The first of three visits to England this summer happened in mid-July when work landed me in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for a few days. I'd never been, so was very happy to be packed off. It's a tidy little city, though somewhat vertical -- three days of nipping up and down between the quayside and the upper town left my shins aching, and instilled a profound respect for anyone who negotiates those gradients, the cobbles, and Britain's Unevenest Flagstones, in high heels. Decent pubs are in plentiful supply and there's a good concentration of them around the foot of the iconic Tyne Bridge.
But, staggering blearily off the plane and metro, my first stop was breakfast at the Wetherspoon near my hotel. I was just in time for the beginning of beer service at 10am and, since I'd been up since 4.30, I figured it counted as at least lunchtime. The options, however, were less than inspiring and the only thing of any interest was 't IJ Indian Red Ale (can't see that style designation catching on somehow), one of those Wetherspoon international collaboration jobs, this one produced at Everards. It's an attractive dark burnished copper and nicely tannic in a very typical English and entirely unDutch way, with some light red fruit -- strawberries, mostly -- and then a mild piney bitterness at the end. Perfectly pintable stuff, if not exactly inspiring.
Local intelligence had it that The Free Trade Inn is one of the city's finer establishments so at the first bit of free time I had I made the trek along the north bank of the Tyne to where it sits, perched on the edge of a bluff, overlooking the sampler catalogue of bridges spanning the river. It's a smallish L-shaped pub, big on shabby-chic, but comfortable and friendly. I got the feeling that it's a genuine part of the community. But it's also a beer geek paradise with a carefully chosen selection of beers from interesting micros, mainly from the neighbouring counties.
My first choice here was a Yorkshire beer, North Riding Brewery's 4.3% ABV Mosaic Pale Ale. A pint of technical perfection: a rich dark gold colour, flawlessly clear, and retaining its head all the way down the glass without the aid of a sparkler, the tongue-tingling fizz lasting the whole way through. It showcases the bipolar nature of Mosaic beautifully too: soft and fluffy peach and mandarin flavours, twisting naughtily into sterner oily resins. The bitterness builds as it goes, becoming harsh and acidly dry, but still fantastically invigorating drinking. The sort of bad boy you can't help falling in love with.
Scottish brewery Fallen gets mentioned a lot in dispatches and I had been looking forward to trying its wares. The Free Trade was pouring Off the Rails on keg, a 4% ABV gose. In the stemmed glass it looks for all the world like a chardonnay with a head. The aroma is sharp, but softened a little by a burst of elderflower. The salty seawater effect is a big part of the flavour and it's followed by a mild tartness and a floral finish. I was looking for a palate cleanser after the previous hop assault, and this did the job nicely, without being watery or any way boring.
And lastly for the moment, Bergamot Citra Saison by Two By Two Brewing which is situated just a few bends along the river from the pub. Information was sparse but I suspect that this is a saison, brewed with Citra hops and added bergamot. It's nicely peppery though there's no escaping a soapy bubblebath effect, for which I'm blaming the citrus additive. At 5.2% ABV it's not one of those powerhouse saisons but I did find it getting a little heavy and sickly as it went. Still, it finishes cleanly and there's a kind of grapeskin tannin effect which keeps the more cloying elements in check. I probably wouldn't have had another, however. Besides, there were more pubs to explore.
Crown Posada is a Newcastle institution, its stained glass windows securing its place on CAMRA's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. I arrived in a bit after 5 on a Thursday evening, just as the place was beginning to fill up. And it doesn't take much filling: two small open spaces at the front and back linked by a cramped narrow corridor with the bar in it is the extent of the premises. The beer selection wasn't terribly impressive either, compared to The Free Trade and other places I'd been to by this point. I perched on the edge of a banquette with a half of Rat Brewery Anth-Rats porter. It's 4.5% ABV and very grainy, with lots of crunchy burnt cereal. There's maybe a little bit of black cherry for complexity, but otherwise I found it too heavy and sickly to be enjoyable. Sorry, Crown Posada -- I'm sure many other travellers will extol your virtues but I just wasn't feeling it on my visit.
The final two pubs for this post are both a short stumble from Crown Posada's front door. Redhouse is just around the corner to the right and is all low-hung lights and narrow passageways, like an inn in a fishing village. Again a small selection on the handpumps, but well chosen, I thought. I went for Tyne Bank's Silver Dollar, a 4.9% ABV American-style pale ale, golden in colour with a beautiful mellow sherbet lemon flavour. The malt base complements it beautifully and brought to mind Budvar, with the same sort of hop-spiked golden syrup effect. I could have drank a lot more of this if I hadn't been hurrying on somewhere else.
As an aside, I also had a pint of Tyne Bank Brown Ale at the airport on the way out. I'm guessing they're cashing in on the collapsing brand equity of Newcastle Brown Ale since Heineken moved production to Tadcaster. The Tyne Bank one is OK: plain and caramelly, but it's actually not as complex or enjoyable as Newcastle Brown Ale (the best of a bad lot in my hotel bar) which has a bonus metallic hop tang beside the burnt sugar.
But back to the pubs. My joint favourite in toon, besides The Free Trade, was The Bridge Tavern, tucked between two supporting pillars of the Tyne Bridge itself. It's a large single-room space and seems to be pitched more at an upmarket evening crowd, though it does open during the day. What separates it from any other yuppie hang-out is the brew kit lined up against the back wall.
"Tavernale" is the house brand, and the house beer of the same name is not actually brewed in-house, but at Wylam Brewery, out to the west of the city. It's a beaut, too. 3.9% ABV and bright gold, the flavour full of zingy orange barley sweets, with incense spicing on the finish. Delicious and very sessionable, but there were plenty of other tempting offers.
There was just one from their own equipment, Dark Matter, a 4.5% ABV stout. It's a very intense example of the style, absolutely roaring out the roasty coffee aromas and slipping thickly down the throat, more linctus than beer. Yet it's not hotly alcoholic, nor overly sweet; just warming and soothing. It tastes, in short, like winter, and would be the ideal beer to come in from the cold to. But I was still well able to appreciate it even with the full summer sun beaming through the pub windows. Another great example of the magical power of cask serve when applied to even simple dark beers.
Picking from the guest selection was hard but first to catch my eye was The Lights Are On, a collaboration Wylam did with the mighty Siren Brewery. It's a dark 5% ABV bitter, full of fresh yet earthy resinous hops; spicy, dry and thirst-inducing. Very much a rounded effort: neither a jangly hop dancer nor a malty marmalade comforter, but combining elements of both. Fans of the Porterhouse's Hop Head may have an idea of what I'm getting at: this very grown-up beer did a lot of the same things.
From East London Brewery, a 3.6% ABV mild called Orchid. It's the appropriate dark ruby colour and displays lots of toffee flavour, which is unfortunate because I much prefer a bit of dryness in my milds. There's a stickiness too and a sweet floral rosewater thing. Research indicates that the recipe has vanilla in it, which is probably where all these off-kilter flavours are coming from, but I wasn't able to identify it as anything other than interference. All this plays out on rather a watery body so overall not a beer for me.
And a black IPA to go out on: Zoji by Track Brewing in Manchester. It's black all right, though ruby at the edges and smells of sherbet and cabbage: not unusual in a black IPA, and not unpleasant either, at first. There's a fun hit of red fruit in the flavour, bringing cherries and redcurrants, but shortly afterwards it gets crushed by heavy ash-dry roast and acidic green bitterness. After a minute or two that's all I could taste and I got bored by the whole thing. A cask beer designed for drinking in third-pints, perhaps.
So that, broadly speaking, is what I had in Newcastle on the more traditional side of the beer spectrum, though some of the above indicates just how useless such notions are becoming. In the next post I'll cover the beers which, for the desperate want of better terminology, I'll call the craft side of the house. And I'll go to those pubs you're itching to tell me in the comments that I missed.
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