice, help and generally mentoring him – despite the beer being entirely different to what Hambleton brew.

‘It’s difficult to go onto someone else’s kit and processes and rules; but we were fully aware of this but we’re pleased with the results.’ Dave adds.

The result was New World IPA (6.2% abv),a beer that both represents the output of a period of discovery, hard work, and bringing ideas on paper to life. Sure, the beer’s a little rough around the edges – it’s very sweet, full of boiled-sweet thickness – but has a pleasingly restrained hop snap (more tangerine and lemon-rind than Grapefruit) at the finish. It’s not aggressive – as I was expecting – and ends up feeling nicely balanced. The New World part refers to the hops (there’s some Galaxy in there, among others) but the upcoming beers will have their roots firmly in England.

‘Why IPA first? It’s the style of beer I probably drink the most.’ smiles David, matter-of-factly. Russ continues, laying out the essence of MNBCo ‘We want to do things from a British angle. There’s a lot of US influence over here, but I think we (The British) influence them just as much.’

‘We actually talked about doing a Barley Wine first, but realistically it would take too long to mature and get out there. So we settled on our take on an IPA; solid with a medium abv and nothing too harsh in terms of bitterness. I wanted it to have a bright finish -which it does!’ admits Dave.

Pic courtesy of Northern Monk

Launch night: Pic courtesy of Northern Monk

‘We should be brewing again soon. Within weeks, actually. We plan to brew once a month, and we aim to have a range of ten beers or so eventually, with four core beers.’

The beer was launched at a hot, humid and typically joyous night at The Sparrow last week. A bloke in a Monk’s habit strode around – as did a similarly-attired dog – and the beer was accompanied by some deliciously-spiced Jerk Chicken with Mango Chutney, courtesy of Maggie Cubbler (Loaded Kitchen). The launch seemed a success, with brewers from the likes of Magic Rock and Saltaire giving support and advice to the fledgling Monks. And, of course, it was entirely right for them to work with The Sparrow at the launch. Russell and David are proud to be located in, and supporting, Bradford.

Keep an eye out for it, and tell the guys what you think. The image, labelling and website is all confidently slick and certainly sets the beer apart on the bar. Hopefully it won’t be too long until we another beer from NMBCo, now that those all-important first steps have been taken. And that’s exactly how I would pitch the beer to you, dear reader – a promising start with work to do – but certainly one to watch.

Check out David’s blog for some excellent posts about his ups and downs in his shift from homebrewer to pro – I recommend them. 

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