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The Fat Cat, Norwich. Pub and Microbrewery.

The Fat Cat, 49 West End Street, Norwich NR2 4NA

www.fatcatpub.co.uk

On the face of it, the Fat Cat is a fairly unprepossessing sort of pub. It’s a typical Victorian street-corner pub sitting in the middle of some typical Victorian terraced housing. Look a little more carefully, though, and you’ll see the seating area outside with four solid wooden tables. There are four signs declaring this to be a Free House, but look closer. Two of them say ‘Free Mouse’. More telling, perhaps, are the piles of empty casks that frequently stand in front of the pub. The sheer quantity and variety should be a clue to the fact that there’s something extraordinary going on inside.

I visited the Fat Cat on a very warm, sunny afternoon in the middle of June. The pub was clearly very busy already. Many people were seated at the wooden tables outside the pub, and many others were just standing around on the street. We walked in and immediately found a seat. Clearly, people were outside to enjoy the rare English sunshine rather than because the pub was crowded.

The interior seems to retain much of its original Victorian look and feel. A black and white tiled floor and little partitions making small semi-private areas all added to the old fashioned  ambience of the place. This pub was first mentioned as such in 1854 (when it was called the New Inn) but was badly damaged by enemy bombs in 1942. Much of what we see now must, therefore, be rebuild. The bar is along one wall, long and sturdy, and all over the walls are memorabilia from brewing days of old. Old pub signs from vanished local breweries – Bullards, Morgans and Steward & Patteson, and hanging prominently from the ceiling, a Watney’s Red Barrel – an ironic statement, no doubt.

This pub had been strongly recommended to me before I came, and looking at the bar and the blackboard showing what beers were on offer, I could see why. Twelve ales on handpump and a further fifteen on gravity!

The Fat Cat also has its own microbrewery, which is located at the Fat Cat Brewery Tap, a short distance from the Fat Cat itself. Looking down the list of available beers, I saw that six of their own brews were amongst them. These I targeted first.

Each time I went to the bar, I found the young bar staff to be enthusiastic, helpful and polite, that’s something which always endears a pub to me.

The first beer sampled was Fat Cat Bitter. At 3.8% this is a traditional bitter, darker than the golden ales which everyone seems to be brewing today. It had the taste of a proper bitter, rounded maltiness with a good bitter hoppy finish. Next, I went for contrast with Fat Cat’s own take on the ubiquitous Golden Ale. This is Cougar, weighing in at a respectable 4.7%. It’s a much paler beer than the bitter, as one would expect. As with many goldens, the taste is predominantly hops – good and strong with a real zing. The hops impart a real bitterness which is both satisfying and refreshing – perfect for a warm afternoon.

Next, I was tempted by the Fat Cat Honey Ale. Modest at 4.3%, I was curious how this beer would taste, as honey doesn’t always work for me in beer. It has an instantly recognisable flavour which can be either pleasant or not – the vagaries of the art of brewing. As it happens, Fat Cat have got it right, in my book. The honey taste is apparent, but it’s subdued. It provides a smooth, sweetish undertaste which contrasts very nicely with a hoppy, bitter overtaste. I love a nice contrasty beer, and this is one such. Both flavours are held in the mouth at the same time and provide a great taste experience.

By now, I was getting more comfortable and confident in Fat Cat’s ability to brew, so I plumped for a stronger ale, Marmalade Cat. From the name, I expected the beer to have a bitter, orange flavour, and it did not fail to deliver. The beer is not as good-looking as the previous ones tasted, having something of a slight protein haze to its warm orange colour. Made it look more like marmalade, I suppose. The first sensation is of a wonderful smoothness, well-rounded and bitter, leading to an orange flavoured bitter finish. The orange was not apparent to my palate until the end, but there it was. Very satisfying.

Feeling less and less pain by the minute, I next opted for another take on the traditional bitter. This was Top Cat, a significantly stronger ale than the Bitter, at 4.8%. This should probably properly be referred to as a Best Bitter. The colour was a bright, deep orange, a beautiful shade that made it almost a crime to drink it. Almost. Again, the first sensation is smoothness. Then a caramel flavour grows in the mouth, warm and chewy. Maybe not a very sophisticated flavour, but utterly lovely.

I finished my tour of Fat Cat ales with another strongish one. Wild Cat is a bright, yellow ale with an ABV of 5%. Lots of fruit in here, very full-flavoured. A hint of apple and pear drops intercedes over the bitterness, which grows and grows and continues to develop long after the swallow. This is good beer.

Fat Cat Beer Menu

I was disappointed that there were no home-grown dark ales on offer, but I did manage to buy a bottle of Fat Cat Stout Cat. The bottled beers from Fat Cat are bottle conditioned, so this was the next best thing to drinking from the cask. Stout Cat is, as you might expect, a stout. Stouts are one of my favourite beer styles, and it annoys me that the style has been completely overshadowed by a Dublin-brewed beer which is not representative of stout. It’s not even a particularly good stout, in my opinion, and when it’s sold in its emasculated, sterilized form (and even worse – ‘Extra Cold’), it’s really nothing to shout about. It is a great demonstration of the power of advertising. Stout Cat, however, is a different thing altogether. It comes in at 4.6% ABV and is a deep rich ruby-red in colour. Sometimes, when you taste a beer for the first time, you just close your eyes and whisper ‘Oh…’ Stout Cat did that for me. It is simply beautiful. Very smooth with sweet roasted malt opening the taste, like treacle. A wonderful warming taste which becomes ever so slightly dry at the finish. Absolutely wonderful!

What more can I say about the Fat Cat? It’s a Mecca for beer drinkers from all over the country. It’s within easy reach of the train station, so what’s your excuse? For myself, I will most definitely be back. Time and time again, I suspect.

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 12 August, 2011 in Bottled Beer, Cask Ale, Pubs

 

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Small But Perfectly Formed – The Vine, Norwich.

Aey Allen behind the bar at the Vine

The Vine, 7 Dove Street, Norwich NR2 1DE   

The Vine, built in 1786 and the smallest pub in Norwich, closed its door as an Adnams house in 2006. In 2008, it reopened as a free house and Thai restaurant under the dynamic management of Aey Allen. During our first visit to Norwich a few weeks ago, this was the first pub we came across, and as Lady Alebagger and I are somewhat partial to Thai cuisine, we decided to ‘give it a go’. The first thing you notice is that, yes, it is small. Maybe six tables (I did count them, but I’ve forgotten!) with comfortable chairs. It looks like a very small restaurant, with the tables laid out to facilitate eating, and yet there’s a proper bar in there, too. Not like those you normally find in a restaurant, with weirdly shaped shiny silver alien spaceship-like fizz dispensers, but with four proper handpumps with four proper ales. On offer this evening were The Hanged Monk, a 3.7% mild from Tipples Brewery, Elgood Feelgood Fresh (3.8% pale ale), Oakham Scarlet Macaw (4.4% golden ale) and Wolf Coyote (4.3% bitter).

I stood at the bar, and Aey immediately said ‘I know about beer; ask me about the beers!’ So I did, and she certainly did know her beers, obviously having carefully tasted each of those she was serving, as every good landlord should, of course. I settled for a jar of the Hanged Monk to start with. It’s a very dark red in colour, and light in the mouth. Dominant flavours are coffee and a hint of smoke. An excellent beer to start with. By this time, our food had arrived. We had elected to remain downstairs, but there is more restaurant seating upstairs. I find it hard to describe the food. The first mouthful just transported me to a better place. Suffice it to say that Lady A and I ate in total silence, not wishing to disturb the fabulous experience of eating this wonderful, wonderful food. Of course, once the food was done, there were still three more ales to sample, so I plumped next for the Elgood’s Feelgood Fresh. A bright yellow in colour, it has a thin head with a hoppy aroma. The taste is light and hoppy, with an interesting spicy twist which appears towards the finish and goes on into the aftertaste.

By this time, sensing a fellow enthusiast, Aey was chatting away, ‘You must try this,’ she said, indicating the Oakham Scarlet Macaw, ‘It’s my new favourite beer.’ Well, if you’re twisting my arm, I thought. Pale yellow in colour, this is a very bright, hoppy ale with prominent citrus notes; hints of grapefruit. The taste reminded me a bit of some of the BrewDog beers I’ve been trying recently. I asked Aey if she’d ever had any BrewDog beers, because if she liked this one, she’d love Punk IPA or 5am Saint. ‘Hang on!’ she said, and disappeared into the back room, emerging shortly after with a Tesco ‘Bag for Life’ filled with pump clips. She sat down on the floor next to our table and started digging through them. Judging by the quantity of pump clips in the bag (and now mostly on the floor) Aey is not afraid to experiment with new beers. ‘I don’t put on very strong ales,’ she says. ‘I don’t mind people having a few 4% beers, but I don’t want anyone getting really drunk in here.’

It transpired that she hasn’t had any BrewDog beers on, so I suggested that she goes to Tesco and buys herself a few bottles, but added that they did tend to be a bit on the strong side.

I finish off with a Wolf Coyote, the only beer on the bar that I had previously tasted. This is a complex beer, sweetish to start with a dry edge and a distinctly dry, hoppy finish. A great end to my session at a great little pub.

I’ve been to many pubs which also sell themselves as restaurants. Often, it doesn’t quite work. Either the food is indifferent, or there’s a lack of care taken over the beer. It either works as a restaurant or a pub. Pubs that seriously take to the restaurant road often end up being sniffy towards drinkers, and sometimes even downright hostile. The Vine works terrifically well as both a pub and a restaurant. Whilst we were there, another couple came in for a meal, and there were several drinkers, sitting blissfully unhassled both inside and at the two tables outside. Drinkers welcome, diners welcome. Aey even served freshly cooked starters as snacks to a couple of drinkers who were sitting at the bar.

If you like your beer well-kept and varied, and if you love Thai food (or are willing to give it a go – I encourage you to do so), and if you like your hostess to be friendly, knowledgeable and above all massively enthusiastic, then don’t think about going to the Vine. Just go.

www.vinethai.co.uk

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 July, 2011 in Cask Ale, Pubs

 

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