A 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! ‘
He 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.’
‘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.
Of all the breweries re-modelling their ‘look’ at the moment (seemingly everyone!), Hawkshead are probably the ones who ‘need’ to do it the least; such is the position that the Staveley-based brewer enjoys in both the drinking and brewing worlds. Spot a Hawkshead beer on the bar – from classics such as Red and Lakeland Gold to newer, bolder additions such as Dry Stone Stout and Cumbrian Five Hop – and you know you’re in for a treat (something Tandleman recently attested to). Matt Clarke and his brewing team are responsible for beers with not only bold flavour, but grace in balance and a consistency record that puts them firmly in my top five UK brewers. One suspects I’m not the only one.
Still, freshening up the look of a pumpclip can do wonders for new markets, and the new range of bottled beers certainly reflect that. Smaller in volume (330ml, with the exception of the stout), for a start, than their tried-and-tested range of Windermere Pale (which is constantly embroiled in a bitter three-way battle with Rooster’s Yankee and Magic Rock’s High Wire for my favourite British Pale Ale), Lakeland Gold and Brodie’s Prime, which reflects the stronger alcohol content and section of the market that these beers are perhaps aimed at.
Joining the sublime company of Cumbrian Five Hop and NZPA is the almost plainly-named IPA. Weighing in at a modest 7% abv, it displays all of that boisterous character that you’d expect from one of Matt Clark’s beers; it screams with hop personality. Pouring a rich amber, the body is sweet, muscular and rippling with boiled sweet and round, soft malt notes. The billowing head fills the top of the glass and you can’t help but stick your nose in there each time you sip; mango, lychee, strawberry and pineapple aroma all whizz by. Alcoholic heat rounds off the sip, reminding you that this IPA came from the Cumbrian hills and is as fortifying as they come.
Dry Stone Stout (4.5%abv), bottled, retains all of the character that I recall from trying on cask late last summer. Rich chocolate truffle dominates the nose – a sweet, rummy note that carries on into the body, where it’s joined by a little fruit to lift proceedings – dark cherry and plum. The finish is dry, woody and creamy, giving the whole beer a Black Forest Gateaux feel. It’s certainly on the sweeter side of stout, but not too much so. Moreish and satisfying.
Finally, Brodie’s Prime Export (nice use of the term Export, too – you don’t see that much these days, do you?) brings new dimensions to the hard-to-find (well, in my neck of the woods, anyway- and I’m talking about on cask) classic. BP’s a bit of a stand-out in the Hawkshead canon – it’s not really a stout but sometimes sold as such on bars – more of a strong dark mild (Leeds’ Midnight Bell sometimes suffers from this identity crisis). Lifting the alcohol levels makes complete sense for this bottled version, and it’s quite a beer.
Dark ruby when held to the light, with a fleeting, tan collar, there’s almond and Dundee cake on the nose; the mouthfeel is thick, slightly oily and tongue-coating and loaded with tobacco, cherry, chocolate, blackberry and mild coffee flavours. the finish is booming; sweet, then bitter, then finishing with a gentle, soporific afterglow of alcohol. Brodie’s Prime Export is a deliciously complex and intriguing beer.
Damn fine beers indeed – if you hop over to the website you can read more about other limited-edition bottles that Hawkshead are producing at the moment.
I like the aforementioned revamped look; the ‘Beer from The Lakes’ strapline is evocative and the clips look good on the bar – especially the cleaned-up, emboldened core range ones. As usual, I maintain my stance that the best re-brands are often the more subtle ones. The new range-look certainly looks good on a bottle. Luckily, Hawkshead can always back up changes with great-tasting beer.
Looks 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.
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.
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 Brewery – Pass. 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 Year – York 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.
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 Year – Beer 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.
Best Beer Book or Magazine – CAMRA’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!
It’s easy to look backward as well as forward for a brewery of a certain size. If you’re lucky enough to be part of one with a substantial body of work behind it – such as Shepherd Neame or Fuller’s for example, then you’ve got at your hands a treasure trove of ideas and recipes gathering dust in some vault somewhere, waiting for the likes of John Keeling or Richard Frost to pull them, blinking, into the modern sunlight and give us all a taste of the past.
You can dismiss beers such as Shepherd Neame’s new Brilliant Ale (4% abv) – the latest in a short rerun of older Sheps recipes – as raiding the storecupboard when you’ve got nothing fresh in for dinner. Fuller’s managed to avoid this trap with the excellent Past Masters range by simply putting their money where their mouth is, creating beers that not only stand up in their respective categories, but in most cases exceed them. Shep’s don’t seem to enjoy the same kudos as Fuller’s do, but deserve applause at least for thinking of other things to keep us interested.
Yes, they’ve installed the Pilot Plant, following the likes of Brains, Bath Ales and – my personal favourite – Thwaites – to flex a few unused muscles in terms of brewing ‘off-menu’, but realistically people will always, no matter how hard they try, see these ventures as only satellites orbiting the big-brand planet. Like I said, it’s not a bad thing at all, but doesn’t feel quite authentic to me. Playing on heritage is the one ace in the pack that these guys do have, no matter how far removed those beers can sometimes end up from those halcyon days.
I like these beers. They feel cosy in many respects – even after reading up on Brilliant Ale and understanding that actually it’s a complete update, using Cascades rather than EKG’s, but hey – at least it’s their recipes to mess about with. IPA was pleasantly robust and sweet, with a decent bitterness and yes, a ‘British’ feel about. Double Stout was an oaky, roasty mouthful that – again – felt like a big hug. Brilliant Ale is simple, sure; light – almost flintily lager-esque in the nose, slightly sweet with a decent, dry finish – but it’s good. I’d buy it over Master Brew and Spitfire any day.
Plus, it may be anathema to some to even mention it, but the labels are excellent; even up close the attention to detail is gorgeous. Brown bottles only seal the deal. You see pump clips like these on the bar, and you’re likely to buy it.
…And I’m glad that Shep’s are giving me that chance. These beers don’t feel ersatz or bandwagon-jumping. I want my big brewers to give me something different – something that the newer guys can’t. A story, perhaps – not just endless interpretations of newer styles which will always feel exactly like that. Novelty. They are widely available and offer a glimpse of heritage to the layman; which I think is really important. The average drinker is probably not going to get too hung up on authenticity but buy into the idea of beers like this – reconnecting in a whole new way with the brewery in the process.
I’ll be watching to see what crops up next. There; you have my attention.
Disclosure: I was sent the bottle of Brilliant Ale by Shepherd Neame, but bought the rest.
Well, despite some brief rays of English sunshine a few days back, it would seem that there’s still time for those ‘winter warmers’ to serve a purpose, beer-wise. Which is what I found myself craving after a particularly cold commute from work last week.
Three Tuns Brewery have been brewing in Shropshire since the mid 1600’s in one way or another, according to their excellent website. This is some achievement, and by their reckoning makes them the oldest brewery in the UK. It certainly looks the part; tower brewery, lots of brick and a bucolic, rural feel about the place. It looks like the ideal place to spend a long summer’s afternoon, watching the light slowly fade beyond the fields….ahem. Sorry.
Cleric’s Cure (5% abv) pours golden and with an aroma that’s deep and rich; toffee apple, cereal and a hint of pear-drops float about to give you an inkling that this is no pushover of a beer. The body is sweetly smooth and undeniably robust as it finishes with more of those interesting, Duvel-esque pear notes and a rising, assertive bitterness. The whole package comes wrapped in alcoholic warmth, which is what made it such a perfect beer for such a cold night.
A classic strong Golden Ale – if you ask me (although the site says it found inspiration in IPA’s) – it’s probably one of the best strong beers I’ve tasted. Robust, excellently balanced and well-brewed, Cleric’s Cure is a pleasure to drink – and a cure I could really get used to.
It’s always a pleasure to drink beers from a brewery who are comfortable in their own skin; brewing beers that appeal to everyone, without bells or whistles. Flavour, you feel, is king in Shropshire. Salopian have been around for some time now (they appeared in 1995) and produce a range of beers that have never let me down; they are often the first name I look for when attending beer festivals. These two bottles are no example to that rule.
Shropshire Gold is one I’m familiar with; a zippy golden ale with masses of lime and lemon rind on the finish and a body of smooth sweetness. The beer is clean, refreshing and everything you want in a light (3.8% abv) session ale. It holds its own against other personal favourites in this style such as Hopback’s Summer Lightning, Ossett’s Yorkshire Blonde and Hawkshead’s Lakeland Gold.
Darwin’s Origin is – frankly – brilliant. Very much a ‘cult’ beer – in so much as that not a lot of people talk about it, yet everyone seems to rate it – it has endless capacity to surprise. Weighing in at only 4.3% abv, it manages to pull off that trick that Oakham do so well – brewing lighter beers that are jam-packed with flavour.
Darwin does it all with grace; copper-coloured and full of sweet fruit on the nose – Seville orange marmalade , mango, strawberry. After marveling at the aroma for a while, you finally taste it and are immediately rewarded with light, shortcake sweetness which transforms mid-gulp into high, dry grapefruit and pine needle at the end.
I should have got more of these, I rue. An entirely modern beer wrapped in a plaintive, traditional jacket, you wonder if Darwin’s Origin is being overlooked by those seeking more modernity from their branding and ethos. More fool them. If you’ve not tried this beer, then rectify that immediately.
Both beers are available at Best of British Beer – whose details are on my ‘retailers’ page.
We used to spend holidays in Cornwall with our Grandparents when I was a child; it seemed like it took years to get there in the family car, stopping off along the way countless times to stock up on Ribena and boiled sweets, rewarded finally with countryside that seemed sort of like ours in Yorkshire, yet entirely different. The beaches and the sea always seemed a little more picture-postcard than our often wild Yorkshire coast, a little more glamorous perhaps. Despite being in the UK, Cornwall always felt a little foreign to me.
Beer-wise, it’s another blind spot of mine. I last visited on a stag do to Newquay in 2008 -ish; a fun weekend in a ropey place. Newquay was not what I expected, but we did the usual and gorged ourselves on Doom Bar, Betty Stogs and beach bottles of Wooden Hand and Tribute. Only one pub got repeat visits; a bluesy music – and – real- ale place near the infamous Bertie’s Surf Shack. I can’t quite recall its name – can someone help? Could it have been Leadbelly’s?
Anyway, the crisp lines and monochrome labels of Harbour Brewing portray a different kind of Cornwall, perhaps. The website looks excellent – sleek and moody, with an almost David Lynchian shot of a wind-battered harbour on the landing page. Rhys Powell and Eddie Lofthouse seem to know exactly who they are already in terms of beer – and Skinner’s they are not. Bright labels which evoke old coffee cans (to me) adorn the core range, and the silver-and-black treatment (perhaps echoing the photography on the site) dresses the specials, which is what I’ve got my hands on.
Double India Pale Ale No 3 (7%abv) pours a lovely russet-amber shade; more akin to that of a rich Scotch ale than an IPA, and promises some serious malty action. That creamy-yet-clean biscuit note does indeed underpin the nose, which abounds with Orange peel and grassy pine needle. On the sip, there’s additional lychee fruitiness which is then washed away with a little ripple of effervensence, leaving behind a green, fresh – but altogether restrained – bitterness. It’s a smooth, gently sweet IPA, and has me wondering (which I don’t say often) whether it’s a little too restrained?
Overall, it’s a good beer, and manages to shoehorn in flavour and vibrancy without overloading you with alcohol and heat.
Porter No. 6 (6.8%abv) shows a similarly restrained hand but with the dark malts involved, and is a hell of a glass of flavour for it. It’s a lovely ruby-blackcurrant colour, with a nose that evokes Autumn and woodland; all leather, burnt wood and earthy, black pepper notes (apologies, got a bit Goolden there!). The flavour is powerful without being strong – waves of digestive biscuit and hazelnuts at the start, then bitter chocolate and espresso notes at the end. It’s like a box of Black Magic in beer form and a perfect fit for the snowy afternoon that I chose to drink it in.
Harbour certainly seem to be doing a good job in getting their beer up and down the country, and I’m looking forward to picking up more of them. The beer is flavourful and balanced, and quintessentially British, which appeals to me greatly. There’s no feeling that Harbour are trying to be something they aren’t, and long may that continue.
There’s something about Porter. The term alone evokes history; slightly odd to the uninitiated (What’s Porter?), individual, archaic, even. A time when beer names were not discussed they just were. Plain. Entire, even. What’s more, I know exactly how I like mine.
Firstly, there’s got be a ruby hue in there. There’s too many breweries around the world making light stouts – and making them too black – and calling it Porter. When done right, I want fruit, smoke and grain in the glass. Repeat after me: Porter is not Stout.
St Peter’s Old Style Porter (5.1%abv) knows what I like and delivers it. It pours wine-dark; that sexy slash of Ruby glinting within the deep brown beer. Push through that fleeting, tan head and there’s plenty going on; biscuit, almonds, blackcurrant, and wisps of smoke floating around as if it’s been sat in a barrel for a while. Echoes of sourness back that feeling up, although I don’t think that’s the case. It’s briefly drying, but remains light and – well, almost – refreshing.
St Peter’s Old Style Porter. A Porter that knows what I like.