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.

My next excursion was to the opposite end of the city centre and The Rutland Arms, at first glance your classic Queen-Vic style corner pub, but it looks like it's gradually being taken over by undergraduate art students, some of the fittings being more suited to an Amsterdam squat than a Yorkshire boozer. Anyway, more Blue Bee from the handpumps, and this time it's a yellow 4%-er called Reet Pale. It has a simple lemon-peel flavour and a light and sinkable texture plus just a cheeky nip of acid bitterness on the finish to keep things interesting. Another understated classic quaffer.

Closer to the city centre sits one of the more enigmatic pubs of the whole trip: Brewhouse. I had it on my list because it's home to the Aardvark Brewery. Inside it's a smart and modern craft beer bar: white subway tiles; high tables and stools; a few handpumps; keg taps on the underback; and in an adjoining room an impressive wood-clad brewkit sitting behind plate glass. And then I noticed that about half the taps were from the AB-InBev stable, mainly the craft end, including Goose Island, Camden Town and Blue Point. And then, not seeing any on the badges, I asked if there was any house-brewed beer. There wasn't, said my friendly barman, explaining that the entire neighbourhood was under threat of demolition and as a result the brand new brewkit had never been used, the brewers apparently not wishing to make a start if there was a risk of having to move out in a hurry. A bizarre and rather sad situation.

So instead I picked a new beer from an unfamiliar brewery: Bess of Hardwick by Dukeries Brewery in Nottinghamshire. No problems with the cellar cooling system here: the bright gold pale ale poured lovely and cold from the cask, which I guess was one of the things that helped mask its 5.7% ABV. A delicious refreshing mandarin zip opens its account, followed by a deeper spicy marmalade. This gets increasingly acidic as it goes along, shading towards harsh by the end. Enjoyable, but strictly a half-pinter, I reckon.

Looking for something a bit more cleansing to follow, I found kegged Thornbridge Burgen in the menu. It's a kind of Flemish red style, 5.6% ABV, brewed in collaboration with Viennese gypsy outfit Collabs. It smells very vinegarish, with an added sweet and savoury mix of cola and brown sauce. Yum. The flavour has a major acetic component too, but it's not like just drinking vinegar, more like the sensation of good malt vinegar on hot chips, or a splash of red wine vinegar on an Italian salad. After a couple of mouthfuls I got used to it and actually found it quite refreshing and thirst-quenching. It's certainly different.

There was another Thornbridge beer, on cask, in the bar of my hotel. Something about the name Brother Rabbit had me imagining it was a brown beer so I was delighted, on a beautiful sunny evening, to be taking a bright golden pint out with me to the hotel terrace. It's a corker too: a cask ale that hits the exact spot pale lager aims for. The mouthfeel is a little thick, perhaps, but it's still crisp, clean and laugh-out-loud refreshing. Its bitterness is low and a touch of fruit chew is the flavour's only nod towards ale. An elegant, balanced beer, built for sinking.

To finish, a couple of visits to the pub that really put Sheffield on the beer map, for the craftophiles at least: The Sheffield Tap. Normally one thinks of railway station bars as fairly compact spaces but this is an entire wing of the station, with a long bar just off the platform, multiple wood-panelled rooms, a vast terrace and even its own brewery, Tapped. Despite the selection, only one house beer was pouring: Liberty Treacle Stout. It wasn't very nice either, with an unsettling woody/corky foretaste, followed by a thick black treacle sweetness and a dry, acrid burntness on the finish. It's a Victorian children's horror story of a beer.

My second and final visit to The Sheffield Tap was after I'd packed up and was getting ready to leave Sheffield. As it happened my train left from the platform just outside the door and I got a seat in view of the departures board: perfect. Among the casks was one from a brewery I remembered from last year's trip to Newcastle, North Riding's Motueka. It's only 4% ABV, pale gold, and a little watery. Where I was expecting a full-on herbal assault there's just a light grassy spicing to it. It's pleasant and easy-going, though possibly the least-exciting single NZ-hopped beer I've ever tasted.

Allendale next, and their Pennine Pale Ale, from the keg. This is dark gold and tastes very odd. I got a sort of artificial fruit candy sweetness to begin, then spicy jasmine and a touch of soap on the finish. The texture is thick and for all the complexity it still has a slightly blunt dullness about it. I wasn't sure what to make of this, only that I needed something else before leaving.

Just time, then, to swig down a half of Marble's Built To Fall, a 5.6% ABV pale ale. Lots of new world fun in this: peach and pineapple juiciness followed by a spicy nettle green bitterness. There's a lovely rounded mouthfeel but it's not overly filling or heavy. It's interesting, complex and very well balanced, utilising its strength to launch the refreshing hop flavours.

I slammed the empty glass on the counter, jumped onto the train as the doors closed, and fervently wished I'd been warned that this all-stops crawler had no toilets on board.

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