Gone for a Burton?

I recently spent a few days in my home town of Burton, and like many other places, the UK’s capital of brewing seems to have followed the trials, tribulations and, more recently, triumphs of the beer world. After those years when Burton Bridge Brewery seemed to fly a lone flag of independence in the face of lager factories and takeovers, the glorious Coopers’ Tavern was abandoned by Bass as its brewery tap, and the Bass Tower was rebranded as Molson Coors it feels like we’re over the worst, at least for local drinkers*.

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Gone for a Burton

The closure of pubs by the big chains and the financial advantages available to small brewers have created opportunities for those who spotted market gaps. Whilst the metropolitan centres often feel that they’re leading the way, changes are afoot across the UK and Burton’s catching up.

Burton Bridge offered proper pubs in the town and Joules revived the Coopers but the town centre only offered the inevitable ‘Spoons, The Lord Burton, for those seeking a decent choice of beer. It’s been all change in the town in recent weeks (see the article by Nik Antona in the Burton Mail [23 May] for more details).

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The Dog Inn – normal service resumed

I hadn’t stepped into The Dog Inn since the days it was the domain of Dave Mackay of Tottenham and Derby fame. Strange to think of yesteryear when top footballers often left the pitch to spend time in pubs (sometimes as a landlord).

The Dog lost its way but it’s now been taken on by Black Country Inns. They’re a small chain brewing classic West Midland ales and offering a good selection of other hand pulled beers using swaps. As well as real ales, craft keg is also expected shortly. The landlord’s rightly enthusiastic about his pub & beers and the pub is pulling in a happy band of customers. (A thought – these days shouldn’t a pub called The Dog Inn have an outside area lit by flashing torches?).

Just down the High Street in William Worthington territory, the former Blue Posts was home to my younger Bass drinking days and like The Dog it’s gone through endless fizzy lager based concepts only to come out the other side to be opened as The Crossing Ale House and Kitchen (part of a small Derby-based chain). Whilst I’m not convinced about fish & chips in a wooden box it does provide a gastro pub and more beer choices in the town. With a few micro pubs opening as well, the drinkers’ life in Burton is much improved.

I finished my visit with a stroll down Station Street towards the Allsopp’s end of town. It’s impossible to walk past the Coopers and Burton Bridge Brewery’s Devonshire Arms – both too tempting. The Devonshire is the epitomy of an ‘old school’ pub. Nothing fancy but for my visit it was the perfect mix of a friendly welcome, a good choice of reliable and good value BBB beers (none of your mucky London beers here) and regulars welcoming visitors into their discussions.

After many years the old home of Britain’s brewing is living up to its reputation. Who’d have thought it, Burton as a destination for beer drinking and a League 1 football club. It’s time for a visit.

*Apologies to lovers of Pedigree, as I’ve said before it’s just not my cup of barley water.

Paddling in New Zealand craft

Beer is reflective of its country and beer in New Zealand’s no different. Telling it how it is, refreshingly honest but accessible to everyone is how New Zealand and its beer came across to me during a month long trip. There’s much to learn in NZ for UK brewers and pub operators and still much to be proud of about UK pubs and beers. For drinkers it’s a great trip.

Flights totalling nearly 24 hours mean it’s important to maintain discipline to avoid horrendous jet lag so no alcohol for me – until that Pavlovian response (sorry, couldn’t resist the reference to NZ meringue) when the trolley wheels could be heard. I’ll have a beer please, and out popped a can of ABC Stout from Singapore (Heineken’s Asia Pacific Brewery who also own Monteith’s in NZ) – no % alcohol labelling so it must have been re-hydrating. My walking mates and I have developed a theory that anything 3.8% or below is sufficiently close to water as to be re-hydrating.

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Can’t say no

A bit like tinnies on a train, it’s permissible for drinking standards to drop on a plane but a few ABCs, and that NZ staple, Speight’s on the last leg were perfectly acceptable ways of whiling away the hours. Speight’s, and many of the big NZ ‘craft-promoted’ names (Mac’s and Emerson’s), are part of the giant Lion Nathan enterprise based in Oz but Japanese-controlled. It remains a puzzle to me that the beer brand giants across the world (often managed by Brits) now seem capable of nurturing craft and traditional brands but in the UK only seem to neglect them. I expect that we will see some significant craft brewery acquisitions in the UK by the big players over the next few years unless they continue to be lost in their world of big tasteless keg brands?

Back to the beers – off to a mate’s place and an opportunity to nurse a Mac’s Great White wheat beer. Decent beers, an interesting range and readily available in all good stores, Mac’s became a standard until the great campervan disaster. Mac’s bottles have those ring pull tops that always seem such a good idea. Want to create the aroma of a brewery in your camper? Why not drive along a bumpy road and soon your floor will be awash with beer as the tops go flying. Those crown corks are there for a reason.

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Craft at the bleeding edge – must be the saison for it

Off to Hallertau Brewery, north of Auckland for food and craft beers. A few regular beers – pilsner, pale ale, red and plenty of specials (including blacks, porters and bitters) this seemed to be the craft beer theme for the trip.  With the tightening of drink drive legislation in England & Wales seeming inevitable, there are useful lessons for UK craft breweries from Hallertau and its ilk. Reasonably close to a large population centre but remote enough to require car transport, it’s picked up on the wine estate trick of food, drink and sometimes live music. Not fine dining but good NZ classics and paddles of beer made for a decent evening for all including the driver and well-behaved kids. Surely an ideal approach for someone like Thornbridge to increase the brewery tour spend and widen its brand positioning?

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Hallertau’s finest

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Close to the action

Supermarkets regularly offered Mac’s, Epic and Tuatara with Monteith’s and Emerson’s in some regions. Tuatara’s APA and Pilsner were ideal for those warm evenings – plenty of hop flavours but subtly done, worth savouring and good with ‘fush n chups’. Sadly I failed to get round to tasting enough of their range. Epic, whether pale ale or lager, to my taste seemed hops for hops sake. Epic’s description of their Pale Ale, “in fact there are 23 (hops) crammed into this bottle. Many brewers would call that ‘insane’. We call it flavour.”, reminded me of the PR obsessive end of the UK craft beer spectrum.

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A lizard of a beer

On to Wellington and its chilled-out waterfront and the national museum. Typical Kiwi welcome in the museum, “here’s a map, go and see if you can get lost and break a few things. If you lose him he’ll be in Mac’s next door.” Imagine that at the V&A? Mac’s brewery tap was a grand place for a paddle with Mac’s Gold lager and Great White achieving favoured status. Again beer and food was the norm for craft beer customers.

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Halves don’t count

On the east coast of South Island we rolled into Oamaru and parked up the campervan on the edge of the harbour, close to the town’s Victorian Quarter – grainstores and their like, strangely reminiscent of Burton’s brewery buildings. Life feels good when you realise you’re parked only 200 yards from Scott’s craft brewery. Sunday morning farmers’ market and a few beers on offer at Scott’s including guests. Scott’s had the usual NZ craft range but also a proper hand pump for a guest on their brewery tap bar. The Twisted Hop Brewery specialises in English-style cask conditioned real ales.

I’d like to tell you more about their Challenger Bitter but it was snaffled by Mrs TWM before I’d taken more than a sip. A brewery to look out for if you’re after a taste of Blighty. Like many businesses, Twisted Hop had to relocate after the Christchurch earthquake. The city still reels from the commercial aftershocks of the earthquakes – damaged buildings still subject to endless arguments between owners and insurers and to us it seemed difficult to spend the tourist dollar.

The Botanical Gardens near the centre of the city was an obvious place of safety for those escaping collapsing buildings in the CBD and it remains a tranquil haven for many. On the last day of our trip I enjoyed a Three Boys IPA in the café next to the glasshouses. Christchurch still has much to do but even craft brewers can play their part in raising spirits.

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Well done boys

The beer scene in NZ felt less exclusive than the craft and real ale camps in Britain.’ Want to drink decent beer, you’re welcome’ seems to be the general approach. It’s no surprise that the beer consumers’ association is called SOBA – gently irreverent and without pretention is the Kiwi way. The result is a bigger market open to all. Even small towns often had a small pub cum craft brewery as an alternative to the traditional ‘hotel’ bar in the town that I suspect was a home for the old six o’clock swill.

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Ready for a beer mate

As someone who doesn’t like their beer saturated with hops I’d still recommend New Zealand – the choice of beers is exceptional, all topped up by great scenery and the friendliest of people. I probably missed out 90% of the craft beers available in NZ but for what it’s worth Three Boys IPA was my best of the trip but a can or two of Speight’s after 19km on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing wasn’t far behind.

Intolerant moi, perhaps just a little bitter

A day-long saunter around the villages of Hertfordshire and too early for a pint at the Green Man at Sandridge (tapped from the cask, their Abbot has to be one of the best around) and so it was on to the John Bunyan at Coleman Green for a pint of AK. It’s a reliable pub in rural isolation and whilst I’m no fan of McMullen’s beer, the longstanding landlord and family have always kept a very good pint and offered a friendly welcome. For me and others the pub is more important that the beer.

It’s the pub that counts  Copyright John Bunyan (the pub not the bloke)                                                          

The pub family were grappling with the latest EU regulation on allergens and intolerances in respect of food and drink. ‘How do we word the sign, where do we put it, and we can’t say exactly what’s in some of our food and drinks’. I’m no UKIP libertarian but (don’t they ‘they’ always say that…) given local authorities like nothing better than new legislation, it seems it’s something else for landlords to worry about given that their suppliers won’t give guarantees about the content of their products.

Of course a joint rant with the landlord’s son about ‘nanny state’ led to some good tales that publicans have always specialised in – the customer who told them she couldn’t eat the salad she’d ordered as it had been contaminated by the tomatoes on the plate, and the local Chinese take-away who’s been told by council officials that she now needs to list the contents for every dish on her menu. True or not, they do reflect the problems of small businesses in dealing with regulation and the culture of the British in imposing EU legislation compared to other countries.

While I’m on intolerance, here’s one of mine. Why do some pubs bother with having their own ‘house’ beer usually characterised by a bland bitter. The Green Man (above) has its own Heartwood Bitter and I was recently in the Vaults pub in Rutland’s Uppingham and they too had their own bitter (and a very good Starless Stout from Nene Valley). I guess there’s a financial benefit for the pub but for me house beer usually means a feeble tasting pint when they could have something more interesting with a pedigree rather than the real ale equivalent of yellow snow.

Clive of India Pale Ale

We embarked on a pre-Christmas dads and lads outing to St Albans’ pubs – it was difficult to work out who was leading who astray. Enough to say that any evening that starts with winter ales, has a middle of pub carol singing with St Albans’ Morris folk and ends with a kebab is unlikely to result in much erudition. However, somewhere in the mists of drinking, some of us (i.e. Clive and myself), discussed the problem of IPA. At The Goat pub the dads had gone for Redemption’s Big Chief IPA and a couple of the lads had chosen Well’s Eagle IPA (or whatever they are calling it this week).

Whilst Clive would even ask for a blood transfusion to have added Citra hops I’m more of a roasted malts man but we can agree on a beer needing some taste and complexity. The Well’s IPA tasted of – well it didn’t have a taste to be frank, whereas the Big Chief was full of flavour including some citrus stuff but so much more than a ‘we’ve bunged in a load of Citra hops to make a strong beer that’s like alcoholic bitter lemon’.  Anyway pity was taken on the errant lads and extra pints of Big Chief were purchased to much acclaim.

The essence of my complaint about IPA is that as a description it’s now about as much use as teats on a bull. A Google search has over 680,000 results for “India Pale Ale” reflecting the fact that it has become a meaningless term of no use to the beer drinker e.g. someone explain black pale ale to me. But in a way, worse than meaningless given that it’s become a label used to sell any old (or even new craft) sludge.

In my early drinking career Worthington’s White Shield was a good bottle-conditioned standby in Burton’s pubs and a useful finish to a night when another full pint was unnecessary. It was a classic IPA (I mean to say was) and today it remains a ‘proud member’ of the Molson Coors’ Global Portfolio…in fact they’re so proud of it coming from Burton on Trent (sic) they even illustrate the Worthington’s White Shield web page with that beautiful corner of Burton otherwise known as Dunsop Bridge in Lancashire. Marketing muppets.

Anyway enough of my anti-Coors ranting, I don’t ask for much, so please dear brewers if you label a beer as an IPA make sure it tastes of something, that it’s more complex than an alcoholic bitter lemon and remember its origins as a Pale Ale.

Lunch with Dave and SamCam

Proper hill walking and the northern home counties aren’t easy bedfellows but the Chilterns give a decent opportunity to stretch the legs and get a good view or two. It’s a bonus that it’s an area packed with decent pubs.

We parked at the Plough at Cadsden (more of that later) with a plan to do a circular walk around Chequers (country house of the UK Prime Minister). We headed east on the Ridgeway with a testing hill to wake us up as the Red Kites swirled around checking us out as likely carrion. We strolled through old woodland, crossing a lane to Chequers with just a ‘Private Road’ sign to stop an incursion.

Another incline and we reached the Coombe Hill memorial. Although it’s only 260m above sea level, it offers some of the best views in Southern England and luckily for us the sun started to break through giving us views out to the northern horizon. The walking was now easy, the chatting was good but the inbuilt satnav started failing. It was a fine day so not a problem and we picked up the track down towards Dave & SamCam’s place. We walked across the main drive with just a couple of cameras watching us and a helicopter drifting overhead.

Coombe Hill

Atop Coombe Hill

Whilst we didn’t get invited into lunch we did ponder that our most senior politician resides in a country house estate covered in public footpaths with only a warning that crossing a low fence means you’ll be subject to terrorist offences or some such. We speeded up as our ‘pint’ visualisation techniques put us on a par with elite athletes. Quickly down the hill into Cadsden, boots off and into the Plough.

Good to see a packed pub in the middle of relative nowhere – you could feel a well run pub as you walked through the door. Very friendly folk on the bar with Marlow’s Rebellion IPA on offer as well as Brakspear’s Bitter. Excellent beers kept really well, topped up with very good freshly cooked food from a kitchen that coped admirably with the rush. It’s the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind. I’m sure they kept her entertained and at least the Camerons support their local.

It was a perfect morning walk, 7 miles (after an initial ‘estimate’ of 5.5 miles) and an excellent pub stop but there are days when life just gets better and we set off for the Chiltern Brewery to buy the Christmas beer. (I refuse to pay to go in a pub.) As one of the UK’s oldest micro-breweries you’re served by people in brewery ties and aprons rather than hipster beards and you’re unlikely to find a mango-infused American IPA (8.5%). As I’m scribbling I have a glass of their Foxtrot helping the words to flow – a rich dark ale that’s surprisingly low in alcohol. Their beers are traditional in their taste and quality – not a bad combination. If you want a brewery trip for a day out from London their tutored tastings with beer and food are very good value and informative.

As the only non-driver I was the allocated taster for a range of fruit infused gins – we’re reckoning that Foxdenton‘s Winslow Plum with Aldi Champagne could be a good Christmas cocktail combination. A bit like mixing Benylin cough mixture with fizz. They had a good range of beers on draught as well as specials in bottle and unlike many micros they offer the choice of rough or bright for polypins. I still think there’s something magical about settling a beer – the wait is always worthwhile. As Sting might call it – tantric beer drinking. The Chiltern Brewery with its drinks, food and friendly chat would even bring a smile to old Scrooge’s visage. Happy Christmas to one and all.

Too cool for old school?

Despite a deepening aversion to CAMRA (I’ll get to it in a later blog) I remain a traditionalist seeking out bitter and mild on a hand pump and I have a historic ‘keg gives me a headache’ prejudice. As a result I’ve wavered about visiting the Verulam Arms in St Albans – in essence I thought its website description of “introducing a Craft Beer Bar” was just too cool for my old school views. Was I facing Shoreditch in St Albans? On the basis that it might be a Gunmakers for the ‘burbs I’ve given it a go a couple of times recently.

The food, with its wild and foraged theme, is very good but I’ll focus on the pub and the beer. Whilst there are lots of people eating it feels very much like a pub rather than a restaurant and it breezed through the welcome test on both nights I was there – one trip for food the other just for beer. They had a few hand pumps including Adnams’ Old Ale and a Tring Christmas yo ho ho special. However in for a penny in for a pound I decided to avert my gaze for the ‘Old’ and head for the new – keg.

They had a couple of Adnams’ Jack Brand brews, a Camden Pale Ale and Titanic Stout. Strange, I thought,  offering beer in halves, two-thirds and pint glasses. Prejudice to the fore I grumbled in my head about craft beer pretentious nonsense but then gave it some thought. A half is just something to top up the last pint before closing but maybe a two-thirds measure could work if there’s plenty of decent choices.

I’d tried some of the Jack Brand beers in bottle on a recent trip to Suffolk and I’m impressed with Adnams as a business – but how good are these fancy dan craft keg attempts? The Adnams 1659 Smoked Ruby Ale was a beer for the fireside – I’ll leave the description to the brewer. As the man behind the bar said, the Adnams Crystal Rye IPA isn’t quite an IPA. I’d agree – at least not one of those ‘smack you in the mouth’ harsh IPAs that seem to be churned out by yet another new kid on the block. Much more subtle and better for it. (My daughter when given a taste declared it too cold and fizzy – a taught traditionalist I wondered.)

As Adnams has claimed, it’s been making craft beers for centuries and the latest attempts show innovation as good as the best of the new. As for the rest of the kegs, the Titanic Stout was like meeting a trusted old friend from Staffordshire, always reliable, and the Citra heavy Camden Pale was just as it says on the tin and for me that’s where it stays in future.

The Verulam is a fine pub with good beers and a few doors down is the Farriers (see earlier blog) a fine pub with good beers. They’re as different as chalk and cheese and that for me is the greatest talent of English pubs.

Well done Verulam Arms – old school dogs can learn new tricks. It’s a Gunmakers for M25 land and only a short walk from the Abbey. Christmas Eve Evensong and two-thirds of Verulam’s own newly brewed medieval ale might be just the job.

“I don’t do food”

A week in Suffolk had me thinking about what makes a pub different to a restaurant. On the way we drove through Yoxford, a village just off the A12. I remembered some 30 years ago renting a holiday cottage in the village across the road from The Blois Arms, an Adnams pub. In those days, over for a quick pint – the landlord gave us a friendly welcome and asked if we were settled in to the cottage (he knew what was going on in the village).

His only interests were his customers and Adnams’ beer. “This is the only Adnams where John Adnams drinks beer, he’s more of a wine man you know.” How right he was. Our pints were enjoyed whilst he proudly told us he didn’t do food, we could bring a jug for filling and “lift up your little girl on to the bar so she can talk to us as well – here’s a sweetie for later”. In modern parlance it was a wet-led community pub. The pub was closed in 2007.

Blois Arms Yoxford Copyright Adrian Noble

I don’t want this to seem like a diatribe against Adnams – any brewer that produces a fine winter brew like Old Ale gets my vote. It’s a very well run business with a strategically sound diversification of the brand (that’s enough marketing speak) – as my son said, “they’ve really got it sorted”. It’s just that my week in coastal Suffolk (NW3 by the sea) made me realise that, for some areas of the country, pubs focussed on beer are heading for extinction.

By ‘focussed on beer’ I don’t mean there’s no food or that most of the turnover is from beer – it’s more complex than that. When I walk into a pub I want it to feel like it’s a pub, not a restaurant with a counter to place my food order. I want it to be different – not like every other pub. Faced with stripped pine tables and bare floorboards, large menu blackboard, all the tables in the bar set for lunch, it’s clear that if I only want a pint I’m not really needed.

You know the type of ‘pub’ – with no space for mingling I start to think I might as well be at a Carluccio’s or some such. There’s a danger in standing about because you’re likely to get mown down as another ‘trio of locally-grown sausages with cheddar mash and luscious onion gravy, artfully arranged’ passes by your pint.

I’m all in favour of food, particularly after a stroll, and I realise that’s where the margins are for pub operators. What I’m concerned about is that there is a risk of pubs forgetting why they have a unique character. Pubs in Southwold like the Lord Nelson and the old bar at the Harbour Inn still say loud and clear we’re a proper pub and everyone is welcome. Perfect for when you’re in need of rehydration after a windy walk along the beach.

However they feel like a declining breed amongst the identikit ‘gastro-style’ pubs that are beginning to be the only option in some places. What was once an interesting food-led diversion for the pub trade is becoming boring. It’s not fashionable, it’s dull and unimaginative. And fads often become outdated and require yet another expensive re-fit in short order.

If it don’t feel like a pub, I don’t think it is a pub, as the landlord of The Blois Arms might have said.