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The Oakwood and Me
“He awakens from this dream unable to remember exactly what it was, or much at all beyond the simple fact that he has dreamed about being a child again. …He thinks that it is good to be a child, but it is also good to be a grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood…I will write all of this down one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so for awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.
Or so Bill Denbrough sometimes thinks on those early mornings after dreaming, when he almost remembers his childhood, and the friends with whom he shared it.”
Stephen King, IT, 1985
“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…. they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970
As in most summer childhood memories of the early 1990’s, it’s hot. Really, really hot. Hard, powder-blue sky, short shorts and sweaty polyester replica football shirts. Ice pops dribbling neon sugar-water down your wrist. Leeds United are playing – or have played, actually – and have won. I know this even though we’re playing in the car park of The Oakwood pub with a rapidly-deflating ball. We’ve all been assigned the requisite personas: Speed, Strachan, Chapman, Dorigo et al. Everybody wants to be Gary Speed or Lee Chapman, of course. It’s less of a football game, more a Battle Royale with a 99p football. The radio’s on in the bar and the odd explosive cheer emanates from inside when the double doors to the beer garden swing open, kicked by a guy doing trying to port three pints of Skol to his mates outside. The terrace adjacent to the car park is full, and pints upon pints of gold-hued lager are being necked with almost as much ferocity as the mid-day sun beating down on this corner of Leeds. Cars rolling up and down Easterly Road are beeping their horns and through the tree-line to the dual carriageway beyond I can see the odd flash of a white, yellow and blue bar scarf draped down the side of a nearly-closed car window. We play. The sound from the pub and the terrace is just chatter: low, grown-up talk humming under the cranked commentary, sailing on that ashen crown of cigarette smoke that pubs had in those days.
Thomas Dutton and Co at The Salford Brewery was founded in 1799 and thrived as one of Lancashire’s early major brewers. In 1897 they changed their name to Duttons Blackburn Brewery and in 1928 they began to acquire neighbouring breweries and their pub estates, which fuelled Dutton’s growth in the following years. Around 1936, they built The Oakwood Hotel in Oakwood, Leeds.
Blackburn Brewery Company, Volunteer Brewery in Bolton, Penrith Brewery, Leeds’ Kirkstall Brewery and Adlington’s Mercer’s (of the famous Mercer’s Meat Stout, brewed with meat extract) all ended up in the arms of Dutton’s. At one point they owned well over 600 pubs and off-licences, radiating outward from Blackburn and across Lancashire and Yorkshire.
This carried on until 1964 when Duttons – and their estate – was purchased by London brewer Whitbread. Dutton’s name was obliterated a couple of years later, becoming simply Whitbread West Pennines.
Since the close of the second world war, Whitbread had also been expanding their operations by acquiring smaller, less financially stable regional breweries. By purchasing Dutton’s, Whitbread added another 764 pubs to their already growing estate. By 1971, Whitbread had bought another 26 of these breweries, including the likes of Rhymney, Liverpool’s Threlfall Brewery, and Brickwood, who were housed on the south coast.
The new playground was amazing. When the weekends came, we couldn’t wait to get up there; turn the corner and be faced with a brand-new, multi-level slide and swing set, all standing proudly atop fresh, still-damp wood chippings. I still catch the smell of those chippings in garden centres to this day; deeply earthy, sweet forest floor. When I do, I’m transported straight back to that playground.
The slide; shaped like a fort with two levels that begged to be transformed through the alchemy of an adolescent mind into a rocket, castle or den. Something to be defended. Somewhere to hide.
…And the swings – oh, the swings! The never-ending tournament to see who could go ‘All the way round’ – or, jump off at the highest peak, sail through the air like Eddie the Eagle and land on two feet – began in earnest that afternoon, I’m sure. Ringed by the bushes, which ran the edges of the beer garden and concealed within a labyrinth of dens and hiding places, you had a first-rate world to play in. The pub – boxy, white, stern – lingered in the background like a playground monitor. That was where your parents were. Or – even worse – other adults. A source of pocket money, yes, but this was not their world. This was ours.
The years that followed were prosperous, and Whitbread became a gargantuan operator. Despite buying off-licences and starting a considerable spirits and soft drinks division, when the ‘70’s rolled around, there was another market that Whitbread had their eye on: casual dining. Founded in 1955 by Frank and Aldo Berni, Berni Inns had had proved immensely popular. Their mock-Tudor restaurants catered in ‘quality’ steaks, indulgent desserts and – perhaps most famously – prawn cocktails – at prices keen enough to keep families coming to dine there once a week.
So, with the opening of the Halfway House in Enfield in 1974, The Beefeater Inn was born. Whitbread had been testing the steakhouse concept in the north with Trophy Taverns and Dutton’s Grillhouses but had pulled them all under the Beefeater Steakhouse umbrella by 1979. There was a new gang in town, armed with as much steak, deep fried scampi and black forest gateaux as you could handle.
By 1984 there were 150 Beefeaters in Britain, with Scotland following and a fraught expansion into Germany. Beefeater was a success, and remained a bedrock of Whitbread’s retail division throughout the 1980’s. The Oakwood became one, and remained one right through the 80’s.
As for the pub itself, the memories are vague; really vague. As i sit and type this, at 38 years old, I’m wondering how much of my memory is construct, how much genuine. But, I’ve visited it enough in my mind-palace in talked about it with relatives to assert that regardless of how much truth lies within, I’m happy with it.
The Oakwood didn’t seem like a gloomy or dark pub. Windows ran most of the way around the bar and let plenty of that aforementioned glorious 90’s sunlight in. The carpet was standard-issue red floral, the mouldings faux-brass and the wood stained mahogany, as was the norm in those days. Entering the pub you were faced with a long, glass-backed bar along one wall, with raised seating areas straddling the back walls, behind you. The odd, multi-level design made the pub feel larger than it probably was. Cigarette machines abutted the doors, and probably did a brisk trade on the days the man with the bag full of ciggies didn’t come around, stopping at each table.
But the bit that made it interesting was where the kids ate. The Oakwood had a grotto.
The grotto is strange to comprehend, even for my young mind. Plastic walls molded to look like a cave, green and blue lighting, a bridge that you had to cross to get into it. Piped music; pixie lullabies, perhaps. I remember a booth – a small one, child-sized. Must have been hell for the adults to sit in it. I can hear water. I do remember, clearly, the food. A white, branded plate, laden with steak-cut chips, peas, and chicken nuggets. Burgers with splodges of ketchup dead-centre in the middle of the bun. Orange fish fingers. Ice-cream in little metal bowls. It’s all good. Actually, better than that – It was magical. We must have eaten here loads, but these are the only things I recall of the grotto at The Oakwood.
My Mother worked for a short time behind the bar at The Oakwood. Her recollection of the bar layout matches mine but offers a little more on the grotto: and village: ‘To the right of the bar, as you walked in, there was a step leading down to the grotto, which contained little houses with actual windows, doors, and tiled roofs. Each house contained a table and seats and, as you can imagine, the lighting was dim. Before you got to the houses there was a stream with a bridge and a tree. There was a water feature inside that trickled water into the stream. It was like a cave with lights.’
Katie Hargrave, who grew up nearby, has kindly passed on a few of her family’s’ pictures for use in this piece. Although not dated, you can see the tiled roofs of the little huts. In one, the railings of a well, which also contained running water. She recalls enjoying birthday parties with Mr Men cake. A munchkin village inside a pub, indeed.
Poster Valerie Clapham on the Leodis Photographic Archive is also on the birthday party trail: “I can remember when this pub was done out, they created a children’s room like no other I ever seen, at least in this country. They had a stream running through, there were trees and plants, it was brilliant. You could book the room for parties, both my two had their Birthday parties there. That would have been in the late 1970s”
Distinguished Leodensian beer writer Barrie Pepper- who also lives nearby – recalls: “ I visited it when it was a fish restaurant a couple of times. The food was ok but it was a bit pretentious! (Later) it had streams running through it with dinky little bridges…’
As Barry attests, the area where the grotto stood in those days was, for a long time, a fish restaurant – which may seem like an odd choice as a bolt-on to a suburban boozer but for the upwardly mobile residents of Oakwood it was popular enough.
I can’t find any other references to the ‘Grotto’ design being used elsewhere; the thought of the Leeds one being the only one is a comforting one, at least.
It’s Christmas Day. As usual, we’re at our grandparents. Despite my uncle’s slightly ruffled appearance due, no doubt, to Christmas eve excesses, it’s been suggested that the younger men of the house decamp to The Oakwood for a beer or two whilst dinner’s being prepared. My dad, brother, uncle and I trudge up Oakwood Lane to find a buzzy, slightly lairy Oakwood pub and spend a pint or so – forced, I’m sure, in my uncle’s case – catching up before walking back home and (hopefully) finding a fully-cooked Christmas dinner prepared and ready. I had received a Walkman that very morning and was besotted with it. Orange-foamed headphones, the lot. Gunmetal gray with yellow detailing, along with a double cassette of Now ‘91. (I didn’t remember the year or full tracklisting – I’ve just looked it up. Heh, memories). I was obsessed with The Scorpion’s biggest hit ‘Wind of Change’ – it’s haunting, whistled refrain and unabashed power-ballad chorus coupled with just the right amount of mystery peppering the lyrics really hit me where I lived in those days. I sat with my coke, drowning out the yuletide pre-lunch topers, spongy headphones on, lost in a world of German power ballads.
The 90’s, however were a different matter. In his 2014 book, Brewers, Brands and Pubs in Their Hands, Tony Thornton writes “….With Whitbread’s propensity to experiment and introduce new restaurant concepts, observers wondered whether it (Beefeater) was being starved of investment.” The brand became a little dated and declined – hardly helped by the BSE crisis that hit the UK livestock trade in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. A site restructure meant that 50 sites, including The Oakwood Beefeater, was sold.
Word spreads like a summer heat-rash on the streets. The Oakwood is no more. It’s going to be ….a McDonalds.
We can’t believe it.
It’s like all of our christmases have come at once. McDonalds was the sole preserve of ‘town’; a pre- or post- cinema treat. Soon, those salty-delicious fries and squishy, saucy burgers are going to be on our doorstep. What a life.
Except, when it opens, we’re all a little too old to really care. We go, of course. A couple of our friends have actually gained employment there – tales of food allowance if you work a certain amount of numbers astound the gang. Free McDonalds!
Planning permission documents place the Oakwood Pub becoming a McDonalds in 1998. In 2006, a further 239 sites (mostly ones not attached to a Premier Inn) were sold to Mitchells & Butler, who still operate the brand today.
The Oakwood was a compass, a turnpike in our young world at the time. The green and yellow Yorkshire Rider buses which took us to ‘town’ (Leeds City Centre) stopped there, headed westward and – as is the way of a lot of pubs on roundabouts – the stop was referred to as ‘The Oakwood stop.’ To the north of the roundabout, Roundhay Park lay with it’s vast, green spaces, lakes, ice cream vans and concerts – perhaps the place that encapsulates my childhood the best. To the south lay our house and that of of our grandparents, as well as our schools. Friend’s houses dotted all around the vicinity. With the opposite parade of shops boasting a chinese takeaway (The New Dor Bo – still there) and Big Mama’s pizza, a launderette (Soap Opera – still there), my second-cousins Butcher’s shop (seriously; when i say the meat trade runs in the family I mean it) a real, reach-out-and-grab-the-produce grocer (Fruit Bowl), two newsagents (one which was, almost retro-futuristically called ‘Candylines’), a branch of Threshers (Also owned by Whitbread at one point – RIP) and, for a short time, an grimy, dark independent video rental shop which had a couple of tatty arcade machines – The Oakwood roundabout was pretty much the centre of the world. And presiding over it all was the art-deco grandeur of The Oakwood pub.
It’s only later – much later – that I realise that I never got to drink beer in The Oakwood. I never got to catch up with the gang as adults, buying a couple of rounds or lingering over a boozy lunch. Our kids won’t play in that playground, the source of so much happiness for me, my brothers and sister, and our pals. Yes, everybody drifts away – such is life – but the Oakwood looms large despite me never enjoying it on its own terms. Our timelines didn’t align, our stories just fell out of sync. I’d have loved my first underage pint to have been in there.
But it’s still there, in a way. I can visit McDonalds, and feel strange; like I’ve slipped into another dimension and there’s only me who knows it. I can order a burger, and mentally draw up where things used to be. The girl serving me wouldn’t have even been born when it was a pub. I can eat my burger, feeling odd, like a temporally-displaced character from a Philip K Dick story. I can drive past it, and point it out to my daughter and wife, then spend the next ten minutes recounting the stories I’ve just told you. At least there’s that. Despite the golden arches, it still looks like The Oakwood.
The Oakwood and me: we parted on good terms.
A memory: I’m working on Saturdays now, in my grandfather’s Butcher’s shop. I get home around five and am old enough to kind of do what I want. I have a friend – who lives over the road – whose mum lets him watch Horror movies. He’s a little older than the usual gang, and I’m a little older now, too. I go over to his house, knowing that Saturday night is film night. I knock on the door. He’s eating, and could I come back later? asks him mum, wearily. So I take myself up to the chinese takeaway and buy what, to me at the time, represented the absolute pinnacle of self-sufficient comfort food: New Dor Bo’s Fried Rice. I ask for a fork and with my steaming aluminium carton in tow, cross the dual carriageway to sit on The Oakwood’s wall. I gobble my food, knowing that when I’m finished I’ll wander back towards home. I’ll call for my mate and we’ll watch Halloween and The Thing in the dark, scaring ourselves witless. Easterly Road is busy, people getting home after work, readying themselves for the weekend. The sun’s setting. Behind me, kids play in the playground. Our playground. They look young.
I don’t know them.
Well, with Great Yorkshire Bottled Beer all packaged up and sent to the publishers, I ventured out of my cave this week – and with a brand-spanking new bar to visit, too: Bundobust.
I’d been intrigued about this bar after hearing the concept – still at embryonic stage then – given to me by Marko Husak during this interview. It seems so long ago now, but upon walking through the doors to this fine establishment, I realised that although it may have taken Marko and his team a little longer than expected to execute their audacious idea, the wait was worth it.
Why? Well, it’s simply unlike anything that’s currently trading. Much like Friends of Ham before it, the concept seems so simple, yet no-one had really picked up the baton and ran with it before. This is not a restaurant; it’s a bar, serving great beer with great food.
The food is the ace in the pack here. You can trust the creative team behind The Sparrow to ensure that the beer is ‘on point’ without any doubt; shiny keg fonts and two full fridges showcase Yorkshire heavyweights (Saltaire, Kirkstall, Magic Rock),with US and Euro imports providing backing vocals to give plenty of stylistic choice to accompany your food. At the time of my visit, you could have opted for a smoked porter, Vienna lager, pale ale, weissbeer, fruit beer, IPA and pilsner at any one time – if you were so inclined, of course. Beer and food matching isn’t pushed here; it’s just a matter of course, casually dangled in front of you rather than pushed under your nose.
Courtesy of Prashad (the Drighlington-based, award-winning family restaurant), the menu is short, tidy and incisive, ranging in price between £3 – £6, depending on your hunger levels. Think of it as South Indian tapas (I’m loathe to use the term Street Food, given that you’re not on the street) and you’re in the right ballpark – but what food it is. Small, manageable pots of deliciousness that have you wondering what you’re going to try next before you’ve finished the one you’re enjoying. When you’re a committed carnivore – the son and grandson of a butcher – vegetarian menus can provide little comfort, but there’s nothing to fear here. Flavour, texture and variety flood the senses, and if you’ve been canny about your beers, you’ve got a unique and vibrant meal on your hands.
…and that’s perhaps a good word to use here. Vibrant. The whole bar is vibrant, with chatter and murmurs of approval, laughter and hustle from the kitchen; the staff attentive and friendly. Our dainty stack of Bhaji – held together with a sweet and sour chutney – redefined Bhaji in my book: dense yet light, the perfect blend of cauliflower, potato and spice, quite unlike the deep-friend, gram-flour heavy cannonballs usually served up. Alongside a crisply floral Coriander Pilsner (the house beer, such is its popularity), that little pot defined the menu; tasty, easy, keenly priced.
Mikeller’s bright, light US Pale disappeared in pints (and so it should, given its 2.4% abv) yet provided the perfect backdrop to a frivolous pot of popcorn and crushed poppadum doused in garlic and coriander oil. Finger – lickin’ good. Bhel Puri was the definition of moreish; cold yet strangely warming given the afterglow of heat that followed each mouthful – a pot of cold, snappy rice and vermicelli noodle, sweet chutney and chili spice. Camden Pale doused the heat here, and provided a little sweetness to balance the sour heat.
Decor-wise, you’re looking at a long room with a bar at the end, including an open kitchen and a pleasant alley outside to sit in the sun. Sure, there’s some long expanses of wall that could perhaps do with some art on them, but its early days yet. You order at the bar – food and beer – and this could cause delays on busier times. But these are minor quibbles, and ones that I’m sure the team will sort out as they find their feet. Bundobust is a welcome and well-executed breath of fresh air to Leeds’ dining scene, and they’ve scored another patron in me on the strength of a single visit. If you’ve not been, I recommend you go now before the mainstream press pick up the chatter and descend to ‘discover’ it, as I am sure they will.
The thing is, you could go here to solely to drink, such is the bar. But I know that when I go back – and I won’t leave it as long this time – I’m going to find it hard to resist ordering a little portion of Bhaji to go with my cold one. And therein lies the beauty of Bundobust.
Festivals and Pub Openings
Hemsworth 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.
Now 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
….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.
Wharfedale launch “The Ales Way”
Wharfedale 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.
Yorkshire Beer News Round-Up
There’s been a lot going on around here of late; so I thought I’d break with tradition and round-up a few bits and pieces that may be of interest.
First up, Woodie’s in Headingley has transformed – via a very swift refurbishment – into a self-styled ‘Craft Beer House’. Owned by Greene King, Woodie’s is one of Headingley’s old-school and now sits alongside Arcadia in offering Real Ale and, well, craft beer. I haven’t visited yet, but Ghost Drinker has.
Speaking of refurbishment, Cooper’s (Market Town Taverns’ Guiseley outpost) has also increased its Cask Ale offering and added even more keg lines. Whether the new look gets rolled out across all of its pubs remains to be seen, but given MTT’s hit rate and expertise at creating well-stocked, attractive alehouses, I’d wager it’ll be a success.
Sticking with bars and pubs, Leeds heavyweights North Bar won ‘Best Drinks Selection’ in last week’s Publican Awards. Richly deserved too – as the blurb states, Matt, Kath, Jim and the team work incredibly hard to keep North delivering hit after hit. If you’re in Leeds and want to toast them, they are currently holding their annual Lowlands event. Not that you need much excuse to drink in North.
Leeds Brewery also beat off competition to bag the ‘Best Microbrewing Pub Company’ award at the same event. Leeds’ pub estate is a true success story; the recent opening of The Duke Of York marking the brewery’s first foray outside of Leeds. I’d imagine it won’t be their last. Well done all.
The Nook Brewhouse in Holmfirth are hosting a suitably Tour De France themed Spring Beer Festival, kicking off on the 10th April. Pictured is their stunning poster, which was too nice not to post up here. You can check out details of their new monthly specials – including a collaboration Breakfast Stout with Grumpy Mule Coffee. Also, there’s a new independent Beer Festival on the scene – Wakefield’s Festival of Beer. It takes place in May, and keep an eye here for more details as they appear.
Speaking of monthly specials, Ilkley have created a eye-catching yearly Mayan calendar to help you figure out what’s coming next.
…And finally, Great Heck Brewery will be hosting a meet the Brewer event at Northallerton’s Tithe Bar. Denzil Vallance, Great Heck’s self-styled overlord, tweeted last week that the brewery will be expanding in 2014, which is testament to the popularity of his beers, both bottled and on cask.
Old Friends: Brown Cows, Goldfish and Arctic Explorers
Years ago, when I was meekly attending beer festivals with a notebook in hand, dragging my wife along with me (I didn’t really know anyone in ‘Beer’ then), most of the beers I chose were chosen purely because of the pumpclip, or the scant tasting notes offered by the festival guides. I had no real awareness of what I wanted, what was ‘good’, or even what the liquid inside those barrels, jacketed and reclining on stillage, would offer.
I resorted to something I might still do to some extent today; if there’s a link to something that appealed to me, I’d pick it. Something football-based, perhaps. Horror films. A brewery that I knew was near me. Something with a dog on the label (rich pickings in the world of real ale, I’ll tell you). Or, like this week’s beer, one named after a goldfish. Well, kind of.
Years ago, when we first started ‘courting’ (I do like that term. It’s warm, fuzzy. Nice.), Louise and I bought some goldfish. Nothing too high-maintenance, we thought. One – mine – was a bold, boisterous white guy called Morrissey. Louise’s was a more graceful, demure golden variant called, oddly, Captain Oates. Despite her naming it after a character’s horse in The OC – a show she liked at the time – it wasn’t until later that we found out that Lawrence Oates, a Londoner who famously met his end on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica , served in the West Yorkshire Battalion; so there was an unintentional link there.
It was the pumpclip – named after my goldfish, it would seem – that made me choose Captain Oates Mild (4.5%abv), brewed by Susan and Keith Simpson at The Brown Cow Brewery near Selby. It was delicious; one of those beers that really, really stays with you. It’s a multiple award-winner, and I have to say I’ve passed it up on previous beer festival trips since then. It was ‘ticked’, done, tasted. It was good. It was recommended.
So a recent shopping basket of beers from Yorkshire Ales brought a bottle of it into my palm again. All those memories of that festival, the link with the pet, Louise excitedly spotting the name and imploring me to try the beer, came flooding back. The beer didn’t disappoint; topped with a creamy, tan head, the near-black ruby beer carries a nose of bitter chocolate, mild coffee and digestive biscuit notes. The body is smooth, comforting and throws a little nut character into the mix; almonds, to be specific. Sweet, then smooth, then subtly drying in the finish. A moreish, creamy dark mild with an award list as long as your arm, it was immensely satisfying to return to a beer after all those years and find it better than your memory serves. Often it’s not the case, when it comes to beer.
I paired it with Mrs Simpson’s Vanilla Porter. Subtitled ‘Thriller in Vanilla‘ , this 5.1% abv Porter is as satisfying as the previous beer, if not more so. Black again but with an almost purplish hue when held to the light, the aroma bursts with cream, some oakiness, rummy truffle-led notes and more of that signature chocolate digestive-biscuit personality that the Captain Oates had. It’s a heady mix, and one that prepares you for a muddled taste but it never happens – the taste is light and graceful – a fruity, rich porter with black fruit notes and just a swirl of cream at the end to live up to its flamboyant billing.
Brown Cow are one of those breweries that don’t make a fuss and brew a small range of beers incredibly well; practices honed after years of getting the recipe ‘just right’. It’s also great to link up with a beer from the past again and find it in rude health. I hope they continue, and I hope our paths will cross again – sooner, this time.
Wharfe Bank Brewery Unveil New Look for 2014
Pool-in-Wharfedale’s own Wharfe Bank Brewery have started 2014 with a rebrand and new identity to match their expanding business. Reflecting thier geographical location – and a subtle name change – the brewery hopes that the new look will serve them well as they progress from the brewery that begun in the basement brewery at The Fox and Newt Brewpub, to one that’s known both nationally and internationally.
From the press release, MD and founder Martin Kellaway credits new brewer Steve Crump with bringing the best out in the WB Range, as well as bringing new ideas to the table. ” (Steve) was appointed Head Brewer in 2013, and was instrumental in the enhancement and evolvement of the beer range and key to developing the exciting new series of rotating beers using unusual ingredients and modern and diverse brewing techniques. Steve will bring inspirational flavours to the local and international market with limited edition beers.”
“Steve is already bringing his flair and talent to the fore. I am proud that Steve can deliver the new brewery vision and make it a reality with the passion he brings to the brew house.”
In October 2013 Wharfe Bank showcased its new and impressive range of beers at the world’s leading food fair, Anuga, in Germany. Taking a modern taste of Yorkshire to an international market place, the brewery trialled Yorkshire XPA -now named within its permanent range of keg beers as Crystal Rain (a 4.3% pilsner -style beer) – and the complete bottled range. In competition with more than 460 drink exhibitors, 139 of which were from the UK, Wharfe Bank secured a raft of international sales enquiries from 12 different countries and this success has supported a new sales strategy to expand Wharfe Bank’s export business across Europe, Asia and America.
Martin concludes, ” Our success so far can be attributed to a genuine passion for beer, and the new dedicated team have the talents to bring about a new Wharfe Bank for 2014 and beyond.”
A Trio from The Celt Experience
I’m not being flippant when I say that I don’t really know much about modern Welsh Beer. Aside from the classics – the story of Wrexham Lager, the big boys (boyos?) of Brains and the more well-known (and loved, I might add) names of Purple Moose, Waen and Otley, the first ‘new beer’ I’d had from Wales of late was the power-chord blast of Tiny Rebel Brew Co, a thoroughly modern gang who, in my opinion, still place great value on balance of flavour, despite rocking all the right notes in terms of branding and placement.
I’d been hearing things about The Celt Experience for a while – good things – but only managed to get my hands on their wares late last year when they popped up in Booths. From the striking black-and-metallic labels to the considered, tastefully brewed beers within ,the whole package shouts mystery, whilst projecting the rural, almost gothic feel that the brewery’s advertising suggests. Overall, The Celt Experience brew in three sub-ranges; Core (where these beers come from), the esoteric Shapeshifter series and Ogham; beers of a stronger, more contemplative feel. Having tasted these base beers, I hold high hopes for the rest of the range.
Golden (4.5% abv) is up first; a graceful poem to doing all the little things right. Burnished gold, the aroma comes alive with Citrus jelly undercut by fresh, herbal grassiness. The body of the beer – vital for a golden ale – has a good weight to it, rich with grain and cereal before more orange and lemon washes through to clean things up. The bitterness is robust and long-lasting, making this a pale ale with a voice – a pale ale that will please seasoned hop-heads.
Bronze (4.2% abv) lives up to its name – Copper hued and lively, with a nose like freshly-baked flapjack, all oats and honey. Before the sweetness has a chance to settle on your tongue, more of that aforementioned bitterness arrives, turning the entire pint on it’s head. Thick, creamy and bitter? Rich and refreshing? You bet. Misplaced or not, Bronze reminded me of the best Kentish ales; robust and almost stinging in hop attack. Wonderful stuff; and nice to drink something with a considered British – style hop profile, too.
Finally – and trust me, I didn’t want this tasting to end – comes Bleddyn 1075 (5.6% abv). The brewers describe it as an IPA; but I personally felt that it had more akin to true strong Pale Ales, such as Three Tun’s Cleric’s Cure or Hop Studio’s Vindhya, such was the balance of malt and hop. Semantics, perhaps – the bottom line is that Bleddyn is a fantastically balanced beer that’s not to be messed with. Amber in colour ,there’s nutty, creamily-rich biscuit again that gets hammered into oblivion by waves of Grapefruit-led bitterness, high and dry, then finishing sweet again, leaving a trace of alcohol warmth behind.
As you can probably tell, I really, really enjoyed this trio – and it’s a shame it’s taken me so long to put them up here. The Celt Experience’s beers are starting to appear on bars in Lancashire and Yorkshire, so don’t miss a chance to catch them. After all, the more we drink, the more they’ll have to make and send over, right?
Do pop over to the website; it’s one of the better ones out there and has some lovely, moody photos of the gorgeous landscape from whence these brews were….well, brewed.
Better Beer Blogging at Hop Hideout
At the end of last year, Jules Gray – one of the duo behind Sheffield’s new Beer shop, Hop Hideout, asked me if I’d pop down and ‘do something’ in conjunction with them. I’ve hosted tastings before, matching beer with food and such, but only done one discussion-led event before. I enjoyed it a lot, so agreed.
But what to talk about? Well, I blog. I’ve been blogging a long time and, in that time, blogging certainly has changed. I’ve got views – which I might not always deem appropriate to discuss on The Good Stuff; but views nonetheless, as those who have spent any amount of time drinking with me will know. The blog has been fairly successful; I’ve been nominated for awards, and landed a book off the back of it (amongst other things, of course). I’ve helped organise blogging events, done the odd bit of paid, freelance work – and The Good Stuff has been mentioned in a fair amount of press over the years. Let’s not forget either that Jules herself is a pretty accomplished blogger, who has taken a huge leap and set up a business.
So, Better Beer Blogging it is – 28th February. Come down to Sheffield, pull up a chair and we’ll have a chat. If you’re thinking about starting a beer blog – perfect. If you’ve been blogging a while but feel a little stuck in a rut – perfect. If you’re just being nosy – perfect. You’re all welcome.
Tickets are on sale at the shop (which covers the cost of the event, rather than my pocket!), and the event will be held next door at The Electric Candlelight Cafe. Of course, there will be plenty of beer for you to pick up at Hop Hideout. If you have any questions, contact the guys at HH.
See you there!
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