Opinion and rants

The Session #133 – Planet Thanet

Margate

As a child growing up in the Isle of Thanet, Kent (not an actual Isle) my exposure to the pub was mostly a relatively humdrum experience, usually for a family occasion, or maybe a meal, even a new year’s eve visit. The odd trip up to my Dad’s local to watch him play for his Pool team, was about as exciting as pubs got for me during my early teens. Even as I got slightly older, and started paying for my own drinks the venues were quite run of the mill – we would go wherever would serve us, given that we were 16 or 17 at the time. Even during my student years in Leeds, the pubs were still just wallpaper in a occasionally visited room of my life, and the beer was of even less significance. Gradually, as I became more interested in beer and pubs, this changed. As did the places I visited – on visits back to Margate the difference was clearer, less good beer was available there and I could count the number of places worth visiting on one finger.

As a native turned occasional visitor, there’s no doubt I was missing somewhere that would have been a cut above the rest, but generally Thanet’s pubs were either owned by the local family operator or a national PubCo and were much the same. Friday and Saturday nights were busy everywhere, of course, but it was generally the same places and faces. Nowadays, this is far from the case. Having just spent a week in Margate and it’s wider locale I’ve been to less than a third of the places I would usually have liked to visit. Whilst the micropub revolution is still alive and kicking, there’s plenty of ‘regular’ sized pubs and bars that are worth visiting as well.

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Originally resurrected in 2014 by the now defunct Late Knights Brewery, the Ravensgate Arms was forcibly shut when it had its licence revoked last year due to allegations of opening after hours and breaches of the licence conditions, a decision that mystified many. The consensus opinion seemed to be that the management had been enjoying themselves a bit too much, and the authorities took a dim view of a few incidents by throwing the book at them. Luckily, Eddie Gadd, of the Ramsgate Brewery, joined forces with the original manager of the pub from 2014, to take over, reopening late last year. The pub not only has a great range of keg and cask beer, but a lively atmosphere and that ‘proper pub’ feel. If you’re into visiting a place with that ‘backstreet boozer’ feel, Gadd’s beers and guests can also be found at the Montefiore Arms, a short stroll away.

Now nestled away on an industrial estate, Eddie Gadd and his team have been operating The Ramsgate Brewery since 2002 when they operated on an old Firkin brewpub kit down in Ramsgate Harbour. Whilst the brewery may mainly have a reputation for making excellent traditional ales using Kentish hops, they also produce bretted pales, tripels, sour beers and much more besides. Tours are operated on Saturdays, and there’s an on-site shop offering packaged and draught beer to take away. Ramsgate Brewery alumni are spread far and wide across the UK these days, and Gadd’s have been influential in the current new wave of breweries, even if Eddie himself regards some of the surrounding culture with healthy cynicism.

Despite the name, the Bottleshop in Margate is primarily a bar – the owners being the Bottleshop importers/wholesalers, originating from Canterbury but now with their main sites in East London and Bermondsey. As they themselves have discussed, the decision to open a bar here was a bold one – but which seems to have paid off. Certainly, other than the Ravensgate there isn’t as good a beer selection elsewhere in Thanet, and their position, straddling Margate Old Town and the Seafront is a prime location for tourists and locals. Modern, sleek, but welcoming, this is a must-visit.

From the modern to the old, of sorts, The Old Cottage Pub has been undergoing a long, painstaking process of redevelopment and is scheduled to open this year. The building dates back from 1650 and the owners have taken every possible step to restore the building’s features, as well as install an on-site microbrewery. Their facebook page has been sporadically updated, including a 18 month period of silence, but I am assured that progress is being made. If you’re at a loose end, you can see their appearance on Homes Under the Hammer here. If historical pubs interest you it’s worth checking out the Northern Belle, a short walk from here, which has been operating since 1680. Also of significance is the UK’s largest branch of Wetherspoons at the Royal Victoria Pavilion in Ramsgate, a Grade II listed building – grand, opulent, and sympathetically restored. Ultimately it is still a ‘spoons though.

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Much has been written about the relatively short history of Micropubs, and with Kent being the epicentre of the explosion its unsurprising to learn that Thanet is chock full of them. Amongst the crowd, there are a few that are particularly noteworthy – The Yard of Ale was a CAMRA national pub of the year finalist in 2015, and is based in the yard of a Funeral Directors’, The Fez is located on Margate high street and is eccentrically furnished with all sorts of tat and treasures, and The Four Candles in St Peter’s bills itself as the smallest brewpub in Britain – producing its own bottles and casks in the basement. It might disappoint the micropub purists, but The Tap Room in Cliftonville and the Lifeboat in Margate Old Town also now sell Keg. The horror!

My feelings towards the Isle have and haven’t changed, in terms of liveability its infinitely preferable now than when I was younger but its hard to tell if my ageing has been the main factor, or if the diversification of the area into a more lively, if still edgy place is more appealing. Certainly, it wasn’t an outwardly appealing place in my youth, but with the influx of new blood parts of it are markedly attractive – but thankfully still not in a shiny, polished way. There’s still a huge disparity between the inhabitants, with some very deprived communities and resentment of the DFLs (down from London) from the older, more backwards-focused residents, but ultimately the injection of culture and life over the last five or so years is vital and welcomed, especially for those looking for good beer

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Opinion and rants

The Session #133 Announcement – Hometown Glories

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For this month’s edition of the Session, the proposed subject is ‘Hometown Glories’. Take this and run with it how you wish, but when thinking about possible subjects I had in mind an imminent visit to the place I spent my formative years and blogging about it’s highlights and wider beer scene. Possible starting points could be –

  •  Describing the types of bars/pubs you have in your home town, how popular are they? Has craft beer culture made much of a splash?
  • Are there any well-known breweries? Is there a particular beer or style that is synonymous with your home town
  • History of the town and how that can be reflected in its drinking culture
  • Tales of your youth, early drinking stories
  • Ruminations on what once was and what is now? Have you moved away and been pleasantly surprised or disappointed on return visits?

My visit over the next week is going to hopefully inspire me, and it’s a great excuse to visit a few old haunts and new venues. If you’re less enamoured with your hometown, or even if you left and never returned, feel free to respond anyway – maybe you’re an adopted native of somewhere better. My home town is no longer my home, so if you’d like to write about the place you feel most at home in relation to beer, that would be welcomed too.

I’m hoping this will spark a wide range of topics within the wider theme, and I look forward to reading your responses. Tag me in on Twitter – @barrelagedleeds – or comment below with a link if you prefer, by or on Friday the 2nd March.

Happy blogging!

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Opinion and rants

Try, Try and Try again

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As I’m sure you’re all tired of hearing, I, along with many other volunteers participated in the Tryanuary campaign this year, trying to organise events and generally encourage people to visit pubs and try something new. Judging by the levels of engagement on social media and attendance at various events it looks to have been a successful month, and I thought I’d put down a few notes on the campaign, how it was received, and where I think it could go in the future.

From a personal perspective, the Tryanuary efforts this year were a positive thing – not just because of the aim of the campaign, but also because it isn’t designed to aggressively critique the choice of people who have sworn off booze for the month. Its a tricky balance to strike, but publicising events, breweries etc was done in a non-judgemental way, and I didn’t see anyone who was speaking on behalf of the campaign adopting an overly anti-dryanuary stance, which isn’t to say no-one did.

In response to both campaigns, there were also a fair number of ‘Why?’ comments. Aside from the predictable ‘why do we need a campaign for something I do anyway? -missing the point that we’re not aiming our efforts at regular pub goers – there were others which actually raised a number of useful points, for example ‘Why are we seemingly focusing almost exclusively on ‘craft’ breweries and pubs – shouldn’t the campaign encourage patronage across the industry as a whole?’ Which, I kind of agree with – after all, with the high rate of pub closure across the UK, more effort needs to be made to encourage visiting local pubs. If your response to this is, ‘why? My local serves crap beer/has no atmosphere/the staff are unwelcoming’, then without your presence, mentioning what you’d like to see,  talking to the management, then nothing will change. It might not change even if you did go more, but its worth trying at least isn’t it?

Through the events that we and others helped organise this month, the best part for me has been meeting other drinkers, brewers and industry staff and chatting about future ideas and plans in great pubs/bars. I would like to see a renewed focus on venues for next year’s campaign as whilst we all want to celebrate our favourite beers and breweries, in order for this to continue to flourish the on-trade needs to recover from a pretty dismal 10-20 years. One common question I saw from pubs and bars was ‘how do we get noticed?’. Given the all pervading nature of Social Media, it almost seems alien to some that the vast majority of premises don’t know how to, or prefer not to, utilise these tools to publicise themselves. I’m not an expert either, but perhaps if you are, then providing informal support and advice in this regard to businesses in your area would be welcomed.

Going forward, I will undoubtedly continue supporting the bars and pubs that I enjoy visiting the most, but my aim this year is to diversify the types of places I drink in, and to encourage people who don’t often bother visiting pubs to come along. Why not start a work pub club, for example? Undoubtedly, some pubs are and will remain, rubbish, but at least get out there and see what’s on offer.  All year round!

 

 

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Opinion and rants

The Session #132 – Home Brewing Conversations

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For this month’s collective beer blogging session, Jon at The Brewsite has proposed the topic of Home brewing as a jumping off point for us to explore.

My only experience of home brewing so far was definitely a lesson, possibly even a disaster. My generous other half purchased an all-grain kit from Brooklyn Brewshop for me as a christmas present, following on from a crash course I had taken the year before at Learn to Brew. Whilst I enjoyed learning about the process, my initial excitement was slightly tempered by the investment of time and money it takes to create a decent beer at home, so at least with the kit everything I needed had been provided for me, and with clear instructions. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, nothing, at first at least. I mashed in on the gas burners in a large stockpot. Keeping the mash temperature constant was difficult, but with with a decent food thermometer I managed to keep it within a reasonable range. Transfer proved a much bigger challenge, especially as I didn’t have a spare second pot, but again I muddled through. With the wort hopped, cooled (in ice water in the kitchen sink), and transferred to the carboy, so far so good.

My downfall was in the bottling stage. Whilst my mash had been far less efficient than I wanted it to be (according to the gravity readings) the fermented product looked and smelt good. According to the instructions, I was now to dissolve one cup of honey with one cup of water, and pour the beer in, then siphon from here into the bottles. Judging by the auto-drainpour of my self-emptying bottles two weeks later, with hindsight I wished I had taken more care at this stage….The gush was forceful, not quite ceiling height, but definitely akin to 12 mini-geysers.

So, would I have another crack at it? Yes, mainly because my partner has bought me another kit (she is much more persistent and determined than I), but also because for any beer enthusiast, home brewing seems like something you *have* to try, and by try I mean have a sustained attempt at creating something half decent. It has a certain cache that shows you can grasp beer on a deeper sense, and also, I imagine, gives you a certain sense of satisfaction at having handiwork worth sharing.

Luckily for me, this next kit has a packet of proper priming sugar…

 

 

 

 

 

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Opinion and rants

Golden Pints 2017

 

Whilst generally this year has been a good year for beer, looking through my untappd check-ins it doesn’t appear to have been a vintage one personally. Casting aside bottleshare sips of aged, one off and extremely rare or unusual beers, it took me quite a while of scrolling through the list to find a nominee for every category that I rated highly, and that I returned to. Maybe I’m a bit jaded, or maybe my standards have risen. Certainly, for me, while I haven’t found anything to overly dislike this year a lot of beers have seemed indistinct, with the same flavours and textures – particularly at the hoppier end of the spectrum. A lot of my choices are old favourites, existing Breweries that have raised their game, or venues that I cherish.

Picking winners for each category is always difficult, but more so this year when I’ve been drinking pretty much exclusively UK beer and also not making many ventures to pastures new – its been a year of, well, not exactly sticking to what I know, but perhaps reining back on the extremes of looking for the ‘new’.

Best UK Cask Beer – Tough choices here, but in what is fast becoming a yearly tradition  I am voting for Magic Rock High Wire again…why vote for anything else other than repeated perfection?

Best UK Keg Beer – Marble Beers’ Gale’s Prize Old Ale (Bourbon Barrel Aged) was an utter delight at Dark City – so good I almost immediately went back for more. To be fair, this would probably also win best bottled beer, if I wasn’t saving the bottles I have in the cupboard. Verdant’s Maybe one more PSI was also a memorable glass amongst the tide of Murk, as was Magic Rock Brewing’s Psychokinesis – Sorachi goes well with the new breed of IPA – why aren’t we seeing more of this?

Best UK Bottled Beer – Kernel never let me down, and their Biere De Saison Perle Simcoe was one of the most memorable beers of the year. Lost and Grounded’s Keller Pils was also a fridge staple.

Best UK Canned Beer – Summer Wine take the nod for this category. It was great to see them back on the shelves, and Pico Diego was a low-abv revelation. Also,  Cloudwater Brewing get all the headlines for their DIPAs, and I’m sure they won’t be short of nominations in this category for those, but I enjoyed their range of IPLs even more – especially the Autumn + Winter IPL El Dorado Mosaic which filled my fridge in February

Best Overseas Draught – I haven’t been dipping my toe in these waters much, but all the Other Half Brewing beers I’ve tried at Hop City/elsewhere on occasion have been great. Double Mosaic Dream in particular. I also usually enjoy Dugges Bryggeri when I see it – Big Idjit did it for me.

Best Overseas Bottled Beer – Not a new beer, but Brouwerij De Ranke’s XX Bitter always keeps me going with its unrelenting bitterness. In a similar vein – De Dolle Arabier was also something I drank quite a few of.

Best Overseas Canned Beer – I rarely buy these, so I’d have to go with a nostalgic hooray for the return to these shores of Odell St. Lupulin – I still love it.

Best Collaboration Brew – Fuller’s combining with Marble Beers for Gale’s Prize Old Ale, but also a gracious nomination for the Fuller’s and Friends collabs with Marble and Moor. Cloudwater and The Veil also made a can of peach juice called Chubbles that was pretty delicious as well.

Best Overall Beer – Third mention for Marble Beers for Gale’s Prize Old Ale. I’ve praised it twice already, so enough said. Champion.

Best Branding – Leeds’ own Eyes Brewing have lots of designs that catch the eye. Abstract and unique.

Best Pump Clip – Erm…the new Harvey’s clips are a nice shade of Turquoise….

Best Bottle/Can Label – Northern Monk’s Patrons Project cans deserve to take this award for the sheer amount of effort that goes into every one, the Ingleborough Session Porter is just one outstanding example amongst many. Also, I very much admire the shiny cans from Burnt Mill – contents were pretty decent too.

Best UK Brewery – Always tough, and I usually stay within the Yorkshire boundaries, but this year I’m going for Marble – Gale’s Prize old Ale series, White Wine Pugin, Your Betrayal,

Best Overseas Brewery – Dugges for the beers I’ve tried this year, but overall I still drink more beers from Belgium than any other country outside the UK, so De Ranke.

Best Pub/Bar of the Year – I don’t like picking a best for this category, as mine changes visit by visit, but I’ve really enjoyed my end of the night visits to The Turk’s Head. Cosy and calm, with great beer and service.

Best New Pub/Bar of the Year – It is great to see The Cardigan Arms reopened and revived by Kirkstall Brewery – as lovely as it should be, and with enough of the touches that beer geeks like, but also keeping accessible and friendly to all.

Beer Festival of the Year – Leeds International Beer Festival obviously, but Hop/Dark City were also great this year, and will go from strength to strength.

Supermarket of the Year – Morrisons for keeping their range fresh for a few fridge fillers.

Independent Retailer of the Year – I’m not going to pick a winner, as we are so utterly spolit in Leeds that I rotate my visits between 4/5 shops, but Little Leeds Beer House is somewhere I always visit when I’m in town, and Raynville Superstore is expanding ever more. Both excellent places to stand, chat and choose.

Online Retailer of the Year – I only ordered beer online once this year, and was left a little disappointed. So meh.

Best Beer Book or Magazine – Boak and Bailey’s 20th Century Pub – it’s about so much more than beer, and an essential read for anyone trying to understand the history of UK drinking culture.

Best Beer Blog or Website – Again, Boak and Bailey – I don’t think there is anywhere that is producing such a variety of great articles that isn’t a full time, paid operation. Good Beer Hunting always come up with interesting perspectives, and there’s plenty of full time and amateur bloggers out there whose sites I regularly read – they know who they are. Shout out to Hopinions as well for filling my bus journeys with an hour (or more) of beery content every week.

Simon Johnson award for Best Beer Twitterer – I’m not going to pick a favourite here, but shouts go to @6TownsMart – travels through Europe and the UK, with plenty of excellent beer tips, @thebeernut – fully formed Beer reviews, with a side of pithy humour and @RowettBrew – pisstaking, homebrewing and general LOLage.

 

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Opinion and rants

Heineken stir the pot in Brixton

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When we talk about takeovers of UK breweries, the term selling out is used liberally. However, when the likes of Brixton Brewery accept investment by Heineken, I question what impact will it really have within the needs of the existing craft beer market. I, and no doubt, you, almost exclusively purchase beers I enjoy from independent brewers because I enjoy how they taste, because I take pleasure from supporting small, often local businesses, and also, sometimes guiltily just because I enjoy the shimmer of the shiny ‘new’.

To state the obvious, for situations like Brixton/Heineken to arise, both sides need to be assured that the partnership brings value. Brixton are still a relatively obscure brewery nationally, with a decent and sometimes very good range of beer. The news of the Heineken investment is not a hammer blow to craft beer in the UK, but neither is it insignificant as it signifies that the biggest breweries are recognising that in order to catch the eye in a changing market they must play by at least some of the rules. Fake brands, rebadging, overpowering takeovers are easy to spot and dismiss, but having a genuine interest in a collaborative product is a compromise that is less likely to generate contempt that can spread outwards from the mindset of the hardcore beer enthusiast to the more casual drinker.

If the injections of corporate funds into the likes of Brixton Brewery are anathema to what hardcore craft beer drinkers value, this is not a wider concern of the majority of people ordering pints in bars across the UK. In their own way Heineken are effectively validating the importance of provenance, quality and innovation in UK beer by carrying out these investments (or buyouts if you prefer) and for them, acknowledging competition is ultimately a form of respect. Diversifying their offering is the only logical reaction to what has been happening on a minor, yet increasing scale – and ultimately, if it gets better beer in the view of the majority of drinkers, why can it be begrudged?

Ultimately, whatever happens to Brixton in terms of Heineken’s investment. The behaviour of the majority of those of us who spend time investing a piece of ourselves in the beer and breweries we enjoy will not change. If the tastes of the wider drinker catches up with us, that’s fine too, but I don’t feel that good beer is endangered by deals such as these, partially as there will always be people like me who value quality and independence. Currently, the flow of UK craft beer scene is trickling out into its surroundings, and whether or not Heineken will help the taps run faster is debatable, but there’s plenty of people willing to give the handle a turn and see what happens, be they craft, or corporate.

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Opinion and rants

330 on…Leeds International Beer Festival

Can sized thoughts and musings

After a long, muggy, windy season (I’m not calling it Summer) we’re finally here again. Usually, I’d come up with a preview or review, but with lots of LIFE things going on at the moment, I’ve scaled it down a bit. Plus, I’m a bit rusty at this writing lark. Unless there’s an early avalanche on baby mountain I’ll be attending two sessions of the festival this year, and although it’s my fifth in a row I’m looking forward to it more than ever.

 
Optimism wasn’t initially high earlier this year when Beavertown launched their own beer weekender on the same dates. Fears of breweries and punters being drawn away were voiced, but unfounded, and this year’s LIBF lineup is one of the most intriguing yet. As well as the launch of this year’s Rainbow Project, first time attendees such as Track, Verdant and Odyssey are fresh fish amongst the hardened beer festival veterans.

LIBF is never just about the beer though, and the evening party feel of previous years looks to continue with well chosen bands and entertainment. Ramones cover band? Live film scores? I’m happy to chat and compare notes during the day sessions, but this is a fest that has a welcome evening gear shift into outright entertainment.

The site is roomy enough to move around easily during the day session, with lots of intimate spaces for a bit of respite and a chat, and that adds to the personality of the event. As ever, one of the best aspects of a beer festival should be other drinkers – and while there will be plenty of them, the feel of the day is relaxed rather than hectic. It’s always good to see friends from far and wide, but I also enjoy just seeing a diverse range of people at a beer event enjoying themselves, just as I plan to.

 

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