18 January 2016

Turkey trimmings

The Christmas break was spent with family in Shropshire, just outside Shrewsbury. Castle Pulverbatch may be a one-horse town but fortunately said equine is The White Horse, a charming little country pub with a proud emphasis on local produce. Still, tickers be tickin' and on my first visit I eschewed the Hobsons in favour of St Austell Jolly Holly.

It looks warming: a welcoming dark chestnut red, and perfectly clear, of course. Into just 4.3% ABV it packs a lot of comforting winter flavours -- bready pudding; figs and plums. More than anything it reminds me of the Scandinavian Julebryg style, though obviously at a much lower strength. It's certainly a very clear indication that all those spices that are commonly used in Christmas ales are entirely unnecessary.

There's plenty of local beer around Shropshire and I'll dedicate the next post to them. This one is for the odds and sods from around Britain that passed my way, in pubs or in front of the telly, during the break.

On day two I went to Shrewsbury to collect last-minute shopping and last-minute relatives. I also left a bit of time to drop into The Salopian Bar. Salopian Brewery turns out consistently excellent beers and I had been looking forward to trying a few under their own roof (edit: except it isn't, see comments). The pub, by the banks of the Severn, is an odd one, with a tiled floor and sparse fittings making it seem more like a continental café than an English market town pub. And oddest of all, only one of the eight handpumps had a Salopian Beer on (Oracle, which is lovely, but I wanted something new). Time for a random pick, then.

I opted for Brewski, a 4% ABV American-style pale ale brewed for local distributor Real Ale Direct at (according to RateBeer) Grey Trees brewery in south Wales. And it's a rather good cask interpretation of the style: light and quaffable with lots of lemon spritz on a token malt biscuit background. It gets perhaps a little bit soapy as it warms, but that's nitpicking really. A convincing oily citrus rind note at the end finishes it off nicely. I got through it fast enough to realise I had time for another beer before I needed to leave.

That beer was Rooster's Yankee which I was surprised to find, on checking the old Scoop-O-Meter over there, that I'd never had before. This is a dark gold pale ale with more than a touch of lager about it: the same sort of lightly sweet and husky malt. The hop contribution is a harsh acidity of the sort found in cantankerously old-fashioned brown bitters: nothing fresh or fruity going on at all. I expected better, but them's the breaks, I guess.

Before leaving town I ducked into the lovely low-ceilinged Three Fishes and suppressed the ticking urge long enough to enjoy my first pint of Landlord in about five years. Then popped into posh offy Tanner's for a nosey at their beer selection. It's not up to much, but one bottle on the bottom shelf did catch my eye: the legendary and elusive Black Country ale Bathams Best Bitter. Of course I know that you have to go to a Bathams pub in the West Midlands to have the Bathams as the Bathams is intended to be had, but there was still no way I was passing up this opportunity to put a foot on the bottom rung of the Bathams ladder.

Surprisingly, it's not bottle conditioned and poured a clear gold with a head which fizzed up suddenly then vanished just as fast. It smells of golden syrup and celery, like good lager, while the taste is an odd mix of greasy gunpowder sulphur and bitter brassica with a touch of Landlord-ish honey creeping in as it warms. The texture is thin, but there's a pleasantly soft alkaline minerality too. I'm not at all sure it worked for me: I found the mix of soft, spongy effervescence and hard metallic edge off-puttingly strange. Looking at it objectively, it's quenching and quaffable if you're cabbage-proof but on this showing I would not place it up with Landlord and Harvey's as the way English bitter oughta be done.

A kindly relative went on a spree in her local Adnams shop and picked me up a few goodies from one of my favourite English family brewers. First out is Mosaic Pale Ale, a 4.1% ABV hazy pale orange number from the Jack Brand craft-ish range. You know it's craft because it comes in a 33cl bottle. Peach tea is the long and the short of what's going on in this: juicy hop fruit and nicely dry tannins. And like tea, it's rather lacking in body, which makes the hop bite a little more nippy than is completely enjoyable. The flavour elements are all great here but I don't think they quite dovetail together properly.

Wild Hop was the next one out. This one is a perfectly clear dark gold, though advertised, oddly, as being amber. There's a gentler mix of lemon and tea in this, nicely quenching with the slightly higher gravity at 4.8% ABV giving it extra heft, the malt helping bring out lovely palate-coating hop resins. A classic Adnams hop-and-tannin job.

I wasn't expecting either element to feature much in 1659, described as a "smoked ruby ale" but more brown than red. And sure enough smoke looms large in this one in a kippery-but-clean way, calling to mind that thing that Bamberg does so well. A bicarbonate of soda softness helps smooth the experience. It's another watery one but that does help it finish quickly the way good Franconian smoked lagers do, so I'm not complaining.

The last beer before starting the journey home was Sourdough by Somerset's Wild Beer Co. It's a bit of a gimmick: a 3.6% ABV wheat beer made using a vintage sourdough yeast culture from a neighbouring bakery. It's an ugly, pissy, murky yellow colour with no head to speak of. The aroma is powerfully sour, nearly to the level of sour milk rather than deliberately soured beer. I was trepidatious about tasting it. But it's really rather good: cheek-puckering, palate-scrubbing, up-front acidity with just a hint of lime citrus in the background. The modern Berliner weisse can be a bit weak-tea, but this is seriously invigorating stuff, packing a similar punch to Galway Bay's Heathen. Three cheers for gimmickry!

To Birmingham airport, finally, where the JD Wetherspoon landed a pint of Moorhouse's Winter Looms, another medium-strength dark red seasonal ale. It's nearly a boring brown bitter: it has the same dull cereal taste at the centre, but it's nicely dry as well, and light-bodied enough to be pleasingly quenching. While it's certainly not hop forward, nor meant to be, there's a definite background tang of English hops which adds a metallic edge and holds the caramel malt sweetness in check.

The other bar in BHX departures has a selection of casks from local outfit Purity Brewing and I had a go of their Pure Gold, a pale and lagery-looking 3.8%-er. I got a slightly sour hit from my pint which I'm not sure is supposed to be there. Behind it a gentle soft-fruit bitterness -- guava and lychee. The sense of softness carries through to the texture which is beautifully smooth and effervescent. Despite that initial bum note, which I'm pinning on the venue, this is a really good quality quaffing beer with enough to keep your attention if you want it kept, but also very downable when you need to run for your gate.

We're not quite done with England yet, however. Beer from three of the Shropshire breweries will follow on Thursday.