09 January 2017

Craft stops here

The Christmas break, for the second year running, was spent in rural Shropshire, not far from Shrewsbury. As someone who mostly experiences England's beer scene via the many fine blogs on the subject it offered an interesting, and slightly jarring, perspective in one respect at least. Much and more has been written on the rise of "craft beer" in Britain, by which I mean Boak & Bailey's definition 2: kegs, foreign styles and non-traditional ingredients. Earlier this decade there was a commonly-expressed view that craft was something for the urbanistas of London, Manchester and the like, and was unlikely to catch on outside these metropolitan bubbles -- see the fourth paragraph of this Tandleman post for an idea of what I mean. But over the last two or three years there seems to have been a shift as, up and down the country, more breweries are getting with the craft vibe, and craft-centric pubs are opening all over the place. When the JD Wetherspoon chain went after a slice of the craft action it was a clear sign that a wider move was taking place. Craft beer was suddenly everywhere.

Well not in Shropshire. Shrewsbury is not a small town: at 72,000 people it's nearly the size of Galway City, but modern British craft beer seems to have all but passed it by. The town and its hinterland has many charming pubs, but the accent in all of them is on traditional British cask beer, as I'm sure it has been for decades. In the off licences, premium bottled ales -- your brown bitters and golden ales by the half-litre -- rule supreme. One gourmet grocer carries a handful of Wild Beer Co. offerings, as well as some of the more inventive Salopian Brewery beers, and you can get Punk IPA in Tesco, but otherwise craft doesn't happen. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, and I certainly wasn't wanting for a drink at any point, but I just thought it was interesting, given the thousands of words about British craft beer that I read every week. I wonder what the largest town in Britain without a specialist craft beer pub and off licence is?

Anyway, that's veering far too close to industry analysis for my liking, so let's get to the beers. With the full extended family descending on Pulverbatch village, I took up lodgings at the local inn, a charming little Betjeman-ready country pub called The White Horse. There are three handpumps on the short bar, one of which tends to be Hobsons Twisted Spire, a perfectly decent light golden ale. The alternative when I arrived was Slumbering Monk from local brewer Joule's. It's 4.5% ABV and as twiggy as they come: a deep red brown colour with rich and sweet milk chocolate to the fore, lent a modicum of balance by drier background tannins. It's inoffensive stuff, the sort of beer that would fail to impress at home but seems entirely appropriate under the exposed beams by the fireplace. It's not always about what's in the glass.

Handpump three on the night before Christmas Eve was pouring Bauble from Box Steam Brewery in faraway Wiltshire. This is a pale reddish amber and rather thin and insipid. It might be a passable light quaffer if it wasn't for the decision to add Christmas spices to it. Cinnamon and water: it's not a great combination. Bauble is a miserly sort of Christmas beer, trying hard to appear jolly but lacking the substance to be convincing.

A brief foray into Shrewsbury led to The Armoury, an upmarket riverside dining pub with which I had a bit of a run-in on my last visit. No surly service this time, but the beer wasn't great. I picked Sabut Jung, a 6.8% ABV IPA from another local operator, Battlefield. It's a cheery bright orange and there's a fun zesty sherbet foretaste, but that gets squashed quite suddenly and unceremoniously by a hot syrupy quality, rendered especially antisocial by an inappropriately high serving temperature. Properly kept I'd say this is a fairly decent sup, but warmth is not good for it.

On another evening we dropped by the Mytton Arms in nearby Habberley. It's a cosy little community pub with four beers on cask including two from Hobsons. I remember enjoying Hobsons Mild so I started with one of those. I hadn't realised it was almost a dozen years since I last tasted it. It's a beautiful beer, so light and easy-going with just a gentle hint of cocoa sweetness. After that I switched to Hobsons Best, quite a plain golden bitter with a lightly honeyish waxy bitterness and soft honeydew melon fruit. Uncomplicated but very well suited to caning back in quantity.

Meanwhile, Santa's sack had a range of premium bottled goodies in it for me. First out was Adnams Triple Knot, an intriguing fellow in a 33cl flip top, 10% ABV, infused with lavender, jasmine and orange blossom and aged six months before bottling. "Pear" is among the descriptors on the label and I can see that: there's a distinct acetone element to the foretaste. It's not overpoweringly hot, however, aided by a big spiced malt substance giving it a kind of Christmas pudding character, all sultanas and figs. The low fizz and light spices make it untypical of Belgian tripel but I don't know if there's a better style category for it. Overall this is a lovely warming winter sipper with plenty going on without being busy or unbalanced.

Next up a pale ale from Bath Ales called Wild Hare. I was wary because Bath's signature move is big butterscotch, and I couldn't see that working well in something this light-coloured. And indeed it doesn't. There's a biting waxy bitterness and a touch of lychee and apple fruit, but lots and lots of sickly buttery toffee too. Altogether it makes for some tough drinking, lacking the bright and clean flavours the style demands.

Greene King's Suffolk Springer is next, a dark brown ale of 6% ABV, smelling a bit skunky as it poured from the clear glass bottle. No sign of that on tasting; in fact there's very little sign of any hops at all. It's a huge and lumbering maltbeast, full of treacle, syrup, chocolate sauce and raisins. And it's not bad: nicely warming if not particularly complex. I lived the beer-writing cliché of actually drinking this by the fireside and it worked. Fair play.

Something a bit more micro next: Jimmy's Flying Pig, a bottle-conditioned bitter from Shalford Brewery, branded to tie-in with the Jimmy's Farm TV series and restaurant. It's a deep gold colour and I managed to get it into the glass without any sediment. There's an unfortunate agricultural foretaste: sharply acidic like vomit with an added manure funk. Behind this there's a dry homebrewish graininess, finishing on a note of rubber. It's truly awful amateur-grade stuff, with absolutely none of bitter's redeeming features.

And so to Yorkshire, and the Black Sheep Brewery. For the season, they had a 4% ABV dark red ale called Blitzen out. I was surprised by how bitter it was: a medicinal acridity putting me in mind of Fisherman's Friend sweets in particular. Wintery, perhaps, but not very Christmassy, and certainly not cheery or festive. I thought I might get used to it but each sip was as shocking and jarring as the last. I'm sure the brewers meant it to taste like this but it's not for me.

And that was the sum total of my Christmas beer ticking. Wisely I'd brought a stash of hoppy Irish IPA over with me, and was very glad of the balance it provided to this lot. I also took a couple of UK beers I didn't have time to drink back with me and will cover those off on Wednesday.


  1. Your experience would be similar in most parts of provincial GB outside of major cities. You would find some more crafty stuff in Shrewsbury, though, in the Salopian Bar, which is only just down the road from the Armoury.

    1. Yeah, I wrote about The Salopian last year. It's still some distance from being a craft beer specialist, though.

      Is craft beer really that unheard-of in Britain's non-major cities? Some non-major cities even have BrewDog bars, don't they?

    2. Not really - only major cities and places with a large student population. Certainly nowhere like Shrewsbury.

    3. You have to look for it in the right place. Remember that the UK on-trade is split about 70:30 in favour of lager, and cask ale is only about 17% of on-trade beer sales.

      Many of those drinkers are quite happy drinking Greene King IPA or Doom Bar - so say that 5% of pub drinkers are craft-curious. Then you need a town that can support 20 reasonably thriving pubs before it can support a craft bar. Looking around, you seem to need a reasonably middle class town of 30,000 for a full craft bar of the kind you seem to be expecting, maybe half that can support a bottle shop with the odd keg line and the kind of random opening hours that come from a one-man band.

      But it needs saying - it depends on what you mean by "a craft beer specialist". The UK has been doing craft beer for a thousand years, even now half the pubs in Britain are craft beer specialists. (or something like that) It's just they are craft breweries that produce 4% brown beer rather than tetra-IPAs with shavings of baobab fruit.

      And even then, they are evolving. So instead of a dedicated craft bar, you'll find the odd keg ale line in an existing pub, and increasing amounts of US hops in the offerings from the family brewers. Still "craft beer", but with a UK twist.

      Local effects also matter - it's perhaps no coincidence that the micropub movement originated in Kent, where Shepherd Neame have had centuries to buy up all the pubs. Shrewsbury was lucky to get a good brewery (Salopian) out of the first wave of microbreweries so that will have steered people's tastes a bit, whereas Rutland/Cambridgeshire went the other way when it lost Ruddles, so there was fertile ground to nurture Oakham. And I'd suggest that Salopian is a lot more crafty than you make it out to be, albeit hidden behind a fairly traditional facade.

      The other thing is that 8% beer will never be popular in rural Britain just because of our drink driving laws (and duty that's proportionate to ABV, unlike in the US). It's fine to knock back a couple of 8% in Bermondsey because you can get effective public transport home, but in most places you'll find buses can stop at 6pm.

      I thought py was being kind - I'd have put Shrewsbury at 20 years behind, and rural Shropshire at twice that....

      I must admit I've found Battlefield a bit inconsistent, the session beers are better than the fancy ones from memory, the lager's OK. Stonehouse are a better bet, they've a SIBA National Gold to their name.

  2. I know the landlord of the Salopian and I think he would be a little ticked off with being described as ""some distance from a craft beer specialist"

    There's also blind tiger, chez Sophie, the loopy shrew. Plenty of places, although none that mudgy would know about. You have to bear in mind that Shropshire is about 10 years behind the rest of the country on average.

    1. Blind Tiger is a cocktail bar, Chez Sophie a coffee shop and the Loopy Shrew a restaurant. Fine establishments I'm sure, but none is a pub that specialises in craft beer.

    2. Which of the three did you visit?

    3. I haven't been to any of them. I'm just looking at how they present themselves online.