18 January 2019

In search of cosy

Arriving into rural Shropshire for Christmas, the first port of call was the local, The White Horse. They generally have a Christmas offering of some sort on the wickets, and this time it was Hollybob from Wye Valley, I didn't have much hope for it, and less when it poured brown and seemingly lifeless. It turned out rather decent, however. There's nothing at all Christmassy about it, or nothing obvious anyway: no spicing or fruit gimmickry. Instead it's dry and tannic, like a super-strong cup of very black tea. There's a bit more substance than is usual for this style: a balancing caramel sweetness and a certain creaminess to the texture, which I guess is what fits it for winter, and it does a better job than a packet of dried cinnamon would. This is a very gulpable, refreshing yet characterful dark bitter, one I'd happily be snowed in with.

The other, non-seasonal, bitter on tap was Brew XI from Mitchell's & Butler's, a bit of a throwback in Birmingham brewing, sparking memories in some locals of the years when it was the only cask ale available. From the inauspicious badge I wasn't expecting much from this, and it delivered even less. We're talking the basic level of basic brown bitter. Sweet caramel set on a thick malt base with no balancing hop. The nearest thing to balance it offers is a salty tang, a little like you'd find in cheap milk chocolate. With a dull beer I could have at least relaxed into my surroundings and forgot about what's in front of me; this sugarbomb, however, demanded my attention and was just too much work to down before moving back to the Hollybob.

That's it for pub drinking. A jolly pre-Christmas lunch in The Bottle & Glass in Picklescott and a Boxing Day swifty at The Stiperstones Inn yielded some lovely beers but nothing I haven't written about previously. On to the takeaways, then.

The Shropshire town of Ludlow has developed something of a gastronomic brand for itself. That's the main reason, faced with a supermarket shelf of unfamiliar beers, I opted for three from the Ludlow Brewing Company. They wouldn't be allowed use the name if their beers weren't excellent, right?

Gold is your basic golden ale (I think: there's almost no information about it on the label) and pours thinly with a desultory short-lived head. It smells... beery, of bitterly metallic English hops and honey-sweet malt: not an unpleasant smell at all. That's more-or-less what you get for a flavour too, the honey dialled up at the front; the tinny tang providing a finish. I'm honestly not sure whether to admire the crisp and light refreshing texture, or bemoan its thinness: both are valid positions. Overall, it's fine. Classically English, devoid of flaws and I am certain it works better served cool from a cask.

Middle of the set is The Boiling Well, and "premium ale" is as detailed as the description gets. Head retention is an issue again. It's dark red and, as expected, a fairly average caramel-forward ale; a brown bitter, I suppose, but sharing a lot of features with mid-range Irish red ale. There's a growing banana ester as it warms, some gunpowder spice and a mineral tang. Not enough to make it genuinely interesting, though.

Last of the set is Stairway, I guess a pale bitter or even an IPA, at 5% ABV. The head sticks around a bit longer on this one and there's an enticing citric aroma. It tastes clean and sharp, like posh lemonade with a waxy bitter finish. There's virtually no aftertaste, just a gentle lemony buzz. This is the best of the three, showing great character while still being easy-going and refreshing. Like the blonde, it instils a curiosity about the cask version, a format to which it too seems better suited.

From over the border in Llandudno comes Great Orme's Brewdolph winter warmer. 5% ABV and a dark garnet shade, topped with a lovely creamy layer of snow-white foam. The flavour is a Victorian Christmas riot of plums, figs, liquorice and fruitcake with a dry and bitterly roasted finish, somewhere between a dubbel and a stout. No fruit or spice additions went into this so all the winter-wonderland effect is down to the brewer's art and nothing else. It's complex, tasty, warming and filling -- absolutely ideal winter fare.

Closer to base, there's Hobsons, who celebrated 25 years in business during 2018 with Amber Journey Ale. Surprisingly, it's more a golden colour than amber, but doubles back with a flavour of toffee and biscuit that's much more typical of an amber ale. An American one specifically, as the malt is studded with lightly citric and mildly dank hops, leading to a peppery finish. It's only 4.4% ABV and gently carbonated, which makes for very easy drinking and excellent refreshment qualities. It might be a little too sweet for several at once, but the sing