Thursday, 23 June 2011

Leeds and Huddersfield pubs, Magic Rock brewery launch, Cask Vs Keg - what to be scared of.

Hello surfing slakers

I have been back from my epic journey around old Alba (ironically Scotland may even have been called Albion, a word which always conjures up an image of England ) for nearly two weeks now, but have been too overwhelmed by the prospect of writing up my travels to have managed an entry since.

However, I have returned early yesterday morning from a trip round Leeds and to a brewery launch night, and this is what I will tell you about today.

Waaaarf was off on holiday with Thangor the Motherinlaw and I was instructed, sorry asked, to accompany the Shirley Valentines to the airport to rub in the fact I was staying at home, oh, and to see them off. This co-incidentally was the same date as a brewery launch in Huddersfield and formed the basis of a plan. Having waved them into the terminal from a torrential rainstorm at LBA, we headed off along Kirkstall Road and parked behind the Cardigan Arms, an entry on the National Inventory of unspoilt pub interiors.

The idea was that Davefromtshop would arrive in Leeds by coach at midday and then get a bus up to the pub for about 12.30. We arrived a little before him, getting some good photo's of the exterior before settling down in the public bar on the left.

There is a Tetley's draught poster in the tiled entrance proclaiming its price and alluding to its availability, alas it transpires real ale is only sold later in the week, as they have a delivery on a Wednesday. Had it been on, there would have been a choice between cask Tetley's from Marston's or somewhere, and Leeds Pale from Leeds, making the poster in the lobby doubly ironic.

Wee Fatha opted for a tomato juice and I closed my eyes and tried not to think of the trespass I was committing on my body by having a Tetley smooth or other horror, being as they'd also ran out of Guinness. After Dave joined us I asked if I could take some pictures of the interior, a question which usually elicits some puzzlement, but rarely the single word "why?". Sufficient explanations provided, I got my pass and set off round the large interior snapping away.

What I didn't know was that whilst I was in the smoke room taking some shots, the landlord/licensee asked Dave and WF if they were the police. Now, I don't know what you think, but having been asked that only by drunk customers before, one wonders what reason he thought the police would have taking photo's of the pub's interior ?

This aside, the interior is worth photographing, there is a wide drinking lobby as you enter with the smoke room on the right, and the door to the public bar on the left. Further forward is a small back room labelled Oak Room, a corridor out to the street on the left and the back of the very impressive 3 sided bar with a gantry running all along the top. Immediately left of the passage running next to the stairs is another room with the door closed - I wondered if this was still in use or whether it had been reclaimed for storage. There is excellent etched glass throughout and some impressive tiling. Dave tells me that they are renowned for gigs and other events being on upstairs so hopefully the pub's future can be assured. If visiting, perhaps make it Thursday to Sunday to be sure of real ale.

Next we headed towards Kirkstall Abbey over the canal and down Pollards Lane to the Abbey Inn at Newlay, next to both the railway line and, I assumed, the Leeds Liverpool canal. This free house serves about 8 guest beers and was maintaining an excellent range. WF had a half of the Leeds Pale and from an excellent selection of breweries there was really no question that me and Dave would go for the Kirkstall Brewery Black Band Porter, a sumptuous oaty bitter black beer, which was smooth drinking at 5.5%.

The original Kirkstall brewery buildings nearby are now flats, apparently the new ventures buildings back onto the canal so its a truly local beer for the pub. The landlord of the Abbey told me that the man behind the brewery was Dave Sanders, of Eastwood and Sanders and Elland and Barge and Barrel brewery fame. This explains why such a new brewery had managed to so quickly produce an excellent beer.

We couldn't stop for long as we had to get through Leeds to Hunslet and the ornate Garden Gate Inn, also on the N.I, and almost impossible to reach by car thanks to dreary and inscrutable blobs of new housing. After driving round in circles for 10 minutes we found a road taking us behind the shopping centre and even then could only espy the pub down a footpath, so parked nearby and walked.

The Garden Gate is an incredible site. Its ornate tiled frontage makes it stand out from the modern environs, but arguably even if it were flanked by other buildings of a similar age I reckon you'd still notice it.

Inside 2 doors lead off a main entrance, one straight ahead down a lavish etched glass hallway with a lounge off first right, a small room now used as a kitchen next right, and two further comfortably appointed rooms on the right and left after the bar counter. The left hand door leads to the large bar room which is the only room to have a bar front, an impressive tiled and ceramic half moon shape with an ornate single bar back.

On the bar are 5 handpumps, all from Leeds Brewery. On our visit, their Best, Pale, Midnight Bell and Quality Pays, were all available. The latter is a cheeky and yet brilliant reference to Carlsberg's outrageous decision to close a viable brewery and wipe out an admittedly maligned but nevertheless important brewing tradition in pursuit of a quick profit, leaving Leeds brewery as the only one in the city. The pump clip shows a huntsman's hat and a monocle but no face or body, perhaps a reference to faceless Carlsberg output, but pertinently avoiding copyright infringement, with the words " Tetley's have called time in Leeds " and the phrase "Join us!" in huntsman era red writing below.

WF had some of the darker midnight Bell whilst me and Dave both tried the Leeds best, a surprisingly creamy malty beer perhaps aping the better characteristics of the widely abused Tetley bitter, and one which was actually quite a meaty pint to drink down. We finished on halves of the quality pays which is 5.2% and only £2.50 a pint. This was a heady ale, similar to the Tetley subsidiary Walkers Wild Rover special that they used to roll out now and again to give tied house punters some respite from the same limited choice.

Having received a nod for a potential pub to visit from a bloke called John, the pub I think was the Dock Green on Harehills road, we soon had to leave as they shut at 15.00 during the week. WF went back to the car to drive home, and me and Dave went to catch a bus into Leeds to get the train to Huddersfield.

Whilst trying to find out where best to alight for the station we happened upon the Adelphi, another Inventory offering, and also a good view of the doomed Tetley's site, which will no doubt become "essential" high end housing for a minority of rich city workers or a themed retail park before you know it. The Adelphi is another of the Leeds Gin Palace style pubs, with fabulous etched glass windows throughout and rooms leading off an impressive central corridor. We went to inspect the bar offerings in the public bar on the left and opted for halves of Wayfarer, which was a very bitter pale beer which simply stated "brewed oop north " and half of the Hopdaemon Incubus, which came to a rather frightening £3.15 - I don't think either beer topped 4%...

We decamped to the smoke room on the second right of the corridor to eat our similarly eclectically priced snacks before I headed off for a tour and to try and take some pictures without flash, a task made much less easy by the effects of our early 5.5% beverage and the residual effects of my birthday barbecue a few days earlier.

From here we made our way to the station and the train got us into Huddersfield for 17.00. We went straight into the Head of Steam and had halves of Ossett Mild and Great Newsome Jem Stout, which came to £2.80. The Ossett was a bit fierce for a mild, having quite a lot of bitterness from the roast malt, whereas and the Jem stout was a smooth and drinkable bitter black ale that went down a little too well, given that we were saving ourselves for the brewery launch later. Here we also bumped into Dave Williams form that Camra and everything, who pointed us in the direction of the Sportsman for our pre launch entertainment.

Heading across St Georges square we walked left under the railway bridge and the Sportsman, a 19330's art deco designed pub, was on the street corner on the left. Inside is a fabulous sweeping semi circular bar and small austere wooden drinking booths, and a striking 1930's mirror on the wall. The bar has about 10 handpumps with a good choice of local beers, including the two we tried.

The lady behind the bar explained that the Sportsman Brewing Co was their own brewery, but that it was still being built at present and they were using kit at Golcar brewery in the meantime. This sent a shiver down our spines, as both me and Dave remembered Golcar bitter as being perhaps the dullest and most wearisome beer ever tasted. I don't want to go off on a tangent here but we went to the Golcar Lilly pub a few years ago and they had their bitter and Adnams Old on. It says something about your own pub's beer that the guest ale far outshone the Golcar bitter on all fronts.

Mercifully the Sportsman chaps appear to be the ones brewing so there is no worries of a repeat of the Golcar drudgery, and me and Dave both enjoyed our halves of Pigeon Bridge Porter and Alpha Ale. The porter was uncompromising with massive roast bitter flavours and the Alpha was similarly astringent but with a lot of enjoyable floral notes to balance it out. Definiteky requiring an M in its title to denote its authority.

From here we made our way up to the Grove inn for the brewery launch night. Inside is a two roomed ale mecca with at least 14 handpumps. and an impressive range of keg fonts for continental and UK micro brewery ales. Really its too popular for its size - it could easily have a third large room and still be packed out although I realise that a brewery launch night serves as an explanation for the numbers present.

Magic Rock the Boat

The range of keg beers at the Grove inn raises a few interesting questions about real ale and Camra and the consumption of beers other than cask. It seems, based on the fact that at their launch even brand new Magic Rock brewery appeared to have provided a keg beer, that its both viable and easy to produce both keg and cask ales, and that the desire to do this amongst UK microbreweries is increasing.

In the bad old days only regional brewers tinkered with the gaseous demons, and produced usually dreadful smooth or extra cold versions of their ales to suit dyed in the wool keg only customers across their estate. From the crop of micros currently doing this, I have only tasted the Bradfield offering, and that was nothing like the dread awful fizzy crap of the past, but it was palatable, and its genre seems to divide opinion and rankle Camra.

So here's the background.

Long of tooth and perhaps narrow in outlook, some stalwart Camra members are horrified by the idea of micro brewers keg beers. This is understandable for the more vintage campaigners - Camra was set up in the 1970's to stop the decline of real ale and to try and stem an almost inescapable tide of dreadful fizzy keg rubbish which had nothing to offer the refined palate other than boredom, pneumonia and dyspepsia. I am not a Camra member myself, but I used to be involved, and recall that almost anything that interfered with the determined campaign to secure the survival of real ale was treated with contempt.

In the 90's even traditional cider was seen as an irrelevant sideline to real ale, not helped by the Addlestones fake handpump hoo ha, as a result of which successive Sheffield Beer festival cider lists became more and more tedious and reliant on dross like Saxon which is made with apple-ade or something, and any deviation into perhaps giving a shit about traditional pubs, that god forbid, might be unique time warps but not sell real ale, was also of no interest to the campaign. So unwillingness to concentrate on anything but real ale is both understandable and historically prevalent in Camra.

Against that background, what are the pros and cons of micro brewed keg beer ?

Cons :
1. Brewers may stop brewing real ale.
This seems unlikely. So far I have seen keg offerings from Thornbridge ( actually I only head about this, not saw it!), Brew Dog, Gadds, Bradfield and Magic Rock. I have also heard that Dark Star and Marble have or are to produce keg. I think 5 or 7 out of probably 800 does not represent a threat, especially when, with a question mark over Brew Dog, all these brewers produce a range of excellent real ales and some have won awards for them.

2. It diverts attention from real ale.
Does it ? Everyone knows the difference between the two, and for that reason the two styles should and do promise different things to the customer. Everyone has a favourite style or choice of dispense and everyone knows what they want and expect from a beer. So its surprising then that the idea of kegs at festivals is such a non starter. As a case in point, Camra don't want keg at a real ale festival, and that makes sense, its not real ale after all, but at the recent Grampian festival local brewer Brew Dog wanted to provide only their new keg offerings, not the cask version.

I understand why the Grampian folks turned them down, but playing devils advocate here, what have they to be scared of ? Assuming, as is the central plank of the campaign, that real ale holds its own and outshines the flavour and aroma of keg, surely a keg alternative at a festival would only serve to show drinkers that real ale is best ? Unless of course, it isn't? I know that its best, you know its best, but what if it can't stand up to a keg equivalent, in the eyes of an undecided customer ? Perhaps in that case, consumers will have a hand in steering the UK real ale market towards a more flexible mixed format business plan, with equal emphasis on keg, bottled and cask....

3.Its not real ale. I only drink real ale.
Well, this should be a forceful basic argument - there is after all no arguing with that. The thing is however, all of us, to some degree, probably drink non real ale at some point already. I've never spoken to a beer lover who doesn't have a default choice in case of a lack of real ale such as at parties, or in restaurants or when abroad. Obviously we all want real ale all the time but that's not realistic, so rather like your second third and fourth favourite football teams whose results you rely on when your team plays crap, most people really do have other options, and use them.

Take a continental beer like Franziskaner wheat. You are in a pub selling two real ales and a large number of overseas bottled and draught beers including wheat beers, alt biers, lagers and fruit beers. Its 90 degrees and the beer is warm and of unpromising choice so you opt for a cold refreshing wheat beer. And why not ? Slake your thirst with a cold one and then enjoy the flavours in the cask.

Or maybe you are in a restaurant (or come to think of it, any bar overseas) and don't want to pay out for wine or pissy cold Heineken. You find that in amongst the usual selection of Becks and Carlsberg bottles they have an Alhambra Reserve 5.9% lager, or a Peroni Gran Reserva, bursting with malt flavours and subtle bitterness. This is likely a good choice as opposed to having a soft drink, and you are drinking the best of whats available.

And how many times have we seen, amongst the range of beers in a supermarket (which undoubtedly means only one BCA if you are lucky ) a tempting and impressive Brew Dog offering ? You know it will be bursting with uncompromising flavours and deliver what it says on the label ( except Punk IPA, as previously mentioned ) so who wouldn't try that ? The answer is, we probably all would, just like in the days when real ale was scarce, and Camra members relied upon bottle conditioned Guinness Original or unfiltered Pilsner Urquell. And that's before we even start to think about bottle conditioned beers at home. Basically, we all drink real ale alternatives, and it doesn't have to ruin our taste buds, or diminish our dedication to real ale...

So now the pros.

No need for a list here, as the plus points really all mushroom from the same central idea, that is that the diversity of the changing drinks market is and has to be reflected in the brewers determination to diversify their product.

In reality, brew Dog are in some ways a cataclysm for the above. They brew fantastic bottled beers and very little, and recently no, real ale. Their reputation stretches globally and they have opened a number of keg only outlets, which of course could no doubt serve real ale if they wanted. This has been the case in many of the UK's swanky brew restaurants for years - brew 4 keg beers in continental and classic British ale styles, and have one cask for those who prefer. Beers and breweries like this demonstrate that none cask beer has plenty to offer in terms of flavour and style and crucially, availability. It works well at showing cask fearful types that beer from UK micro breweries can hold its own in terms of new and exciting flavours and isn't a flat cap mild and basic bitter only industry.

So, my advice to beer drinkers, Camra or not, is this. You don't have to buy it. If there is a selection of real ales I will always have them, as that's my favourite drink, full stop. But if I have room for one, I will compliment my choice of real ale with a Kuppers Kolsch or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or a bottle of Poperings Hommelbier.

Its inescapable that If micro brewers don't see a future in real ale, that's up to them. Its a crying shame, but you can't force them to produce real ale, especially if people want to buy keg. If excellent tasting keg micro brewed ale gets into places that can't sell real ale then that's a start. Not everywhere can sell real ale, and not everyone likes it, that's a fact. Look at the reach of Brew Dog based on their bottled ales - how else will they fly the flag for British beer overseas, by sending out casks round the world by air freight ? I say let a small number of keg micro brewery ales make their way into an already overloaded drinks market, let people make up their own minds, and carry on drinking the best long drink in the world, real ale.

So, back to the launch night, and the brevity of the rest of the article is reflective of the strange and over in seconds nature of the launch. At 19.00 someone blew a whistle or perhaps a horn, and announced that the beer was on sale. That was it!

Me and Dave had started with pints of Marble Summer at 4.5% which was £2.80 a pint. It was as bitter as you'd expect from Marble but not sufficiently refreshing to be a summer beer. Next, with the beers on sale from Magic Rock, and having let the scrum peter out, we both had pints of their Curious - a refreshing 3.9% session bitter with a lot of light floral flavours and plenty of bitterness.

Dave headed off soon after to get some food - I tried my best to fill up on Pipers crisps and some eclectically priced jerky, but Dave could hold on no longer and headed into town. He did miss the buffet in doing so, but it was devoured in almost no time, although I really enjoyed my beer tapas of black pudding, kabanos, and flat bread. During my solo stint I also tried halves of Oxfordshire Ales Marshmellow, which couldn't make up its mind if it was vanilla or marzipan beer and was deeply weird all round, and a very enjoyable half of the Magic Rock High wire IPA at 5.5%.

Dave soon returned, having fed himself, and had a pint of the Magic Rock Rapture, described on their website as a red hop ale, which may explain why it reminded me of a bitter a mild and Mythos red ale ! This was a very easy drinking pint and Dave had another whilst I embarked on a rather reckless pint of Brew Dog Alice Porter ( on cask and everything ) at 6.2% which was £3.30 a pint.

Plenty of familiar faces abounded at the pub, whether amassing at the bar or stood outside trying to cool off - when Dave returned from town he noted there was a wall of warm air as you entered the pub. Amongst friends we saw were John Clarke who is involved in the Heritage pubs inventory assessments, Dave Williams as per earlier, and Rich from Blue Bee who was trying and failing to do business with Dave based on his somewhat optimistic pricing policy.

As the time came near for Wee Fatha to pick us up ( he very kindly offered, and was recompensed for his efforts ) we both had a final pint of Rapture. Wee Fatha was bought a half of Curious for his efforts on arrival, before me and Dave opted for a final half of the Dark Star Original Mild Ale, at 6%. This proved an unwise decision, as it was a thick vinous concoction that I couldn't help thinking they had got wrong. The huge slab of creamy chocolate malt flavours drowned out any balancing bitterness and the whole thing was heavy chewy and incredibly filling and we really had to labour to finish it. Nothing to do with all the beer we'd had previously of course.....

Wee Fatha soon magicked us home for just past midnight I think and I set about making an odd and poorly produced concoction of foods before I went to bed for a very long time. Overall the day was a brilliant snapshot of Yorkshire heritage pubs and a great opportunity to sample some of the best real ale - and keg if you should like to - that the UK has to offer.

More soon on my epic Scotland trip, as soon as I can get my brain in gear.

Wee Beefy

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