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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

From the Archives

Hyde Road - November 1984

My archive doesn't include the November 1988 issue of Opening Times so we are off back to November 1984. That wasn't long after Opening Times had been launched and this was issue six.

It hadn't settled down by the then so the Staggers were called 'Around in the Town'. You will also note the rather primitive appearance of the magazine (if you can call it that).  At the time it was produced on a duplicator - if you Google that today you'll be pointed in the direction of a whizzy bit of kit but back then it was rather different. Each page was typed out (on a typewriter) onto a stencil and then it was more or less hand-cranked. The finished effort (this one ran to six pages) was distributed as an insert in something called What's Doing - a magazine produced by the former North Manchester branch of CAMRA and which at one time had regional aspirations. 

The eagle-eyed will also note the advert for Sykes Wine Bar at the George in Stockport's Mersey Square which offered Higsons Mild and Bitter plus Draught Bass.

This article was written by Malcolm Swallow - who is now happily married and living in British Columbia. He still gets a regular copy of Opening Times. Here we go:

Curiously, the Hyde Road Pub Crawl started out at the massive Wilsons pub, the Waggon & Horses, Stockport Road/Plymouth Grove. A fortunate idea since Mild scored 3.7 (scores are from 0, undrinkable, to 4, excellent) the best score of the evening.  The rather cool Bitter scored 2.4. No price list evident but at 63p the mild was also the most expensive of the evening, the bitter was 64p.

Down Kirkmanshulme Lane we eagerly headed for the Longsight Inn and the Banks's beer. Unfortunately the mild, at 57p, was very cold and tasteless and scored only 1.1. The bitter at 60p was slightly better and managed 2.

We wandered around Belle Vue Speedway Stadium and into the Rock Inn on Hyde Road. A recently renovated Tetleys pub, the beer was good with mild at 62p scoring 3.5 and the bitter, 64p, 3.1.

Down Hyde Road towards Manchester we called in at the basic Boddingtons pub the Nags Head. No mild available but the bitter tasted pretty good and scored 2.9 - almost worth the 62p price tag!

The Travellers Rest was next on the list - a recently painted Hydes house; but the beers were disappointing. The mild at 56p scored 1.8 and the bitter, 62p, managed 2.4.

Another Boddingtons pub, the Unicorn Hotel, also only sold Bitter. It was 2p cheaper that the Nags but scored only 2.4. However it is obviously a popular local, so much so that we had to stand outside to drink.

A swift stop at the Horseshoe Inn found Robinsons Bitter (63p) in slightly above average form with a score of 2.5. Unfortunately the mild was so bad as to prove undrinkable and scored 0. 

The City Gates is a large open-plan Chesters pub done out in Man. City colours. No real mild but the handpumped bitter was better than expected and scored 2.3, costing 63p.

As the evening was coming to an end we headed down Devonshire Street North in to the Greenall's pub, the Kings Head. Again no real mild was available but the bitter at 66p (the most expensive of the evening)managed the best bitter score with 3.3.

To finish the evening, we hurried down Ashton Old Road to the excellent Holts pub - the Seven Stars. The mild at 55p was cheapest of the evening but only scored 1.8. The bitter was 56p, was also the cheapest, it also tasted pretty good and scored 2.9.

A summary of the evening reveals that the bitters scored between 2 and 3.3, a fairly consistent set of marks. Whist real mild was sold in only 6 out of the 10 pubs visited the scored varied between 0 and 3.7. Enough said!!

A note on beer scoring 

You will see from the text that all the beers were given a score. This was well before CAMRA's National Beer Scoring System came into operation but the old South Manchester Branch (now Stockport & South Manchester) was an early adopter of using beer scores to select pubs for the Good Beer Guide. 

Scores are still recorded on the monthly Staggers but no longer appear in Opening Times. This was stopped quite early on when a local newspaper correlated the scores from one Stagger and published "CAMRA's League Table of Local Pubs". Ructions ensued.

What happened next

I think carnage is as good a word as any here.

The Waggon & Horses (which also sold handpumped Bulmers cider on my one and only visit) was a a very early casualty. A large half-timbered effect building it closed in the late 1980s - it appeared in a local CAMRA guide published in 1989 - and was knocked down (overnight apparently!) around 1992.  A block of flats now occupies the site.

The Longsight was on Redgate Lane and formed part of one of the entrance gates to the old Belle Vue.  It was a ramshackle old place and was essentially bought by Wolverhampton-based Banks's for the licence  in late 1983. The pub was demolished in 1985 and a replacement built around the corner on Kirkmanshulme Lane. That too has gone. The tale of Banks's utterly disastrous 1980s foray into Manchester will in fact be covered by a Stagger next year.

The Rock Inn, a great little Tetley house with much speedway memorabilia, was pretty much opposite the entrance to the old stadium. Famous for extensive 'lates' or "nights when time seemed to stand still" as one friend of mine put it, the pub closed in the late 1980s. It was located on the corner of Boundary Street and Hyde Road so its site is easily located (shown left).

The Nags Head closed in 2009 but the building still remains as a convenience store. The Travellers Call (not Travellers Rest as recorded in the article) remains open for business which is something of a minor miracle. As you may see from the photo in the main piece it's no longer a Hydes house - and no longer sells cask beer. Nonetheless its survival is to be celebrated.

The Unicorn was notable for retaining its old skyboards along the roof for many years- once commonplace on many pubs they have now largely disappeared. The pub has disappeared too and, such has been the scale of redevelopment down this part of Hyde Road, it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact location.  The same applies to Robinsons Horse Shoe (sic) a pub standing in splendid isolation and at one time unusual for selling their 'ordinary' bitter. I suspect both were located somewhere along the stretch of road seen left.

Passing under the main railway line, the stretch of Hyde Road running down to the Devonshire Street junction for many years featured two large, derelict pubs. One was the Bulls Head and the other the Hyde Road Hotel which ended its days as the City Gates, a shrine to all things Manchester City (the club's original ground was just behind the pub). The football fans couldn't save it and the pub closed in 1989. After that it stood rotting for about 12 years until the wrecking ball came calling.  There has been some debate on various online forums abut the exact site of the City Gates but I suspect the stone blocks seen here may be its last earthly remains.

The King's Head was closed by Greenalls but it then reopened as a free house which did reasonable well in the 1990s and beyond. It finally closed in 2008 and again lay derelict for many years until its demolition in August last year. Here's the site.

And finally - the Seven Stars.  This was a classic pub in its day and when I first called there the interior may well have gained it a place on CAMRA's National
Inventory of Heritage Pubs. Holts then had a rush of blood to the head and built an entirely pointless extension which seemed to knock all the life out of the place.  Holts ran it as some sort of arms length operation but it finally closed in 2009 and has now been converted to a wholesale and retail seller of live (live!) seafood - so if you want a lobster for your dinner that's where to go.  The pub still retains many external featured and even the extension has had a sympathetic extension!


Thursday, 15 November 2018

Dutch Beer of the Week

Big Belly Brewing Jerommeke

Getting back into a routine here at JC's Beer Blog, we welcome back another regular feature.

As usual my annual visit to the Borefts Beer Festival at Bodegraven also involved buying various bottles to bring home. However, and unlike most visitors. my purchases were not made at the shop run by Brouwerij De Molen (the festival hosts). There, choice and expensive imports were on offer for the international beer geek crowd. Those of us with an interest in Dutch beers have somewhere else in our sights.

Just down the road from the windmill housing the De Molen shop is Jan Kraan's Speciaal Bierwinkel - a veritable treasure trove of beers from obscure Dutch breweries. He also sells a range of his own 'Kraanwater' beers (a neat play on words as 'kraan' is Dutch for tap) which, to be honest, can be something of a mixed bag. I picked up an armful of beers that sounded interesting and were from brewers I'd never heard of. So here we go.

Big Belly is a cuckoo brewery based in Breda and has been around a couple of years now. The beers have either been made at Brouwerij Frontaal or on the larger facility at INBier in Sittard (a new one on me but they appear to be contract brewers along the lines of  Proef in Belgium). There is no working website I can find but the informative Facebook page is here. As you can see a number of beers have been produced and have been generally well-received. The people behind it are Tom Hensen, Remco Franssens and Willem Graste but I confess to knowing little about their background - they do, though, claim to test brew everything three times to make sure they get it right. I can think of several brewers who could usefully adopt that approach. I must say I also rather like their mission statement:

We focus on the good side of life! A little belly never hurt nobody, so eat, drink & enjoy yourself!

So, to the beer in hand. It's described as a gin saison and the entertaining blurb on the label ("Jerommeke is what you call a modern day superhero...") also tells us that the beer contains lemon peel and juniper berries. It's also 6.7% which is perhaps a little top-heavy for the style but it's none the worse for it.

There's a high level of carbonation - perhaps a little too high as this does sometimes detract from what I found to be a very enjoyable beer. There's clean spice on the nose with some herbal and citrus notes - as you may expect from the description. The juniper and lemon are there in supporting roles as you drink, too - and these lead to quinine notes and a long finish with touches of juniper and citrus all the way. My final notes was "gin and tonic meets beer" - I've had a few beers which make this claim but this is the first one that's really pulled it off. I'll be trying more Big Belly beers if I find them.



Monday, 5 November 2018

From the Archives

East Didsbury & Heaton Mersey - October 1988

You lucky people are getting two Staggers this month as I catch up here at JC's Beer Blog.

This one was written by Ian Saunders and covers a more prosperous part of the Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA branch area -  indeed all of the pubs covered here are still open and trading (but wait until you see what the November Stagger has in store).

Here we go...

This month's Stagger, of East Didsbury and Heaton Mersey, was a rather more leisurely tour than of late, but it gave us the chance to appreciate the good pubs all the more. 

We met in the Parrswood on School Lane. This 1930s pub has a large lounge and smaller vault with a separate entrance plus another room where, unusually for a pub, snooker can be played (albeit on a  'pool'sized' table). We are told that the pub is due for refurbishment but are hopeful that the character will not suffer. The beers available were Boddington's Mild and Bitter on electric pump. The bitter was above average, the mild rather less so.

The longest walk of the evening followed to the Gateway on the main A34. This is Hydes' largest pub and it has recently been quite radically refurbished and is now brighter, plusher but features rather annoying, rotating "disco" balls sat in central pillars. Disco "rope" lights adorn the step up to the raised drinking area by the front window where there is now a large white piano. Our attention was also caught by a poster on the wall advertising a variety of take-away curries! Is East Didsbury becoming the second curry centre of Manchester after Rusholme, with the Good Curry Guide listed Khandoker restaurant only over the road? Well, perhaps not.

The beers are Hydes Mild and Bitter on electric pumps. The bitter was thought to be good and the mild above average, although one of our party complained that the mild tasted "cabbagey" - not a patch on the bitter, eh?

Next, up, Didsbury Road into Heaton Mersey and the Mersey Vale. This pub has changed quite dramatically since it was called the Dog & Partridge. Formerly dark, dismal and infrequently visited, it has now been spruced up in Typical Boddingtons style and is a pleasant place for a pint. It is a shame, though, that the pub is a clone for other recent Boddingtons conversions. There is a comfy raised seating area at the back of the pub around the corner from the bar and a pool table where the vault used to be. The beer is Boddingtons Mild and Bitter on handpump and both were considered to be well above average on our visit.

A short uphill walk brought us to the Griffin, a traditional multi-roomed pub complete with a superb wood and etched glass bar. An absolute gem, this, and recent decoration has only improved the place - there are new carpets in the side rooms and plush curtains. The atmosphere was as warm and welcoming as ever - that, and the excellent Holts Mild and Bitter on handpump encouraged us to stay for a while longer.

Eventually we tore ourselves away and headed up towards the Railway where, in contrast to the Griffin, we spent our shortest stay of the evening. This Chef & Brewer house
features the "trendy" decor that is designed to attract the younger drinker. They even cater for those not old enough to drink - there was a sign advertising "Fun Freebies for Kids" which on closer examination turned out to be a paper jigsaw puzzle. The open-plan layout and the furnishings are fairly typical for this type of place whilst not being too over the top as in the Open House type pubs. The Railway offered the widest choice of real ales of the evening in Wilsons Bitter, Websters Bitter and Choice (although sadly no mild). The Wilsons Bitter was marginally above average and the Choice was considered slightly better than this. Only one brave stalwart tried the Websters and it was not to his liking, he said it tasted like hard tap water.

Finally on to the Crown which is set back from Didsbury Road with the entrance actually on Vale Road. This comfy, two-roomed pub has recently been Robinsonised in the manner we have all come to know and loathe. However, it is not the worst job Robbies have ever done. The pub used to get so packed you could hardly move, and therefore it has been extended to give a little more breathing room. An extra bar has been installed in the side room - the standard Robbies fittings are here too including the "Robbies Bannister" to separate sections of the rooms.

There was obviously a small amount of work still to be done as one of the new areas where we sat had no carpet or light shades. The pub didn't seem to have lost its popularity - it was packed as usual. The beers (Robinsons Best Mild and Best Bitter on electrics) were generally thought to be on good form with the mild scoring slightly higher than the bitter, making it the best mild of the night (just pipping Holts to the post).

As ever the opinions and comments simply reflect the opinions of those present on the night - why not try this crawl yourselves and make up your own minds.

The Beers

Let's just consider the beers on offer here. Six pubs with 11 beers between them - and all bar one selling mild. We had mild and bitter from Boddingtons, Hydes, Holts and Robinsons together with Wilsons Bitter, Websters Bitter and Websters Choice (which was a new-ish premium bitter).Six of those beers no longer exist - the two from Boddingtons, Robinsons Best Mild and the Wilsons and Webster brews. Hydes mild and bitter are now 'Original' and 'Old Indie' while Robinsons Best Bitter is now 'Unicorn'. Holts mild and bitter are... still Holts mild and bitter!

What Happened Next?

Perhaps uniquely on these Staggers, 30 years on and all of the pubs are still open and trading - although four out of the six have changed hands.

After the self-immolation of Boddingtons (and then the short-lived Boddington Pub Co - which actually had its head office upstairs here) the Parrswood fell into the hands of various pub companies until it was acquired by JW Lees in December 2014. In the summer on 2015 the pub underwent a major refurbishment (at a reported cost of over £1 million) which saw it largely opened out and renamed the Parrs Wood. It now has Lees Bitter, MPA and a seasonal on the pumps.

Hydes struggled to make the Gateway work for them and in 2011 sold it to Wetherspoons. Given that it has always been a pub, it's one of the few Spoons that feels properly pubby, despite its size, and the presence of a long-running and genuinely enthusiastic manager has almost certainly helped too.  Oh, and the Khandoker is still open across the road.

The Mersey Vale is now back as the Dog & Partridge and owned by Star Pubs & Bars (Heineken to its friends). It was last refurbished in 2017 (there have been several over the years) and seems to have bedded in well under new licensees. Last time I looked Hobgoblin and Wainwright were the two cask beers.

The Griffin was successfully extended by Holts but retains much of its old character. Some of the managers in recent years have been less than successful but the latest is keen and committed - and also re-introduced cask mild, something of a rarity in Holts pubs these days.

The Railway again fell into pub company hands but, renamed the Frog & Railway, ended up in Greene King's ownership. It struggled to succeed and in  December 2016 it, too, was bought by JW Lees. This year it underwent a major refurbishment and became the Heaton and is an altogether better pub. There's an emphasis on dining but if you just want to drink that's not problem - Lees Bitter, MPA and a seasonal await.

The Crown's much criticised refurbishment has bedded in well over the years and it remains an excellent local.  The long-serving licensee is retiring so we await developments. Cask beers when last visited were Robinsons Wizard, Dizzy Blonde, Unicorn and a seasonal.

I suppose it's down to location and demogrphics to explain why all of theses pubs have not only survived but all appear to do pretty well. The next Stagger (which dates from November 1984 as I don't have November 1988 in my archive) tells a very different story.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

Going Wild in Nijmegen

It seems an age now but it was only September when I spent six nights in Amsterdam. The main focus of the trip was the Borefts Bier Festival at Bodegraven but the extra days made it possible to do a little more travelling around.

In fact I only had one serious day out but it was a bit of a belter. I'd been to Nijmegen before but, like many places in the Netherlands, the beer scene has been transformed in recent years.

The largest city in Gelderland province, Nijmegen is about an hour and twenty minutes on the train from Amsterdam so is easily do-able for a day trip. It would probably repay an overnight stay as there is quite a bit to see - as you might expect from what is the oldest city in the Netherlands which celebrated its 2,000th birthday in 2005. 

The tourist office has a handy city tour walking guide which will take you round most of the sites ending up at the few remains of the Valkhof, a monumental castle-cum-palace built by Charlemagne and largely demolished by the city authorities in 1796 - two chapels remain.  In fact much of the city is quite new as it was badly bombed by American planes in 1944 - in error, as they thought they were over Germany at the time - so many of the 'old' buildings are in fact expert reconstructions. The cramped, and historic, housing of the Old Town survived the war but was demolished by the city council (which clearly has historic form here) in the 1960s.

Part way round the walk you'll come to the Stadsbrouwerij de Hemel , one of the oldest brewpubs in the country, having been founded in 1983. Located in a 12th Century cloister and comprising brewery, museum and cafe, it's a pleasant place to loiter for lunch and the beers are solidly well-made.  While you are there you may consider picking up bottles of the barley wine Nieuw Ligt and its barrel-aged companion Grand Cru. Later on, check out the 16th century Brouwershuys (Brewers' House) on Steen Straat.

Once that's all out of the way it's down to business. Apart from de Hemel (and anoher very small operation, I am told), Nijmegen is home to two of the most interesting breweries in the Netherlands. These are Oersoep  and  Nevel Artisan Ales - both have taps attached so a visit is well worthwhile.  The Oersoep tap, Stoom, is the longest established and has its own website here .

I've known Oersoep owners Sander Kobes and Kick van Hout (picured above) for some time and a conversation with Sander in August (at the excellent Van Moll Fest in Eindhoven) led to my invitation to visit.  

Getting there involves a trip into suburbia. Catch the no. 5 bus (in the direction of Tiberiuslann) and get off at Merwedestraat. The best place to catch the bus is probably Centraal Station although I picked it up on Nassausingel not far from the tourist information.  Once you've got off, stay on the same side of the road and walk in the same direction as the bus until you come to Dijkstraat on the right.  Go to the end, walk up the small flight of steps and across the road you'll see the large  Honigcomplex - a disused food factory. Turn right, go right round the back and keep on - you'll come to a number of independent businesses among which is Oersoep and its Stoom cafe (the actual address of the brewery is Waalbandijk 14D).

Oersoep (which translates at Primordial Soup!) was founded in 2012 and moved to its current location in early 2014. Since then the brewery has expanded considerably and Sander now heads up a brew team comprising Danny Smink, Maarten Niekus and Etienne Maris, and most of whom were busy around the brewery as I went round.

I was surprised at how large the brewery is but there's a lot going on here -they even mill their own malt (sourced from Fawcetts here in the UK and Weyerman). It's also a brewery of two halves.

The 'clean side' (pictured here)produces a whole range of styles - saisons, IPAs, stouts, kettle sours.  Everything, in fact, you'd expect to come from a  modern craft brewery - and all those I've had have been hugely enjoyable.  Recent hits for me have been Creamy Brothers (a milk stout with blackberries) and Mr Orange (a sour pale ale with blood oranges).

However it's on the 'bug side' where things get really interesting. Oersoep have been making wild beers for a while now - bottles of the superlative Brettalicious and Brettanosaurus Rex picked up at Manchester's Beemoth were real treats.  The row of 7,500 litre foudres is impressive to say the least, and these are backed up by a host of smaller wooden casks.A solera system is used to keep to large foudres topped up with new beer.

Then there's the 2000 litre coolship at the top of the brewery. This is surrounded by aged hops that are used in the spontaneously fermented beers (in the proper lambic fashion). Two 'Koelschip' beers have recently been released - Blauwe Bes, aged with blueberries, and Red Corvette, with cherries. I've been lucky enough to try both but I get the impression that numbers are limited and they are unlikely to find their way very far from the brewery.

After my tour round Oersoep, Sander took me round the corner to the other brewery in the Honigcomplex - Nevel Artisan Ales.

Founded in late 2014, Nevel started life as the Katjelam Brewing Co. Now, while 'katje' is Dutch for kitten, and 'lam', well lamb, katjelam is also Dutch for 'totally pissed'. So, with a move to more serious beers came a more serious name.

When I arrived some of the team were busy finishing off the new brewery tap (which involved sanding some serious pieces of timber) but I was able to chat to brewer Robert Maijzert. Robert explained that everything at Nevel is mixed fermentation and it certainly looked as though everything was also aged in oak casks, too - my scribbled notes suggest around 80% of the beer is in fact wood-aged. The same notes notes say there are 152 of these casks and the last two had just been filled.

The primary fermentation is in open-topped vessels and afterwards the beer is rested for two weeks before going into the casks.The aim is to be all organic and much used is made of herbs and fruit.  I didn't have the chance to try any Nevel beers on the day but I have since and can see why they have a growing reputation in the Netherlands.

After that is was back to Stoom and chat over a few beers. Most were from Oersoep but one was a pretty sensational saison from Cyclic Beer Farm which I'd never heard of but turns out to be a tiny brewery in Barcelona - if I come across anything else by these people I'll be on it like a shot. Sander also told me that another brewery is due to set up nearby which should only add to Nijmegen's beery attractions. I'll be back - as they say.


Monday, 1 October 2018

Dutch Beer of the Week

Brouwerij vandeStreek Playground Non-Alchoholic IPA

Yes, non-alcoholic. And, yes, pretty damn good too. There's a thing.

Low and no-alcohol beers (NAB/LABs)are having a bit of a moment as numerous craft breweries turn their attentions to the category. Indeed London's Nirvana Brewery  is entirely devoted to them. Predictions are the NAB/LABs are destined to take up 10 per cent or more of the beer market.

 Those of us with long memories will have a sense of déja vu at this point because we have indeed been here before. How long ago was it now when every brewer jumped on the low alcohol bandwagon? I'm guessing 25 years at least. Predictions of spectacular market share gains were equally spectacularly way off the mark and most of the new entrants quickly crashed and burned. Anyone remember Robinsons Wheelwright? Thought not. The underlying problem was really two-fold. Firstly, they sold at a notable premium to regular beers and it was difficult to shake of the perception that people were being asked to pay more for less. Secondly, and more to the point, they really weren't very good. In fact many were pretty grim.

The new generation of NAB/LABs differs from its predecessor in those two crucial respects. For a start more come from craft breweries and I think it's pretty well established that craft can command a price premium without too much difficulty.  Secondly, and crucially, the handful I've tried have been rather good.  So, on to the current beer in hand.

Brouwerij vandeStreek is based in Utrecht and was founded by brothers Sander and Ronald vandeStreek in 2013. For a while they cuckoo brewed elsewhere as is often the case with new Dutch start-ups. However on 2016 they got their own kit and launched the 'Playground' series of more experimental series of beers alongside the core range. I've always been a fan of vandeStreek beers and recall one enjoyable afternoon at a beer festival in Delft when I sat next to their bar and happily worked my way through the range.

This Non-Alcoholic IPA was launched last year and was an instant hit and is now stocked nationally in the Netherlands by the Albert Hein supermarket chain. I was put on to it by Ronald vandeStreek himself on a visit to Amsterdam in June. In fact he was so enthusiastic that he ran to the large Albert Hein around the corner to buy me a bottle to try!  I was impressed but when I went there myself to get a couple of bottles to bring home they'd sold out.  Luckily I was able to pick up a bottle on a trip to Eindoven in August. I wish I'd bought more.

It pours a deep clear gold and on the nose there's a good, fruity hop aroma with perthaps peach and pineapple there. It's not a thin beer either - there's a good mouthfeel with more sweet fruit notes in here - say touches of peach and apricot? A decent and lingering bitterness comes on to play to balance it all out.

I can certainly see why this has proved so popular - if my local bottle shop sold it I'd be buying quite a lo.


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.