Fursty Ferret-legging

In my drinking youth, I spent a few years living in the south west.  We’re talking Devon not New Mexico here, as such it was a landscape of verdant rolling hills, cream teas, bleak windswept moors and tors with outstanding free houses, often looked away in a leafy hamlet. The Drewe Arms. The Well House. The Bridge and Lighter at Topsham, the Warren House Inn, The Turf Locks – a tiny but representative sample.  Back home in the North West, the pubs had been industrialised in comparison – owned by the big (or big regional) brewing groups, and for the most part lacking the individual quirks of the pubs down on the peninsular.  It’s the same today, (relatively) economically backward, but much further ahead in terms of freehouses and regional ale choices on offer. Cornwall, in fact, has leapt forward, with more cask and craft breweries than it’s ever had, and Devon is moving that way too.

In the ’90s, the pubs were often better than the beer.  As students, we raved about the Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres but it was a fair old drag to get there and the rewards were often ropey.  Truth was, the big brewers had the most interesting cask choices:  Bass was widespread and consistent, damn fine in Ye Olde Shippe off Exeter’s Cathedral Close and The Bridge; Director’s back then was strong and winey, with a really pronounced floral hop character: the drink of choice in The Jolly Porter (at least if you weren’t on Snakebites) and the Turf, and Flowers Original was good – hoppily so at The Drewe Arms (a Whitbread pub at the time).  Occasionally 6X would crop up, or perhaps Adnams Broadside. The Double Locks, as popular with the horsey set back then as it is today, could still be relied for some interesting local choices, including Otter which had just started up, or Butcombe from over the county line.

Yet ironically, the beers from the local regionals were woeful.  St Austell had a great pub estate but the beers… whsssh. They were all three letter acronyms like ‘PMT’ and ‘WTF’.  These were the days when filling the brewery was more important that what came out.  I seem to recall that brands like ‘Tinner’s Ale’ and ‘Dartmoor Best’ (read: ‘Worst’) were the fruit of their loins at the time and to be avoided.  Nearby Usher’s brewery was uncreatively known as ‘Gushers’, putting the Burton ‘Snatch’ to shame with it’s sulphurous egginess, only that, unlike the Burton beers, it shouldn’t have been there.  And there was Hall & Woodhouse, less common in those parts and awfully tangled up over Tanglefoot, which was pleasant enough when kept well, but otherwise (and generally) a fine gut turner.

IMG_2588Not so today.  These boys have pulled their socks right up.  You’re as likely in Staffordshire today to find St Austell ‘Tribute’ as you are Pedigree (I’m sure the stats won’t bear me out on this, but you get the point).   It’s a fine pale ale, with a hop forward sweetness that is rewarding and potently drinkable.  I seem to recall reading that it was first brewed in celebration of the Solar Eclipse (the one the clouds spoilt) but elsewhere I’d heard that it was actually one of the old three letter acronym (‘TLA’?) beers modified, given a spine, beef upped and generally brewed consistently.  As for Hall & Woodhouse, what a transformation. I briefly worked with their brewer Toby Heasman when he was at Bass and whatever training he got there he’s put to good use.  Of all the beer joints in all the world, a Travelodge would not rate as one you would want to walk into. But there, in Blackpool, did I enjoy a minor revelation.  Faced with a draught beer selection of Stella Fatois, Budwiener and Drossingtons, eyes turned to the fridge.  Perhaps a sneaky Budvar?  Maybe a Leffe wouldn’t be too much to ask?  But lo! Two bottles of Fuller’s London Pride and some Badger ‘Fursty Ferret’ wiped the worried brow.  And, my, it was grand.  Beautifully balanced – albeit on the malty side, with a pronounced citrus aroma and bite; even my granddad would have enjoyed it, proud northerner though he was: ‘It were a graidely pint and you conner say diff’rent’. Ironic that in Lancashire, fabled land of flat caps, whippets and ferret-legging, I should find a ferret of a different kind and a southern beer should have infiltrated these stoically northern climes.


© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Gerrus a parnt

pot banks_fotorThe six towns of the Potteries don’t have a reputation for being the most picturesque place roundabouts. Ask outsiders their opinion and you tend to get the old, “…but they’re such friendly people” response, which, when it’s clear that you’re enquiring about the architectural merits of Blurton or Sneyd Green, is such an obvious distraction answer that it doesn’t wash. Saying that, Potteries’ folk are really friendly in my experience – the friendliness that is borne out of close friends and families working cheek by jowl for generation upon generation; the friendliness borne out of industrial disintegration; the friendliness borne out of, let’s be honest, poverty. Unlike many British towns and cities built round one industry, at least Stoke* has been spared ‘heritage town’ status. You can see more than the marks of its industrial legacy; there remains a major ceramics industry – not perhaps the scale of the past and certainly in a very different form – but there all the same. Most often, today’s potters are in new(er) factories, but not solely. And the old Potteries’ vista is still there too – the eponymous pot banks pushing up like young asparagus shoots, searching for the air above the skyline – a skyline they once filled with smoke. Or the enormous brick factories, as long as a road, or queuing up along the canal sides. Some of these brutally beautiful buildings still have potteries in them (take a trip to Emma Bridgewater just outside Hanley, as one example, to see the potter’s skills being practiced still http://www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk). It’s a setting, a culture, a way of life that has understandably defined the people of the area.

And where there was heavy industry, there was beer. It might not be the same open roaring fires of steel mills and hammer shops, but it was tiring, back breaking work all the same. Digging, heaping & milling the clay; lumping the wares; stacking the pot banks; making the saggars (and the saggar bottoms**) and the crucial job of firing the bank and judging its progress. Works up a thirst just recounting it.

I’m from the other side of the regional line, in the north west, with the Potteries being south from me, in the very north of the north midlands. It’s a city I’ve known all my life;   close enough to feel defensive about it when people have a go but distant enough to be distant when needs be; and too distant to support either Port Vale or Stoke City. Yet, when it came to beer, there was always an attraction to the traditional old Potteries pubs when I was growing up. Round my way, the pubs were either large, ‘developed’ town pubs or country pubs of a more idiosyncratic nature. And my locals were normally Robinson’s or Greenall Whitley (‘I wish I was in Greenall Whitley land’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzsL6uE1ypg). But Stoke: well it was the land of the big Midland brewers: Bass Worthington, Ansell’s, Marston’s and ‘Jolly’ pub names: The ‘Jolly Carter’, the ‘Jolly Collier’ and of course, ‘The Jolly Potter’. And many of the pubs were, well, just public…houses. Go in the front door, left for the public bar, right for the lounge; two rooms and two beer choices, maybe three if the lager was on, and perhaps a bottle of Mann’s Brown or Bass No.1 behind the bar. And not much else. My, it was exotic.

It seemed strange to me though that such a big city, such an industrialised city, didn’t have a brewery of it’s own. Perhaps being so well connected by canal to Burton on Trent and Birmingham was the reason, but it’s something that has righted itself today. There are a number of brewers in the Potteries with one in particular beginning to make a wider mark. That brewery is Titanic, named after that ship’s captain who was a Burslem man, and its stories and legends infuse the company’s beers without, it must be said, leaving you with that sinking feeling. Quite the opposite in fact: these are grand beers and in an ironic twist, Stoke’s beers are now regularly available on the shelves and bars of Burton on Trent. For research purposes, I drank three.

Dunner be fooled: sinkingly drinkable

Not as green as cabbage looking is not the name of the beer, but Stokey dialect for not being easily fooled. And you won’t be with White Star, a deceptively drinkable classic pale ale (4.8%), with a bready-malt aroma, colour as bright as a new pound coin and a distinct hop bite. This is a beautifully structured beer, from a lovely head formation & retention to a well-hewn body. It drinks well with little assertive aftertaste. It’s a midlands-strength session beer – by that, it’s a session beer of full strength (like Pedigree or Bass – that are considered ‘premium’ or strong elsewhere.)

Captain Smiths strong ale: ‘Gerrus parnt’

Goo dine th’ pub fer us and gerrus parnt; well you probably wouldn’t say that, as off-sales didn’t come until later, but gerrin’ a parnt of Captain Smith’s (5.2%) is well worth the finding. Again, a bold beer; this time with a red-brown colour; the maltiness and alcohol conducive to a lovely head and lacing. To taste, there’s a gentle natural carbonation from secondary conditioning and a mild, chewy toffee flavour with perhaps, a touch of liqourice in the background giving that slightly bitter moreishness. Well rounded, well brewed, fit for a captain.

Dunner gab on… sup up.

Dunner rattle on duck; well I’ll try not to, but Titanic Stout (4.5%) is a cracking, secondary conditioned classic. You should tack yer tarme over it: enjoy the pitch black body, with a head the colour of chicken liver pate and just as compact and dense (albeit more pleasant in my view). The aroma wafts out: leafy hops first, followed by roastiness – a nice order, a great combination. To taste, this is a hop forward stout, but not assertively so and deceptively light in taste with a medium body: not heavy and cloying, not light and unsatisfying. As stouts go: it has the robust appearance of a proper old school stout with drinkability; flavour interest and no aggressive aftertaste. The best of the bunch I reckon.

The brewery has pubs too; in that curious thumb-nosing to the Beer Orders, more and more craft breweries are coming full circle and seeing that having a small, high quality pub estate is not a nice to have, but essential. Titanic’s pubs are worth seeking out (http://www.titanicbrewery.co.uk/c/our-pubs) and in particular, it’s worth heading to Burslem, where they’re based. Here, you can not only experience that Potteries’ friendliness but also go beyond the stereotypes and see a fine, stately town. Hidden a bit perhaps, but there all the same. And now they have beers of which the locals can be equally proud.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

* ‘Stoke’, ‘The Potteries’ and ‘The Six Towns’ are used interchangeably throughout this post. What is meant is that area containing the conurbations of Stoke-on-Trent, Burslem, Tunstall, Hanley, Fenton, Longton and Newcastle under Lyme, although many would argue about the inclusion of the last one. It’s a bit posh after all.

** Considered a less skilled job than the saggarmaker, and hence the genesis of the lovely term: the saggarmaker’s bottom knocker.


Double Helix

the session beer blogging fridayFew topics are as divisive amongst brewers as that of balance – something I find quite ironic. Oddly, balance is something conceptually simple – I mean, if I said to you, “tell me what balance is” you’d probably look at me gone out – yet is in reality the opposite – hellishly complex.

Balance implies a pivot point… something on one side countering something on the other to create a sense of equalising forces. But in my experience in foods and drinks it’s more like neutrality – too often, in the pursuit of balance, something is lost not gained. Perhaps neutered is better than neutralised.

And it’s worse in beer. Worse because balance is one of the subjects brewers of mass beer can use to level at craft beer.  A drinkable, everyday pale beer vs a deeply bitter IPA , loaded to the gunwales with whole cone C Hops.  No contest on then as, sure, it may have ‘character’ but it isn’t balanced, it’s not moreish.  Well, whichever way you see the world it’s all erroneous.  Balance just isn’t a two dimensional creature. And there are more than two variables at play, which doesn’t help understanding nor appreciation of beer.

The bitterness scale of International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is the normal ‘measure of beer’.  It’s become a limiting shorthand, aided and abetted by the Nuclear Hop Race and IBU proliferation. Brewers across many continents pushing the boundaries – introducing multiple stages of hopping in the boil, as well, of course as post-fermentation hopping, chiefly through dry hops.  More prosaically,  on my days running Grolsch, those who didn’t agree with the strategy would throw in the cheap shot of bitterness: Grolsch is just too distinctive, too bitter to be an ‘everyday brand’.  But no one mentioned the residual sweetness in the beer that in fact meant it was both a characterful and well balanced lager.   In fact, I hadn’t realised until recently that there is a measure of this particular balance – BU:GU or bitterness units to gravity units; nor had I realised the relatively common old British practise of measuring ‘Pounds of hops per quarter malt’.  A contender for a better shorthand descriptor than just IBUs? Maybe.

Were the world so simple. Bitterness and sweetness are not the only facets that make up beer.  There is saltiness and sourness of course.  If you think beer cannot be salty then try and get hold of some Burtonised brewing liquor and taste that – positively coats the mouth it does. And next time you have a pint of Pedigree just see if you can’t detect it, especially now it’s been pointed out.  Sourness is huge in food at the moment – particularly confectionery, where brands like Haribo Tangfastics, Wham Sourz and the most worryingly pleasingly named, Toxic Waste, represent the growth categories in the UK market.  And in beers it’s not just lambics that offer sourness, some of the new wave brewers are aging on wood and in some case even exposing the beer to controlled oxidisation to give these tastes.  So why not a sour: sweet axis for beer?

Then there’s umami – the mystical 5th taste which is behind many of the most astonishing beer and food pairings, like cheese, oysters, meat pies and the Pint’s Best Friend, scratchings.  Yep, even umami is present in beer – chiefly as a result of the fermentation process.

So if balance is not two dimensional, it’s three, right?  Well, not even that, because then there’s the alchemical effect of visual appearance and cognitive perception.  Visually: the head, the colour, the condensation, the presentation; cognitively – the reputation, the word of mouth.  How many unarguably average beers have a reputation way beyond the sum of their parts due to these?

No, the conclusion I draw is that balance is a red herring.  You may want a balanced beer on occasion; heaven knows a pint of Landlord scores bullseye for me on this measure, yet more often I don’t. As I write this I am positively craving a hoppy IPA. I don’t want balance, I want a full on, in-your-face malty, floral extravaganza.  In the Summer, around the barbecue, I can predict that I’ll be drinking something so cold it will numb the taste buds.  No, balance is like the mystical double helix of DNA. I get it in principle but I’ll be damned if I can make head nor tail of it in everyday life.  Balance is a cul-de-sac I won’t be walking down.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #65: You’re never alone with a Strand

the session beer blogging fridayIt’s funny, drinking alone.  For many of my friends it just isn’t done; an admittance perhaps that your socially failing.  Another example of modern day liberal mindedness gone too far though I fear.  My father in law has set off for the pub by himself, every Sunday, most weeks of his adult life, and possibly a few before that.  He doesn’t ring around in advance to ask who will be there; no checking of social media sites or text messages and no sending of pigeons either come to think of it.  He gets up late; has a shower and heads off.  He will sit at the bar and drink a pint of whatever takes his fancy, but is within the bounds of his respectable repetoire.  Bass, yes.  Old Speckled Hen, yes. Landlord, yes. London Pride, no. Bank’s, no. Greene King IPA, nay, nay and thrice nay. Pedigree, pub dependent.

But of course, the beer is of little relevance in this scene. Sure, it’s part of the pub currency… a pub currency that has linked these visits from the time he started. Memories of beers that have come and gone; of public houses now just houses, and Landlords now lording it under the land behind the Church. And sure, despite what he says, the pint itself matters even less when most of the time he sluices a Gold Label into it anyway.

Because in reality, he never does drink alone. John is someone who is an institution in his village in a way I can never been in mine – he has lived there all his life; his business is there; his family are around him. And his extended village family too – people he has known all his life; or their children, new bucks he gently teases about their effiminate ways… even if he wanted to be alone, he couldn’t be.  And while he may complain about this from time to time, he knows as well as everyone else that he wouldn’t have it any other way.  If the pub has no other customers, then he chats to Tom, the Landlord; if he knows no one in the bar, he either introduces himself, or much more likely, is introduced. So, even though he is by himself, he is most definitely not alone.

I’m different. Sometimes I need my space. Once or twice a year, I really do need to be alone and just let the cobwebs that have accreted over the passing months get blown away.  I’ll go to the hills and walk, or set off on my bike.  But this isn’t the everyday me.  I have what I deem to be an curious individual trait, which of course, is common to most:  from time to time, I like to be alone in others’ company. the hustle and bustle around me; the chatter; the greetings; the people-watching.  I observe it directly or in the corner of my eye as if floating like an invisible orb above the scene, but actually being in it is critical.  Because I can choose to participate if I want to.

And beer doesn’t always feature here.  Before I had children, the occasional Sunday newspaper, bag of crisps and a pint was more occasional than not; today, it’s more likely to be a snatched 30 minutes between the parental taxi duties. Not that I’m complaining.  Because the shimmering image of those Sundays, sitting at a big oak table, with a broadsheet spread out in front of me and a pint of …ooh, let’s say, Broadside, my accompaniment, is always there. It may take me until retirement to live that dream frequently again, but I can dine out on the thought of it happily until then.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012