38 Years Later…

In 1983, I wandered the short distance from where I lived in east Oxford to the Oxford Beer Shop. It was run by a former colleague of mine and was, in many ways, ahead of its time. The shop sold cask beer that could be taken away in containers, something that would surely be all the rage now. I popped in there regularly to see what was new.

One that was certainly new to me was Beechwood Bitter, an ale from the Chiltern brewery in Aylesbury. The brewery was also new, having begun operations in 1980. I enjoyed the beer and had it a couple more times.

What would have seemed inconceivable after my last pint of Beechwood was that it would be another 38 years before I was to renew acquaintance with Chiltern. I was delighted to discover that they sold minikegs for delivery and duly ordered a few. Sadly, Beechwood was not available at the time, although at the time of writing, it is back on the menu.

Pale Ale (3.7%)

This is a 3.7% amber coloured ale, not as pale as some of the many beers of this type. This is just about right for a session beer and has a good malt-hop balance. A sign of this is a gentle sweetness at the beginning, slightly fruity in this instance, before the hops and bitterness kick in, giving it a good hoppy finish. Enjoyable.

Earl Grey IPA (3.9%)

The brewery got together with the London-based tea business Birchall to come up with the beer. It’s a rather gentle IPA at 3.9% and that’s exactly what it tastes like. There is a light orange tang and a decent bitterness. It’s certainly a pleasant beer and good for quaffing, but I struggled to get much of an Earl Grey taste. Perhaps it’s better that way or it might prove a little overpowering.

Black (3.9%)

Black beers can be quite hard to find in minikeg or minipin form, so this was most welcome. At 3.9%, I imagined a slightly strong dark mild in the manner of Brain’s Dark. In fact, it’s much more like a stout and they’re not kidding when they call it ‘black’ – even holding it up to a bright light shows nothing but blackness. The first sensation is of a rich, chocolate kick, more bitter dark chocolate than sweet. You then get some roasted barley taste and a little coffee. The bitterness remains throughout. It went down extremely well and revisiting this one seems inevitable. Yet another thumb-to-the-nose towards the “ultras” who sneer at anything less than 5%. Your loss, and more for the rest of us.

A Quick (Beer) Trip to Yorkshire

Yorkshire has a veritable heap of breweries, some long-established and many new. Just working your way around a few of them could prove a lengthy project, but here’s a small taster of what the Duck Holiday team have tried.

Black Sheep Bitter (3.8%)

Black Sheep was established in 1992 by Paul Theakston when the Theakston brewery sold out to the giant Scottish and Newcastle, hence the rather sardonic name. Their bitter is a good example of a solid Yorkshire bitter, with plenty of hops and a bitter finish. It’s a thoroughly reliable session beer and can be bought in mini-kegs. Morrison’s sell it from time to time, though we haven’t seen it recently.

Abbeydale Hopback Bobek (3.8%)

Abbeydale brewery, based in Sheffield, began in 1996. They sell a range of beers from their online shop and this one is a quaffing pale ale with a decent sharp bitterness in the finish. The name comes from the Slovenian Bobek hop, which gives a rather lemon and floral tang to the beer.

Abbeydale Dr Morton’s Mandarin Claw of Death (4.1%)

Oh, come on, how could one not try something with a daft name like this? The name is something of a misnomer, as it implies a beer that is, shall we say, a little on the powerful side. In fact, it’s a fairly gentle ale and at least one part of its name gives the game away. The Bavarian Mandarina hops impart a subtle orange flavour, but there is good bitterness throughout and it’s a refreshing and pleasant ale.

A North-East Beer Extravaganza

Just about everywhere in the UK has seen a surge in the number of small, independent breweries in the last twenty to thirty years. This is a most welcome development, no more so than in the north-east of England, where your correspondent’s formative years were dominated by the giant Scottish and Newcastle Brewery. These days, even Newcastle Brown Ale is no longer brewed in the region. Thankfully, there are plenty of better (and bitter) alternatives.

This is a selection from just five of the breweries in the north-east.

Monument (4.1%)

Brewed by Tyne Bank in Newcastle, this is a fairly pale bitter and a taste that was unexpected. It has a hoppy bitterness, but also a distinct berry flavour that one usually associates with a red ale. I also tasted a little spiciness and even a hint of toffee, strangely enough. Quite a complex affair and different to what I had anticipated, but I enjoyed it.

The name, incidentally, is a reference to the monument (who’d have guessed?) to Earl Grey in Newcastle city centre. It was built in 1838, six years after the Great Reform Act which changed so much in British political life (largely for the better). Grey was Prime Minister when the act was passed. And yes, the tea is named after him.

Tyneside Blonde (3.9%)

Not surprisingly, this is a very pale beer from Hadrian Border brewery. It has a light and fresh taste, with no really powerful characteristics. It’s like a rather light IPA. There is a gentle fruitiness, mildly citrus. A very pleasant session ale.

Hadrian Border is quite a new brewery, but still has a somewhat complex history. It is the successor to the old Border Brewery in Berwick, which closed in 1994. The new brewery had to move and eventually took over the old Four Rivers Brewery in Newcastle. This was formerly the Hadrian Brewery and the names were merged.

The brewery has since moved again and has a new home in a different part of Newcastle.

The site of Hadrian’s Wall runs through the city of Newcastle. One common misconception is the continued use of the term “north of Hadrian’s Wall” to mean Scotland. This is lazy and wrong. The wall was never a border between England and Scotland. I was born north of the wall, but I was not born in Scotland. I was born in Northumberland, although if I were a bit younger, I would have been born in the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear, which came into being in 1974.

Wagtail (3.8%)

Allendale Brewery’s “flagship” beer. This is a 3.8% session beer. It has a pale amber colour and you get a hint of bitter orange in the taste, along with a little spiciness. It most definitely classifies as a bitter – there is a notable bitterness in the finish, which I like.

Allendale is another relatively new brewery, having started in 2006. It is situated in the south-west of Northumberland, to the west of Newcastle and south-west of the old market town of Hexham.

Alnwick Gold (4.2%)

A golden ale from Alnwick Brewery. This is a very clean-tasting and refreshing beer with a gentle bitterness and a gentle orange tang. There are lots of golden ales around and one or two can be a bit samey and bland, but I wouldn’t label this as such. A most pleasing drink.

Alnwick (pronounced Ann-ick) is a market town about 35 miles north of Newcastle. It is not to be confused with the nearby coastal town of Alnmouth (pronounced Alun-mouth). The brewery is very new, although it is in a way a resurrected brewer. There was an old Alnwick Brewery that closed in 1978.

Alnwick IPA (4.5%)

A lot of so-called IPAs are perfectly pleasant ales, but don’t really fit with my idea of what an India Pale Ale should be. This isn’t one of them. It’s a nice and robust hoppy ale with a vigorous bitter finish. At 4.5%, it’s what I’d call mid-strength. Completely new to me and most enjoyable. From the same stable as Gold, rather obviously.

Shuggy Boat Blonde (3.8%)

This is a pale beer from Cullercoats Brewery that is tangy and has a good bitterness. There is a depth to it that might lead one into thinking it was a little stronger if you were tasting it unseen. This kind of thing pleases me – it thumbs the nose at the tiresome “beer has to be 5% before I even consider it” brigade. Well, it’s your loss.

A shuggy boat, incidentally, is a fairground ride otherwise known as a swing boat. “Shuggy” is the local dialect term. The brewery is actually in Wallsend, just on the eastern edge of Newcastle and named thus as it is the “terminus” of Hadrian’s Wall. The brewery has an office in Cullercoats, just up the coast to the south of the slightly larger and better-known seaside town of Whitley Bay. The name of the beer is a nod to the many fairs and rides to be found in that area in the summer.

Reiver Best Bitter (4.2%)

An ale that is an excellent example of an old-fashioned best from First and Last brewery in Elswood, right in the middle of Northumberland, on the edge of the beautiful and wild national park. There is a little sweetness in the first mouthful, with a hint of toffee. Then the hops kick in and you end with a robust bitterness.

The name comes from the “border reivers” who raided along the Anglo-Scottish border from the 13th to 17th centuries. There were reivers on each side of the border. Their primary target was livestock.

Equinox Pale Ale (4.1%)

Pale it certainly is, a very light yellow in colour. The first thing that hits you is the New World hops, which give it a very citrus zing. There is also a hint of tropical fruit. It’s a very refreshing beer and there’s a fair degree of bitterness. Any sweetness is of a fruity rather than sugary nature. Most enjoyable.

Beer – Direction South-West

Shifting south-west on the beer tour brings us to Yeovil Ales. This is another relatively new brewery which began in 2006. They have a web shop that sells a wide range of different ales in various forms – bottles, minikegs, minipins and polypins. At the time of writing, ordering four kegs or two pins incurs a delivery charge of nine pounds, unless you live in the immediate area. However, signing up to their newsletter is worthwhile if you like their beer, as there are frequent promotions and discounts that usually cover most of the delivery charge.

We cannot claim to have tried all of their beers – they often do seasonal and occasional brews – but here are a few that have been tested out.

Star Gazer (4.0%)

This is a brownish bitter, although a little short on bitterness. The predominant flavour is malt, with a toffee sweetness. There is a gentle bitterness to balance things out, but this is a drink more suited to those with a sweet tooth.

Summerset (4.1%)

A pale, golden ale with a pleasing fruity tang. There is a good hop feel to this beer, much more to the liking of this correspondent. While it’s a refreshing ale for summer days, there’s nothing wrong with it in winter, either. Indeed, the mythical Mallard Tavern has just acquired some for the Christmas period.

Hopkandi (3.8%)

Despite the appalling name, this is a splendid session bitter. It’s a very pale beer and has a good citrus hop kick for its relatively low strength. There is a good, dry bitterness. A very more-ish ale.

Stout Hearted (4.3%)

We were most disappointed that this excellent stout was not on the menu for the Christmas period, as it is another Mallard favourite. One hopes this is merely a temporary omission, as it would be sad if such an excellent brew were to be discontinued. There is a lovely, deep-roasted taste and a smooth bitterness.

Beer: the quest continues

The beer trail moves south once more, this time to West Berkshire, both geographically and by name. The West Berkshire brewery began in 1995 and now has an online shop with a selection of bottled, canned and mini-keg ales. Conveniently, four different beers were available, which fits in nicely with the threshold for free delivery.

Good Old Boy (4.0%)

This is their “flagship” bitter and appears to be the most commonly available, as friends tell me they have seen it in supermarkets in the south of England. It is more malt than hop, and consequently, I wasn’t that keen on it. There is a little hoppiness once you get into it, but the prevailing flavour is malt and fruit.

Mister Chubb’s (3.4%)

A copper-coloured ale with a little more bitterness than the Good Old Boy. It’s a rather lightweight beer, however, not just in terms of strength, but also flavour. Pleasant enough, but a little thin and lacking in character.

Mister Swift (3.7%)

This proved much more appealing, a pale beer with a nice balance, hops winning out this time. A very decent session beer with a floral aroma. There is also a hint of tropical fruitiness.

Full Circle (4.5%)

This also went down very well. A little strong for a session beer, but fine if the session isn’t an extensive one. This is a golden ale that has a good hoppy zing to it. Interestingly, the hops – it’s a single hop beer – are locally grown, one of the very few hop gardens in that part of the country.

Sadly, Maggs’ Mild, a 3.5% mild ale, wasn’t available, but I have it on very good authority that it is worth seeking out. My correspondent, a native of Berkshire, is not normally a mild drinker, but assures me that it is a very fine beer.

Grin and Beer it

Moving north in Norfolk leads us to Woodforde’s, which began operations in the early 1980s. Their online shop sells a sizeable range of bottled beers and a limited number of mini-keg ales. However, their choice, while narrow, contains some very pleasing choices.

Wherry (3.7%)

The aroma suggests a malty bitter, but this is rather misleading (happily for this taster, who is not a fan of overly malty brews). There is a grain, biscuity feel to the beer and a satisfying hoppy finish. A very tasty, very drinkable and surprisingly complex session beer

Bure Gold (4.3%)

As the name suggests, a pale beer with notably orange characteristics. There is a good hop tang and a fruity sweetness. A good beer for a summer evening, but not to be sniffed at on any other evening, either.

Nelson’s Revenge (4.5%)

Unlike with Wherry, the initial malt aroma does not deceive. Not, I would have to concede, a beer that I enjoyed greatly, but as will be evident by now, malty beers are not my thing. There is little bitterness and a fair deal of malty sweetness. Those who like their beer on the sweet side will doubtless reach a very different conclusion than mine.

Norfolk Nog (4.6%)

This is a beer that is hard, if not impossible, to classify. It’s a dark, though not black, ale, perhaps somewhere between a strong mild and a lighter-strength porter. There is a liquorice hint reminiscent of many dark beers, but also a distinct plumminess. That gives it a gentle sweetness, but there is a constant and pleasing bitterness throughout. A really lovely and unusual ale.

Reasons to be Beerful (Part Three)

Time to zip off to Suffolk and Adnams of Southwold. Adnams is one of Britain’s larger independent breweries and produce a good range of beers, some on a regular basis and others seasonally or occasionally. Their online shop sells mini-kegs. Service can, on occasions, be a little chaotic, but they do at least seem to resolve any problems effectively. For example, they recently sold us some beer that was borderline “best-by date”, but allowed us to have some fresher beer to the value of the original order as well as keeping the original beer, which was in perfectly good condition. Not a bad deal!

Southwold Bitter and Ghost Ship are commonly available, the latter often found in supermarkets. We’ve tried a fair range of their beers, so we should look at those.

Southwold Bitter (3.7%)

A good balance of malt and hops, with a bitter finish. This is a very palatable session beer and while the first taste suggests nothing special, there is a complexity that comes through later. There’s a little toffee and caramel sweetness that is offset by a roast bitterness.

Ghost Ship (4.5%)

A very pale beer with a distinctly citrus tone to it. The slightly fruity sweetness is offset by a sharp and pleasing bitterness. Proof that mass production does not necessarily mean blandness.

Mosaic (4.1%)

Another pale beer and another fruity one, this time with a more tropical fruit feel than citrus. Closer to a session ale than Ghost Ship, but with a similar bitter note.

Ease-up IPA (4.6%)

More fruitiness, again of the tropical variety. This is a very juicy beer, with any sweetness coming from the fruit rather than the malt.

Dry-hopped Lager (4.2%)

Brewed with Pilsner malt and dry-hopped using Australian hops. It’s a reasonably clean-tasting and bitter beer, though I find it a little on the bland side.

Blackshore Stout (4.2%)

A relatively light (in strength) stout, but a very tasty one nonetheless. Nice coffee and dark chocolate tinges and a gentle bitterness in the finish. A really pleasing beer and low enough to treat as a session ale.

Old Ale (4.1%)

A style you rarely see these days. Old ales are not quite stouts, not quite milds and not quite winter warmers. It is, though, in the fashion of a darker ale, with those chocolate and liquorice flavours of a black beer. There is, like the stout, a soft bitterness and a hint of red fruit. Sometimes hard to find, but worth seeking out.

Broadside (4.7%)

Much more malty than any other Adnams beer, with dark fruit flavours. Personally, I find Broadside a little too sweet and malty, but this is simply my preference.

Beer Odyssey: Hook Norton

We’ll start this little jaunt with an old favourite, Hook Norton. This, following the sad demise of Morrell’s and Morland’s, is Oxfordshire’s oldest brewery. Your correspondent lived in Oxford for eleven years, though in those days of the tied-house system, it was rare to see any Hook Norton beer in the city. Ironically, I’ve drunk much more Hook Norton beer since living in Scotland than I ever did in my time in Oxford.

The brewery sells a wide range of bottled beers, including many seasonal and occasional brews. They don’t do mini-kegs, but sell pins of ten and twenty litres. Three are regulars: Hooky Bitter, Hooky Gold and Old Hooky. Now and then something else pops up, like Double Stout.

Hooky Bitter (3.5%)

This is almost the definition of a session beer. It’s an amber beer with a good balance of malt and hop, but a noticeably hoppy finish. There is a hint of fruitiness. Despite its relatively low strength, it has a depth of flavour and character. Most assuredly, a Mallard Tavern favourite.

Hooky Gold (4.1%)

A more recent addition to the regular beers, this is a golden (who’d have known?) ale that uses American hops. This accounts for its distinct fruity aroma and flavour. A lovely beer for the end of a warm summer day.

Old Hooky (4.6%)

This beer came along in 1977 to commemorate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and has been around ever since. It’s darker than the above ales and there’s a hint of the winter warmer about it, with a note of dark fruit, but still a good bitterness. It’s one of those beers that tastes a bit stronger than it really is. You could easily imagine, on blind tasting, that it was above 5%.

Double Stout (4.8%)

This is something of a resurrection ale. Hook Norton brewed it for many years before discontinuing it, but stout has enjoyed – happily – something of a revival. Many of us are grateful for this trend, as breweries now offer us much nicer alternatives to the dull, mass-produced likes of Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. The Hook Norton version is, unlike a lot of stouts, hoppy. It makes only the occasional appearance in pins, but is most welcome when it does.

The Joy of Beer

In these times, “travel” involves little more than a walk in the immediate vicinity. Time, then, to turn our attention to other things and what better things are there than beer?

The internet has a lot to answer for. Well, perhaps we should say that certain internet users have a lot to answer for. There are, it seems, masses of people who feel the need to spout hatred and division, lies and disinformation. Some of these people are heads of state.

Happily, the internet has its positive side. One such is that we can now obtain things from all sorts of places, stuff that you probably would only have obtained when on holiday or travelling around. Stuff like beer.

There are plenty of generalist and specialist beer retailers around and a few are very good. However, it tends to be the case that buying directly from breweries if often the best option. This is one good reason for using the direct route, along with the simple fact that it provides important help to independent breweries in difficult times.

It seems only fair, then, to start a small series looking at some of the fine beer that is available. A personal preference is for mini-kegs and mini-pins as opposed to bottles and cans. A five-litre keg, or a five or ten-litre mini-pin allows one to have a good sample of a beer. It’s not exactly what you would get in a pub, but it’s the closest you come.

The plan is to cover some of the beer enjoyed in the (fictional) Mallard Tavern over the course of the last few months. We have sampled brews from Adnam’s, Hook Norton, West Berkshire, Yeovil Ales, Allendale, Tyne Bank, Hadrian and Border, St Andrews and a few others.

Beer, like art, is a personal taste. Different people like different styles and tastes. The “reviews” that will follow are, necessarily, down to personal taste. Just because I, or anyone else, doesn’t particularly like one beer does not mean that the beer is bad. So what you will see are purely personal opinions, which are merely there to inform and, one hopes, provide a little inspiration.

Happy drinking!

Beer – Weiss Squad

Wheat beer is something of an acquired taste, but happily Duck Holiday is a persevering type and has managed to come to terms with this style of beer. Perseverance is a rewarding experience, with plenty of delightful wheat beers available in the UK nowadays.

Several British breweries now make thoroughly palatable wheat beers, but the focus of this study is, of course, central and eastern Europe. It would, though, be more precise to say simply ‘central’, because Germany in general, and Bavaria in particular, is the undisputed home of this style.

Where better to start than with the excellent Erdinger brewery? This Bavarian brewery, north east of Munich, specialises in wheat beer, producing a bewildering number of different types from pale, fruity ones to dark, heavy wheat beers, along with special seasonal brews. A personal favourite is the delicious Urweisse, a relatively new concoction that is exceptionally drinkable. At 4.9%, it is not one of the stronger types of wheat beer and is very easy to knock back. Some wheat beers can have a rather cloying sweetness, but Urweisse’s sweetness emanates from a banana fruitiness and does not overpower the drinker. It also has a pleasingly spicy aroma. Around Christmas, also look out for the Schneeweisse, a little stronger at 5.6%. This is a beer with an equally clean taste.

Urweisse

Urweisse

Schneeweisse

Schneeweisse

Not far from Erding lies the town of Freising, home to the Weihenstephaner brewery. They produce a wide range of beers, including an excellent Kristalweizen (clear wheat beer, 5.4%) that, while lacking the appealing cloudiness of many wheat beers, retains the sweet-tart paradox of the brew with banana and clove scent and flavours.

Kristalweizen

Kristalweizen

Another wheat beer that is often spotted on the shelves of British supermarkets is Munich’s own Franziskaner (5%). This is a hefeweizen, with a wheat ratio of 50:50 or higher, and typical of the Bavarian style. Franziskaner is refreshing, fruity and spicy.

Franziskaner

Franziskaner

Less easy to find, but very well worth seeking out, is Ayinger Brauweisse (5.1%). Aying is south east of Munich and this beer, while typical of a Bavarian wheat style, is a little more citrus to the palate, with zingy lemon amidst the spicy flavours.

Ayinger Brauweisse

Ayinger Brauweisse

Not all wheat beer is light in colour, with most breweries producing a dunkel (dark) version. Duck Holiday finds this style a little on the sweet side, but that is merely personal taste. One worth trying is König Ludwig Weissbier, a 5.5% beer with a malty taste, but retaining that familiar banana spiciness. The brewery is based at Kaltenberg Castle, west of Munich.

König Ludwig Weissbier (dunkel)

König Ludwig Weissbier (dunkel)

Eastern Europe does not produce many wheat beers of its own, but a few can be found. For example, Lvivske White Lion (Львівське Білий лев) is a Ukrainian version. At 4.2%, it is lighter than most Bavarian equivalents and perhaps a bit thin, but is, nonetheless, a pleasant and refreshing beer that is ideal for relaxing after a hot summer’s day in Lviv.

Lvivske White Lion

Lvivske White Lion

Svyturys Baltas is a Lithuanian take on the style, the 5.2% strength being, no doubt, more acceptable to the indomitable Lithuanian palate. It is a very cloudy beer with citrus notes and altogether not a bad version.

Svyturys Baltas

Svyturys Baltas

Russia’s giant Baltika brewery churns out a number of rather uninspiring beers, but Baltika No 8, a wheat brew, is surprisingly good. The 5% beer is very much on Bavarian lines, with banana, cloves, yeast and wheat to the fore, and is infinitely preferable to the turgid No 7 lager that seems to be increasingly ubiquitous.

Baltika No 8

Baltika No 8

Czech beer is often – wrongly – assumed to be uncompromisingly strong, but a lot of the country’s beers are quite gentle and easy drinking. Krušovice Pšeničné, a wheat beer from a famous brewery, is no exception at 4.3%. For those that like to drink wheat beer as a session ale, it is a good choice.

Krušovice Pšeničné

Krušovice Pšeničné

Many breweries are producing wheat beers and experimenting with all sorts of things (fruit, different types of malt, etc.) in a bid to turn out something different. This is all good; after all, the discerning beer drinker likes variety. Ultimately, though, rather like the 2014 World Cup, the Germans have this one all wrapped up.