Home Brew

My dad used to do a bit of home brewing. What that actually meant is that I did the brewing, and he drank it. Well, most of it…
So that was my introduction to the world of home brew, basically from kits to produce a passable imitation of a not very good pint.
Once I got to university in the beer desert that was Birmingham in the early 80s, with a few kindred souls we started the first Real Ale and Home Brew Society. We started by using Boots Premium kits, which included a liquid beer yeast and weren’t actually bad at all. We modified this, then started on our own malt extract brew, and finally obtained some yeast from a local brewer. With 6 of us living together, we produced on average 120 pints per week. I’ve never had so many friends; people came from all over to drink our beer, so 120 pints didn’t last that long. We had 2 5 gallon “barrels” for draught beer, the rest we bottled in 2l plastic bottles. Storage was interesting…
We also had a go at some specials, of which the best-loved was a beer with blackcurrent juice, which was quite drinkable and pre-dated our understanding of fruit beers. In fact when we held a beer festival with some decent commercial beers of the time, we smuggled some of this stuff in and it was the only one to sell out.
But since then… well, since then, I’ve only brewed very occasionally. The odd extreme-revivalist thing, such as attempting Saxon Honey Ale, Sack and the like. The odd attempt at something off the wall. Made more cider than beer, and quite nice it has been too, in a Normandy style.
But I’ve been thinking recently – why not have a go at something more cutting edge? I’m limited by equipment – no full mash, although I can add some grain. But I can have a reasonable bash at some ideas I’ve been having for some time – variations on Trippel, for example, with spices, orange peel, or medieval herbs.
Decided! Now just a matter of doing it…

2nd July, Home

So had a long walk earlier, punctuated by a pint at tje Virgins – Sunchaser again the right choice.
Now sitting in the garden with a pint of Cumberland Brewery from Newry’s Brown Bear IPA? an Aldi £1.29 special.It’s amber, slightly hazy with an attractive white head. No huge aroma, and the first taste is a candy sugar sweetness. Then the hops kick in to give a really nice balance. This is no cutting edge IPA, but its a very nice beery beer thay goes down a treat. I want more of it.

03.06.17 – Home, Kenilworth

Aldi have a few interesting beers in stock at the moment, but Cotleigh IPA particularly caught my eye. I have very fond memories of Cotleigh beers from my earliest beerhunting days, Tawny – pre-Owl – being an old (VERY old) favourite. Cotleigh are one of the longest-established “new” or “micro” breweries, and I guess have as good a claim to the “craft” tag as anybody. So I was particularly looking forward to this one; I had never yet been disappointed with any Cotleigh beer.
Poured OK and looked fine – not an enormous head, nice golden colour. Aroma not massive, but pleasantly hoppy with a touch of caramel. Then the first taste – oh dear. Somewhat metallic and massive caramel attack overwhelmed the hops, which attempted a bit of a fightback, but rather lacking in character. And so it continued. My wife pulled a face at her first taste. Even without the metallic flavour, the huge caramel is simply inappropriate for the style, and not very pleasant in this beer at all. Massively disappointing for any brewery, let along one of the quality of Cotleigh. 3/10

Franklin’s Bitter

When I think of beers that formed and informed my drinking experience, few are more important than Franklin’s Bitter. I first came across it at The Gardner’s Arms, and it was a wonderful beer, not too strong, respectably balanced but wonderful hop flavours; this was one of the first craft beers in the UK. An excellent example of how much flavour can be packed into a low-gravity ale. I was introduced to the beer by my dad and his old mate Tommy Thomas, both founder members of the Leeds branch of CAMRA, and both huge fans of the beer. At some point, Tommy introduced me to Sean Franklin, who showed me the brewery for the first time – nothing that impressive, but it was a real brewery producing very real ale.
Soon after, I went to university in the Midlands. One day when I rang home, my dad said to me “Sean’s sold the brewery. Guess who to?” I replied “Well I can only think of three people; I know it wasn’t me, I’m guessing it wasn’t you, so it must be Tommy”. And of course it was. Under Tommy’s ownership, beer quality varied. So did the brew itself; I remember one batch brewed at OG 1058. “Don’t tell the taxman!” was the exhortation. Quite nice it was, too, and would sell well today. But when he got it right, it was still that wonderful nectar, a beer that linked traditional bitters to modern hop juices, and a testament to Sean’s skill.
Several years later when I got married, Tommy gave us a kilderkin of Franklin’s as a wedding present. Wonderful.

After Tommy’s death, the brewery was bought and moved to Sussex, and still produces some decent pints; but that pioneering brew is history.

The mid-80s Brum Beer Scene

I arrived in Birmingham in 1983 from Leeds, a city where even the monopoly beer was to my taste, and much better beers could be found without too much difficulty. Brum was different. More than half the pubs were owned by Bass, through their M&B subsidiary. M&B operated 3 breweries, Cape Hill, which made the dreadful, sickly Brew XI and a much more acceptable – though unexciting – Mild; Springfield, in Wolverhampton, whose eponymous bitter was just as sweet but marginally less revolting; and Highgate in Walsall, pretty much unique for being a mild-only brewery, whose sole regular product was rather good, and whose seasonal Old Ale was as good as it was vanishingly difficult to sample. Additionally, some of the pubs served Draught Bass, which was certainly a better choice. Almost all the pubs used electric pumps, which made spotting the cask stuff amongst the keg rather tricky at times.
Next, there was Ansells, the Midlands wing of Allied Breweries, with getting on for 40% of the pubs. Their beers were now brewed in Burton, following the closure of the Aston brewery following the 1981 strike; the bitter being a bit better than Spew XI, but still far from great, and the mild of a similar standard. Some pubs served Ind Coope’s Burton Ale, which was probably the best mainstream option to be found most of the time. A handful still served beers that had been popular during the strike, particularly Gibbs Mew of Salisbury’s Wiltshire Bitter, which wasn’t bad at all.
The last of the Big Six to have a presence in the city was Courage, but with far fewer pubs than the other two (one of them being the Wellington). Their pubs had sometimes Bitter Ale, almost always Best Bitter and Directors, another reasonable option.
In terms of local independents, there were two, only one of which had any pubs – Davenports. Their bitter was again in the local sweet style, but a lot better than Ansells or Brew. They also had a full range of interesting bottled beers.
The other indie was Aston Manor, founded to fill the hole left by Ansells’ Aston brewery. They didn’t have all that many regular outlets, and I hated their bitter, again over-sweet to my taste. Oddly enough, this is the only brewery still functioning, but these days they just make cider for the supermarket trade.
Apart from that, there were very few free houses where a range of beers could be sampled; there was Atkinson’s Bar at the Midland Hotel, with quite a few beers stillaged behind the bar and at exorbitant prices – but it was still a really nice place for a civilised pint of something different; and the Duck on Hagley Road, a really nice pub back then with a great range of beers from outside Brum. Two oases in a desert.

And that was pretty much it; if you wanted a decent pint at a sensible price, you had to leave town. The Black Country had prices significantly lower, and with a choice of interesting small brewers’ beers; the Warwickshire countryside had some lovely old free houses, and 11pm closing.

The past is indeed a different country.

20.05.2016 – Ricoh Stadium, Coventry

The Ricoh Stadium recently became the first stadium to achieve Cask Marque status, and whilst I don’t for one minute consider that an absolute guarantee of decent beer, it’s normally at least a sign that the outlet concerned is trying.
Wasps, the stadium’s owners, have a sponsorship tie-in with local brewers Purity, and so there are Purity bars dotted around the stadium. Beer is stillaged in the bar area, and served in plastic Eco-cups. Choice is Ubu or Gold, and price is £3.70 per pint plus a £1 refundable deposit for the cup. Only problem with this is that the staff are frequently not trained sufficiently to understand that when they press the button on the till for “pint plus cup”, they don’t have to charge a further pound for the cup…
Anyway, on this occasion I went for the Ubu. Leaving aside the lack of tactile pleasure that a real glass gives, it’s a very acceptable pint and kept perfectly well. The slightly off-white head survives over three quarters of the way down the pint in this plastic container, which I can live with. The deep amber colour is rather masked by the decoration on the cup. Overall, it’s a nicely balanced bitter that I always find very drinkable, with sweetness, nuttyness, decent hop flavour and a little yeast all contributing.

Now the big question is this; if this stadium can serve decent beer at a not too outrageous price, why can’t others? Last week I was forced to drink John Smith’s Smoothflow at Murrayfield at an exorbitant price, and it was so terrible I only had one pint. I am expecting no better at Twickenham next weekend. Stadium owners, you are losing sales by only selling desperately poor product at sky high prices! Give customers a choice of something drinkable!

Ma Pardoe’s

Long, long ago my friends and I were on one of our periodic Black Country expeditions in search of interesting beer.
Doris Pardoe had died not all that long before, so we thought it was time to visit the Old Swan before it was snapped up by some brewery. It was one of the famous Last Four Brewpubs, and the way things were at the time, it seemed unlikely to survive.
So we rolled up at about opening time and entered the bar – there was only the bar in those days. We were the first in there, and just stopped and stared at the cast iron stove and tiled ceiling. Next we stared blankly at the three or four handpumps without any clip or other clue to what was on them.
“What’ll it be, lads, beer?” asked the barman. We nodded dumbly. “We’ve got two kinds, pint and half.” So of course we tried the pint, and got talking to him. He took us outside to look at the brewery, and we had another.
The beer? Well a typical West Midlands brew, in many ways – rather sweet, more a light mild than a bitter but rather enjoyable. The pint itself was perhaps not so memorable as the occasion.

12/05/17 – The Kenilworth, Edinburgh

I drink in here in Edinburgh not just because of the name, but because it’s a rather nice pub that tends to have some decent beers on.

So for a compare and contrast, we have Stewart Brewing’s Holyrood Pale Ale, a craft keg offering in an American Pale Ale style at 5% ABV, and Williams Brothers Birds and Bees, a cask-conditioned 4.3% ABV Golden Summer Ale. Both styles were more similar than those bare descriptions allow, with plenty of hops on the nose and all the way through. The Alloa beer was a really nice pint, thoroughly enjoyable from start to all-too-soon finish; it’s not a challenging beer, but a tasty and refreshing one clearly in the brewer’s house style, as there were many notes remininscent of Fraoch. Very likable. 7/10
The Holyrood Pale Ale, though, reminded me of all that is bad about craft keg. Too cold, and way too fizzy for my taste, both attributes that tend to kill both flavour and my enjoyment of a pint. Persevering, the beer underneath was rather pleasant and actually not too dissimilar in flavour profile to the Williams beer, once it has warmed up a couple of degrees and lost some unnecessary condition. Would I have it again? Not on keg, no. 5/10

04.05.17 – Virgins and Castle, Kenilworth

So to the Virgins for a rugby coaching meeting. It’s a lovely old pub with multiple small snugs with flagstone floors, and beers from Everards.

I chose Sunchaser – not the most exciting beer of all time, but really quite a pleasant accompaniment to our discussions. A rather attractive golden colour with a dense head, slighltly floral and citrusy aroma, and similar taste. A good old-fashioned session beer, and none the worse for that. 6/10

The Gardner’s Arms, Bilton

The newa that Sam Smith’s have banned swearing in their pubs got me thinking on the topic, and my thoughts took me back many years to a different world, and a pub that is now actually owned by Sam’s.

Back then, early 80s, this pub on the outskirts of Harrogate was a free house, run tyrannically by an elderly, red-faced, short, pompous and rather grumpy landlord called Maurice Johnson – think a shorter, rounder, older Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring. I rather liked him. The cellarman was his son Neville, who reportedly had been a POW in Korea and had been tortured, leading to shall we say an interesting personality…
The pub was somewhat of a warren of small, interesting rooms, all stained that yellowy-brown colour once so familiar as a standard pub colour, unachievable without at least 20 years of tobacco smoke. One room, though, was special; the landlord’s parlour. You could not sit in there without being invited by Maurice, and generally that meant locals – and elderly, male locals at that. I was one of very few youngsters ever permitted to sit in there; he liked my dad, and I bought my rounds. This parlour was literally that – he could close the door to the rest of the pub, and open the other door to his accommodation, and it was one of his private rooms. The cast seldom changed, but was dominated in more senses than one by Alf. Alf was a giant of a man, of unspecified but advanced age, and a former shepherd. I have never seen bigger hands. Alf had the most perfect Yorkshire dry sense of humour, and loved little more than pricking Maurice’s pomposity, something he alone could get away with. And – where the memory came from – with swearing. Maurice did not allow swearing in his pub. He personally used the odd “bloody”, and sometimes called Time by telling everyone to “bugger off home” but in theory no other swearing was permitted. Alf couldn’t care less, there weren’t many stories that weren’t coloured by at least a “bugger”.
The only other person who swore was son Neville. He was probably the world’s worst cellarman. The pub had three handpumps, and served three different beers – mostly session bitters such as Theakston’s Best, John Smith’s, Tetley’s and the like, although this was a regular outlet too for Franklin’s Bitter – the reason for going. (It’s hardly surprising the beer was often on there, it was brewed in an outbuilding in the car park.) Neville could not keep three beers in good condition – generally there was only one actually drinkable. And if you dared to broach the subject of drinkability with him, that’s when the swearing started… So when going to the bar, you would always ask one of the patrons standing there what he was drinking, and order the same. If you went back and the barrel had changed, you would get a quick shake of the head from one of these regulars, and a comment like “John’s is nice tonight” if there was a safe alternative. Order the wrong beer, and a quick shake of the head would give you a chance to change your mind. If you got a shrug, you would order a half of each and send somebody back to order a round of whatever worked best – which tipped off the lookouts.
The pub is still there, and by all accounts hasn’t changed dramatically in layout.