16 August 2010

Chester draws

Samuel Smith's pubs, eh? Always worth a laugh. I've never been able to spot one from the outside (is there a way?) but I always end up crossing the threshold, clocking the distinctive illuminated keg fonts, grinning, and girding my metaphorical loins for the hilarity about to ensue. For instance: has anyone ever tried their own-brand spirits and soft drinks, and are they any good? While waiting for my pint at a Samuel Smith's bar, I've started to feel the tug of my inner ticker saying "go on, order a Scotch as well, it'll only cost you about 50p". Next time I'll probably give in. This time I didn't.

We'd only just arrived in Chester, having hopped on the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and taken the train across north Wales (just €36 all in; can't say fairer), and met up with my sister who lives not far away in Shropshire. After a cursory wander through the town and a gawk at the fascinating local architecture (no really, they decided to put street level above the ground floor) we called in to The Falcon for refreshments. I was on the cask Old Brewery, the missus had a keg Dark Mild and the sister wanted a coffee. In a Smith's pub! How we laughed. Well no, we didn't. I marvelled that a twenty-first century pub chain can seemingly thrive without providing some of the basic stuff that twenty-first century people like to drink. Yes, yes, I know: it's a pub not a bleedin' Starbucks but isn't it interesting that they're making their money by being the no-frills, booze-only pure cheap pub, while JD Wetherspoon are raking it in by providing everything at low prices and packing the punters in? It's like they're opposite sides of the same pub coin. The Falcon certainly had a Wetherspoon-level of loud and scary drunks that afternoon. We moved on.

(So much for my opinion of Samuel Smith. For Samuel Smith's opinion of me, see this photo, courtesy of Bailey.)

After a quick spin around part of the walls it was time for pies and more beer. We'd had a recommendation of The Brewery Tap, flagship pub of the Spitting Feathers Brewery. It's a gorgeous pub with Tudor banqueting hall pretensions, though on a far smaller, cosier basis: olde worlde without being twee. From the range of house and guest beers I went for a Thirst Quencher, what with being thirsty and all. Alas, it was a case of false advertising. While there's a pleasant bubblegum front to this, it's all a bit grainy and musty behind. Far too difficult drinking for something of that name. Mrs Beer Nut faired much better with Anglo-Dutch Jasper's Ale, a sweet and full-bodied blonde.

The next round included Conwy Rampart -- the first boring brown bitter of the trip: a nasty phenol tang and loads of slimy, buttery diacetyl: not good. There was also the lightly creamy Black Swan mild from Buckinghamshire's Vale brewery. I ordered a pint of Spitting Feathers Old Wavertonian and was warned by the barmaid that it's a stout: "Is that OK?". I have to wonder how many people go "Arrgh! Stout! Are you trying to kill me?" and run away. I didn't. Just as well too: it's a beautiful light session stout with big dry roast flavours. One of those why-aren't-they-all-like-this stouts.

Off eastwards, then, to Shrewsbury. Marston's rules supreme in this part of the world and runs the local around the corner from where we stayed. We wandered in on the first evening, fingers crossed for something better than Pedigree or Banks's. I'd have settled for Hobgoblin but did much better: Shipyard Independence Pale Ale originated at Shipyard in Portland, Maine. Their brewer made a batch at Marston's for their summer season this year. And by 'eck it's good. Piquant citric hops wake up the palate, then sing it a sweet song of peaches and honey. At 4.2% ABV it's a beer to relax into over a few pints. Which is pretty much what happened.

More from Shrewsbury tomorrow.