‘It tastes…’ I stop, mid-sentence, and take another sip. I’d committed that naive sin of just lobbing the first sip of this new beer down my throat, trying to keep up with the conversation rather than taking time out to enjoy the beer. The beer, deeply gold in the glass, aroma all yeasty spice, pear-drop aroma and muscular, warm sweetness, has knocked my senses sideways a little. I take another sip. ‘It tastes a little like…Duvel?’ I’m conscious that I’ve inflected the word Duvel upwards; completely underestimating the beer at hand. The beer at hand, by the way, is Brass Castle’s Heretic; a saffron-infused strong golden ale in very much the Belgian tradition. And it’s wonderful.
Quite a few of these moments occurred during the afternoon spent at BeerTown in Malton this weekend. Pleasant surprises, little re-adjustments of your senses, those ‘I’m glad we came‘ kind of moments. It’s not unusual to be enjoying good beer in this small Ryedale town; Suddaby’s, sitting behind the Crown pub, had been serving solid, tasty beers for some time. But Suddaby’s is no longer in Malton itself – and punters waiting for a new brewery to champion since then now have two to crack on with.
Malton – sitting just north of York and 30 miles or so from the long shadow of Tadcaster, was home to both the Rose, Russell and Wrangham breweries – with Russell’s being founded in 1771. As is often the way, mergers and buy-outs led to the demise of all three, and Malton became one of these towns whose residents get used to saying that brewing ‘used to be’ part of life here.
I say this with authority, but I’m happy to admit that I hadn’t heard of the Wrangham or Russell breweries before. I steal the Bad Seeds themselves – Chris Waplington and James Broad for a quick chat over the small -but- perfectly-formed – exhibition of salvaged breweriana in one of the rooms just away from the hustle of the main festival, and soon realise that…well, I’m not alone.
‘We just wanted to bring something back to Malton,’ smiles Chris. ‘Malton is a beer town, and hopefully we can be part of it in the future.’ It’s as simple as that; but it’s one thing to say it, and another to do it – Brass Castle and Bad Kitty all deserve a pat on the back for making it happen. Chris and James shoot off to carry on working, and leave me (and Chris, my beer-buddy) to pore over the tin adverts for Roses’ King’s Ale, dark, regal and forthright in a cut-glass goblet, and listen to how Russell’s were told to stop using a triangle logo by a certain Burton brewer – settling on a much less litigious horseshoe instead.
So what of the modern Beer Town?
Pleasantly busy without being cramped all afternoon, Malton seems ready for a new celebration of beer. Try as I might to find a demographic here, it’s pretty tough – young and old, male and female, cask and keg. Again, this itself shouldn’t be a surprise; Malton hosts one of the most talked about food markets each month, and prides itself on being a ‘foodie’ town. And having Bad Seed and Brass Castle in residence , teaming up to bring you some of their favourite beers as well as showcasing their favourites, only heightens that. It’s the missing part of the jigsaw.
Since the success of Bad Kitty (a multiple award-winning porter doused with Vanilla that doesn’t last long whichever bar it appears on) a few years ago, the Pocklington brewer, now relocated to Malton, have become a local hero of beer drinkers in north Yorkshire. Part of me wants to say that Brass Castle play to a different audience than Bad Seed, but after tasting Heretic and their accomplished Brass Lager (Vienna style; all subtle breadiness and grassy snap to finish), I don’t think I can. Phil Saltonstall and Ian Goodall have taken every step of Brass Castle’s development in their stride, moving from solid cask ales to kegged esoterica without losing any of the initial promise and quality that Brass Castle promised.
Bad Seed – all hand-printed labels and primary colours – stand out a mile off on the bar. But, as we all know, eye-catching design ain’t worth a damn if the beer ain’t good. We don’t have to be concerned about that; Bad Seed’s beer is very, very good. They may not have the reach or profile of many of the region’s young start-ups, but thier hit rate is scary. Bad Seed Saison is one of my favourites in the UK, all crackle, zip and zing; South Pacific Pale Ale a fresh, gooseberry-led pale ale that is impossible to stop at one with. Hefeweizen in a triumph of sweet lemon, banana and clove wrapped up in a crisp, refreshing jacket.
I could go on. There wasn’t a bad beer in the bunch, to be honest (well, the Spiced Blueberry Oat Ale was a little rich – a good Christmas beer, perhaps, guys?) – and rest assured, dear reader, I did sample judiciously. Celt Experience’s Native Storm (4.4% abv) put the bitter in Bitter with an all-out attack of super-fresh cut Seville Orange slapping you in the chops. Liverpool Craft Beer Company’s Hop Beast (4% abv) turned out to be a gently floral, sweet and well-brewed amber ale with the potential to be a real summer sessioner.
Weird Beard’s Little Things That Kill (both sating my thirst and taking me back to my teens) and Tiny Rebel’s Full Nelson are as reliable as they are tasty – both in cracking condition, too – and a thumb to those who say that lower-strength Pale Ales are dull. Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss leaves the lips tingling (no sniggering at the back, please) and palate re-charged.
Add in brass bands, impromptu bluegrass concerts, delicious baked goods (always a bonus!) and excellent staff (well done, all) and you’ve got a local beer festival that’s a cut above. One that Malton deserves? Yep, I think so.
Let’s kick off the year with a little bottle round-up from a brewery that I’ve been enjoying on Cask around Yorkshire. The Hop Studio caught my eye back in the summer; their sleek black plastic pumpclips adding an almost futuristic/80’s neon vibe to the bar-top. Thier beers seem to be as simple in flavour too; in the best possible way. When you call a beer Blonde, you don’t want any surprises.
Pilsner (4%abv) was the bottle I immediately made a bee-line for, being a fan of all things Pils, Lager and Alt. The nose is all creamy digestive-biscuit malt, with a light body lurking underneath. Poured into a tall glass (of course), those streams of bubbles appeared up the sides in a way that brings a smile to the lips, and the beer itself drinks long and refreshing with the requisite amount of fresh, lemony citrus and the end. The finish could have been a little dryer, and the condition a little livelier, but overall Pilsner is a refreshing beer indeed.
Gold (4.5%abv) pours a vibrant amber and looks great in the glass; clear as a bell and with an enticingly rocky head. A fruity, full-bodied best, there’s that crushed-biscuit body again but this time topping off the package with an altogether fruitier sweetness; think blackberries and plum rather than citrus peel. Packed with flavour, I wish I’d have bought more bottles of Gold.
On first inspection XS (5.5%abv)seems like a stronger version of Gold but a few sips in you realise that’s a bit of a disservice. XS has much more in common with the likes of Coniston’s XB or Theakston’s Old Peculier in terms of being a stronger Yorkshire ale. Chestnut in colour and with tonnes of crushed nuts and brown bread on the nose, XS is a mouthful of brown sugar, raisin and more roasted nuts – with Hazelnut coming through in particular. Strong and sweet on the finish, it’s another one I was pining for once drunk.
Unfortunately, I had to pour my bottle of Blonde away. A light, sherbety pale that I’ve enjoyed lots of in Cask in the past, the condition of this sample was just not up to scratch – flat, lifeless and murky. A shame, but it hasn’t dented my affection for Hop Studio. Let’s hope 2013 sees a couple more beers added to that core range.
Hop Studio are based in Elvington, near York – and that surrounding area of York is proving to be a fertile breeding ground for new breweries. In the last year or so the likes of Treboom (Yorkshire Sparkle is worth seeking out if you’re a Pale Ale monster like me), Brass Castle, and Yorkshire Heart (who, interestingly, also have a Vineyard) have all popped up, muscling in on bars across York. If you want to keep up with the area, I can’t recommend enough the excellent work done by Gavin Aitcheson and the gang over at The York Press. If the last year is anything to go by, there will be lots more to come from one of Yorkshire’s ale hotspots. It’s not as if you need more reason to go drinking in York, is it?
What a difference a day makes. Today; grim, cold, grey and drizzly. House-clothes and cups of tea. Yesterday; brilliant Autumn sunshine, spit – roasted pork, and great beers. York Beer Festival goes from strength to strength.
As it happens, this year was a bit of a first for me – I was doing a spot of judging. Along the way I’d co-opted Dean Pugh (Mr Foley’s) into joining me, and we in turn hooked up with Ally Shaw (Impy Malting, if you don’t know) as well. The three of us donned our sticky name-badges, stocked up on water and cream crackers, and got cracking.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the judging itself – but I will say that the experience furthered my interest in blind-tasting beers and, in turn, challenging your palate. It was fun, different, and I keep learning. I thought – at one point – that I knew what beer one of them was, but it turned out not to even be at the festival. Good. If I’d have nailed it, I’d have been too smug for words.
Anyway, onto the festival. There’s a real variety to the beers on the list at York. It’s just the right size, and if the weather is great (like it was yesterday) then the outside area comes into its own. Pies, HogRoast, Curry and Beer in the sun make for a heady combination.
Stomachs suitably lined with pulled pork, the beers came thick and fast – here are the ones that stood out. Of course, Brass Castle’s Bad Kitty (5.5%abv got a lot of attention as it won Beer of the Festival; all the more reason to celebrate as they’ve only been brewing a matter of weeks. Bad Kitty’s a rich, lush Vanilla Porter, all chocolate-cheesecake and biscuity goodness. It’s very drinkable and very sweet, but did stand head and shoulders above the rest in the judging. Based up the road in Pocklington, Brass Castle are a brewery I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot about in the months to come.
Derby-based Raw and Steel City collaboration IPA, Raw Steel (6.2%abv) was sweet enough to carry the hops; deep amber in colour, thick mouthfeel and a pleasant hop bite at the end. It was actually a little tamer than I expected, but that’s no bad thing. Raw’s Pacific Ghost IPA (5.9%abv) is well worth seeking out too – much paler but with a lovely lychee/mango note to it.
Another first for me was Tempest Brewery, all the way from the Scottish Borders. Emanation Pale Ale (4.5%abv) was a super-clean, refreshing Pale ale with a nose and finish of Lemon pith and subtle pine. I could drink a whole load of this, and hopefully other people will think so too and we’ll get some more down here.
Ilkley’s IXB (4.5%) was a festival first – but will be on sale throughout Yorkshire in the upcoming weeks. It’s an interesting beer; mid-amber, quite sweet in the body but with a really interesting, juicy-fruit aroma. Imagine a really tasty, really fresh, Zingy Best Bitter and you’re kind of halfway there. Do try it when you see it – I will be.
Brodie’s Hackney Red IPA (6.1%abv)was up next – and proved to be an inspired choice. This stuff really is good; Terracotta-Red, with a big, sugar & candy-sweet body (something I’m developing a real taste for in hoppy beers of late) and a gorgeous, herbal, grassy nose. The alcohol was hidden somewhere in the depths, but I couldn’t find it. Wonderful. Brodie’s are a brewery I’m starting to seek out first of all when perusing a beer fest list, these days.
Another (yes, another) Roast Pork Sandwich was washed down with Welbeck Abbey’s Henrietta (3.6%abv), and I was impressed with the beer – easy-going Pale Ale, with a lovely floral finish. I could see this doing very well in the warmer months, and I’d like to try more of their range.
Finally, a couple of darker beers rounded the session off. Matuska Black Rocket (7%abv)is a beer I’ve read a lot about, and missed out on at GBBF; no fear at York as those wonderful Pivo chaps were manning their usual bar of treats. I really enjoyed Black Rocket – full of roasty/coffee notes and a wonderfully fruity, rounded heart that gave a pitch-perfect Cherry Bakewell note to proceedings. This is one beer I’ll probably have to take on every time I see it, now.
Revolution’s Propaganda finished things off in some style. An Imperial Stout at 7.8%, it’s a protest beer at the new higher duty rate that is coming in during October that will, no doubt, put some brewers off brewing stronger ales. I’ll let Andy from Revolutions explain further.
‘The duty rate change makes no sense to us. It will, it is estimated, put about 40p on the price of a bottle of Belgian beer (e.g. Duvel at >8%) and we believe will put 25-30p on the price of a half of one of our 7.8% beers. The new wave of popular craft beer bars in our towns and cities and the specialist bottled beer off-licences will suffer. The customers who frequent these outlets are genuine beer aficionados who do not over-indulge and commit acts of anti-social behaviour. The new duty rate will have very little impact on the price of cheap, poor quality, high strength alcohol sold in supermarkets and corner shops and which IS bought by younger, less socially responsible individuals intent on getting drunk as quickly and as cheaply as possible and who generally end up a drain on the emergency services.’
It’s a shame because Propaganda is a lovely, lovely beer – one of Revolution’s best yet. Super-smooth, with smoke, fruit and sweetness all living in harmony in the glass. I’ve implored them to bottle some up for aging, and – I’m not sure if it was the beer – but they seemed receptive. Anyway, watch this space – and do try the beer when it pops up at selected pubs during the next few months.
Judging – and drinking – at the York Beer Festival was a pleasure this week, and it’s a firm fixture in my calendar now. If you haven’t dropped by yet, today’s the last day. Also, there’s a pretty darn good food festival in York at the moment too – check them out.
Thanks to Dean, Ally, Andy and Mark Revolutions, Chris and Richard Ilkley and Simon Ridgeside for being good company at varying points throughout the day; normally with a fistful of pulled pork.