Ride for your beer!

It’s a Saturday morning. It’s dark and the torrential rain is beating at my window. I see the clock hands creeping around to 6am and try to ignore it but the alarm goes and I know it’s time for action. I peer out the blinds at the rain bouncing off the pavements and cars, convince myself that the day will only get better and somehow get myself and my long-suffering boyfriend fed and out the door to make the 07:33 train to Brighton. If you follow my Instagram, you may have been slightly confused that rather than posing with my usual weekend morning train beer I was clutching a bottle of choco-milk but I had a mission to fulfill with a promise of beer at the end because this was the day of the Spin Up In A Brewery.

Casks lined up to mark out bike parking

Casks lined up to mark out bike parking

In its third sell-out year, the Spin Up offers led rides from the heart of Brighton on or off the roads through the picturesque Sussex countryside to the Dark Star brewery in Partridge Green. Having looked at the weather reports I left my trusty mountain bike at home and headed to the Velo Cafe with my road bike. Getting an earlier train meant we somehow missed the ridiculously heavy downpour that started the moment we came through the door which meant we could enjoy a coffee and cake in dry clothes watching the apocalyptic weather, keeping everything crossed hoping it would clear up before the 11am start. Thankfully with about 15 minutes to spare the sun put in a welcome appearance which made for a very pleasant ride. The volunteers leading the rides were pretty awesome and didn’t leave anybody behind, stopping the group to make sure everyone had a chance to catch up at opportune moments like at the tops of climbs. The views were stunning once we got out of Brighton and the highlight was the most exhilarating descent I’ve ever encountered on the road over the whole one year I’ve actually been riding a road bike – it never seemed to end!

The leaders managed to get us all up to the brewery in just over 2 hours which gave everyone just enough time to park the bikes, grab a pint and get inside before the heavens opened again. Not so lucky were the mountain bikers who turned up covered in mud not very much later but with smiles on their faces having earned their complimentary pint!

Post-ride refreshment

Post-ride refreshment

The brewery itself had been transformed into a massive celebration of cycling and beer with disco lights twinkling off the shiny tanks and cheesy pop blaring out. The main event for me was the Roller Racing, courtesy of South Coast Sprints, which I suddenly decided was a good idea having declined the opportunity to compete every other time I’d encountered it. This time I was beer-fueled. It turns out maybe beer is performance-enhancing since, despite being surrounded by girls who looked like proper cyclists I somehow managed to hold onto 5th place (or at least that’s where I was at the time I left so there’s a chance somebody came along and bumped me further down the ranking). I’ve gotta say that rollers are totally addictive (seriously – they almost had to drag me off as I hadn’t realized when the race finished). If I’d had another chance, I kept telling myself, if I’d only done this thing differently, I could have finished higher but it wasn’t to be so I’ll be jumping on the bikes again at the next possible opportunity to chase that PB. As well as the roller racing, there was a dress-up photo booth, surprise giveaways from ultra-cool cycling label Morvelo and the LBS Rule 5, live music and so much amazing food from pit-master Andy Annat, Mr Bake and Pleb Pizza. Of course the 23 mile ride cancelled out any calories in the enormous rack of ribs and the white chocolate tiffin I devoured.

Getting ready to race!

Getting ready to race!

For £8 a ticket I can’t think of a better day out really. Dark Star has always been one of my favorite South Coast breweries and this was a great way to see where the magic happens in a non-standard-brewery-visit way. I was astonished by the generosity of the surprise goody-bag on exit containing a t-shirt, haribos, stickers and a delicious bottle of Belgian IPA which was greatfully consumed on the train home.I’ll definitely be back next year – I have a roller-racing record to break!

Biere Here (at last!)

Having been born and raised in York, the UK’s very finest city for beery pubs and general great nights out, my current home town of Southampton has always been a hugely miserable let-down. If you follow my Instagram you’ll be more than familiar with my almost weekly escape armed with a good train beer to somewhere, anywhere that’s not Southampton. If you’ve ever been misfortune enough to witness the drab concrete wasteland of this godforsaken pit you may have been hard-pressed to find a decent drinking establishment. Even if you did, the chances of finding anything more exciting than a ‘well kept pint of Landlord‘ or some other uninspiring real ale are slim. Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent breweries emerging but they are a lot more scarce than in the North and pubs favor the big familiar names over smaller, more interesting brewers. That has been the story until now. But things have started to change…

The opening lineup

The opening lineup

On Friday I was lucky enough to witness the opening of Southampton’s very first micro pub, The Butcher’s Hook, quite possibly the most hotly anticipated new pub I have ever witnessed. Rumors that a small unit in Bitterne Park had been taken on by a pair of aspiring publicans seem to have started way back in autumn 2013 and progress on the re-fit has been slow and steady but my goodness – the wait has been worth it. Local beer enthusiasts Anthony Nicholls and Daniel Richardson have restored the one-time butchers’ shop to a miniature gem and I would say easily the best pub in town.

Following the warning on Twitter that it may get a little cozy, we arrived for the 6pm opening, made ourselves comfortable near to the stillage and watched the pub steadily fill up with real ale aficionados in their favorite vintage CAMRA shirts, hipsters and anyone else from the general area until there was a queue out the door! In the constant rush the proprietors remained charming and attentive as they darted back and forth from the stillage, serving beer to the punters right where they were sat or stood. Seating is communal (think Wagamama) which means you could even make a new friend and all the folk we ended up chatting to were just lovely.

When we say micro-pub here we mean really micro but somehow there were three cask and two keg beers

We drank it dry

Yes Southampton’s thirsty – we drank it dry in less than two days!

available along with a fantastically well-chosen selection of bottles. I was excited to see beer from two of my favorite Northern breweries, Hardknott and Magic Rock on tap for the first time ever in Southampton, It wasn’t all about the imports though and two of the most exciting new local breweries, Vibrant Forest and Dancing Man also had beer available. Spoilt for choice? Anthony and Daniel certainly seemed to know their beers and never seemed to run out of energy helping their customers choose. Oh and did I mention that they also have day-jobs? Initially they will only open all day on weekends then in the evening on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays but if demand continues at this rate I’ve no idea what the plan is. If the opening night was anything to go by, there is a thirst in Southampton for more interesting beer and they’ve certainly got something for everyone. We had such an awesome time on the Friday night that we were eager to return on Sunday until we saw the following tweet on Saturday: ‘We stillaged as much beer as we possibly could and you drank the whole lot.’ I don’t think these guys have anything to worry about except for keeping up with demand. I cannot wait to go back to see what they have on next.

Lucky for me, if we manage to clear the Butcher’s Hook out of beer again, there’s another ray of light on the beery landscape and it’s just round the

I wasn't shy with the pickles

I wasn’t shy with the pickles

corner from me! Among the clubs, takeaways and shops of London Road, a rather special little burger joint has appeared. Chalk Valley is the latest of a string of burger restaurants to open recently around here but what sets this one apart is that all of the meat is traceable and grass-fed and happy cows make happy meat. The pork and lamb are raised at proprietor Will Buckley’s farm near Stockbridge and the suppliers for most of the rest of the menu are proudly displayed on a chalk-board above the door. With so much care and attention put into creating an ethically and, where possible, locally sourced food offering, they clearly did not want to let the side down with the drinks so for their excellent organic beer selection they turned to northern favorites Sam Smiths! Yet another first for Southampton so at last I can go out and enjoy a bottle of Sam Smiths’ delicious cherry beer (an old favorite) with awesome food and (dare I say in case you all go and clean them out) ….unlimited pickles!

Jingle-Belles, Jingle-Belles….

As usual, the flights up North for Christmas really should have come with a health warning or possibly an in-flight detox on the return journey. There’s so much choice of real ales and craft beers in the many many pubs that every day feels like a beer festival. Having spent a day enjoying the fabulous pubs of Leeds, we caught the train to York where, there in the station, is one of the best pubs in Yorkshire, the York Tap. It was just my luck that after I had been trying to track it down for so long, the Tap were serving Marble Earl Grey IPA (6%ABV) brewed in collaboration with Emelisse. It looked pretty much like an IPA, smelled like an IPA, albeit an IPA that  had a little stroll in a floral meadow. The taste was initially typically hoppy and satisfyingly bitter, but there was this beautiful gentle bergamot and orange blossom drifting in and the tea itself glides in at the end and leaves a slightly over-brewed bitterness which totally compliments the hops. Worth tracking down!

No sign of the Apocalypse yet!

No sign of the Apocalypse yet!

Of course, one of our first stops is normally the bottle shop on Stonegate for hotel beers. However, we had procured some hotel-room refreshments already at the lovely Beer Ritz in Leeds. The beer we selected to toast the morning of the End of the World was To Øl Moccachino Messiah (7%ABV), a classic breakfast beer. It could have been mistaken for Coca Cola on its deep red-brown colour and  a fizz to almost match. If those four horsemen were to actually show up, I felt that this exceptional dark roasted espresso wake-up call was a good way to start the day. There was a slightly harsh bitterness at the end but the  lactose sugar lightened it up and smoothed over any sharpness.

Since being absolutely spoilt in Canada for delicious pumpkin ales, I’ve been missing them so much that I have brewed my own! Naturally I was delighted that when I visited the cozy Pivni to see that they had a Pumpkin PA (6.8%ABV) on which is the result of a collaboration between Tempest and Cromarty. It certainly looked like the real deal with a really lovely cloudy amber colour (maybe helped with the addition of carrot juice to the brew) with pumpkin and vanilla in the aroma. The first flavour to hit was the pumpkin and at first I didn’t really get much spice but once it had a chance to build up, there was a definite spicy cinnamon and ginger spice which warmed the throat along with cracked pink peppercorns. This was the proper smooth, thick pumpkin ale I had been missing so badly.

A ray of sunshine

A ray of sunshine

One of the biggest surprises of our trip came from Sunbeam Ales which I had never even heard of before, but that’s not surprising since they are the ‘smallest brewery in Leeds. Seriously, go to their website and look at the pictures. This guy makes 50 litre batches in a regular kitchen in a back-to-back terrace and has picked up several home-brew awards. No wonder if the Honey & Lavender (4.9%ABV) I tried was anything to go by. What a joy even to look at, such clear, golden, straw-coloured liquid sunshine with a beautiful honey aroma. The honey sweetness stood out and the lavender (from brewer Nigel Poustie’s garden!) was so delicately lovely. It made the bus out to Beer Ritz all the more worthwhile.

No trip to York would be complete without a visit to the Maltings, conveniently situated about a two minute walk from our hotel Of course if the river level had come up any further we may have had to swim to it. Despite the flooding of the cellar, we still managed to get ourselves a bowl of some of the finest chilli and chips in Yorkshire and more importantly, an exceptional Old Ale (8%ABV) courtesy of Kirkstall, with a little help from Doug of Colorado brewery Odell.who just happened to drop in on a trip to Leeds! I feel slightly bad mentioning this beer here – landlord Shaun had kept his cask for a year so it was pretty unique as far as I’m

You can't argue

You can’t argue

aware (although I’m still wondering if it was also available under the name Aquitane). What a beer!  It was complex, strong and fruity, almost like a beer version of a dark rum with a red wine aroma and a slight woodiness. .

For our last night in York, we cracked open the Hardknott Rhetoric Edition 1 (10.2%ABV) chilling out in the hotel and what a special yet ever so unusual beer that was. Beautiful beery dark gold with an exceptional aroma-sweet sweet treacle and star anise like a festive spiced bread. It was malty and sweet up front with an almost minty, kind of metallic cool freshness. The exotic star anise after taste had received a light sprinkling of cinnamon which made me recall a distant memory of some Chinese pork dish I can’t quite remember but certainly enjoyed.

Christmas is always a busy and sometimes stressful time of year, rushing around to get around all my friends and family. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have such a brilliant choice of pubs and bottle shops in and around the city I grew up in so I can relax with real treats in the time I have for myself. They don’t call it God’s Own Country for nowt!

Christmas time, mistletoe and…beer!

Captain Ginger Beerd

Captain Ginger Beerd

Now that the countdown to Christmas is truly in full swing and the days are actually getting cold (I am on the South coast so it’s rarely properly cold!), I’ve been raiding the beer stocks for some comforting winter warmers. A coupler of days ago I re-discovered my supply of Summer Wine beers I bought a couple of months back and then criminally neglected. Of course, this time of year is just about right for a Calico Jack (8.6%ABV), the Imperial Caribbean Ginger Stout from Yorkshire. As black as the heart of Davy Jones with an aroma reminiscent of black treacle, spices and burning pirate ships, it was a pretty satisfying stout with yummy chocolate and zing. However, I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t really detect much ginger in the aroma or flavour but I don’t tend to go for subtle when it comes to ginger!

Since that was a work night, I was pretty well-behaved and saved the main beeryness for the weekend’s festivities. Today was a special day in the Bierebelle household. The day of the pre-Christmas warm-up dinner where the OH and I enjoy a big roast with absolutely no sprouts. It’s essential stomach preparation for the real thing and a treat for just the two of us. As a reminder of the meaning of Christmas, we decided to open a bottle of our Tsjeeses (10%ABV) Belgian X-Mas Ale Brewed with Spices by De Struise Brouwers. It’s billed as a ‘jolly blonde

Favourite Tsjeesus? Baby Tsjeesus?

Favourite Tsjeesus? Baby Tsjeesus?

winter ale….with hints of fruit, spices, refreshing herbs, and noble hops. OK it’s not that blonde, more a dark golden colour but it sure is beautiful with its delicate white lacing and treacley clovey, herbal aroma. As I’ve come to expect from the ‘Sturdy Brewers,’ the flavour packs in a sleigh-full of complex flavours and a body so bootylicious you can almost chew it. The warming fruit and alcohol is almost like mince pie filling with lively hoppy bitterness. There’s a tiny Christmas tree pine in the finish and a lot of burnt wood and molasses.

Never ones to be content with making an awesome ale to enjoy in its original state, Struise have also aged some of the Tsjeeses in different barrels to further enhance the wonderful flavours. I had the Tsjeeses Reserva (10%ABV), Vintage 2011 aged in Port barrels but there is also an Oak Aged and a Bourbon Barrel variation. This one had so much flavour sitting in there it was bursting to get out of the bottle (literally – my poor table cloth!). It had the same cloudy deep sunset amber colour with a finer smoother light head and a similar smell, albeit a little funky. There’s the same fullness in the mouthfeel but the complex flavours are richer and there’s cherry thrown in the mix with more of the woody aftertaste. The hops aren’t as obvious and the alcohol is warmer, or maybe it’s the lovely spices.

Bristletoe and beer

Bristletoe and beer

To round off the pre-Christmas Christmas beers, we opened our bottle of the lovely Bristol Beer Factory Bristletoe (4.3%ABV) which we picked up along with our 12 Stouts of Christmas at their recent open day. It’s spiced with coriander and ginger and it’s a lovely, warm, cloudy deep orange colour with a gingerbread and marmalade aroma. At a relatively low ABV (compared to the Tsjeeses!) it still packs in a massive amount of warming spices, orange peel, dark malts and a hella bitter but spicy lingering warmth. It kinda reminds me of a Christingle (who else made those in school?). It’s like one of those comforting woolly jumper ales you wish you could come back to on any cold evening.

 

Yo ho hop

 

Bierebelle has a new brewery to add to the list of favorites.OK, the label might not be terribly glamorous but my goodness they make an amazing IPA. I’m talking about Arbor Ales, yet another exceptional Bristol brewery. I was hooked the moment I tried the Yakima Valley IPA. Looking at the list on Rate Beer, I was dismayed to see how much I’ve missed already. Apart from one of the most extensive back-catalogues of single-hop beers in the history of brewing, they also produce special limited ‘Freestyle Friday’ editions which is just whatever they dreamt up at the Friday meeting. I wish all Friday meetings were like that.

When I saw Albion (6.7%) on the shelf I was intrigued – surely a rum belongs in a darker style right? Wrong. Dark rum + IPA = genius. It pours a really gorgeous cloudy gold with a big, generous head as foamy as the seas. The typical IPA aroma carries just a hint of raisin and biscuit and the flavour is really very bitter and an alcoholic burn at the back. The wave of big, dry citrus hops carries the warming, woody dark fruit of a navy style rum. I’m guessing I wouldn’t have cared much for the rum on its own; I prefer the smooth, light Venezuelan and Panamanian styles but blending a robust navy style with an ipa was a master-stroke.

I’m now very excited about trying more from Arbor and the good news is that they seem to be getting easier to find. This one came from Corks but I was delighted the other day to see a wide range in Bitter Virtue which is just round the corner from me. The problem is deciding which one to try next…

Bristol barbeque time!

After our beery afternoon at the Volunteer Arms, we headed over to Cotham in search of food and more beer. The last time the OH had been to Bristol, he had stumbled upon a rather excellent little off-licence stocking some of the finest beer of the region. Corks of Cotham looks from the outside like the average wine and spirit merchant, but if you venture to the back you will find an absolute treasure trove of Bristish ale as well as a well-picked selection of American and Continental beer. I originally planned to call in for another bottle of the Bristol Collaboration but was seduced by the selection and came away with a couple of Hardknotts and very special Arbor Ales bottles, both of which are impossible to get where I live.

The haul from Corks!

Since we were in Cotham, we decided to call in at Beerd, Bath Ales’ new concept craft beer and pizza joint. Although the bottle menu was a bit run-of-the-mill, the taps boasted a prettty nice selection of local ales as well as some keg from further afield. They have resident beers as well as guests so make sure you scan the bar or ask somebody before you order! I went for a pint of Bristol Beer Factory No7 (4.2%ABV), their Best Bitter which was a fairly pleasant, biscuity bitter with a citrusy hop. Unchallenging and a pretty good choice to go with my exceptionally delieious anchovy pizza!

Well-fed, we went for a night-cap with our friends who had just joined us from London at the lovely Colston Yard which had one of my favorite Bristol Beer Factory regulars on, their rather delectable Milk Stout (4.5%). A pretty drinkable sweet stout; just right to unwind for the meatfest ahead! We were up super-refreshed and ready for the mighty Grillstock the next morning. The moment we were got through the gate we were handed tokens for free Jeremiah Weed which was the only thing stopping me from making beer the first drink of the day. The main event at Grillstock is the King of the Grill competition which sees the international superstars of barbecue and amateur teams battle it out to be the Grand Champion and win the opportunity to compete in the American Royal Invitational in Kansas City. The judging panel is an impressive mix of award-winning experts including Dr.BBQ, who has been involved in cook-offs as long as I’ve been alive, and guests from the world of food and food writing. Throughout the weekend, they are presented with entries from each of the teams for seven rounds including brisket, ribs and desserts. As well as the competition, there’s a rather punishing chilli-eating contest, stalls where you can buy high quality goodies to cook with at home and live bands all day.

Wandering around the cooking village with a free Jeremiah Weed in hand, the day was

Dr.BBQ serving up in the Chef’s Choice round

already off to a good start when I was offered fresh-off-the-barbeque lamb ribs which were just astounding – you must try them! One of the things that makes this event so awesome is that, alongside the competition entries, the teams cook all manner of juicy meat-stuffs through the day to offer to the happy crowds and will happily talk about what they are doing and offer useful tips. The highlight had to be from the Bad Byron team member known on Twitter as @racksofruin who had created an extravagant beast from cheese and veg, encased in meat and all rolled up in bacon. Sweet! There’s also rich pickings hanging at the judging tent since once the judges have taken what they want the rest is offered to spectators! I managed to score an absolutely immense beef rib from Dr.BBQ himself as well as pulled pork and lots of pit beans.

The BBQ village where all the magic happens

The official beer supplier, Bristol Beer Factory, brought a nice selection to wash it all down which included Milk Stout, the mighty Southville Hop, Acer and Bitter Californian. Although the sun didn’t make much of an appearance, the hoppy delight of Southville more than made up for it. I was slightly disappointed on day 2 when a large amount of the beer had run out including my favorites. Lucky for us, the new Bristol Farm Shop were selling a lovely selection of local produce including beer so the day was saved. Of course, we were reminded that it was not meant for consumption at the festival and we did spend a lot of time trying to hide it like kids whenever we saw security! I was particularly taken with the Arbor Yakima Valley IPA (7%ABV) which was a joyful explosion of hoppy candy sunshine. Arbor’s dark ruby old ale, Old Knobbley  (4.5%ABV), also proved to be a pretty good choice. I found the burnt woody taste slightly unusual since it gave a bitterness quite unlike the IPA I’d had previously!

Another fabulous weekend in Bristol then. Admittedly I came away a lot heavier but full of ideas for cooking and even found a couple of new favorite breweries to add to the list. I’ll definetly be back soon – very soon indeed for the Beer Factory tour. I can hardly wait!

Imperial luxury

Bierebelle is a very happy girl at the moment. Happy even though it’s Tuesday, work is crackers and hayfever season is in full swing but just try to pull me down from this cloud. I finally gave in to temptation and prized open stout number 11 of the Bristol Beer Factory Christmas 12, the Imperial Stout which had been aged for six months in Glenlivet casks (then kept in my kitchen for a further 6 months). To the nose, there’s class and intrigue, dark chocolates, roasted malts and coffee bound in luxurious butter-soft leather. The aroma is intoxicating but doesn’t do justice to the fabulously full, perfectly well-rounded flavour. There’s an initial sweetness, giving way to bitter chocolate and orange peel. There’s romance, drama, many, many leather-bound books, in an apartment that smells of rich mahogany. The warming, roasty, bitter-sweet flavour coats the mouth and develops to a woody, slightly charred warmth with a subtle smoke as it warms the belly. The best way to enjoy this would surely be in front of a fire in a deep leather armchair.The brewery reccomend it as an after-dinner drink to accompany strong cheeses but since all I have is Laughing Cow Light, I’ll just have to imagine how utterly deliciously decadent that would be. Following on from the absolute pleasure of the Laphroaig Cask-aged Stout, I know I’ve missed out on a whole other world of flavour. I really have to get involved with this whiskey stuff!