Monthly Archives: October 2012

Golden Ales – BORING!

My foray around the northeast of England highlighted several things to me. Firstly, the northeast has a very active, lively and healthy beer scene. Secondly, there are some superb microbreweries operating in this region. Thirdly, this region has some of the best pubs I’ve ever been in. Fourthly, Golden Beers are mostly desperately boring.

This fourth point is not so much a result of location as of timing. I was touring the area in late summer/early autumn, and all the ‘summery’ beers were still to the fore. This period seems to last longer each year, as people desperately try to hang on to summer – like those people who whinge and moan every year when the clocks go back to ‘winter’ time. It’s not winter time at all, it’s our natural time. Summer time does not make the evenings longer – you just get up an hour earlier. Likewise, golden beers do not make a summer – as has been amply demonstrated this year.

I’ve long been suspicious that breweries are making use of this relatively new style in order to brew cheap and uninteresting beers. My thoughts on this crystallised during my sojourn in the northeast, when faced with yet another barful of the insipid things. I am instinctively wary of any beer labelled ‘So-and-so Gold’ or ‘Golden Something’. The inclusion of the reference to that precious metal is often a clear indication of yet another boring beer. I mean even the names lack imagination.

I didn’t start off my relationship with golden ales with such negativity. It was a long time ago, but I think my first golden ale was Hop Back Summer Lightning.  I was, and remain, very impressed with that. Other goldens have also wowed me, such as Slightly Foxed Bengal Fox, Oakham White Dwarf, Oxfordshire Pride of Oxford (strangely, not so good in bottles) and Red Lion Chardonnayle, to name but four at random.

Like any style, I suppose, there is a wide range in the taste and quality of golden ales, and I am expressly not aiming my comments at those brewers who heap as much care and passion into their golden ales as they do into all their other beers.

Is the golden ale a fad? I think maybe there’s a touch of that about it, but it’s here to stay. Originally, the golden ale was perhaps invented (some time in the mid 1980s by most people’s reckoning; Exmoor brewery claim that their Exmoor Gold – a fine brew by any standards – was the first) to tempt the lager drinker away from their nasty mass-produced tasteless product and to present them with something that looked more like what they were used to drinking. You won’t get a lager drinker to try his first pint of real ale if it’s a heavy porter or a strong stout, the shock of the difference will be too great. But present a real ale that looks lagerish, then you’ve won the first battle.

Does it then follow that the second battle should be about taste? Yes it does. A fine, crisp, hoppy mouthful is what you should expect, but some brewers seem to have taken the line that if making their golden ale look like lager wins the first battle, then making it taste the same by the simple expedient of removing almost every last vestige of flavour, should win the second. The trouble is that nobody is going to go for that. The adventurous lager drinker may try a dull golden, be unimpressed by the absence of taste (he was told to expect so much more), and return to his usual ‘product’. The real ale drinker will be equally unimpressed (he’s used to so much more).

I am sure that I am not alone in disliking having to strain to get any taste from beer. Comments like ‘a bit hoppy, but only a bit’, ‘flavours all rather muted’, ‘slight hoppiness at the end, but not much’ and ‘slight hops fail to get a grip, not much flavour’ pepper my notes from my northeast tour.

A golden ale should not taste like a failed IPA, as many of these do. According to the 2013 Good Beer Guide, in a golden ale ‘…hops are allowed to give full expression, balancing sappy malt with luscious fruity, floral, herbal, spicy and resinous characteristics.’ That’s a tall order, and many very decent golden ales only get some of those, but it’s a hell of a long way from ‘a bit hoppy, but only a bit.’

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Posted by on 25 October, 2012 in Beer Styles, Cask Ale


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Guest Blog – Epic Beers

I would like to introduce my first guest blogger. ‘Otto’, or ‘the Otto Dude’ is a familiar figure on the beer scene in the north-west of England and throughout the land. His website, ‘Otto’s Rambles’, mentioned below, is well worth a look if you are planning to visit somewhere on a beer holiday. In this blog, Otto tells us about three beers from the New Zealand Epic Brewery.


Hi Fellow Beer Drinkers!

Let me introduce myself. I am known as ‘OTTO’ on the UK beer festival scene and I have a web site that I try to keep up to date – that gives the low down on the best bars and pubs etc. to sup beer in around the world, so if you are looking for somewhere to go on that long awaited beer vacation then you can’t go far wrong by checking out my web site first.

I don’t usually write about the beers I have tried. This is actually my first attempt! Which is pretty poor actually as I have tried over 10,000 beers over the last 12 years. I know it’s a hard job but some one has to do it!

I was recently lucky enough to be sent three ‘Epic’ beers, from a friend on Facebook, whom I have never met in person, but who is also a beer lover and hails from the UK. Don’t you just love beer people?

So let’s begin with the Epic Brewery. Based in Otahuhu, Auckland, founded in November 2005, and one of the new Hop Forward brewers, they have even done a couple of collaboration brews; one with Dogfish Head (USA) where a beer called ‘Portamarillo’ was brewed with Pohutakawa wood-smoked Tamarillo fruit and another with Thornbridge (UK) to brew an Epic version of their Imperial IPA, Halcyon. While at Thornbridge, Kelly Ryan decided to up-sticks and move to NZ and become part of the team, The motto is; You can only drink so many beers in a lifetime, so you’d better make each one count. They also brew some awesome stouts and porters, plus they have won many international awards for their beers.

So I was sent three bottles of Hop Zombie, which I had been waiting a long time to try, plus Message in a Bottle and First Batch NZIPA.

I will start with the Message in a Bottle at 7.5% ABV. This is brewed in the old English style of IPAs that used to be exported by ship around the empire; It pours a copper colour with a fluffy head and lacing that lasted on the glass to the last sip.

This one has a definite British hop character, as it has Fuggles and Challenger in the brew.  The smell is quite fruity with notes such as nectarine, ripe apricots and golden peaches. This is such a great smell that says “drink me now!”   So without more ado let’s get down to the taste which has a good whack of hops upfront, prickly and bitter followed by a touch of marzipan and blackberries, plus a fruity maltiness – but the star is the huge hoppy bitterness.

Overall I would say this beer matches up to any IPA and is really true to style, not over-bitter and with a good malt backbone. I would definitely sup this again given the opportunity.

So now for the First Batch NZ IPA. At 6.8% ABV, it’s not a lightweight. This is the first time ever the newly named Waimea hops have been used in a commercial beer. So new in fact that at the time the beer was brewed they hadn’t even been named. It is also brewed with NZ malts to make this a true NZ beer. On pouring there are aromas of passion fruit, pineapple, gooseberries and toffee lollies. Anyway it pours a clear light golden amber with a large bubble laden head that stays to the end of the glass.

So to the taste: there are notes of mangoes, pineapple, toffee and berries that are finished with good herbal hop that gives a nice tangy bitterness and invites a second taste. This rewards you with more exotic fruits and a tingly mouthfeel going all the way to the back of the throat. If this is what New Zealand tastes like then bring it on down!

Now the one I had been waiting to try for a long time and I was not disappointed. Hop Zombie is a cheeky little 8.5% ABV IPA.  This beer is an apocalyptic psychopath of a beer and I loved it. So let’s try and describe this world-class IPA. This beer has a pale colour when poured. The head isn’t super-retentive, and leaves a light lacing which lasts to the finish. Great aromas of mandarin, passion fruit and zesty citrus that all mingle well. Nice and hoppy, and very well put together.

And so to the long-awaited taste test, WOW! tangy hop flavours shine out easily over the malt base. The malt is there to provide sweetness to balance out the hop profile. It’s just lovely how easy drinking it is for an 8.5% beer (beware). There are tropical fruit flavours all over and then your tongue is wrung out with bitterness followed by shockwaves of citrus, tangerine and Turkish Delight! This is not the atomic hop-bomb I was expecting at all. This is a gorgeous beer that leaves the mouth full of tropical fruit flavours.

Hop Zombie is definitely up there as one of my all-time top beers.

Anyway, hoped you liked my first beer blog and maybe I will be asked / tempted to do another one at some point!

Prost Otto

The images and words in this post are Otto’s copyright. If you want to reproduce any of it, just drop me a line. Thanks.

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Posted by on 12 October, 2012 in Bottled Beer


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The Victoria Inn, Durham

My recent trip round the northeast of England took me to many fine pubs. When arriving in a new region, I always like to pick up a copy of the local CAMRA magazine. I find that the articles and adverts give me a good feel for the local beer scene, and some excellent ideas for pubs to visit during my stay. When I arrived in the Durham branch’s region, I quickly found a copy of the Durham Drinker, their publication. I was delighted to see that it was their Awards Issue in which they listed the winners and runners-up of the various awards given by the branch, including the Durham Pub of the Year.

This year, the POTY was won (not for the first time) by the Victoria Inn on Hallgarth Street in Durham itself. Hallgarth Street is a residential street running out of the town towards the south. The Victoria itself is a somewhat unusually shaped brick-built Victorian pub. It’s a grade-2 listed building, and the fact that its interior is virtually unchanged since its construction in 1899 has earned it a place on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors.

All of the above meant that the Victoria hit the top of my ‘must visit’ list for Durham. On arrival, I found the Victoria to be busy and full of animated conversation. Lady A and I found a bench to sit on and we sat for a few moments taking in the atmosphere. The internal fittings retain a real 19th century look and feel, and I felt that I was but a whisper from that time. The clientele was very varied; I saw a gentleman who must have been 80 years old having a conversation with an attractive young woman, a man in a business suit, a small group of matronly ladies and a gathering of what looked like post-graduate students – from their accents clearly gathered from all corners of the world.

All were enjoying beer from the many handpumps that lined the bar. I started with Durham White Velvet, a 4.2% golden ale. To be honest, the flavours here are all rather muted. There are slight hints of cream and a bit of citrus pith. It’s far from unpleasant, but there’s not a lot to make this beer stand out.

My second was Hambleton Nightmare, a 5.0% dark ale that is coloured a very deep red. This beer packs a great deal of flavour. There is a smooth mouthfeel with creamy notes of coffee and a mild chocolate finish. Along with the chocolate, the finish also packs a nice hoppy kick. Great stuff.

Third up was Wylam Gold Tankard, a 4.0% golden ale. Frankly, by this stage on my tour of the northeast, I was getting seriously tired with dull golden ales. This will be the subject of a future blog, but for now, suffice it to say that I found little to get my teeth into in this beer. It’s a little bit hoppy. Big deal.

Finally, I had a Big Lamp Bitter, at 3.9%, more properly a best. It’s a fairly standard best, probably with wide appeal. There’s a malty start and a hoppy finish. Perfectly drinkable and most likely would not have been out of place if served here in 1899.

Towards the end of the evening, the landlord came over to chat with us. I always like it when that happens. I started by congratulating him on his POTY win, but with the number of awards on the wall, this clearly wasn’t a new experience for him. He’d been running the pub for over thirty years, he explained. ‘I always like talking to customers, and for them to talk to one another. You see there’s no telly and no music, so people have to talk to one another.’

I found myself agreeing with him. I hate televisions in pubs. A big ‘Sky Sports’ banner is one of the best ways to repel me from a pub. I handed the landlord one of my cards and told him that I’d be writing about his pub in my blog. ‘Oh good,’ he said. ‘Don’t forget to mention me. My name’s Michael.’

Michael Webster clearly takes his pub and his beers very seriously. He’s a big supporter of local microbreweries and his list of ever-changing beers is impressive indeed. His insistence on having nothing in the pub to distract from conversation is refreshing and very welcome. In all, this is a great little pub, well deserving of its Durham Pub of the Year accolade.

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 8 October, 2012 in Cask Ale, Pubs, Scooping


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