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Wetherspoon’s Real Ale Festival

Today is the last day of the Wetherspoon Real Ale Festival 2010.

Whilst I didn’t manage to get over for the full run of the festival (April 7th -25th) I did manage to spend a fair whack of time in various Wetherspoon establishments and put a fair dent into their selection.

According to the festival programme and “tasting notes” that were being given away in the pubs there are up to 50 ales being featured this year, including several that have been brewed exclusively for the festival.

I am not usually a big fan of the so called festivals that are run by pub chains but I must admit that this offering from Wetherspoon really did win me over.

To my mind they did more or less everything right, there was a large and varied selection of beers, they produced a festival t-shirt, there was the oppurtunity to enjoy the beers in 1/3rd glasses so you could get round more without getting too drunk ( I didn’t avail of this option!) and they even lowered the price of a pint, where we were drinking at the King’s Ford in Chingford we were paying a measly £1.55 a pint!

I was impressed that it wasn’t just the more mainstream breweries or varities of beer; nestling alongside the run of the mill ( a term I use lightly) ales were milds, porters, stouts and even a couple of real ciders and the choice of breweries was excellent and from as far afield as Hawaii and South Africa.

One added bonus that might be of interest to people even after the festival has finished is the CAMRA membership form at the back of the festival programme, not only can you sign up and show your support in helping protect and preserve great beers but you will be sent 20 quid of Wetherspoon vouchers for you to use, not bad seeing as you can get a membership for £20 a year (£14 a year if under 25 or over 60).

I guess this festival pretty much sums Wetherspoon up for me, yeah they are a big faceless chain that is changing a lot of the pubs we have known and loved over the years but they are also doing a lot of good, not just in promoting real ale but also in helping to prevent pub closure, I think the fact that CAMRA are so pro Wetherspoon just helps highlight just how much good they are doing

Hamilton Hall – Liverpool Street Station

Hamilton Hall is part of the J D Wetherspoons chain of pubs located at the Bishopsgate Street entrance to  Liverpool Street Station.

Due to it’s location it gets busy and I mean BUSY, obviously there aren’t locals as such (unless you count the tramps) and the clientele tends to be a mixture of train passengers, local workers and away day football fans – a heady mix!

The pub is set out over two levels each with a bar and a seating area, the furniture is typical Wetherspoons; cheap dark wooden chairs, tables and stools with the ubiquitous table numbers for food set into them.

The decor however is about as far removed from the usual Wetherspoons as you can get; it used to be part of the old Great Eastern Hotel and depending on who you ask was either part of the banqueting hall or ballroom. Regardless of which the it is stunning, there are a lot of original features and gilding throughout and several massive floor to ceiling mirrors that help add to the overall feeling of light and space.

The staff here are ok, they always seem to be the usual mix of students and backpackers that you find in most pubs in the city. One thing to note is that due to how busy it gets in here it can take a while for staff to notice you as such if you are due to be catching a train make sure you give yourself an extra few minutes, particularly if eating.

 One nice feature that is a new addition this year is the set of screens on one of the walls showing what trains are next to leave from which platform, it certainly beats having to run up and down from the station.

The food is the standard Wetherspoons menu of pub grub, cheap and plentiful, some of the prices are higher than you might pay in other Wetherspoons but they are still cheaper then anything else you would find at the station.

So onto the most important thing, the beers.

As with most Wetherspoons there are all the usual suspects when it comes to the generic McDrinks, Strongbow, Guinness, Heineken etc there are also what I think of as Wetherspoon’s “standard ales” Greene King IPA and Greene King Abotts Ale, neither of which are a bad pint but they wouldn’t get me overly excited either.

So if we put these standard offerings to one side what do we have at the Hamilton Hall, well downstairs at the main bar there are 10, thats right 10 handpumps. These handpumps are set up as two groups of 5, one grouping at either end of the ramp, sometimes there might be one or two particularly popular guests ales that put in an appearance at both ends but even then that is still 6 different beers for you to try.

This week I was lucky as it part of was Wetherspoons beer festival and as such there was a very varied selection of ales, milds, porters and more! Now obviously not every week is going to be part of the beer festival but even so the beer selection very rarely dissapoints.

So overall the decor is stunning, the location is very handy and easy to get to and the beer is good, on the downside it does get very busy, the football fans of a weekend can be a real nuisance and it isn’t really somewhere you would want to take a family into.

Overall I would have to give the Hamilton Hall a very solid 3.8 out of 5, it isn’t perfect and wouldn’t be my first choice of pub however if you want a good selection of beer at excellent prices (particularly by city standards) then you wont go far wrong.

Travel disruptions with a silver lining…

Well I was one of the hundreds of thousands of poor people left stranded as a result of the recent volcanic ash fiasco.

However for me there was a beer scented silver lining…more time back home without work meant more time in more pubs, not to mention large amounts of extra beers consumed.

To read a little more about my Heraclean journeys to and from the UK you can read the full entry on my other blog.

Full reviews of the many many new beers sampled will be coming as quickly as I can write them.

Greene King Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale

Strong Suffolk is one of the many fine offerings from thriving Bury St Edmunds based brewers, Greene King.

At 6% it is the strongest of the beers in their range and as the label states it is a vintage ale (old ale).

Here is how Greene King describe Strong Suffolk:

“A blend of two ales: Old 5X , which is brewed to the maximum strength possible (around 12% abv) and left to mature in 100-barrel oak vats for a minimum of two years, and BPA, a dark, full-bodied freshly brewed beer which is added just before bottling. The result is a unique beer – strong (6% abv), dark, fruity, oaky and very, very special.”

The fact that this is a blend of what by themselves are both very fine beers should really start to set the scene that this really is a top notch drink.

Due to the size of Greene King it is quite easy to find Strong Suffolk available as a bottled  beer in any number of supermarkets and off licenses throughout the UK and abroad, however if you are lucky enough to find it on draught than that is even more of a treat.

I had previously never seen Strong Suffolk on tap outside of Bury St Edmunds and the surrounding area (for a while I worked at the Greene King brewery in the town) However I have recently seen it on the ramp at a couple of Wetherspoons in London and Oxford; Wetherspoons always seem to have a large offering of Greene King beers with the usual culprits of Abbot Ale and IPA near enough always in residence.

The bottle features the instantly recognisable  Greene King Logo reminding us that they have been in the business of making beer since way back in 1799, the main image is of one the aforementioned oak vats being paid a visit by the brewmaster.  You can also find the vintage of the beer on the label, in this particular case a 2001.

When poured it is a very clear dark brown colour with a slightly reddish tint to it, there isn’t really much of a head and it is only very very lightly carbonated so in that regards is very much like a traditional draught beer.

The first thing you will notice from this beer is that there isn’t really much of an aroma to it but the flavour is certainly there! It is a very fruity yet savoury beer with flavours of oak, malt, old sherry, banana and an almost leathery taste, the flavours develop as you are drinking it and there is a strong bitter /  sweet taste with the bitterness proving to be very refreshing and remaining for quite a while afterwards.

This is a beer that really packs a punch, both in terms of flavour and strength, at 6.0% A.B.V you wouldn’t want to have too many in one sitting! It is big and full bodied and goes really well with food, particularly traditional hearty British favourites such as a good strong cheddar or some nice roast beef.

Overall there is nothing disappointing about a pint of Strong Suffolk and it is a rewarding beer that will become a firm favourite.

4.7/5

Brakspear Triple

Well it is time for the first actual review on here, hopefully the first of many.

As it is a first I decided to kick things off with one of my absolute favourites, Brakspear Triple.

Brakspear Triple

This is a superb beer from Oxford based brewer Brakspear who survive today as part of Marstons.

Triple  is only available as a bottle conditioned beer, however this helps rather than hinders this particular gem.

Brakspear describe this beer as being for the ultimate connoisseur and they aren’t lying! Each bottle is individually numbered and if like me you have no life you can go to the Brakspear website and see when your beer was brewed.

It takes it name from the fact that is a triple fermented beer and is also triple hopped. Basically this means that the beer itself undergoes 3 separate fermentations, twice during the double-drop fermentation used at the brewery and once more in the bottle.

Hops are added three times during the brewing process and this along with the choice of malts; Crystal, Black and Maris Otter pale, mean that there is a really good balance between the beer being aromatic and bitter and also gives a real richness.

This isn’t a beer that you would be quaffing as part of a session, firstly it is to my mind a little bit too good to be thrown back and needs to be savoured and enjoyed.

Secondly this beer is strong, we are talking 7.2% ABV! Taken by itself this figure might not mean much but to put it into context Brakspear’s regular on tap bitter is 3.4% on draught. It is a serious beer.

It is a wonderful reddish/amber coloured beer with a small cream coloured head that collapses to be even smaller.

I prefer to try and get all the sediment into the glass when I have a bottle conditioned beer as I find you get far more flavour,  if you don’t want bits in the glass you can just be more careful when you pour

The smell of beer is very strong and pungent with a malty and almost biscuity smell, not unpleasant at all, in fact very inviting.

Brakspear Triple is an absolute delight to drink; it very full bodied with no real wateriness, it is slightly sweet but not cloyingly so and there is a nice bitter aftertaste but again not too much.It is very warming and yet for such a strong beer it has a surprising delicacy about it that makes it very easy to drink.

I find Brakspear Triple to be a beer that can be enjoyed more or less anytime, I have drunk it as winter warmer after a long cold day at work, but equally I have enjoyed in the garden in the middle of summer with a nice ploughmans

4.8 / 5

Save our pubs

The pub has been a familiar part of the landscape of Britain for generations, whether it is a country pub in a rural village or a town centre establishment standing proudly on a corner.

In recent years this landscape has been changing and not for the better.

In 2006 the rate of pub closures stood at just 2 pubs per week, this is still over 100 pubs a year that were closing their doors but this figure pales into obscurity compared to the most recent results from 2009. As of 2009 there were 52 pubs shutting each week thats a massive 2,377 pubs that are closing in just one year, accounting for approximately 24,000 jobs.

This is a simply staggering number and even if the trend were to be reversed we would never see the same number of pubs re-open.

To give my own personal example of the sheer scale of pub closures across the country, I have to walk the best part of a mile to get to my nearest pub; this isn’t a case of being picky or choosing to visit this particular spot, it is simply the closest pub to where I live.

Now you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe I live in some idyllic rural village and this is simply due to being in a remote location. Unfortunately you couldn’t be more wrong; I am talking about East London and on my way to the pub (The Coppermill)  I have to pass 6 pubs that have closed in recent years. It isn’t so long ago that each of these pubs were thriving establishments, now one of them is being turned into flats and the others are just empty, slowly decaying away.

During this same period of  time the number of branded pubs and cafe-style bars have increased at a rate of 2 per week, it was also found that pubs that had a strong food offering were less likely to face closure.  This is all very well and good but not every pub in the country can suddenly transform itself over night into a trendy gastro pub or city centre bar, it is jut not possible.

So what has caused this huge upturn in the number of pubs that are calling last orders for the final time? Well there are a number of issues that are affecting Britain’s pubs today.

The recession has caused a large downturn in the number of people that are visiting pubs and it is also affecting the average spend of drinkers, regardless of where the pub might be.

The smoking ban has also driven people away from pubs, particularly when coupled with the ridiculously low prices  and bargains that the large supermarket chains are offering on alcohol, why would you stand outside in the rain to smoke when you could drink cheaper beer at home and smoke inside if you so wished.

The ever increasingly tax on beer has also played a part with the increases every year since 2000, bringing us to a point where the tax on a pint of beer costing an average price of £2.70 is now 70 pence.

The bottom line is that pubs are closing and will continue to close unless something is done about it.

So what is there that you can do to try to stop pub closures? CAMRA are running and supporting a number of campaigns targeted at slowing and reversing the trend of pub closure, you can sign up to support one such campaign     “Back the Pub” here.

You can also lobby your local MP to see what they are doing in relation to this, if you need contact details for your local MP you can find them here you simply need to enter your post code in order to get the details you need.

But the easiest and most rewarding thing to do is visit your local pub, there is no better support then taking a stroll to the pub and enjoying a pint.

I’m not saying not to pick up a bargain at the shops  or enjoy a drink at home but remember your local as well, you’ll miss it when it is gone.

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