24 August 2015

Mersey treat

I was given a hotel voucher for Christmas and, after performing full due diligence on the opportunities it offered, decided that one night in Liverpool was the most economical way to make use of it. So on a sunny Saturday morning in late July, myself and herself hopped over the Irish Sea, arriving in Albert Dock in time for coffee at the Tate and a cheery stroll around the International Museum of Slavery.

A beer was in order next and we went the long way about it, taking the Mersey Ferries cruise (surprisingly good) over and around to Birkenhead, where Gallagher's Pub and Barber's is a short walk uphill from the dock. The name isn't just a gimmick either: there is a real working barbershop at the back, just beyond the bar. The pub itself is smartly maintained, perhaps unsurprising when there's a broad military theme to the décor.

Two beers from local brewery Brimstage were on, including its flagship bitter Trapper's Hat. This is leaning towards brown but still safely amber, I guess, and has an approachable 3.8% ABV. And it's properly bitter too, pushing out cleanly acidic lime marmalade notes and balancing them with crunchy wholewheat biscuit. Simple, but nicely done and I'd happily have this as my local beer. The other Brimstage offering was Oyster Catcher, a 4.4% ABV stout. It's big on coffee aroma and the texture is light, so I was expecting something quite simple here. But there are complexities lurking in the darkness. Behind the strong roasted element there's a sharper forest fruit tartness adding a beautiful extra dimension to the flavour. Again, not a multi-layered taste experience, but a damn decent drinking beer.

Just one more before we move on: Stateside Pale Ale, a 5%-er by Sheffield brewer Exit 33. And they've definitely gone for the stereotypes here: a big biting grapefruit pith and zest. One of those beers that reminds you of what actual grapefruit tastes like, not just grapefruity hops. Refreshing and dangerously drinkable at such a stonking strength. I'd better move on before things get messy.

Old Garde
Back in Liverpool, high on my list of drinking venues was The Clove Hitch, a relatively new addition to the city's entertainment district. The basement bar was full but that didn't matter as the restaurant has plenty of beer choice and we were hungry. With my scallop and chorizo starter I had a BrauKunstKeller Laguna. I'd had this IPA before, closer to its home, and wasn't impressed, but the super-heavy bitter resins worked better here as an accompaniment to meaty food than during a festival session. I also got the chance to try my first beer from Manchester's much-lauded Cloudwater Brewery. Well, sort of: Old Garde is a collaboration with south-coasters Burning Sky. It's a bière de garde, pale amber in colour and highly attenuated. And while I'm positive it tasted as the brewers intended, it just wasn't pleasant drinking, tasting off in two different ways simultaneously: a jangling tangy sourness and then the dull buzz of oxidation. Your clothes are ready now, Emperor.

For dessert, Hop Damn, a chilli black IPA by Alphabet Brewing, also based in Manchester. It's 6.1% ABV and arrived properly black with a thin head. Nothing clumsy about the aroma, just a subtle dusting of fresh green hops. On tasting there's a light vegetal bitterness as the centrepiece of the flavour, backed by smooth stouty vanilla and an increasing burnt quality as it warms. There's a beautiful sherbet effervescence to the texture as well. And the chilli? Just a very gradual peppery catch, but no silly tricks. Very well put-together, I thought.

We ended the evening in The Belvedere, a poky little joint that came recommended by ex-Brimstage brewer Mike McGuigan. At 10pm on a Saturday it was packed and a little rowdy but we managed to squeeze into a corner. Just one tickable option for me, one with a Pumpclip Parade-able tap badge: Summer Blaze by Cornish brewery Coastal. It was actually a decent beer: pale gold, a lagerish malt base and then floral, lightly perfumed, hops. Straight-forward, easy-going, inoffensive perhaps, but well-made. As the pub got increasingly chocker, its drinkability became a major plus point. Down the hatch and out we go.

On Sunday it rained, but I'd planned for that and wasn't intending to move very far during the day, though that wasn't going to prevent a decent crawl of pubs. The Philharmonic was just down the street from the hotel, so it would have been rude not to drop in for a swift pint. Liverpool Organic's 24 Carat Gold was on the pumps, and I've always enjoyed their beers in the past. This one is golden and brewed with 100% Brewer's Gold hops, so full marks on the naming there. The bitterness is very low and instead the hops impart a gentle meadowy effect, with elderflower to the fore in particular. The malt keeps its head down. For all its understatedness, I rather liked it, but then it was the day's first beer.

Down the street next to The Fly In The Loaf, a highlight of my last trip to Liverpool, though that was on a busy Friday evening. It's very different on a rainy Sunday afternoon, feeling every bit as cavernous and empty as it looks. Still, the staff were attentive and there was plenty of beer to choose from. It shares a corporate parent with Okell's, so the Manx brewery featured large. Out of sheer curiosity I took a pint of Manx Pale Ale, the lightest in the range, at 3.6% ABV. It's a weak yellow colour and has a waxy lemon flavour which I associate with northern bitters, and Marble's Manchester Bitter in particular. The citrus aroma matches this nicely and there's a crisp cereal finish. I was all excited for the first few mouthfuls but it gets boring very quickly, turning rather watery. Still, it's not really designed for considered analysis and stands up well as a session bitter.

My other half went all craft, choosing a two-thirds of Northern Monk's mocha porter, Northern Star. There's a big coffee aroma in this 5.9% ABV beer, with an added undercurrent of blackberries and damsons. It tastes very sweet, like the coffee creams which inevitably get left behind in chocolate boxes. I could tell there's a proper porter underneath it, but the coffee effect is just laid on too thickly. Two thirds would be too much for me.

Continuing down the hill and just around the corner to The Roscoe Head. This tiny traditional pub manages to squeeze three saloons into its miniscule footprint, each little bigger than a couple of phoneboxes. Trade was brisk but we found a banquette to perch on. The pub's claim to fame is as one of the Magnificent Seven: a rather grand title for the handful of premises which have featured in every edition of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide. My pint of Backyard Brewhouse Centennial IPA was well-kept, though could probably have stood to be served cooler. It's 5% ABV, dark gold and tastes warmingly spicy and rather green, in a good way. There's little by way of citrus, just a slight lime jelly bitterness, but more than anything the flavour put me in mind of gunpowder tea. Not what I was expecting from Centennial hops, but tasty all the same.

Journey's end was a short hop from The Roscoe at a place that's unlikely to catch up with its GBG record: BrewDog Liverpool. This is the biggest of the six BrewDog bars I've been too, and all the more comfortable for the ample seating. Just released a day or two earlier was Elvis Juice, an IPA laced with juices of non-Elvis origin. Orange and grapefruit, I think. It smells like a stiff and resinous IPA and tastes properly bitter: spiky, spicy and dank. The citrus adds a sweet fruit lacing to this, a complexity that doesn't feel tacked-on or out of place. Its mouth-watering acidity is preserved and it's all rather enjoyable, though at 6.7% ABV more of a serious beer than the name and ingredients might suggest.

Also new to the BrewDog line-up is Mashtag 2015, billed as a 10% ABV black barley wine. It's very black, and smells stouty -- dry and roasty, plus a big hit of vanilla from the added oak and, er, vanilla. As you might expect it's very boozy, but smooth and warming with that. The finish has a peppery piquancy and then the bitterness of high quality dark chocolate. For a recipe compiled by a public vote it all holds together very well indeed.

To finish, before a quick dinner and a sprint to the airport, Westbrook Gose, one of those beers I keep seeing pictures of on other people's Twitter but had never seen in real life. I decided to make this the day it stops bothering me. Beer ticking is really just a form of exorcism. So, 4% ABV, hailing from South Carolina, presenting just on the pale side of amber, with skeins of yeast floating through it when poured. It smells how seawater tastes: pungent yet refreshing, and the flavour blends the salt and sour elements really well. Coriander does seem to be the poor relation in modern gose. If I'd poured more carefully I might have got less of a yeast bite, but even that didn't prevent this from being beautifully invigorating and energising which, after this busy couple of days, was exactly what I needed.

I'd recommend Liverpool to anyone looking for an easy, short city break, though if you're coming from these parts it's probably best to wait until the exchange rate recovers. I really picked the wrong summer to make three beery trips to England...

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