Wednesday, 12 September 2018

From the Archives

Gorton & Abbey Hey - September 1988

Continuing my re-run of old pub crawls from Opening Times the local CAMRA magazine I've edited for over 30 years (May 1988 was my debut) this one covers more of East Manchester and was written by the now sadly deceased Rhys Jones. As last time the photos show the pubs as they are today (well, about 18 months ago in this case but I know there have been few changes since).

This month's crawl started at Holt's well-refurbished Waggon & Horses on Hyde Road. A week before we'd voted the Waggon in as September's Pub of the month, so we arrived with high expectations; we weren't disappointed with both beers rated very good, the bitter being marginally preferred to the mild.

Across the road is Wilsons' (Pennine Hosts) Lord Nelson. This is a modernised one-room pub, though some small attempt has been made to provide separate drinking areas. Wilsons and Websters bitters
were side by side on handpump. The pumps were unmarked, and beermats throughout the pub advertised Websters - is this a ploy to wean customers who just as for 'bitter' on to the less characterful brew?  We refused to be manipulated and ordered Wilsons, which turned out to be of slightly above-average quality and came in some cases with a generous head. The plastic beams and intrusive canned music did not impress. To sum up, the place doesn't really feel like a local but may make an acceptable call on the way home from work.

From the Lord Nelson a footpath takes you to the Vale Cottage (if you have a driver, approach via Kirk Street). A delightful, country-style pub this, with leaded lights and seats in the garden. It had gained Ruddles County since our last visit, and this was the better of the two cask beers on offer, being rated well above average, while Wilsons bitter only rated an average score. It's almost a shame to have to criticise such an attractive and well-run pub, but it is marred by the continued appearance on (unmarked) handpump of Wilsons keg Special Mild - I accept this distinctly sweet mild is the regulars' preference, but it really should be made clear that the beer is keg. Also some of us thought £1.08 was a bit steep for County, though I suspect there may be only coppers in it nowadays.

On now to Cross Lane and Boddingtons' Royal Oak. Like many Boddingtons pubs in East Manchester, this is a bitter only house and the beer was rated slightly above average. The pub has a central bar serving two distinct sides, a plain vault and a comfortable 'smoke room' which will appeal to lovers of dralon and fake beams.

Across the road now to Wilsons' Cotton Tree, and what a transformation! Formerly a pleasant but plain and quiet pub, tonight it was buzzing with life. No cask mild anymore, sadly, but good Ruddles County and above-average Wilsons Bitter - even the normally super-bland Websters bitter was rated slightly above average by those who volunteered to drink it!

One of the longer walks now, to the Prince of Wales on Abbey Hey Lane, a Chesters pub refurbished some time ago. Despite an unpromising exterior, the pub inside, while lacking individuality, is roomy and pleasant enough.The sole cask beer is Chesters bitter and despite one dissenting voice who pronounced it good, this was generally rated as below average.

Just along the road is the Abbey Hey Hotel, a Bass pub which to our delight had converted to real ale since our last visit. This is to the credit of licensees Ann and Peter Beswick, who after much persuasion of the brewery are now selling Stones Bitter and Toby Light on handpmup. Toby Light was judged slightly below average (essentially a judgment on the beer itself, rather than its state here), but the Stones was above average. The pub itself is a big old place, retaining many attractive features.

Much the same can be said of Wilsons Hamlet nearby. It was good to see this large pub pleasantly refurbished, still selling Wilsons mild and bitter and giving no house room to the over-priced and under-flavoured Websters. Mild drinkers did best here; their beer was thought to be well above average quality, but sadly the bitter struggled to make an average rating.

Our next call, the Hare & Hounds on Abbey Hey Lane, had been keenly awaited owing to its high reputation as an old fashioned local of great character. We certainly weren't disappointed in the pub, which was deservedly one of the busiest all evening. The beer though (handpumped Boddies bitter) wasn't quite its usual excellent standard here, seeming curiously lifeless; I hope and believe this was a temporary aberration.

And so to our last call, Boddingtons' Oddfellows Arms, just off Ashton Old Road. Though not as unspoilt as the Hare & Hounds, the Oddfellows shares the same vibrant atmosphere, thanks to its division into distinct areas. The bitter was well above average, but opinions differed on the mild.

Altogether then, a crawl of Gorton can be highly recommended, and you don't need to follow our route slavishly - particularly at the start and end of this Stagger, there are several other worthwhile pubs within striking distance. And of course, the Stagger is purely a description of how we found things when we were there - so get round the pubs and decide for yourself.

The Beers

It might be worth pausing here to consider the range of beers available back then. There were mild and bitter from Holts, Wilsons, and Boddingtons. In addition there was Ruddles County, Chesters Bitter, Websters Bitter, Stones Bitter and Toby Light. That's eleven beers in total, and I know from memory that even in those perhaps less-demanding times Chesters Bitter, Websters Bitter and Toby Light were generally regarded as taste-free zones. Wilsons beers were usually variable - they could shine but very often didn't.  Ruddles County, Stones Bitter and Boddingtons Bitter seemed to be the star turns on this night.

What Happened Next

The pubs on this Stagger have a much healthier survival rate than those in Clayon which were the subject of the July Stagger. Cask ale, however, hasn't.

The Waggon & Horses continues to thrive in Holt's hands but, as with most Holts houses, cask mild has been withdrawn. The Lord Nelson had its latest refurbishment in 2009 and seems to be doing well, too. It's had an on-off relationship with cask beer - currently "on" I think with Sharp's Doom Bar and Marston's beers sold via the single handpump.

The Vale Cottage is the real star turn though. Still with a rustic feel but now a free house, having been bought from Enterprise Inns, it is hugely popular. Taylor's Landlord is the regular cask beer and this is usually joined by two guests. The pub is about to stage its second beer festival.

The two Cross Lane pubs are also still with us although only the Royal Oak sells cask bers in the form of Sharp's Doom Bar. The Prince of Wales on Abbey Hey Lane still looks unpromising and no longer has the consolation of cask beer within.  

We now come to the two casualties. The Abbey Hey Hotel closed around 2007 (pictured here in 2008) and was demolished in February 2010. The site is now vacant. The Hamlet was a Vaux pub for a while and finally closed in 2013. The large building is now put to various commercial uses.

The Hare & Hounds still does the business but minus cask beer and with some of its heritage features compromised (the tiling is now covered in grey paint). I'm pleased to say that one of my favourite pubs on this Stagger, the Oddfellows, is not only open for business but has just had a very successful makeover which has seen the reintroduction of cask beer in the shape of Hydes Original and Lowry. I particularly like the fact that the corner door remains in use here.



Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Belgian Beer of the Week

Brouwerij Crombé Oud Kriekenbier

This was one of my first Belgian beer love affairs. It's a pale ale refermented with whole cherries. It's matured in a tank for a year before bottling and is then matured for a year or so in bottle before release. It's sharp, dry, fruity and refreshing. What's not to like?

Well, it's had a chequered history. The brewery dates back to 1758 and is based in the village of Zottegem, south of Ghent. The Crombé family still runs it with the seventh generation now in charge.

The first two editions of Good Beer Guide to Belgium & Holland wax pretty lyrical about this beer - and also tell us that it was a tiny two-man affair producing 1,650hl a year. It also enjoyed "growing affection and respect from Belgian beer lovers for its slightly unusual ales".  That wasn't enough to keep it going though and sadly brewing ceased in 1999.

Luckily, as you may have deduced, that wasn't the end of Crombé beers. They are now contract brewed by another Flemish brewery, Brouwerij Strubbe at Ichtegem, near Ostend. That's also an old-established family concern (founded 1830 with the sixth and seventh generations in charge) and they have tried to stick faithfully to the old Crombé recipes and production methods.

I'd not tried the beer for years. My reluctance was a combination of apprehension as to what might have happened to it, and the fact that I saw it on sale vary rarely, if at all. However I was in Amsterdam in June and there on the shelves of the Bier Koning was Oud Kriekenbier with its distinctive folksy label (similar artwork has been used since at least the 1940s and this looks like it last had a redesign around 1960). 

So, what's it like now? Well memories of past beers can be imperfect and I seem to recall a beer that we perhaps slightly brighter and redder than it is now. I also recollect more of a steely dry edge. However these, as they say, are minor quibbles. It's still pretty red and retains a sharp, dry fruitness with a quenching sour edge to the finish. I'm kicking myself that I only bought two 330ml bottles (it is apparently also available in 750ml) and without doubt I'll be buying rather more if and when I encounter it again.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Two in Ghent

The East Flanders city of Ghent (or rather Gent to its Flemish inhabitants and Gand if you're from Wallonia) is arguably the best beer destination in Belgium. A large, growing and varied selection of bars and cafes combines with a hugely attractive city centre to make for an essential visit.  I go every year for the very enjoyable Gents Beer Festival run by the indefatigable Gentse Biervereniging (which very loosely translates as Ghent Beer Club). It's usually on a middle Saturday in August (the 18th this year) and I really do recommend it.

Since 2009 Ghent's attractions have included Annick de Splenter's Gentse Stadsbrouwerij (1 Rembert Doedesreef) and you can drop into the brewery for a drink and perhaps a bite to eat. The essentially hop-less Gentse Gruut beers are popular enough - you'll see them promoted at numerous bars around town - but for me they have been beers to respect rather than enjoy. Now, however, two new brew-pubs have opened, although the term 'brew-pub' hardly does justice to one of them. Both opened just a bit too late to get in the latest edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium.

This opened in February and is run by two lovely people, Jolien D'Hollander and Benjamin Nuytten (who is the brewer). 

It's at 70a Oudburg, an attractive street lined with interesting shops and places to eat, and is easily walkable from the city centre. On the way there you'll pass Aba-jour (20 Oudburg), a good food and beer stop, and just off on Kalversteeg, the remarkable Velootje which everyone needs to visit once.

Painted an anonymous grey, with not the best signage, Brouwbar is easy to walk past but please don't as it's a little gem. It's also not very big but the outside terrace is a very amenable spot - and do look out for the re-cycled key-kegs which have been converted to hold plants plus displays of malt and hops (and and some now function as stools too).

You can see the small brewing kit at the back of the bar and from this emerges a range of very well-made beers.  A Sorachi Saison (6.6%) had herbal notes from Sorachi Ace,that most divisive of hops (for the record I'm a fan)
while the IPA (5.6%) was nicely balanced, in a good way. Both were very refreshing.  A return visit featured Drifters Ale (6.8%) brewed in conjunction with the bar across the road. This is a NEIPA with a touch of rum cask about it - an odd combination which worked very well with just a hint of spirit in the background. The Session Ale at a modest 3.8% had both good body and hop character.

It's all quite low-key and relaxed which for me is part of its attraction - the relaxation can extend to the service so don't be afraid to go to the bar and ask for a beer.  Brouwbar is closed Monday to Wednesday, and open 4-11pm Thursday to Saturday, 12-7pm on Sundays.

DOK Brewing
Low-key is certainly not the way you'd describe the other entrant to Ghent's brewing scene. The term 'brew-pub' hardly does it justice either.

Like many other cities, Ghent is regenerating the old dock area, which is to the north east of the city centre, and when you visit it's very apparent  it has received a great deal of inward investment, and this is ongoing. Dok Noord seems to be the epicentre and you'd find DOK Brewing in Hal 16 at Dok Noord 4b. It's a skillful conversion of the old transformer building which served the city docks and combines some of the distressed original fabric with elegant modern touches - visit at night and the chandeliers are sure to impress.

This is a multi-purpose venue and apart from the brewery, which takes centre stage, there's an Italian restaurant, a bakery (mainly lunchtime only I think), a patisserie (Pattiserie Bostoen) and RØK, a smokery and BBQ. I can testify to the quality of the patisserie and, notably, RØK where the whole mackerel is highly recommend.  But I digress.

The vessels and bar of DOK Brewing are the main focus here with no fewer than 30 taps dispensing around four DOK beers, a cider, a cocktail (!) and a spectrum of guest beers from around Belgium and elsewhere. Cuvée De Ranke on draft was a rare treat.

DOK Brewing opened on 19 May and is a project by beer sommelier Daniella Provost, along with Janos de Baets (who is the main brewer) and Dimitri Messiaen . The beers are very modern - a Baltic Porter (6%) had a good body with a dry, roast character that was pitched at just the right level. The newly launched Beta Pale (5%) was well balanced and very refreshing at
40 IBU.  In the tanks were a Kellerbier, a Brut IPA (a collaboration with Brussels' L'Ermitage nano-brewery) and Outlaw, a New England IPA. All very on trend.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say there's nothing else like this in Belgium at the moment and I found it hugely appealing, returning several times. It's open from 11.00am every day and getting there is quite easy really. 

Tram 4 will take you to Heilg Kerst - then walk down Doornzellestraat to the docks, turn left and enter the complex where you see the Delhaize sign and keep walking straight on.  Alternatively buses 5 (and 8 during the day) will drop you at the Dok Noord stop which is at the dock end of  Doornzellestraat.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

From The Archives

Welcome to a new feature here at JC's Beer Blog. I have been editing a local CAMRA magazine, Opening Times, for just over 30 years and each month I will be reproducing the 'Stagger' from that time.  So here we go with the Stagger from the July 1988 issue. It covered Clayton and was written by Stuart Ballantyne. The photos show the pubs as they are today.

This month's Stagger around Clayton and East Manchester began at the Strawberry Duck, a former Wilson's pub on Crabtree Lane. Now a free house, the Strawberry Duck won the prestigious Pub of the Month award in September 1986 so a high standard was expected. We were not disappointed, with the Holts Bitter scoring above average, but unusually no-one tried the Wilson's Bitter or the Webster's Green Label. Minor renovations to the pub were in progress with the small kitchen being extended to provide more catering facilities.

Quite a walk next to the Folkestone, a Boddies pub on Folkestone Road (off North Road). A large inter-wars pub with separate bar and lounge, considerable use has been made of wood paneling which looks to be an original feature. The stained glass panels above the bar were also impressive. It was refreshing to be served by a licensee who topped up our glasses without having to be asked. Both the bitter and the mild were well kept. In such a traditional pub the disco and video seemed quite out of place. The pub is a good example of its type but some of the fittings looked a bit tired and it would benefit from sensitive refurbishment. 

Returning to Ashton New Road, we found ourselves in the Greens Arms. Unfortunately the exterior refurbishment hasn't been carried through to the inside which had a shabby, run-down feel. Open-plan with pool table, disco and barely over-age clientele, the atmosphere was not pleasant. A request for 'bitter' has the barman reaching for the Webster's and he didn't seem too pleased when we insisted on Wilson's. We needn't have bothered as we struggled to drink it and the Green label was even worse.

Continuing down the road towards Manchester we came to the Grove, a traditional, but plain, Holts boozer. As often with Holts pubs, the beer was the cheapest of the evening and scored the highest marks so far, the mild being very good and the bitter excellent. Unusually for most pubs today, the vault was far bigger than the lounge and that was where we chose to drink, A nice touch was the WW! memorial on the vault wall. 

Pressing on, we retraced our steps and turned into Clayton Lane for our next port of call - the Church Inn. Cask beers are Stones Bitter and Bass Light, but neither were highly thought of, with Stones scoring just below average and Bass Light just above. The Church has been done up in recent years and so has our next stop, Chesters' Bridge Inn a few yards further down.

The Bridge is pleasantly decorated and having just left the Church it was tempting to draw comparisons between the two pubs as they are similar in many ways. The Bridge got my vote as it is bigger, lighter and airier. The Chesters' bitter went off halfway through our order, and some of us had to wait for the new barrel. The beer scores were low but this could be because some of us caught the bottom of the barrel. The mild was keg and went untried.

Heading back towards the New Road, we turned left into Croft Street to visit the Victoria. A busy open-plan Wilson's pub, the renovations to the Victoria have taken over two years and the care taken shows. The pub was sensibly kept open throughout and the old regulars have been joined by many new ones, the pub was heaving. The Wilson's bitter and mild scored above average and nobody was disappointed that the Websters was off.

A short walk to Ashton New Road and the Derby Arms. This was  not proving a good night for Chesters as again we found that the beer was off, so we had to take our trade elsewhere.

Passing the keg-only Sir Humphrey Chetham and the closed Why Not (getting thirsty by now), we pressed on towards the city centre.

We finally came to Rowsley Street and the Britannia. After such a long walk we were glad to find ourselves in such a friendly, traditional boozer. The windows still testify to the former Groves & Whitnall ownership, from whom it passed to Greenalls, who in turn sold it to Lees as a no-hoper. Despite being a long way from any houses the pub is far from being a no-hoper and was packed on our visit. The Lees bitter was considered good with the mild surpassing this as very good. All in all, a worthy winner of April's Pub of the Month award. If you've not yet tried the Britannia, then it's about time you did.

And so ended a most interesting and varied night. As usual the comments simply reflect how we found things on the night, try the pubs for yourself and make up your own mind. 

What happened next?

History has not been kind to the pubs of Clayton. Some still survive and among those is the Strawberry Duck on Crabtree Lane. It's won awards as a community local and still serves Holts Bitter.  

The Folkestone was closed, burnt out and demolished. New housing now occupies the site. The Greens Arms struggled on and then had a brief existence as the Star Showbar (and you can see the sign on the front of the now-derelict building pictured above).

The Grove also continues to thrive as a Holts house and the war memorial remains on the vault wall. No such luck with the Church. After Manchester City moved to East Manchester from Maine Road in 2003, the pub was renamed the Blue Moon. Not that it did much good as it soon closed and was demolished in late 2007. The site is shown here.

The Bridge Inn remains open, looks to be doing well but no longer sells cask beer. After that it's downhill all the way. The Victoria looks like it should be open but appearances are deceptive. It closed in February 2010 but as you can see the building is in good order.

The Derby Arms traded for longer than most but finally closed its doors five years ago and has now been converted into shops. The sign remains as a poignant reminder of past glories.  Across the road the Sir Humphrey Chetham closed down around the turn of the century and has also been converted to shop premises.

The same issue of Opening Times reported the reopening of the Why Not as the Little Bradford. It thrived in this guise and received a CAMRA 'Pub of the Month' award in December 1992. However the December 1992 issue of Opening Times also included extensive coverage of the threat to its existence by Manchester's Olympic ambitions. It wasn't the Olympic Stadium that saw it off though but the general redevelopment of East Manchester. It's not easy to pinpoint the pub's site but it's probably under the tram tracks at Velopark.

That just leaves the Britannia. This really was a superb local and I have many happy memories of it. When Manchester City moved to East Manchester it was taken over by former City player Mike Summerbee who renamed it Summerbees, revamped it in cafe-bar style and removed the cask beer. It didn't end well. After a short spell as 'Maine Road' the building was bought by Manchester City and demolished in 2010. As you can see the site remains vacant.


Monday, 13 August 2018

Dutch Beer of the Week

Epe Bier Collectief Rein Quadrupel

Apologies for the hiatus. Luckily I recently stopped work so now have more time to devote to beery matters. This means that JC's Beer Blog should have a more regular and permanent existence. As a result I have a couple of additional features planned which I hope you like. However to kick off let's have a new Dutch Beer of the Week - and this one's a little beauty.

I admit to knowing very little about the Epe Bier Collectief. Tim Skelton's Beer in the Netherlands tells me they are hobbyists who turned professional in 2012 and who borrow other breweries to make what are well-regarded beers. The website tells me that said hobbyists are Henk Overbosch (who is the brewer and 'driving force'), Henk Wesselink, Maarten de Groot and Edwin Raben.

As you'll see from the website they make an interesting range of beers - some in more modern styles and some with a nod to tradition. Rein, I think, combines the two.  They made it at the Sallandse Landbier Brouwerij which is the home to a number of Dutch cuckoo brewers but I see they have also brewed at De Molen which is clearly some sort of seal of approval.

So, what's it like, Bloody good  but I guess you'll want a bit more than that. It's a lovely dark chestnut and there's a malty sweetness on the nose with hints of honey and caramel. As you drink there's more malty sweetness, with hints of nuts, caramel and dried fruit. It doesn't cloy though and I see the hop grist includes Mount Hood and Citra, along with Styrian Goldings and Premiant, and I'm guessing they give this the necessary lift. The finish is suitably warming - which is what I'd expect for a 9% beer in this style.

I'll be looking out for more Epe Bier Collectief beers nest time I'm in the Netherlands - I commend them to you.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Dutch Beer of the Week


I've always had a soft spot for De Eem - I first encountered them many years ago at the Great British Beer Festival when I picked up a bottle of something called Rosebud. It turned out to really be a Centennial-hopped IPA and was remarkably good. It was also another milestone on my road to realising that something very interesting was starting to happen with Dutch beer.

They have been around since 2006 when the company was founded by Amersfoort-based Ruud van Moorst (he's pictured here far left doing something with lambic and yoghurt at the 2015 Carnivale Brettanomyces). For most of the time since then he's been a cuckoo brewer and although my update to Tim Skelton's excellent  Beer in the Netherlands  tells me he was about to get a brewery in the Gelderland town of Elburg I'm not sure that's actually happened yet.

What has happened though is a rebrand as you will see from the original website here and the rather slicker (but work in progress) here. Rosebud became Centennial some years back and I also have fond memories of a session on draft Warrior at Amsterdam's Gollem a  couple of years ago (the one on Ramsteeg - other Gollems are available).

Perhaps the most impressive beer was Dark Hops, tried at the Utrechste Bierbrouwers Festival a few years back and a collaboration with Amsterdam's Brouwerij Pampus (who are cuckoos themselves). This called itself a black IPA but tasted deliciously barrel-aged. It was memorably good. 

So then, Dorstig (or "Thirsty") which, at 3.5% is certainly an easy-going thirst quencher.  There's Plisner and Munich malts in the grist so its very pale copper rather than golden, and with some malt character to balance out the hops (Warrior, Saaz and Centennial). There's a slight touch of spice on the nose alongside a malt-kiln sweetness and piney hops.  These are all there as you drink but alongside is a peppery hop bitterness that lingers into the moreish finish. Eem have never let me down and this is another winner in my book.

There will probably be nothing on here next week as on Thursday I'm off to Brugs Bierfestival when I'll be wading through this lot supplied by these. Highlights to follow of course.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Dutch Beer of the Week

Brouwerij Kraan Kraanwater 7.2

Every year I make a trip to Bodegraven in the Netherlands to attend the Borefts Bierfestival hosted by Brouwerij De Molen (the brewery that arguably kick-started the Dutch craft beer revival). I've managed to attend Borefts since it started out as a fairly low-key affair attached to the annual Bokbier Festival weekend in Amsterdam. I suspect I'm just one of a small handful of Brits who have been to every Borefts and it's been interesting to see it grow and evolve into what is now craft beer central with breweries from around the globe in attendance.  This year marks its 10th anniversary so I won't be missing that.

One feature of the festival is the shop based in the windmill on Overtocht (the brewery used to be there as well but has long since outgrown it and is now located in much larger premises a couple of minutes' walk away).  It usually offers choice, rare and expensive beers from the brewers featured at that year's festival. It's normally thronged by festival attendees splashing the cash.

Those of us with an interest in Dutch beer go elsewhere though. Just down the street is the Speciaalbierwinkel (or Special Beer Shop) run by Jan Kraan. Jan specialises in Dutch beers with over 700 in stock at the last count. Rarities from across the Netherlands can be found on his shelves - he drives across the country to collect some of them. I usually get to Bodegraven in good time to allow myself at least 30 minutes browsing here. 

Among the beers are the Kraanwater beers from Jan's own Brouwerij Kraan. This is a neat play on words as kraan is also Dutch for 'tap' - hence 'tap water' (it is of course also a hostage to fortune...). The beers are produced on a small brewing kit in a back room of the shop. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to get a quick look at the brewery (and can't find my photos...) and it seemed to be quite an improvised affair. At that time Jan had plans to move to a bigger site elsewhere in Bodegraven but this appears to have fallen though and he's still there brewing about 200 litres a fortnight.  Quite a range is produced in a variety of styles and this, Kraanwater 7.2, is a black IPA at, you guessed, 7.2%

It looks the part with a black body and tan head but I have to say it was all perhaps a little bit too light for me.  The nose has hints of malt and that's there again as you drink along with touches of dark berries, a smidgeon of dark chocolate and some cola notes too. Some roast comes through and that lingers into the light and spritzy finish. Perfectly decent I thought although a bit more oomph wouldn't go amiss. I'll be back at the Speciaalbierwinkel in September and another of Jan's beers will certainly be among my purchases.