30 November 2007

The Alan Partridge Project

Last year I reported on a visit to a dire pub in what used to be rural England but is now just off the road to somewhere else. This week I went one further and found myself in a generic low-rent business hotel in the English midlands: exactly the sort of Travel Tavern that Alan Partridge used to live in. It was, of course, a real ale desert (how did he survive so far from his beloved Director's Bitter?), with the bar taps dominated by InBev products, including Boddington's. It's a very sweet, light keg bitter: unchallenging but still quite tough drinking. I stopped at one pint.

My trip was far from a total waste, however. With some careful planning I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in central Manchester. I had picked out a handful of pubs worth visiting, but never got past the first: the gloriously appointed Marble Arch. This quirky boozer is kitted out in steel-and-ceramic Victorian bling and boasts a curiously slanting floor throughout. Out back, the house brewery produces a range of cask and bottled beers, the latter available to take away. Everyone in the house was drinking Manchester Bitter, a shockingly pale yellow lager lookalike. The resemblance ends there, however. This has a strong fresh hoppy aroma and greets the palate with a lemony bitterness which would appeal to any witbier fan. It's a wonderfully refreshing classic bitter and, I can only presume, the sort of beer that Boddington's would like to be.

The house range also includes Stouter Stout, a very sharp, bitter, but creamy stout. The abundance of hops is there right from the nose and is carried through in the strong rich bitter flavours. For a stout this is just too tart to my taste: IPA dressed as stout and off-puttingly weird, despite the care and attention that obviously went into making it. The house also makes Ginger Marble, another very yellow ale. The clue's in the title here, but in case of doubt there's a sweet, candied ginger aroma first off. This is followed by a gorgeous back-of-the-mouth raw ginger burn on the first swallow, with a legacy of ginger nut biscuits on the lips. I think this is the best ginger-flavoured beer I've ever tasted and would make a superb aperitif. And every flavoursome beer the Marble Brewery produces is 100% organic: proof that most everyone else is just doing organic wrong.

Of the guest ales, Spitting Feathers caught my attention first. This is a "smoked autumn ale", thick and creamy with little foretaste and almost reminiscent of a nasty keg ale. The smoke comes through afterwards in a vague sort of way, after some unpleasant dry mustiness. My limited experience of smoked beer has led me to expect the full-on bacon flavour experience and you don't get that with this. Two guest taps were displaying clips from Scottish craft brewing's enfant terrible Brew Dog. When I asked the barman whether I should go for Hype or Buzz, he told me he'd sold more Hype that evening, so that's what I ordered. Again, this is a very pale affair but it more than makes up for it in texture and flavour. It's warm and hits the palate with a hefty bitterness. A heavy and filling beer, all-in-all, despite having a mere 4.1% ABV.

With a heavy heart I left the pub and headed to the airport. A little previous research allowed me to stave off the return to keg ale for a few more precious minutes. The online menu of terrifyingly cheery family restaurant Giraffe included, among the Corona and Tiger, Brooklyn Lager. This is an impressively amber beer with a hoppy aroma, smelling for all the world like the lighter sort of American IPA. On first sip there's a full body and a strong malty flavour, carrying through to a dry bitter bite at the very end. Brooklyn is a thinking man's lager, and not just because the brewmaster is now a published philosopher.

A delay to my flight meant the time eventually came to bite the bullet and approach the main bar, where Worthington's Bitter was the house ale. Unlike the Boddington's, this is properly amber coloured. It has a striking burnt corn flavour, liked singed tortilla chips. Flavoursome, but not really in the right way.

I feel Manchester definitely warrants further barstool-based research. It'd just be a question of tearing myself away from the Marble Arch.

26 November 2007

'Bout ye, big lad

Behind the taps at the Belfast Beer & Cider Festival were a number of strong beers being poured directly from the cask. I didn't mean to try every single one that was on, but looking at the list now, I think I did. Oops.

The only pale one was Thomas Sykes, a very heavy amber ale from Burton Bridge, with 10% ABV. This has off-putting strong fruit ester flavours making it warming but just a bit too cloying and difficult to stomach in any great quantity. I derived much more enjoyment from the rich hoppiness of Titanic Wreckage: a lightweight at only 7.2%. There's a little more sugar in the flavour than is strictly warranted, but mostly it has a lovely rounded double (or at least one-and-a-half) IPA kick to it.

Robinson's Old Tom was one I had really been looking forward to. It must have been on trying something like this dark red ale of 8.5% ABV that someone invented the term "barleywine". This has many of the flavour and aroma characteristics of a robust wine, but is unmistakably a beer. It offers fantastic per-sip value, starting with the exciting fruity and spicy nose all the way through to the chocolatey aftertaste which lingers for ever.

The last beer is the charmingly titled Liquid Lobotomy, an 8% ABV stout whose claim to fame is that all the alcohol is grain-derived, with no added extract or sugars. The aroma is a little shocking, with pronounced sulphurous notes. On the palate this is reduced to a mere tang, however. The rest of the flavour is rather mild, with more fruity-winey notes. Despite the mildness, the thick and syrupy texture makes this one quite tough going.

I have to put a footnote in about the other side of the festival: the cider. Normally I wouldn't go to the back door for cider, but ever since I read about it in Iorwerth Griffiths's guide to Irish beer and cider (p. 143), I have been intrigued by the nascent government-sponsored craft cider movement in Armagh. I was born and raised in the Orchard County, and the idea that my homeplace could be turned into a cider attraction like parts of Normandy and Brittany feels quite strange, yet has a certain obviousness about it. So I made sure I tried a half of Mac's Dry cider -- sharp, slightly cloudy and up there with the best France has to offer, in my totally unbiased opinion.