Digging Digfield Ales – a beery stay in the East Northamptonshire countryside

An article I wrote about beer and pubs in East Northamptonshire which appeared in the Cambridge & District CAMRA magazine ALE, May 2019

Rural East Northamptonshire was the perfect spot for a weekend break, with its pretty villages with stone cottages, medieval churches with tall slender spires, village greens with red kites circling above – and of course, its traditional country pubs. This region, and neighbouring Rutland, just over an hour’s drive from Cambridge, feels like a secret Cotswolds but without the hoards of visitors.

After having sampled Digfield beers at Booze on the Ouse in St Neots the previous weekend, brewed in Barnwell, East Northamptonshire, and having always enjoyed beer from Nene Valley Brewery in Oundle and The Grainstore Brewery, Oakham, we were looking forward to trying them on draft in their local area.

The Shuck

Our first pub of the trip was The Shuckburgh Arms, in the attractive village of Southwick, about three miles north west of Oundle. ‘The Shuck’ is the home of the World Conker Championships, which we have previously attended but in its former location on Ashton village green, Northants (and incidentally, that’s the place where we first ever came across Digfield Ales, when we had a tasty Fools Nook, a refreshing fruity and mellow golden ale). This traditional pub on the main street with a large back garden is community run, and it was good to see several chatty locals gathered around the bar. The beers on offer were Digfield Barnwell Bitter, Brewsters Hophead, Tydd Steam Piston Bob, Grainstore Rutland Osprey, and London Pride; Hophead and Barnwell Bitter are regular beers. The Barnwell Bitter, a tasty malty amber ale, was on fantastic form and had us going back for more. A couple of the locals were talking about ales brewed in their region, and mentioned that they prefer Digfield Ales to Nene Valley Brewery as they had suspicions that NVB sent their best beer to London while local pubs get watered down versions! I actually really like NVB beers, especially their Big Bang Theory IPA.
Digfield ales

The second pub of the night was The White Swan in picturesque Woodnewton. We booked dinner here as the pub in the village we were staying in was fully booked. This stone pub was actually quite quiet for a Saturday night, but we were dining relatively early. It has been totally renovated inside, creating a one room modern gastropub vibe, with high-backed leather-esque chairs and light wood tables. It also has an extensive food menu, something for everyone. However, the beer menu was not quite so large – it was a choice of London Pride or Doom Bar on our visit. We opted for London Pride, which was on OK form, but it was a shame there weren’t any local beers on offer. We enjoyed our tasty ‘veggie fish and chips’ – deep fried battered halloumi – and moved on.

Queens Head Bulwick

The next pub we visited was The Queen’s Head in Bulwick, the village where we were staying. When we entered this stone pub on the High Street, overlooking the church, we noticed a difference from the last pub; it was rammed with drinkers and diners. The classy candlelit dining rooms were full, but we spotted a table in ‘The Village Bar’ that someone had just vacated, so we jumped in there and got ourselves a drink – a light and fruity Digfield March Hare; one we had tried at Booze on the Ouse. I don’t think you can ever beat the taste of beer served straight from the cask, such as it is at a beer festival, but this was on fine form. This bar appeared to be a waiting area for diners, as many were called through and headed to their tables as we drank, but it was a very pleasant people-watching spot. We then had a Nene Valley Brewery Release The Chimps – a dry hopped tasty pale ale, described as an everyday IPA. Spitfire was also available. We asked the barmaid if Nene is pronounced ‘Nenn’ in this region (as it is in Northampton, where I am from, and everywhere west of Thrapston) or ‘Neen’ (as it is pronounced east of Thrapston). She said Neen, and mentioned that she’d had an hour long argument with a customer the other night who told her it should definitely be Nenn. “The Nenn people are the most argumentative!” she said. I wanted to argue that I think the customer was right, and that Neen is just plain wrong, but then that would have confirmed her point! It seems that the Nenns and the Nenes are very protective about their local pronunciation…

Fotheringhay Castle

The next day we found ourselves at the site of Fotherinhgay Castle, close to Oundle. This is where Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587. Despite that horrific thought, it is a peaceful place, and from the top of the mound where the castle keep once stood you can see the meandering River Nene twinkling in the sunlight. Fotheringhay village was the location of our final pub this trip, and I was hoping to try more Digfield ales.

The Falcon, Fotheringhay

We headed along the main street of this beautiful village lined with stone cottages to the Falcon Inn, another lovely stone pub, which we have visited before, but on this occasion it looked lighter and brighter, with quality furnishings including cushioned window seats, and a roaring open fire, which was great to see despite the fact it was sunny day. This spacious pub is popular for food, with a dining room in the conservatory – The Orangery – which spills out onto the terrace. Although the pub often has Digfield beers on draft, the barman told me that they rotate their guest ales often, and Grainstore’s Rutland Osprey was the local beer on offer that Sunday. We bought a couple of those and sat in the lovely grassy beer garden in the sun and enjoyed the light citrussy golden ale which tasted stronger than its 4% ABV.

We bought a few bottles of local ales from one of the village stores, and as soon as we returned home from our weekend break we cracked them open – a smoky and rich P51 porter from Kings Cliffe brewery,  brewed in Kings Cliffe, few miles from Bulwick, and more bottles of Rutland Osprey, to remind us of that sunny beer garden in peaceful Fotheringhay. East Northamptonshire and Rutland are a world away from Cambridge, and worth a trip for their pubs and local ales alone.

Rutland Osprey in the Falcon beer garden

Published in: on July 15, 2020 at 9:26 am  Leave a Comment  

East Coast USA beers and bars – New York, Salem, Boston and Portland

In September we headed over to East Coast USA and visited bars and bottle shops in New York, Salem, Boston, and Portland, Maine – here are the bars we visited and beers we tried. (This post  is very long – you have been warned..!)

New York

Greenwich Village

Blind Tiger beer boardThe Blind Tiger

We visited this bar several times when we were in New York.  This dimly-lit dark wooden one-room bar was atmospheric and had a great beer choice, with 28 craft beers on tap plus 3 cask ales which were chalked on a few blackboards behind the bar. The bar was busy on every visit, but the later it got the busier and louder it became. Me and pintsandpubs sat at the bar and worked our way through some of the beers on offer.

Blind Tiger beersTwo Brothers Bitter End APA,  5.2%, was a pleasant malty caramel beer from Illinois with lots of hops. It wasn’t quite as APA-tasting as I’d have liked – it didn’t really slap me around the face with its massive hop flavours – but it was tasty nonetheless. Troegs Perpetual IPA, 7.5%, from Pennsylvania didn’t taste its ABV; it was quite light with hints of peach and orange. Again, I would have preferred more of a hop kick. However, the Mendocino Imperial IPA, 8.0%, was more like it – this West Coast IPA certainly delivered. Bursting with hops, both in the aroma and flavour, made for a wonderful taste experience. Delicious!

Blind Tiger interiorEmpire Amber, 5.5% from New York, was enjoyable – a caramel malty beer which was light and very easy-drinking. I wasn’t too impressed with Weyerbacker Last Chance IPA, a session beer which didn’t have much going on – it was sweet and sour at the same time, and I found the hops to be too astringent for me. But Barrier Medulla, 7.1%, really stood out. This beer is known as an English IPA, but it’s more American Imperial IPA; it’s wonderfully strong and malty with beautiful resinous hops and caramel flavours. Barrier, from Oceanside, New York, is a great brewery doing exciting things with beer, which seemed to be the opinion of everyone we spoke to in NYC.

White horse tavern White Horse Tavern

This lovely old pub on Hudson Street is where Kerouac got thrown out of when drunk (he lived in an apartment opposite), where Bob Dylan used to hang out, and where Dylan Thomas had his last drink before dying later that night. The dark wood interior is beautifully kept, especially the large polished bar, and there are photos on the walls and paintings of white horses. White Horse barIt’s a place that could tell a tale or two, and history oozes from the walls. The bottles of tomato ketchup on every table sticks in my mind; they seemed glaringly out of place in this ornate and old fashioned pub – but I guess it caters more for diners than drinkers nowadays. We settled on a table outside and had a $7 pint of Lagunitas IPA, with its juicy tropical fruit hop flavours. A very refreshing, delicate, and underrated beer.

Rabbit Club entranceRabbit Club 124

This subterranean speakeasy-style bar is located on well-known MacDougal, a few doors down from where the old Gas Light Cafe was situated (the reason I wanted to visit was to try to picture what the Gas Light might once have looked like, where Dylan played and Kerouac recited poetry). It’s easily missed, and located underneath a taqueria sign – look out for the black door and small writing above it saying ‘rabbit club craft beer bar’ (and a painting of a rabbit, which is a slight give-away) then descend the steep steps. I was expecting the door to be closed and that we’d have to ring a bell, which I’d heard about,  but it looks like they’ve changed all that – the door was open, which was slightly disappointing and ruined the anticipation somewhat! It’s dark, dingy, shows no sport (which has to be a first) and surprisingly, a relatively new addition to the bar scene on this busy street – I’d have thought it dated back to those Kerouac times, but no. Rabbit Club interior

Rabbits are painted on the black walls, figures of rabbits are scattered on the shelf behind the bar, and candles cast dim light. This is a great place to come if you like Belgian beers – it has probably the biggest selection of Belgian bottles in the area – but they are not cheap, as to be expected.  I fancied a draft US beer, but unfortunately both draft beers needed changing – Founders All Day IPA and a Bear Republic brown ale. I ended up having Evil Twin Hipster Pale Ale in a can, a light and fruity, easy-drinking hoppy beer.

Carmine Street Beers

This new beer shop was very close to where we were staying in the West Village. It’s nice and bright, has a great selection of beers, and had a lovely seasonal window display!

Carmine Street beers Beers

 Kettle of Fish

Neon Bar signOn Christopher’s Street, a few doors from where Kerouac once fell off a fire escape on a nearby house, is the Kettle of Fish, the third location of the bar which was previously frequented by Dylan when it was on MacDougal St next to the old Gas Light Cafe. If you descend a few steps you enter the relatively dark wooden bar, with old photos of the old Kettle on the walls, fairy lights everywhere, and the original neon Bar sign around the corner.Kettle of Fish It’s large – much larger than you think when you walk to the other, quieter, side. We sat at the bar and had a Red Hook IPA, 6.2%, on draft, which was nice, hoppy and easy drinking but didn’t have an awful lot going on compared to some of the other brews we’d tried.

Old Kettle of Fish

Old Kettle of Fish

Lower East Side

Top Hops draft beersTop Hops Beer Shop

This taproom/bottle shop is located in the Lower East Side on Orchard St, just a block from lively and once edgy Ludlow St where musicians and artists used to hang out in bars and venues such as Luna Lounge and Max Fish, before they shut down and relocated to Brooklyn.

Outside Top Hops

Although you might head to Top Hops for the 700-odd bottles on sale, I would go just for the taproom – there are about 20 taps selling US and imported craft beer, with the beers available all chalked up on the board behind the long curvy stainless steel bar along with beer style and ABV. The bar tender was friendly and helpful, and gave me a few tasters before I decided on the Founders All Day IPA, a light hoppy session IPA at 5%. Carton Boat Beer across the water in New Jersey was another great find, another session beer and paler than the All Day IPA. Needless to say, we left the bar with several bottles.

Top Hops bar

Hell’s Kitchen/Theater District

Pony BarPony Bar

This mid-town bar close to Times Square which sells ‘All American Craft Beer’ was pretty noisy by the time we arrived in the evening with sports showing on TV and loud shouty conversations taking place. Pony bar beersHowever, the beer list was really extensive, including beers like Mendocino Pumpkin Ale, Barrier Imposter Pilsner and Abita Pecan Harvest – the beers, brewery names and pour size were displayed in neon lights on a couple of boards behind the bar. I went for a Cricket Hill Big Little IPA, a slightly floral session IPA, which to be honest could’ve done with a bit more ooomph; I maybe should’ve realised from the use of the word ‘little’ in the name that it wasn’t going to be as big and exciting as I would have liked. The bar soon became even noisier and packed, so we moved on after another beer.

Outside Pony Bar

House of Brews

Chelsea Hop AngelThis was a nice lamp-lit bar filled with dark shiny wood, rows of bottles above the bar, and TVs showing sport. They have around 100 beers on their beer list; most of these are bottles from around the world including beers from Belgium and the UK (Young’s Double Chocolate Stout made the list, which was interesting to see). House of Brews beers

The small draft beer list included Bronx Pale Ale and Founders Centennial IPA.  I opted for a Chelsea Hop Angel IPA, 6.8%, brewed in New York, for $7 a pint, which I really enjoyed – an easy drinking smooth and hoppy beer with lots of malt and hints of caramel.

East Village

Mc Sorley’s Old Ale House

McSorleysMcSorley’s has to be one of my favourite pubs in NYC. It’s old, and the old photos and framed newspaper cuttings covering the walls and dusty ornaments on and around the bar are testament to its age.  There’s a pair of handcuffs locked to the bar, allegedly Houdini’s. Light and dark

Sawdust covers the floor, grafitti is carved into the wood, and there is an unforgettable aroma of wood chippings mixed with old beer, which has stayed with me to this day. If you order a beer you get not one but two half pint glass tankards – they serve their own house brews, ‘light’ and  ‘dark’ – for $5.50. Both were good beers, but I really loved the easy drinking dark – smooth and quite creamy with a hint of smoke; delicious. We went back for several more and stayed much longer than we had intended.

Bar area Bar and sawdust  Locals at bar Bar

Jimmy’s Number 43

Inside Jimmy'sThis subterranean bar a few doors down from McSorleys couldn’t be more different. From the outside it doesn’t look that inviting, with lots of metal grating, but once you get down those stairs then it’s warm, cosy and has tons of bottles, and a good draft beer list including Six Point Apollo Wheat (Brooklyn) and their Beljam Wheat. Jimmy's Beer listWe had a beautiful Firestone Walker Double Jack Imperial IPA, 9.5%, which was bursting with resinous hops, followed by a dark rich and strong (10%) Thornbridge Hall Bracia from our own shores. Not ideal beers to have one after the other with my tolerance levels suffering after having had several in McSorley’s previously, but it all made for a great evening.

Jimmy's by day Jimmy's by night

Good Beer

This friendly craft beer shop with tons of great bottles including Green Flash, Anderson Valley and Founders (shame about the lack of space in our cases, although we did manage to squeeze a few more in) also had several beers on tap including Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin IPA and the lovely Maine MO. This beautifully delicate pale beer is fresh and fruity, refreshing and zingy, and is just wonderful –  a beer you could just keep on drinking.

Good Beer bottles Outside Good Beer


The Owl FarmOwl Farm

This pub is over the river in Brooklyn and a short stroll from the  4th Avenue/9th Street subway. Long, narrow and painted burgundy and white inside, with exposed brick, wooden floor and low hanging lights, this sleek pub-style bar showing sports (as usual) had 28 beers on tap from the likes of Evil Twin, Stone and Narragansett.

Inside Owl FarmI had a Stone Levitation after several tasters – not a new beer for me, but one that I always like to go to. We also had a Stone Enjoy by 9.13.13 – a limited edition beer. At 11% it probably wasn’t the best beer to have just before attempting to walk back to Manhattan over Brooklyn Bridge…!

Beer board in Owl Farm  Beer

Brooklyn Bridge


Beer Works Bar Salem Beer Works

After moving on to the small and historic ‘Witch City’ of Salem it was great to find this down-to-earth sprawling modern bar filled with stainless steel, sports screens, large booths, and a big beer list, all brewed by the Beer Works. I didn’t really have any expectations, but was really surprised – I enjoyed all their beers. The Double Pale Ale was strong at 8.5% and was a great full-flavoured imperial IPA, but I actually preferred the Back Bay IPA, a fantastic 6.5% beer that cut through everything, even after drinking the Double. Witch City Red, 5%, was gorgeous, like drinking a fruity sherbet, and the Salem American Pale Ale 5.5% reminded me of London Pride which I didn’t expect or want (don’t get me wrong, London Pride is a good beer; I just wanted something more American). I just wish I’d had more time to try their other beers, including Bunker Hill Blueberry Ale, Black Bay Stout, Bay State ESB – the list goes on…

Beer list 1 Beer list 2

Howling Wolf Taqueria

Howling WolfThe great thing about restaurants in these parts is that they always seem to have great beer on offer. This Mexican joint didn’t disappoint, and we shared a tasting tray/flight of beers including Shipyard Pumpkin Ale, Ithaca Flower Power, Allagash Black, and one other which escapes me. Ithaca Flower Power, 7.5%, had to be my favourite out of the four – strong but easy drinking, bursting with citrus hops and floral flavours, and as in-your-face as they come. I didn’t enjoy the spicy Shipyard as I’m not a great fan of cinnamon, and the Allagash Black was OK, but after the Ithaca there really was no contest.

Quality Liquors

This bottle shop on Gedney Street sold a good range of craft beers, including some seasonal pumpkin ales from Dogfish Head Pumpkin beersand Weyerbacher, bottles from Maine Beer Co and Pretty Things.

Beers 1

Salem Witch Museum

Portland ME

Great Lost Bear

Outside Great Lost BearAfter a 2.5 hour train journey from Salem to Boston we got straight on a bus to Bier Cellar, an excellent bottle shop on Forest Avenue, and realised this pub was a 10-minute walk up the road, so we decided to visit it. This dull-looking warehouse building with a bear painted on one wall surprised us as we went inside, with its neon lights, an eating area separated from the long bar with etched glass, and beer signs dotted around everywhere – very colourful and pretty. And a big beer list with 69 taps. The first thing the hostess said to us, pointing at our large brown paper bag of beer from Bier Cellar, was “You’re not planning on drinking that in here, are you?” Urr, no, why would we do that, what with your massive selection of draft beers…? “Well I thought that might be something you do where you come from” she stated unsmilingly. Ohhhkay…

Great Lost Bear barDespite the odd welcome, it was a nice place. We ordered some Maine Peeper (gorgeous delicately hopped and fresh, like all their beers) and munched on fries whilst drinking Sebago Fry’s Leap, an absolutely wonderful IPA, Six Point Simcoe IPA, which was almost as good as the Fry’s Leap, Funky Bow So Folkin Hoppy, which wasn’t really, even though it was a decent IPA, and Magic Hat Not Quite Pale Ale, which I can’t say we liked – it was like a malty bitter but not a great one at that which was a shame.

Beer list Taster flight

Novare Res Bier Cafe

Novare ResThis ‘bier cafe’ is tucked down a little alleyway off Lower Exchange Street, one of the main shopping streets running down towards the port. It was well presented, with candles on all the tables creating a cosy and relaxed atmosphere. The food looked good, but not much for veggies so we passed. They have around 30 taps and over 500 bottles, plus a couple of hand pumps. We had more lovely Maine Peeper, and a Marshall Wharf Pale Ale, which was too sulphurous and not to my taste. We could’ve stayed longer, but there were more places to seek out on our mini Portland crawl.

Thirsty Pig

Thirsty PigThis place for sausage lovers in the centre of town also does lots of great beer. We were pleased to discover it sold veggie hot dogs, so along with one of those smothered in onions and ketcup (pintsandpubs regretted asking for one with hot sauce, which ended up being so hot that it killed his taste buds), we enjoyed some more Maine MO, as lovely and fruity as ever, and some Smuttynose Finest Kind IPA, which was sweet and malty and a bit too sulphurous but with a pleasant after taste. There were about 10 draft beers available as well as lots of bottles, and the friendly staff offered tasters. A nice patio area out back overlooked the back end of Portland’s downtown redbrick buildings- very similar to buildings in England, actually. Nice place.

Gritty McDuff’s

Grittys beersStyled as an English pub, this microbrewery and restaurant is the sort of place you can imagine long-gone sailors hanging out outside in the gas-lit cobbles of dark old fashioned Wharf Street. The downstairs bar (Wharf Street level) is small and ‘gritty’, and upstairs (Fore St level) is noisier, larger, brighter, and full of locals and visitors.

Some of the locals are part of the Mug Club; their numbered mugs hang from the ceiling of the bar, they pay $75 a year to join, and they receive cheap beer and special deals on Sundays and Tuesdays; the bar tender fishes the mugs down with a giant hook which was very entertaining to watch.Mugs! I ordered a Gritty’s Pub Style Pale Ale which was light, hoppy and quite weak, and pintsandpubs had a Maine’s Best IPA which was darker, maltier and quite rich – both were decent beers. I liked Gritty’s, and loved atmospheric Wharf Street with its gas lamps.

Outside Gritty's, Wharf St

Wharf St




The first pub we visited upon arrival in Boston, our final city, was Stoddard’s ‘Fine Food and Ale’. This was quite an elegant bar, with plenty of dark polished wood and chandeliers, and about 20 shiny taps along the bar which we couldn’t get to due to the crowds. There were many diners and not much room to sit though, so we perched on a bench near the door and ordered a bottle of Maine Beer Co Lunch, which pintsandpubs had been searching for since NYC. It was filled with mellow hops, maybe not quite as fresh as the MO and Peeper – Maine beers have to be drunk within days or at the most a couple of weeks after they are brewed to taste them at their best – but it was still a great choice.

Beacon Hill

Tip Tap Room

Tip Tap - Ballast Point Sculpin This bar on Cambridge Road, on the edge of pretty Beacon Hill with its gas lamps and cobbled streets, was a pleasant surprise, with about 36 taps stretching around the long sprawling bar. It was heaving with diners and drinkers, and we managed to grab the two last seats at the stainless steel bar (the hostess sitting diners said it was busy because it was ‘hump’ day – Wednesday, when everyone comes out as its midweek –  we’d never heard of this before in the UK!). Beer list

I had a lovely Ballast Point Sculpin, a very nice 7%  IPA that I’d last enjoyed at the GBBF in August. Pintsandpubs had a massively hoppy Port Brewing Wipeout IPA, 7%, which he raved about, and we then had a Founders Double Trouble, 9.4%, which although was rich and resinous it didn’t quite match up to the well crafted Wipeout;  the strong alcohol flavours were not very well disguised.

The Sevens Ale House

Sevens Ale HouseOutside SevensThis pub on Charles St, Beacon Hill, is a locals pub – not your touristy pub like some others in town. It’s long and narrow, quite dark, full of old faded wood, sports photos, breweriana, and has locals propping up the bar drinking beer or munching on food and watching sport on TV. I ordered the house beer Sevens Dark Ale, which was actually Dark Munich brewed by Harpoon – a strong dark beer, similar to McSorley’s dark, but a fair bit stronger. Harpoon IPA was also on, as was Sam Adams Boston Lager.


Cambridge Brewing Company, Cambridge

CBC This brewery-restaurant is located across the river from Boston in Cambridge on Kendall Square , just a few subway stops from the centre of Boston on the red line. We went there to meet some friends, and found them at the back of the light and airy pub next to some bags of grain and close to some large shiny brewing vessels.

I had a Tall Tale Pale Ale, a pleasant beer with Cascade and Centennial hops, followed by a See You Next Tuesday, which although billed as a pale-amber beer was more of a dark bitter to me. CBC beer listA bit too spicy and malty and not as hoppy as I would’ve liked; I couldn’t really taste all the citrus hops. I preferred pintsandpubs Mind Left Body, a wonderfully hoppy bitter with a slightly sour finish. The food was great, service was good, the atmosphere was pleasant, and all in all it was a lovely evening with friends in the ‘other’ Cambridge.

Back Bay

The Salty Pig

Salty PigOpposite the Back Bay station and the entrance to Copley Square mall, the Salty Pig is apparently a good place to eat meat (which we don’t) but it also happens to have a good beer selection.  I fancied something relatively weak as a nightcap after our evening out in Cambridge, so I went for a 21st Amendment Bitter American at 4.4% which was light with lots of lemon hops. Salty Pig beersPintsandpubs had a Pretty Things Meadowlark IPA, 7%, which he loved, resinously hoppy – a great beer. Sport was showing on TVs behind the bar again, of course, and people around us were enjoying munching on ‘salty pig parts’. All in all, it was a decent place with a good atmosphere and close to where we were staying, so a nice short walk back.


Sunset Grill and Tap

Sunset Grill and TapThe Sunset Grill and Tap is one of those pubs that you have to go to when in Boston, and we did save the best til last; this was probably my favourite bar in the city. Although not in central Boston, it is worth the trek out to trendy Allston, although it took the longest time to get there – our own fault, we decided to head there during rush hour. Crowds were gathered in the underground T stations waiting for green line trains which were all clustered together waiting for the trains in front to move forwards. It must’ve took an hour to get from central Boston (Park St) to Packard’s Corner in Allston, which would have taken half the time if we’d travelled off peak. Anyway, back to the pub.

Outside SunsetThe exterior is painted in bright colours depicting a bar scene. The inside is cavernous and colourful with lots of neon lights and pictures, and there are over 100 beers on tap, and hundreds of bottles.

BeersThe beer menu is several pages long. You can choose a set menu of flights of beer, create your own flights, or just order a pint. We ordered lots of food (nachos, fries, burgers) and pintsandpubs ordered his favourite, Maine Peeper,  and I went for a delicious Green Flash West Coast IPA, as gorgeous and as resinously hoppy as ever. Sunset beers

Other beers included the beautifully fresh Ithaca Flower Power, my beer of the trip, Clown Shoes Tramp Stamp which had live yeast and it showed – far too yeasty for me – Green Flash Symposium Ale, 7%, which had an unusual hop grassy flavour but was tasty, Smuttynose Rhye IPA which was OK with slightly spicy notes but not quite as lip-smacking as the rest, and Green Flash Le Freak, a lovely strong Belgian style ale. A great place to spend our last evening in Boston.

So that was the end of our trip. We managed to bring some beers back with us, one of them being my favourite, Ithaca Flower Power, as well as some Maine beers. Unfortunately, these are all gone now, so I guess we need to start planning another trip soon. Better start saving up…

Swan Boats, Boston

A few London pubs – Cross Keys, Lamb and Flag, Old Red Cow

When in London on Wednesday afternoon I visited three pubs with some friends – the Cross Keys in Covent Garden, the Lamb and Flag, Covent Garden, and the Old Red Cow, Barbican. Each pub is very different with its own character and personality.

Cross Keys ExteriorI was last in the Cross Keys a few years back where I sat on the benches outside enjoying a beer or two, gazing at the colourful hanging baskets and foliage covering the ornate exterior of the pub and watching people wander by. With these memories in mind we’d arranged to meet a friend outside for a drink on the benches on the hottest day of the year so far. Upon arrival, however, we discovered that the outdoor seating no longer existed. There was nothing to sit on at all. Ah. That’s our plans scuppered then. ‘It was the council’ the barman told us. ‘They told us we had to choose between standing or seating outside – so we went for standing.’ ‘When was this?’ we enquired. ‘Five years ago’ he replied. OK. No sunny beers for us then.

Interior of Cross KeysSo we took a seat inside the dimly lit pub, next to the fan and open window where we could gaze at the hot world outside. It was probably for the best anyway – that sun and 32 degree heat was harsh.

The pub itself is a tiny one-bar pub, with small lamps lining the walls above the dark red leather seats, providing a red glow. The pub is covered in clutter – photos, mirrors, brass ornaments, everything you can think of. It’s beautiful.Brodies beers

We ended up staying in the pub for a few hours (some time was spent standing outside, it wasn’t all in the dark), during which time I worked my way through the Brodies range on offer at the bar and started over again. There were 4 Brodies beers available – Citra, London Fields Pale Ale, Bethnal Green Bitter, and Old Street Pale, plus a Windsor and Eton Guardsman. The Citra was only 3.1% and was just what I needed – light, lemony, refreshing, very neckable and not strong at all – wonderful citrus hop flavours for its low ABV. London Fields Pale Ale, 4%, had a hint of smokiness to it and was also quite citrussy (lots of US hops) – this also went down well. Bethnal Green Bitter at 4% was quite a dark bitter, and although pleasant enough, it was a touch too malty for me, I was on a hop kick. Then the Old Street Pale Ale gave me back the hops I was after, a 5.0% American Pale Ale loaded with Simcoe and Citra – lovely. It was hard to follow this, so when I went for the W&E Guardsman next it didn’t do it for me – another best bitter, tangy, malty. I guess I just needed hops at that point. Lots of them. It was one of those days.

Outside Cross Keys

Lamb and FlagWe then headed down the road to the Lamb and Flag. It was heaving as always, this time with the after work crowd. The alleyway and courtyard outside was filled with men in suits – well, shirts; it was too hot for suits. This low wooden beamed pub, the oldest in Covent Garden (if not in all of London) dates back to the 17th century and is very atmospheric with lots of dark wood, mirrors and panelling. Charles Dickens apparently used to frequent the establishment. It used to be pretty violent –  its nickname was the Bucket of Blood.

This Fullers pub had several of their beers on offer: London Pride, ESB, Chiswick Bitter, etc. I went for their seasonal Wild River, another APA with lots of West Coast US hops including Willamette and the ubiquitous Citra hop. Very nice.

Beer boardWe then moved on to Smithfield, where a couple of minutes’ walk from the Barbican/Farringdon Tubes is the Old Red Cow, right opposite the meat market. This is a 2-floor light and airy craft beer house, with loads of beers on draft and keg and a beer menu chalked up on the wall- one of the biggest selections in London they say. Again, busy with post-work drinkers, it was hard to get a seat (and far too hot to be sitting inside anyway) so we stood outside for a quick one before the train home. It was hard to choose just one beer from that massive selection, but I stuck with the light and citrus hop theme and went for a Buxton Special Pale Ale, 4.1%. Beautiful mellow flavours and full of Citra but not overpoweringly so; not top-heavy – it was really nicely balanced.

So that was that, time to catch the train home after a lovely day with friends. I’ll definitely return soon to some of these pubs – maybe the Old Red Cow first next time and try to work my way through their enormous range – but then again, if I do that then I probably won’t make it anywhere else…

Cambridge CAMRA Pub of the Year Awards 2013

We were invited along to the Cambridge and District CAMRA Pub of the Year Awards which took place last night at the Hopbine. As well as the award for pub of the year there were 10 other awards going, including community pub of the year, locale pub, and most improved pub.


By 8pm the Hopbine was heaving with familiar faces including Jethro and Terri from the Cambridge Blue, Jess and Steve from the Elm Tree, and Lawrence from the Champion of the Thames (and now the Clarendon as well). There were also several local brewers present such as Joe from BlackBar, Mark from Moonshine, Jon from Lord Conrads, and Richard from Milton.

I drank Moonshine’s Cambridge Pale Ale pretty much most of the evening, a lovely easy drinking bitter with caramel and floral hop flavours. We were asked to take a seat in the back room of the pub where there was a large award display board for the event – a nice backdrop for the winners photos.

The compere made light hearted jokes as he read out pub descriptions before each award was presented, to try to make us guess which pub he was describing (he quite liked the word ‘breweriana’, which came up a couple of times in the descriptions. Guess which pubs he was referring to..!)

Will SmithWill Smith from CAMRA presented the awards and posed for official photos with the winners and their framed certificates; he even received the occasional kiss.

The winner of Pub of the Year went to the Flying Pig. You know, that wonderful pub that’s under threat of being demolished (which I wrote about in a previous post). Congratulations Justine and Matt. Hopefully this award will open people’s eyes as to how valuable a lovely pub like this is to the community.

The Flying Pig

Here’s a list of all the winners – well done everyone, especially to some of my local favourite pubs, you know who you are 😉

Pub of the year 2013:  The Flying Pig

Locale Pub of the year(Rural) 2013:  The Crown Inn, Linton

Locale pub of the year 2013 (city):  The Cambridge Blue

Community Pub of the year  2013 (Rural):  The Plough and Fleece Horningsea

Community Pub of the Year 2013 (City):  The Elm Tree

Dark Ale/ Mild Pub of the Year 2013:  The Maypole

Most improved pub of the year 2013( City):  The Mill

Most improved pub of the year 2013( Rural):  The Chestnut Tree, West Wratting

Cider pub of the year:  The St Radegund

Real Ale Champion 2013:  Richard Naisby, Milton Brewery

CAMRA Lifetime Achievement award:  Lawrence Dixon, of The Champion of the Thames and Clarendon Arms.

Lawrence Plough and Fleece Jethro and Terri, Cambridge Blue Jess and Steve, Elm Tree

There’s one rural pub on the list that I haven’t made it out to yet, so I will make sure I rectify that as soon as possible. And if you haven’t visited these pubs in a while, make sure you do – they all need our support!

Green Man Grantchester Easter Beer Festival 2013

Grantchester Meadows

Grantchester Meadows

On Good Friday we wrapped up warm and braved the cold to stroll across Grantchester Meadows to the Green Man‘s Easter Beer Festival. This festival was the first of five that the pub will be holding this year, and what better time for the first to take place than over the 4-day weekend – plenty of time for drinking.

Although this was apparently the coldest Easter in the country since records began (we are always told nowadays that we are experiencing the coldest/wettest/driest/snowiest season – but never the hottest, funny that) it didn’t put people off heading to the village, and at least it didn’t snow (that was last weekend). Many visitors chose to walk an hour from central Cambridge or cycle to Grantchester; buses don’t run to the village on Sundays or Bank Holidays, which I think is crazy, being a much-visited destination with limited space for parking. Sometimes you don’t want to exert yourself and just want to jump on a bus – especially when you just want to get home after a beer festival.

The Green Man

The Green Man

If you haven’t visited the Green Man before then you really should. It’s a lovely traditional English beamed pub in the centre of the pretty village, full of dark wood, nooks and crannies, and great food and beer. The fire was roaring when we got there around midday, so we bagged a seat then headed outside to the large marquee in the garden where the festival was taking place.

There were over 65 beers and ciders available over the course of the long weekend (fantastic for a village pub). Beers ranged from local breweries such as Cambridge Moonshine and BlackBar to breweries further afield like Spire and Kelham Island. I tried a Buntingford Queen Mary, a lovely hoppy copper coloured ale with sherbet aroma, fruit notes and caramel flavours. You can never go wrong with a Buntingford beer. Full Tilt was also on, but the Single Hop Archer wasn’t quite ready.

Beer list

Beer list

I enjoyed Bexar County Brewery’s Come and Take it, a strong amber IPA at 7.3% with lots of citrus hops  and a big malt backbone. Steve the brewer is from Texas; I first tried his beer a couple of years ago at the Peterborough Beer Festival (his Lonestar Texas Pale Ale brewed with Hopshackle went down very well, check out my post about it). He is brewing aggressive American-style beers, and he loves experimenting and not doing things by the rule book. We visited the brewery in Peterborough a few weeks ago and played around putting chilis in beer – check out @pintsandpubs blog post about our visit. Bexar beers are unfined (no additional ingredients added to clear the beer) and are naturally cloudy, so don’t be put off by this, embrace the haze – this means they are vegan friendly and I’m all for that. Also from Bexar was the Chocolate Covered Bananas Mild, a strong and interesting full-flavoured mild with distinct banana and choc flavours. Look out for this brewery, exciting stuff is in the pipeline…

BlackBar BBSB

BlackBar BBSB

BlackBar’s BBSB (Big Black Stuff for Barrels) is another fantastic beer, rich and full bodied with roasted coffee and choc flavours. Joe from BlackBar Brewery in Harston is another brewer doing exciting stuff with beer and loves experimenting, and I have to say that his beers just keep getting better all the time, especially his dark strong beers (which keep getting stronger and darker). Again, another person to look out for who has interesting stuff brewing, so to speak.

Tydd Steam Scoundrel

Tydd Steam Scoundrel

Tydd Steam beers from Wisbech were also present – I went for a Scoundrel, a lovely hoppy, easy-drinking beer. Their refreshing Barn Ale was also there.

It was good to see a Cambridge Moonshine beer there too in the form of Trumpington Tipple. I first tried this ale at the Cambridge Brew House a few weeks previously and was impressed. It’s a beautiful malty beer with fruity flavours brewed with several types of US hop – lovely. Another great local brewery I have written about several times before.

As well as drink, there were bar snacks available such as scotch eggs and sausage rolls, as well as the main menu inside the pub. Live music was provided all weekend in the marquee including the Andy Bowie Quartet, the Freddy Hall Band, Groove Tube, and Tiger Blue (an acoustic duo playing famous classic indie songs who we caught when we popped back to the festival on Easter Monday.)

I’m already looking forward to the Green Man’s next beer festival which takes place over the first Bank Holiday weekend in May …only 4 weeks to go. Let’s hope the weather is warmer by then for our stroll across the meadows – the hottest on record maybe…?

Here are the dates for the next Green Man beer festivals – put the dates in your diary.

3-6 May

19-21 July

23-27 August

27-29 September

See you there!

Searching for Moonshine – Sampling beer at the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival

This is an article that I recently wrote for Local Secrets – I thought I’d put it on here as I never got round to writing a full blog post about the beer festival..

I swirled the beer around my glass. ‘What can you see?’ Lots of bubbles forming a large foamy head. ‘Too much carbonation,’ said Mark. ‘It needs to breathe a bit longer to reduce the amount of bubbles. Is it clear or hazy?’ I held the glass up in the air; the yellow liquid was far from crystal clear. ‘Once the haze clears it’ll be ready. Right, which one shall we try next?’

beer We were at the Cambridge Winter Ale Festival at the University Social Club which this year took place Thursday 17 – Saturday 19 January, chatting to Mark Watch, the man behind Cambridge Moonshine brewery. Mark is passionate about real ale and can often be seen at beer festivals helping out behind the bar and passing on his expertise to the staff.

Cambridge Moonshine brewery, located near the Gog Magog hills, was established in 2004 and the beer is brewed using water from the brewery’s own well. The beers vary from light and hoppy ales such as ‘Heavenly Matter’ to full bodied ales like ‘Chocolate Orange Stout’ and speciality beers such as ‘Red Watch’ brewed with blueberries – ensuring everyone’s beery tastes are pretty much catered for.

The crowds gathered in the street outside well before the official 5pm opening, and as soon as the doors opened beer lovers swarmed in to purchase their refundable festival glasses and to find a seat. There is seating both upstairs and downstairs as well as bars on both levels. We perused the beer list, featuring both dark winter warmers, light, fruity ales and cider from a mix of local breweries such as BlackBar and Milton and Fellows as well as national and foreign suppliers.

Once at the bar, we chatted to Bert, the organiser of the summer beer festival, who’d been there since early that morning setting up, and Steve, the bar manager, who’d rushed down there after his day job. According to Steve this festival tends to organise itself – they already have all the equipment, so the main task is to select and order in the beer.ale festival

‘There were five Moonshine beers on the list but they weren’t all available yet – it was only day one of this three-day event. ‘Limitless Abundance’ was on – a 10% oak-aged imperial stout, which was very strong, warming, and an incredibly oaky beer. I was on the lookout for ‘Moonshine Ison,’ an 8% imperial IPA brewed with seven different US hops, but it wasn’t yet available. When I asked Mark when it would be ready he asked me if I wanted a sneaky sample of it as well as a few others. How could I refuse?!

So here we were, swishing beer around our glasses, trying several beers that weren’t yet available to the public with Mark explaining how to establish if a beer was ready. So much care goes into looking after real ale, and if a beer goes on sale that is ‘green’ (too young), the customer won’t experience the beer as the brewer intended.

Mark disappeared with his glass and came back with a deep amber-coloured ale. I held it up to the light – clear. I looked at the bubbles – not too few, not too many, nice big bubbles at the beer line. I smelt it – a wonderful hoppy aroma. I took a sip – wow. Resinous flavours, tons of hops, full bodied. I looked at Mark. Is it the ‘Ison’?! He nodded, smiling. But why wasn’t it on sale yet? It looked and tasted great. ‘Remember what it tastes like today, and try it again tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It will be even better by then’.

So it looks like I’ll be at the beer festival again tomorrow – for educational purposes, naturally. And very probably the next day too…

Published in: on February 1, 2013 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Emperor at Christmas and the Flying Pig

On our way to see a band at the Junction we called into a couple of pubs on Hills Road– the Emperor and the Flying Pig, two very different pubs with different atmospheres. They have one thing in common – they both serve good beer.

When we arrived at the Emperor we couldn’t really miss the fact that it was decorated for the festive season. Not with just a few fairy lights, oh no; this is, indeed, the sister pub to the Empress, and we all know how Christmassy that pub becomes at this time of year. So it was great to see that they have applied the same principle to their Hills Road establishment and gone the whole hog – Christmas paper plastered all over the ceiling, red and blue fairy lights dangling everywhere, giant soft Santa, Rudolph and penguin toys in every orifice imaginable, and tinsel surrounding every window. You can’t get more Christmassy than this. Except, of course, at the Empress.

The pub was set up for a comedy night with chairs laid out in rows and a few (occupied) tables at the back. We took a seat on the back row and enjoyed some Buntingford Crow’s Nest, 3.9%, a light amber citrusy beer with caramel malty flavours served straight from the cask behind the bar. Also on offer on draft were Buntingford Aramis – very sweet and floral – Oakham JHB, and Timothy Taylor Landlord.

The next stop was the Flying Pig at the top of Station Road. This lovely pub was dimly lit and busy with every table taken. With its dark wood, walls and ceiling covered in pictures and posters, friendly locals, and candles on tables, it’s one of the most atmospheric pubs in Cambridge. And it always serves great beer, including on this visit Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, Cambridge Moonshine Red Watch (a tasty blueberry flavoured ale – there are always good Moonshine beers on in this pub) and Black Sheep Bitter. All hand pumps have plastic pig heads sitting on the top of them. Very cute.

But on a more serious note, this pub is under threat of demolition– it’s in the area where this big CB1 development is taking place, and is surrounded by modern office blocks and apartments. And a lovely pub like this, in the eyes of the developers, is just in the way and not in character with their soulless new-builds. The Osborne Arms, which was next to the Pig, has just been demolished without Conservation Area Consent, and there is now a big empty space where it once stood.  The Pig is a pub that simply should not be demolished just to create more space for redevelopment – the modern, bland area needs unique, individual places like the Pig to inject a bit of soul into it. The developers say they would build a new Flying Pig in one of their units, but this defeats the object – the pub is full of atmosphere and character which just cannot be recaptured in a contemporary space. That’s what makes it so special and irreplaceable.

It wasn’t possible to obtain listed building status for the Flying Pig, although English Heritage did say ‘The Flying Pig makes a significant contribution to the character of the Conservation Area and to the local streetscape’ so hopefully that counts for something. There’s a petition circulating at the moment for Cambridge City Council to refuse Conservation Area Consent to demolish the Flying Pig; to sign it, click herethe more signatures the better.

Fingers crossed that they do the right thing with regards to the Flying Pig. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and there’s no getting it back.

Published in: on November 23, 2012 at 11:09 am  Comments (1)  
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Champion Beer Tasting – Peterborough Beer Festival 2012

I was lucky enough to be invited along to the blind tasting and judging session of Champion Beers for the 35th Peterborough Beer Festival yesterday. Considering that this beer festival has over 350 beers available it was anyone’s guess which beers would make it through to the short list for us lot to try. On Tuesday evening, when the festival opened, visitors were asked to rate which beers they liked the best, and their votes, along with recommendations from the cellar team, determined the beers that would make it to our tasting session.

At 11 am Steve Williams, the Pubs Officer, took us all through to the tasting room. There were about 20 of us tasters who’d made it to the festival on the Embankment at this early hour to drink beer. There were CAMRA members, beer festival staff, brewery folk, journalists, and knowedgeable judges. Upon entering the room I immediately spotted the jugs of beers on the top table, beers of all different colours and varieties. We spread ourselves out over 4 tables; I was sat with Karl Simpson (from Peterborough CAMRA), Mel who knows his ales and has worked with several CAMRA branches, and Mike and Maxine from the British Brewing Playing Card Society who have judged at the PBF for the past 3 years.

We were each handed a sheet of paper; ours had Milds written at the top followed by numbers 1 through to 5, and next to each there was a column for Notes and Score. Table 1 and 2 had the milds sheet; Tables 3 and 4 had bitters. I was slightly envious; I wanted the bitters! We wouldn’t be tasting all categories, but would be splitting them between tables.

Steve Saldana, the Membership Secretary and Texan who brewed the lovely Lonestar TPA last year with Hopshackle (read about it on my post about last year’s PBF), gave an introductory speech about what to look for in a beer – appearance, aroma, flavour – that we should swallow and not spit, that we should mark out of 10. He then told us to have fun. Well, OK Steve, if you insist…! Let the tasting commence!

We were handed a jug of deep brown liquid, this was mild no. 1. Milds are not my favourite beer style, but I figured that starting off with the weaker beers was the best way to do it – we had 22 to get through altogether. I held the glass up to the light to see the colour, swished it around to release the aromas, took a few deep sniffs, then took a swig. This one was pleasant enough, what I’d expect from a mild really; quite a pleasant nutty flavour, lots of caramel, and roast malt flavours. We all got scoring, talking amongst ourselves about what we had identified in that beer, and our jug was removed by Steve W. and replaced with the next one.

Mild no. 2 was a shock. Milds are generally weak and easy drinking; this one blew my head off. It was boozy, syrupy, full bodied, with treacle flavours mixed with chocolate – it warmed me up as it went down.  All of us around the table thought it was a strong ‘un. I was interested to find out what it was. Would we find out later?

Unwanted dregs of beer from our glasses went into the bucket next to me (it was next to me as my fellow judges kept pouring me far too much beer to taste (‘I’ll end up a heap on the floor!’)  and I ended up pouring it away). My plan was to take it easy – we had a lot to get through, and I was planning on attending the evening session later on. Oh, how sensible.

After 4 milds we had a short break, had a few nibbles on cheese and crackers and a few slugs of water, then moved onto the Strong Bitters. This was a bit more like it! The first beer was golden, and had a massive hop aroma, with resinous hop flavours mixed with peach and passion fruit. Absolutely lovely. ‘I MUST find out what this beer is later!’ I declared. The second was beautiful, as was the third, and fourth (particularly so), fifth and sixth. It was hard to just drink a small amount of these lovely fruity strong golden beers, but I managed with sheer will and determination. I rated beer no. 1 and 4 as the best of that round, but it was close – they were all fantastic.

The next session was Speciality beers. We had 6 to try – and it was quite obvious from just looking at some of them what sort of beers they were – a ginger beer, a dark berry beer, a wheat beer. One rum porter was particularly potent. The dark berry beer (blackberries, we established immediately upon smelling and tasting) and the last beer, a dark smooth beer with lots of chocolate flavours, were my favourites.

The last round was Stouts and Porters –  I was hoping we’d get this category. I enjoyed 4 out of the 6 tasted, with the other two just too ‘figgy’ tasting for me, but Mel and Maxine loved them. The first one we all agreed was a Black IPA, loads of aroma hops but roasted malt flavours – an interesting beer.

Then at 2pm the judging was over – except from choosing the overall Champion Beer of the festival. One person per table was nominated to do the final judging – we nominated Maxine. She moved to another table with the nominees from the other tables, and the rest of us piled into the staff bar for more beer and lunch. Karl also took me on a quick tour of the venue, which has reverted back to its original horseshoe layout, with two parallel marquees lined with bars and pub games interlinked by a music tent for the live acts. Outside there were food stalls and fairground rides, and a pleasant outdoor seating area with chairs and tables on the grass.

Around 3pm we saw that a notice had mysteriously appeared on the wall of the staff bar – nobody saw how or when – and everyone rushed over to take a look; the Champion Beer list had arrived! The overall winner was…. Salopian Blackwater Rat Race. In second place was Fyne Ales Rune, and in third place, Adnams Tally Ho! I was desperate to know which beers I had tried – were any of mine the champion beers?

Champion Beers 2012

Champion Beers 2012

Steve Williams appeared and we nabbed him to see if he knew which beers were the ones we had tasted; the anticipation was getting too much, we needed to know. He nodded. Phew. He got out his notes (apologising for the roughness of them, covered in scribbles, but just about legible) and we pored over them to see if any of ours were winners. None of the champion beers had come from our categories – the first two were bitters, and the third a barley wine. However, I was pleased to see that one of my favourite strong bitters was winner in that category – Flowerpots IPA, and it just so happened to be the Champion Beer of 2011. The one equally as good was Dark Star Revelation, a great beer but not a winner unfortunately. I spotted that the Black IPA we enjoyed was Otley Oxymoron, a lovely beer – although it didn’t win anything. The really strong mild we tasted won the Milds – Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild. And the winner of the Speciality beer was Brass Castle Bad Kitty – the chocolate one that I loved – with the blackberry beer in second place, being Mauldons Blackberry Porter.

So that was that, the beer had been tasted and judged, and the champions announced. And a lot of fun it was too. All there was left to do was attend the evening session.

Me and @pintsandpubs (who’d been drinking there all afternoon) stayed for a couple of hours, sitting in the sun, then the rain, and then the sun again; we ate donuts, and  tried more beers – this time I knew what I was getting! Oakham Carioca, was good, the festival special with peach and grassy notes with an unusual underlying flavour, which I later discovered was due to the gurana berries. (The Oakham bar is decked out in exotic colours, Rio carnival-esque, and looks very pretty). I tried the champion beer, Salopian Blackwater Rat Race, very light with floral hop flavours. Bristol Beer Factory West Coast Red was a pleasant amber beer with hoppy aroma and fruity flavours.  I finished off with a Magic Rock Curious,  with beautiful mango and passion fruit hops and zesty flavours – this was possibly the nicest of the evening; very easy drinking. Whereas @pintsandpubs finished off with a Parish Baz’s Bonce Blower, a syrupy black liquorice beer at 12%. Not so easy drinking, I discovered.

This morning I was interviewed on BBC Peterborough Breakfast Show about the tasting session yesterday and beer in general. I hid the fact that I had a slight hangover quite well, I think. Luckily it was a telephone interview, so they couldn’t see how I looked….

The Peterborough Champion Beer Tasting was great fun and I’m pleased to have been invited to take part. Happy drinking everyone, and thanks to Peterborough CAMRA for putting on yet another fantastic beer festival!

Great British Beer Festival 2012

Yesterday we headed down to London to the trade session of the Great British Beer Festival.We were slightly concerned beforehand about the transport situation, having to get to and across London in the middle of the Olympics, especially after discovering that both tube lines we intended to use were suspended or delayed due to signal failures. But by the time we arrived the District line was up and running again, so we took the tube to West Kensington then walked 10 minutes in convoy with a group of other beer enthusiasts who seemed to know the way to Olympia better than we did. Well, one of them did have the Google map app on his phone, so we trusted that he and Google both knew where they were going.
Upon reaching Olympia, the GBBF’s home for 13 years before moving to Earl’s Court in 2006, we joined the queue and waited until 12 for the doors to open. We were entertained by a hobgoblin of sorts having his photo taken with unwilling volunteers from the queue, and then the real entertainment began – the Skinners Brewery coach pulled up. Off piled the Skinners lot, with flag and Betty Stogs (one of their beers is named after the delightful – ahem – lady) accompanied by the Falmouth Marine Band who immediately started to play and march. Yes, Skinners certainly know how to make an entrance, and throughout the session the marching band would march around the venue, banging their milk churn type drums. If you didn’t know Skinners before, you most certainly do now. (Skinners Cornish Knocker is a great beer, as is Betty Stogs (the beer, that is, not the man.. sorry, I mean ‘lady’..!)).

Never having been to Olympia before, the first thing that I noticed was its glass winter-garden style ceiling – it was as if we were in a giant greenhouse, slowly sizzling away down below. It was a massive venue, although smaller than Earl’s Court, with bars, shops and food spread over two floors. I would most definitely get lost some point later. The exhibition centre was certainly big enough to house over 800 beers, ciders and perries – and they were expecting over 50,000 visitors over the 5 days. We picked up programmes and pint glasses for £3 sale or return, spotted lots of bars named after sports stars (inkeeping with the Olympic theme) and we walked around in circles in bewilderment trying to find Ruth B5 bar where the American ales were located (we didn’t realise there was a site map in the centre pages of the brochure until much later, it was far too well hidden). Like the previous year, I had made a list beforehand featuring no less than 30 US beers – I realised that some might not be available yet, being day 1, so thought with 30 I was in with a good chance of trying many of the ones on my list.

There were just 5 on from my list. Hmm. And about 10 altogether, many of which were very strong, even too strong for a third measure at that time of day. Many were oatmeal stouts and porters, which I didn’t want to drink just yet – I was saving those for later after I had dealt with the hop monsters. I decided to go first of all for a Notch Brewery Session Ale, at a manageable 4.5% for 12 pm. Pintsandpubs stocked up on bottled US and Italian beers, and we grabbed a table near the stage and sat down to drink. My Session Ale was full of juicy tropical mango hops , whilst pintsandpubs‘s Deschutes Doc Watbrown– one of our favourite breweries from Portland, Oregon – was mellow, caramelly and malty with subtle hop flavours. They know how to balance their beers, Deschutes.

After that I tried a few more US beers – the insanely tropical Sebago’s Fry’s Leap, at 5.2%, and the Lowell Beer Works Sour Red – one that I would never have tried if it wasn’t for the suggestion of Mat Wilson, the organiser of Ely Beer Festival who happened to be volunteering behind the bar there. I don’t normally like sour beers, but this one was very interesting with biscuity and sour fruit notes. At this point Eric ‘the Crafty Cockney’ Bristow took to the stage for a world record attempt for the fastest 301 game, playing against Dean Gould and Keith Deller. Keith Deller ended up beating the world record, which was pretty cool. I took a few pics and drank more beer. Then the Skinners clan sang some folk songs, then started banging their drums again and marched off, Betty leading the way. (Check out pintsandpubs’ great photo of the ‘lady’ herself).

I decided to go for a selection of English ales as my USA list was turning into an #epic fail. I went to ‘Ben’s Bar, B7 Hutton, for the wonderful Buntingford’s Hurricane, a delightfully mellow caramel malt and subtly hoppy beer – it went down a treat, as their beers generally do. I then had a Marble Lagonda IPA, a full bodied tropical hop monster at 5%.

Roger Protz announced the Champion Beers of Britain at 3pm on the stage, after being introduced by festival organiser Marc Holmes. The overall winner was Coniston No. 9 Barley Wine, at 8.5%. I really thought a weaker beer would win, just like the Oscar Wild last year, so it was a big surprise – so well done to them! Green Jack Trawlerboys Best Bitter came second, and the lovely Dark Star APA came third (I thought that one would win, actually).

After a curry that was far too spicy I needed to sort out my mashed taste buds, so I  went back to the Ruth bar and got myself a Watch City Breakfast of Champions, an espresso oatmeal milk stout – very interesting roasted sweet malty flavours. My taste  buds slowly returned to normal. This was then followed by a Brodie’s Dalston Black IPA, with massive hop aroma and flavours followed by a subtle sweet dark roasted malt aftertaste, a good one from this East London brewery. I then tried some of pintsandpubs Allgates Hopgate, and was so impressed with its sweet and nicely balanced incredible hop flavours that I went back to Ben’s Bar for some of my own. Beautiful stuff from this Wigan brewery, I will have to keep my eyes open for more of their beers. I think this was my beer of the fest.

And then, suddenly, I was all beered out. Time to get back on that tube…

There are so many beers I would still like to try, but I always leave beer festivals saying that and there’s no way to try them all when attending a festival with several hundred beers available – not even, alas, when drinking thirds. It was a great festival, and I look forward to reading the #gbbf tweets throughout the rest of the GBBF week with interest. Cheers!

Beer and Bars in Paris

Last week I went to Paris on a work trip. There wasn’t much time for drinking, but I managed to make it to a couple of pleasant enough bars.

I realised when planning my trip that Paris wasn’t really a beer city. I know the French are renowned for their wine, but so are the Italians and you can still find some great craft beer when visiting Rome, so surely it would be the same in Paris – wouldn’t it..? There are a few Belgian beer bars such as Le Carolus on Boulevard de Clichy, Falstaff on Rue du Montparnasse and Au Trappiste on Rue St Denis, which is great. But I was particularly looking for French craft beer.

I came across Brewberry on Rue du Pot de Fer, just off Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest thoroughfares in Paris in one of its oldest areas in the 5th arrondissement. This little bar doesn’t sell French craft beers on tap, but there are some French bottles (La Chope, Fleurac), as well as Belgian (La Chouffe, Orval), US (Flying Dog, Rogue), UK (London Pride, Newcastle Brown – why?!), and other world beers (Mikkeller, Nogne)  – in fact, more world beers than French beers to be honest. It’s cute and cosy with beer bottles lining the walls inside and a few tables on the pavement outside. It’s just a shame there were no craft beers on draft.

I sat outside La Contrescarpe on Place de la Contrescarpe, a short stroll from Brewberry, and ordered a Picon beer. This is basically beer mixed with an 18% orange Amer Picon aperitif/liqueur, and is mainly drunk in the north and east of France. I have no idea which beer they mixed this liqueur with (traditionally a wheat or blonde), but it came out a dark bitter colour which was different to  what I was expecting. It had a spicy, caramel orange flavour, and although I enjoyed it initially, the sickly taste soon started to annoy me and I didn’t want to finish it particularly. And I think it was pretty strong. It cost €6 for a small glass. A very nice spot to sit and watch the world go by though.

Another bar I came across was Chez Prune, on Canal St Martin, which is now a trendy bourgeois bohemian area, or ‘bobo’, as the French call it. This bar next to the canal was buzzing with hip young things and its lively atmosphere made it an attractive place to be. I managed to grab a table outside by the canal and drank a Fischer lager, not a very exciting beer, but hey, this was to be expected. And anyway, this bar was all about the location. The interior was pretty cool too, with its retro wooden design, yellow walls and platinum bar. I would go back, but would choose a different tipple.

So that was all I had time for. Next time I will just go straight to Brewberry and probably back to the Mayflower on Rue Descartes close to Rue Mouffetard, a cool pub I visited previously which sells Delirium Tremens and many other Belgian beers. Or possibly even the Bombardier pub on Place du Panthéon if I find I can’t do without my English ales. Hopefully French craft beers will become more widespread in Paris in the near future – they do exist. But I won’t hold my breath…

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