Monthly Archives: September 2011

National Cask Ale Week 2011

National Cask Ale Week 2011 runs from the 1st to the 9th of October. The event is run as a joint venture by CAMRA and Cask Marque. This year, the event is themed, and the theme is ‘Try Before You Buy’.

In a good pub, you will always be able to try before you buy. The idea is that if you are unfamiliar with a beer on the bar, you can ask for a free sample to taste before you hand over any money. It doesn’t have to be a big sample, a mouthful is quite enough for you to decide whether you find a beer palatable or not. It’s not much to ask of a publican, and it can only enhance the reputation of the pub. If you are ever refused a taste before you buy, you should ask why, and if a satisfactory answer is not forthcoming (and let’s face it – it won’t be) you should just walk away.

The purpose of theming the Cask Ale Week is twofold – firstly to make those publicans who don’t know, aware of the fact that they should be running Try Before You Buy, and secondly to let drinkers know that this is available. This second point is particularly targeted at non-real ale drinkers who may just think that real ale is horrible and they’ll stick to their overpriced horsepiss, sorry, commercially brewed lager, thank you very much. If, however  the opportunity actually to try a beer before buying it is available, then it is hoped that more non-real ale drinkers will be tempted to have a taste, and hopefully realize what they’ve been missing.

The Try Before You Buy theme’s objectives are to:

  • Encourage new drinkers to try real ale.
  • Allow customers to experiment with the many different styles of beer available, some they may not have tried before.
  • To educate barstaff in the different styles and flavours of the many different kinds of real ale available.
  • Advise bar staff how to operate Try Before You Buy.

Cask Marque have committed their 7,500 pubs to promote Try Before You Buy. If you find a Cask Marque pub that refuses, you should report it to Cask Marque. They’re not playing.

To find a participating Cask Marque pub near you, click this link.

So what should we do during CAW? Well CAMRA’s aims for the week are as follows:

  • To encourage non-real ale drinkers to try real ale for the first time
  • To encourage experienced real-ale drinkers to visit real ale pubs
  • To encourage those pubs that do not stock real ale to start doing so.
  • To encourage pubs to organise real ale events to encourage drinkers to drink real ale and to improve their own trade.

Here’s what you can do, then.

  • Take a non-real ale drinking mate to the pub and buy him or her a pint of a really good real ale – s/he should be able to try it first, of course.
  • If you’re a real ale drinker yourself, you won’t find this too difficult – go to the pub and down a couple of pints of the real stuff.
  • If you’re feeling brave, go to the lager bar and ask them for some real ale!
  • Actively support any local events related to real ale in pubs in your locality. To find events near you, click on this link.

Most of all, just enjoy yourself this week with a few jars of real ale. It’s Britain’s national drink. Cheers!

Visit the National Cask Ale Week website here.

Visit CAMRA’s National Cask Ale Week page here.

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Posted by on 30 September, 2011 in Cask Ale, Pubs


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York Beer and Cider Festival 2011

The main marquee

The third York Beer & Cider Festival was held at Knavesmire, near the famous racecourse, from the 15th to the 17th September 2011. I visited on Friday 16th, getting to the huge marquee for about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. I had no problem parking on Knavesmire Road, no more than a few yards from the Festival tent. As card-carrying CAMRA members, Lady A and I got in for a mere £2 each. On top of that, the programme cost 50p, and a £1 refundable deposit had to be paid for the polycarbonate glasses (the licence for the venue prohibits actual glass). Lady A and I, however, plumped for the attractive goblet shaped polycarbonates, which required us parting with £3 each. These receptacles were not returnable and the £3 non-refundable. I don’t know why.

From the start, I was impressed by the organization. Seating was provided throughout the two marquees at long wooden tables with fold up chairs. A beer festival with no seating can be a tiring affair.

This was clearly not just a beer festival, but a festival of all things beery. There was a tee-shirt stand, a book stand, Fentiman’s soft drinks stand, a stand selling pewter tankards, a specialist coffee stand. Food was not neglected either. Outside the main marquee were mobile foodshops – Pies, pasties, fish & chips, a hog roast, German sausages & bratwurst, burgers, baked potatoes and vegetarian curries were all available. I had a superb steak and ale pie with chips.

Over 250 beers were on offer, 6 breweries had their own bars here, offering in total 40 ales – a small beer festival in itself! Then there was the LocAle bar, with offerings from 22 further breweries located within 25 miles of York. The ‘Rest of the UK’ section included beers from a further 50 breweries from as far away as London (Fullers) and Brighton (Dark Star). The choice was immense. This was also a great opportunity to sample beers from some of the newest breweries on the block.

Barkston, Black Paw, Brass Castle, Brightside, Cleveland, Geeves, Haworth Steam, James & Kirkman, Kirkstall, Magic Rock, Milltown, North Riding, Owenshaw Mill, Rough Draft, Scottish Borders, Sherfield Village, Slightly Foxed, Sportsman, Two Roses, Tyne Bank, Walls and Welbeck Abbey – 22 breweries that only began brewing in 2011 were represented here. What clearer sign could there be of the health of the British Real Ale scene than that? How many of them continue to thrive over the next few years is open to debate, but let’s wish all of them all the best!

There being such a choice, I had to rationalize my drinking policy. I decided to sample only beers from breweries that were new to me, and only to drink dark ales. I had been to another, smaller beer festival in Horwich, near Bolton, the previous weekend, where there was a dearth of dark ales, so I sought to redress the balance. There was one exception to this rule – Fuller’s Vintage Ale, which is an exceptional ale in many ways.

Massive choice

My first was Bridestones Dark Mild, a nice gentle introduction to the session. It’s very dark red and has a respectable ABV of 4.5%. The smell is sweet and slightly caramel. The taste is also sweet and malty, Lady A tasted toffee in there too, though I couldn’t place it.

Cropton Blackout, a very dark brown porter, apparently made to a ‘unique’ 1930s recipe, weighs in at 5.0%. The smell presents hints of smoke and frankfurters. The taste is like smooth, silky liquid chocolate with hints of fruit and tiny touches of the smoke and frankfurters experienced in the smell. The mouthfeel is incredible. This is a sensational ale.

My next choice was the wonderfully named Bird Brain Chocolate Penguin, but unfortunately it had  just sold out. The volunteer barman suggested I try Brass Castle Bad Kitty instead, promising very generously that if I didn’t like it, he’d drink it for me. Comforted by such an ironclad guarantee, I agreed. Bad Kitty is quite black in colour and has a fantastic chocolate aroma. The taste is of chocolate and smooth vanilla, wrapped up in a silky smooth mouthfeel. Absolutely wonderful. It reminded me very much of one of my current favourite ales – Titanic Chocolate and Vanilla Stout, which manages to be fabulous out of the cask and the bottle.

The next beer on my list was Fernandes Malt Shovel Mild, a very dark red in colour but lighter than previous samples at 3.8%. Again, I found chocolate to be dominant in the aroma. The beer is full-bodied, chocolatey and malty, and yet the finish was thinnish. A slightly disappointing end to an otherwise very fine mild.

A contrast was provided by Kirkstall Black Band Porter, a deep brown 7.6% ale. The smell was very strong and malty, with the taste being much the same. The malt flavour in this beer is one of the strongest I had experienced recently. A dark and bitter ale.

I reckoned by now the time was right for an Imperial Russian Stout, and I opted for Revolutions Propaganda, not the strongest of Imps at 7.8%, but with enough of a kick. This beer was being launched at the festival, so here was a brand new Imp for me to try. The smell is malty, as expected. The taste starts smoothly with a slightly thick mouthfeel, initially malty but with that characteristic spirituous overtaste kicking in near the middle of the taste. The overall effect is of smooth liquorice with a bitter finish. A great example of an Imp! I’ll be looking out for this one.

Revolutions Propaganda IRS

At this point, the heavens really opened. As you can imagine, the noise in the marquee was quite high as everyone got into their sessions, but it was all drowned out by the hammering of the rain on the marquee roof. There had been ominous rumblings before, but now the lightning was flashing regularly. A few moments later, inevitably, perhaps, the lights went out. There was a great cheer, and the emergency lights kicked in almost immediately. The lights went on and off for about an hour as electricians battled bravely with the generators – disturbed by a nearby lightning strike. With the emergency lights on, however, it never got so dark that I couldn’t read my programme.

Wet, wet, wet

More importantly, perhaps, the dimmer conditions in no way affected the flow of beer, and my next sample was Ridgeside Black Night, a lovely dark ale with an ABV of 5%. Sweet smell, the taste was of sweet malt and, oddly, vegetables. The taste is interesting and good, very fresh tasting. M’lady commented that it tasted as though it should be doing us good.

Cleveland Black Stuff, very dark brown with a 4.5% ABV was the next to fill my glass. Described in the tasting notes as a ‘dark mysterious ale with a velvety chocolate aftertaste’, I though the wrong beer had been poured into my glass. It smelled very strongly of frankfurters, and the taste was similar, but thin and a bit watery. Sorry, Cleveland, the notes and the taste don’t match.

Sherfield Village Pioneer Stout provided my last tasting for the festival. Black coloured and weighing in at 5%, Pioneer is very rich. Dark malty liquorice and treacle dominate a very smooth, full-bodied flavour. A lovely, lip-smacking finish.

This beer festival was so well-organized and had such an excellent choice of beers (not to mention 30 ciders and perries and a foreign beers bar) and merchandise that I could happily have come here on all three days. As I have found to be normal, the atmosphere was friendly and convivial. I did see one man being escorted out, snarling and snapping, but there was a good presence of stewards, making the ejection as painless as possible for everyone else. I have been to many beer festivals, and I love them all, but for all the effort that obviously went into this one, congratulations York CAMRA – your beer festival was the best.

Words and images are my copyright, please respect that. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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Posted by on 23 September, 2011 in Beer Festivals, Cask Ale


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High House Farm Brewery

High House Farm

High House Farm brewery is in Northumberland, located a couple of miles south-east of Matfen, thirteen crow-flight miles from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It’s a small affair, part of a larger concern that includes a working farm, visitor centre, brewery shop and a small bar. As I was passing, I decided to drop in and have a look for myself.

The brewery is very compact, and can be viewed from above from the bar, or alternatively, with 24 hours notice, you can book a 30 minute brewery tour. I hadn’t booked, so contented myself with the birds-eye view.

The brewery at High House Farm

The brewery shop and bar are located on the first floor, above the actual brewery. The bar is small and cosy, with a good selection of the native brews on offer. Unfortunately, as I was driving, I couldn’t sample any, so instead I settled for a quartet of bottled High House beers from the brewery shop.

A few evenings later, I settled myself in my favourite armchair and gave my attention to the four bottles I had bought. The first was Auld Hemp. This is a 3.8% bitter, orangey-brown in colour, though the beer was not bottle conditioned. The taste is malty and nutty, with a tiny hint of caramel. The taste leads smoothly into a gentle, bitter finish. If this beer was on the bar, I would be more than happy to have a session on it.

Next up was Nel’s Best, made with Goldings hops. Orange in colour, this has an ABV of 4.2% and is described on the bottle as a ‘premium ale’. The taste is nicely balanced and full flavoured with a good, bitter, hoppy finish. I’m not sure what High House’s definition of a ‘premium ale’ is, I would have called this a best bitter, and it’s a good one. This beer was a finalist in the UK Champion Beer of Britain Awards in both 2003 and 2006. It was the winner of Best Bitter in the North (a SIBA award) in 2008.

Four bottled beers from High House Farm

The third offering from High House Farm was Matfen Magic, slightly stronger than the previous two at 4.8%. This is again described as a ‘premium ale’ on the bottle, but it’s clearly a brown ale. The colour is a dark browny orange, again slightly hazy. The flavour is smooth and rich. There is a blackberry fruitiness with an underlying chocolate smoothness. The ending is hoppy and bitter with a slight zing to it. It’s absolutely lovely, and I wasn’t at all surprised to find that this is High House’s best-selling beer.

These three are High House’s regular brews, but along with many other breweries, they also produce several seasonal, occasional and special brews. My fourth bottle was one of these, Matfen Spire.

Matfen Spire was brewed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the building of the spire on top of Matfen parish church. It’s a 4.8% light red coloured bitter made with Fuggles and Brambling Cross hops. The flavour has distinct tones of autumnal berries followed by a hoppy bitterness. There are warming malty overtones throughout the taste. This beer is not listed on the brewery’s website, so it may have been a short-term brew. Maybe it will reappear one day under a different name to celebrate another anniversary.

Currently, High House Farm ales are mostly sold fairly locally, though according to the 2012 Good Beer Guide, over 350 outlets are supplied. I have found a couple of their beers in Lancashire this year, Auld Hemp at a festival, and Lily Brewster in a pub. Hopefully the trend will continue. These beers are worth seeking out.

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Posted by on 16 September, 2011 in Bottled Beer


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Ten Bottle Conditioned Ales from Pen-lon (Part 1)

The Pen-lon brewery, in Ceredigion, is part of a working smallholding on the west coast of Wales. They produce many bottle-conditioned beers, and on a recent visit to Pwllheli, I found an off-licence that was happy to sell me ten of them. I hadn’t come across this particular brewery before, and it was a surprise to find so many examples of their craft in one place. As far as I can tell, they do not provide beer in casks to be sold at pubs, only the bottles.

The labels on the bottles are uniform and attractive. As is my wont, I will start with the lowest ABV beer and work my way up to the stronger brews.

The first bottle opened was the 3.2% Lamb’s Gold, described on the label as a ‘Light Ale’. The colour is a mid-orange. The taste is quite lagery, and yet for a mere 3.2%, it punches well above its weight in taste. Hops are present, very noticeably. The finish is dryish and bitter. Bags of taste for such a low ABV and very satisfying. Big taste out of low ABV numbers is a mark of a good brewer, and this first sample of Pen-lon brewing filled me with enthusiasm to continue on to the next bottle.

The next bottle was Tipsy Tup, still at the gentle end of the alcohol spectrum, weighing in at 3.8%. This bottle had a little throw in the bottom, lending a slight cloudiness to the orange colour. I don’t mind a bit of haze, it doesn’t affect the taste. Tipsy Tup is bright and hoppy with distinct citrus notes. The flavour is quite complex – encouraging at 3.8%. The flavour rounds off nicely with a good dry bitterness.

Next, I moved on to Cardi Bay, the only Pen-lon brew that gets a mention in the Good Beer Guide. It’s a 4.0% best bitter, and a nice orange in colour. Hops dominate the aroma, following through with a strong bitter flavour. The finish is long and hoppy. This would make a great session ale, if only it could be had in pubs!

My fourth Pen-lon outing was their Heather Honey Ale. This bright orange ale has an ABV of 4.2%, and whilst I had enjoyed the previous three offerings from Pen-lon, this one really opened my eyes. The smell is spicy and peppery, an interesting start for a honey ale. The beer has an incredibly silky mouthfeel, smooth and warming. The pepperiness of the smell follows through into the taste, which also has a nicely understated touch of honey. For me, honey is a bit of a gamble in ale. It either dominates the taste (usually rather unpleasantly cloyingly) or it appears like it does here, underneath the other flavours, adding just enough honey taste and texture to be pleasant (see also my review of Fat Cat Honey Ale here). Heather Honey Ale finishes with a delightful hint of hoppy bitterness. This beer is quite wonderful. More please!

I finished my first session of Pen-lon beers with their take on a Chocolate Stout. Now I have a particular little place in my heart for chocolate stout, so this was an important one for me. However, confident after tasting the previous offerings, particularly the Heather Honey Ale, I pressed on. The Chocolate Stout is, as expected, very dark in colour – virtually black. Now if you’re used to big up front tastes with chocolate stouts, this one will come as a bit of a surprise. It’s quite dry, but this is to be expected of a good stout, even a chocolate one. The flavour is really quite subdued, though hints of smoke and chocolate are quite evident, if understated. Unusual, but very good.

A few days later, I sampled the remaining five bottles from Pen-lon. I’ll report back on those in a couple of weeks. Until then, iechyd da!

The image is copyright Pen-lon Brewery, words are my copyright, please respect that. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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Posted by on 8 September, 2011 in Bottled Beer


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