22 August 2016

A taste of steel

My annual summer work visit to Britain brought me to Sheffield this year, a city which has recently laid claim to the title of England's Real Ale Capital, nay "World's Best Beer City". (You needn't add a comment on the veracity or otherwise of these declarations, by the way.) Superlatives aside I was expecting to find myself in a place where any random pub would have a high quality offer. And so it more or less proved.

That said, being on a tight schedule, I did choose most of the places I visited based on prior research, since visiting the more famous pubs anywhere is just common sense. But there was one totally personal pick: The Three Tuns, which was the first place I went to. I drank my first ever pint of English beer here, on a bracing April night in the mid-1990s. John Smith's Magnet. A pint of Strongbow followed, to prevent the memory getting too rose-tinted. Anyway, it's a nice pub, long and narrow and built into a steep hill so is split-level. There's a decent, but not excessive, selection including a couple from a local outfit I'd never heard of, Blue Bee.

I started with Amarella Pale, 3.9% ABV and three of your English pounds for one of your imperial pints. It's a lovely shade of dark gold and the hop varieties portmanteau'd in the name absolutely shine out from the first sip, all peaches and mandarin on a bouncey bubblegum base. Behind this sits a harder waxy bitterness which I found irritating until I got used to it. It actually helps the drinkability by providing a cleansing balance to the fruity sweetness. While it did start getting a little metallic towards the end, I would definitely have had another if I had the time, which I didn't.

On down the hill and across the ring road out of the city centre brings one to the Kelham Island district of Sheffield, a sparse patch of mostly waste ground just beginning to get a trendy urban makeover. Its two veteran pubs stand tall and obvious across the flat landscape, with about half a kilometre of empty space between them. The first you come to is the Kelham Island Tavern, imposing from the outside but rather cramped in the front parlour where the bar is. A busy late-afternoon trade added to that. From the compact mix of cask and keg taps I opted first for a third of Abbeydale's Hop Smash, a very pale IPA that belies its whopping 7.4% ABV. It's quite sweet, tasting strongly of grapefruit but without any of the bitterness, reminding me more than anything of that Schöfferhofer grapefruit radler. There's a sizeable alcoholic density as well, meaning it gets quite sickly after a few sips, beginning to resemble super-strength lager beyond the one-sixth of a pint mark. Moving on...

I felt I'd be on safer ground with a bitter, opting for Millstone by 8 Sail in Lincolnshire. It's a pale copper colour, which is a charitable way of saying it's brown, which is also how it tastes. Oatmeal biscuits, smooth sweet caramel, and then a token balancing vegetal bitterness. The absence of drying tannins mean that I should have hated it but it's actually kinda comforting and warming. Maybe I'm finally becoming the old man that old man beers are brewed for.

I very nearly passed by Pictish Brewers Gold, confusing it with the beer of the same name by Crouch Vale. I only gave it a second look because it was far and away the most popular beer on the counter. When I secured a pint for myself I could see why. It has that super simple, super sessionable lemon sherbet zing of modern cask pale ales, with a polite but present bittering zest on the finish. Marks off for being served a teeny bit warm (it was baking hot outside) but apart from that I would make it my regular too.

Around the corner is The Fat Cat, seemingly another relic of a terrace which no longer exists. In 1990 this was home to the Kelham Island Brewery, though that has grown up and moved a little way down the street now. Its beers still feature at the pub, of course, and I settled into the plush lounge to work through what was on.

First up, Pale Rider: pale indeed, looking like cheap thin lager though packing heft at 5.2% ABV. I wasn't a fan, finding it dull and heavy, the familiar waxy bitterness of Yorkshire bitter ramped up to an unpleasant degree with nothing to counteract it. Kelham Best Bitter was much better, a deep rose gold colour and, while there was the wax again, this time there was a light and thirst-quenching dryness. Designed for drinking in quantity and succeeding admirably at it. And one for the road: 45 RPM, another pale ale, this time just 4.5% ABV. It has a sharp and buzzing green bitterness and a lovely lemons-and-honey complexity. Very enjoyable, though another beer which fell foul of the summer temperatures on the day.