23 August 2016


"Where are you going after here?" my fellow conference attendees in Sheffield would ask, always followed by "Huddersfield? Why Huddersfield?" Beer was, of course, the answer.

The large town near Leeds in West Yorkshire is home to a couple of England's most renowned beer venues, and I had some additional ones on my map that I wanted to take a look at. It was drizzling when I stepped out of the station into the impressive Victorian plaza at the centre of town, its buildings resplendent in the local honey-coloured sandstone. I was bursting for a piss so went straight to Wetherspoon's, decency making me order a half of cider on my way out.

I checked into my hotel then set course for the outskirts where, in an unassuming stone end-of-terrace house, is The Grove, Huddersfield's most famous craft beer pub. It's a small place, squeezed into a couple of rooms and doing brisk trade this Friday evening. There's a dizzying range of beers, cask and keg, all set out on large blackboards. With no regard for the region or its specialities, my first shout was for Adnams Juniper Saison, a clear yellow 4.1%-er. The texture is lovely and soft but the flavour, while interesting, is a little over-sweet: a big honeydew melon character builds as it goes, becoming rather sickly by the end. While flavourful, it could really do with some saison pepper to balance it out.

Something more trad next: Durham Brewery's Lightning Rod, a pale bitter of 3.6% ABV. It's extremely wan and watery looking, but tastes fine: lightly spicy with a touch of lemon zest, finishing on a kind of metallic twang. A beautifully smooth texture makes it better suited to a pinting session than working one's way through a craft blackboard.

6% ABV "ice cream porter" is more like it, however. Thornbridge Lucaria was there on keg and it's wonderfully luxurious. There's a lovely creamy chocolate flavour at the centre which I probably wouldn't have described as ice cream without prompting but it is convincing. Chocolate flavoured milk might be a better approximation but that probably wouldn't sell as well. While sweet, the sweetness doesn't build, so the beer keeps on slipping down; all the strong beer alarm bells have been silenced. Highly enjoyable, but be careful.

I'd never heard of Ghost Brew Co., which is always a good way to get me to try a beer. It's a contract operation working out of Baildon Brewery in West Yorkshire. The clip for Yūrei described it as a lychee black IPA. OK then. Black IPA doesn't normally do subtle but this one does. There's a definite juicy lychee element to it and a refreshing absence of harsh roast or hop bitterness. A building vegetal greenness is how it hops, ending on a gentle coffee note. It's a smooth and mannerly beer, easy drinking without being bland. A real pleasant surprise.

With the evening moving on, I got a Tonka to finish. This 8.5% ABV porter by Hawkshead contains all manner of things but one of them is coconut and that's almost all I could get from it. The smell is sweet desiccated coconut and the flavour is full of a very real greasy coconut flavour. There's chocolate in the beer as well, so a dark Bounty bar is pretty much as complex as this gets. It's enjoyable but rather one-dimensional.

Then off out into the twilight and around the edge of town to The Rat & Ratchet. This large and rambling brewpub is a satellite operation of Ossett Brewery. I didn't see the on-site brewkit but there certainly seemed to be enough space to tuck one away in a corner somewhere.

There's a sizeable range of rat-themed beers on offer and the first I ordered was White Rat, a 4% ABV pale ale which seemed to be the most popular among the clientele. It's pale yellow and opens with a sharp citrus bite before settling back to become another one of those chewy northern bitters, albeit a lighter, smoother and altogether more accessible one.

The house lager is Ratstein at 4.8% ABV. It's sweet and grainy, the way brewpub lagers often are, although the oatmeal treacle cookie vibe is all its own. I had been looking for something smooth and clean but it let me down on that front. Perhaps on another occasion I'd have enjoyed it more.

There's a 6% ABV IPA called Crazy Rat which is particularly sticky and heavy with a slightly cheesy aroma and no more than a touch of hop spice to balance its heavy perfume flavour. Rat Attack was a breath of fresh air after that, just 3.8% ABV with a light chalky mineral edge on softer peach fruit, shading towards bracing grapefruit flesh. It seems that this particular Yorkshire brewer does its best work on the lower end of the ABV scale.

I called it a night there and wobbled back to my lodgings. The Vulcan, just around the corner, was on my list of places to visit but I just didn't make the time for it. The following morning I headed northwards from the town centre to visit Huddersfield's star attraction the Magic Rock Tap.

From the outside it's an unlovely industrial unit but round the back there's a sunny yard with benches and a guest food stall, while inside about a third of the building is given over to a spacious bar incorporating the barrel ageing facility and views into the brewhouse. Head brewer Stu gave me a look around behind the curtain and I was surprised at how small the production side is. Given Magic Rock's influence they seem to be punching well above their weight.

Beerwise I started on Shredder, a 4.5% ABV witbier with added mandarin juice. It's more pithy than juicy, to my surprise, and there's a fun savoury fried onion kick as well. A little odd but nicely refreshing which is all it's really intended to be. I followed that with the provocatively named Inhaler, described as a "hybrid IPA" and abounding in high profile hops: Amarillo, Citra, Equinox, Galaxy, Mosaic and Simcoe. Cor! It's surprisingly red, almost like an amber ale, in fact, and although it's only 4.6% ABV I didn't find it especially inhalable. This is a beer worth taking time over, in fact. The aroma is a lovely blend of fresh jaffa orange and oily dank, and the dankness is the real centre of gravity in its flavour. More a sipper than a quaffer, it's a beaut however you want to take it.

Finally a beer that intrigued me when I saw it on the listing: Vinification. This is a wheat beer which uses grapey hop varieties Hüll Melon and Nelson Sauvin, plus actual white grape juice. The result is quite a simple beer, and not an especially grape-flavoured one. The fruit presents as more of an orange cordial effect, sitting next to a dry wheaty flavour. Like Shredder it's very quenching and refreshing, though requires an extra note of caution at 6.1% ABV.

By this point I'd been joined by Mr Zak Avery, and Stu sent us on our way with a recommendation to look in at Arcade Beers, not far from Huddersfield station. It's one of those funny off licences with draught lines and a couple of tables and has a superb selection of well-chosen beers.

Picking on name alone I went with Christian Bale Ale, from Dry & Bitter brewing near Copenhagen. A session IPA, it packs a lot into 4.6% ABV: dense and chewy oatmeal biscuits plus a blast of oily hop resins. Zak went for Mixed Berry Sour from English born-again sour devotees Elgood. It's damn good too, an enticing cherryade aroma leads on to a clean sherbet flavour with a refreshing and comfortingly familiar Ribena berry fruit tartness.

Our next destination was Leeds and there wasn't really time for another beer at the packed out Head of Steam bar in the station but we had one anyway: a super swift half of Great Heck's Treasure IPA, served warm and roaring out a poorly integrated mix of sticky sweetness and harsh bitterness. The opposite of refreshment. But no matter. Onwards to Leeds!

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