Sunday, January 29, 2012

CBP Best Ale (Pt. 2)

Back in the 1980s when I first started drinking in Chester, real ale was available again in most decent boozers after being almost wiped out through industrialisation in the previous decade. The choice however was very limited. A pint of real ale usually meant Greenall’s bitter or Greenall’s original (a strong bitter). There was very little else. In contrast, the variety of quality real ale and craft beers available in the city today is vast and if the pub trade in general is in decline, the micro-brewery sector and those boozers free of tie that can access their products certainly are not. New ingredients, new beer styles and a lot of imaginative, driven people willing to embrace new ideas have reinvigorated the industry. Real ale is great. Real ale has even become sexy.

Last week I listed what we considered to be the best strong ales we’d encountered during 2011, but what follows is where we’re really at. Beer ponces stand aside. Here comes the list of the best British quaffing ales - mainly traditional bitters or modern variants thereof – that we drank in Chester last year.

Quaffers (abv 4.2% and below)

Before we get to the top five, the following excellent ales are all worthy of an honourable mention:

  • Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best - Olde Cottage (No. 25) & others
  • Weetwood Cheshire Cat - Red Lion, Handbridge (No. 8) & others
  • Allgate California - Carlton Tavern (No. 5)
  • Joules Pale Ale - Cross Keys (No. 40)
  • Everard’s Tiger - Union Vaults (No. 37)
  • Thwaite’s Wainwright - Coach House (No. 98)
  • Pied Eyed - Pied Bull (No. 86)

And now, beginning with the fifth placed ale and finishing with the winner, here are the best quaffing ales of the CBP:

5. Tetley Bitter (3.7%) – The Ship Victory (No. 100)

I’m not sure about the history here, but back in days of yore, the Tetley bitter found in and around Chester was a distinctly different and considerably inferior product to that found in Yorkshire pubs. This is because it was brewed in Warrington (Walkers ?) and not the famous brewery in Leeds, which made the good stuff and which now has sadly been closed. Lord knows where they brew it now, or indeed who brews it. However, the quality is right up there with that of the original Yorkshire ale – or at least it is in this fine ‘old school’ boozer, where it’s kept and served superbly. No ‘bells and whistles’ here – just a good old traditional pint. 

4. Higson’s Best Bitter (4.1%) – The Cellar Bar (No. 45)

Higson’s, the fondly remembered Liverpool brewery disappeared in the early 1980s when it became part of the Whitbread group. The brewery was closed, but then went full circle after it was bought by independent owners and re-opened under the Cain’s brand – Cain’s being the original name of the brewery in the early part of the 20th century before it was bought by Higson’s. The beers were lost though – that was until recently when the Liverpool Organic microbrewery decided to resurrect Higson’s Best Bitter. And they’ve done a fine job with it – possibly better than the original in fact ! It’s yesterday’s future nostalgia today – and a darn tootin’ session ale.

3. Marble Manchester Bitter (4.2%) – The Carlton Tavern (No. 5)

This is supposedly a clone of the original Strangeways Boddington’s bitter, which died with the demolition of the brewery – forget the mass marketed keg shite. Apart from the pale colour though, it doesn’t seem to bear much of a resemblance. It’s stronger and far erm, hoppier – not sure that’s actually a word to be honest. What I’m trying to say is that it’s better. This is a beautiful ale – bitter, citrus and dry. Lovely aroma as well. It’s an uber-quaffer of taste and distinction. And it’s not just a guest at the Carlton – it’s on permanently. Worth going ‘sarf of the river’ just to try it people.

2. Stonehouse Sunlander (3.7%) – The Marlbororough Arms (No. 56) 

This one took us by surprise – picked it up on the last night of the CBP after we’d been to the final pub. We’d visited the Marlbororough earlier in the year, but this new ale was still in development at that point. It’s a very pale bitter, and this, coupled with the name suggested it might be a sort of light summer ale. Strange then that it was being launched mid-winter. The name ‘Sunlander’ though is a nod towards Australia, as the characteristic feature of this ale is that it’s loaded with Australian hops. This leads to an impressive level of tropical fruit flavour and hop aroma for such a light beer. It’s stonkingly pleasant.

1. Brimstage Trapper’s Hat (3.8%) – The Cellar Bar (No. 45)

I’ve always wondered whether or not the use of rhyming slang in naming this fantastic ale was deliberate or inadvertent. I suspect the latter to be honest. I’ve got an image of these genial old duffers sitting round a table at Brimstage HQ experiencing a ‘Eureka’ moment in their quest to find a suitably quirky name for their new ale. “I’ve got it chaps. How about the ‘Trapper’s Hat’ ?” “Oh yes, that’s perfect – encapsulates rural tradition with a dash of bumpkin charm” So, not a reference to a laydee-part then. Ahem, branding aside this really is an unassuming but quite spectacular light golden ale and were it not for the late showing of the Sunlander, would have won this contest by a ‘country mile’. It’s still our numero uno though – a light beer with the complexity and hop attack of a heavyweight IPA. A glory to behold. Total brewing perfection.

Next week the sparks will fly. Or maybe they won’t. It’s Chesterville's bottom 5 pubs !   

Sunday, January 22, 2012

CBP Best Ale (Pt.1)

It’s important to note that what follows is our assessment of the best ales we encountered on the CBP and NOT the best ales generally available in Chester. By definition, as these lists only relate to a once a week event, there’s an element of randomness here. For that reason, fine micro-breweries such as Red Willow, Summer Wine and Sandstone aren’t represented – we simply never encountered their ales on a Thursday night.

It’s also important to note that we’re not beer ponces. Occasionally, we’ll savour a fine ale and might make the odd remark as to some nuance of flavour or triggered reminiscence, but by and large we drink in the British style. We believe ale is for quaffing and that high quality ale is the starting point for a good night out and not the ultimate objective.

Weak beer or ‘quaffing beer’ is our thing then, but we’ve also taken the odd strong ale along the way. So that’s where we’ll start – strong ales first (Pt. 1) , followed by the quaffers (Pt. 2) – and in both cases we’ll begin with the fifth best and finish with the top ale in each category.

Strong Ales (abv 4.3% and above)

5. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Bitter (4.3%) – The Rake & Pikel (No. 13)

Ah, the old taste of cold tea. In days of yore, before the advent of exotic hops, summer ales and the IPA resurrection shuffle, this fine ale was always considered to be among the very best of what the English brewer could muster. Well it was if you lived oop north anyhow. Nowadays, it’s pretty much a national beer – and is often served in a condition that’s not worthy of it’s heritage and character. When it’s kept well and served properly though, it’s still a magnificent ale and although we had a nice pint in the Greyhound (No. 89), the Rake & Pikel provided the best example.

4. Titanic Nine Tenths Below (5.9%) – The Chester Beer Festival (here)

Perhaps beer ponces would disagree, but ironically, I don’t think a large scale beer festival where dispense is directly from the cask is the best place to sample ale. It’s often flat, sometimes cloudy and always too warm. After a few have been tried, they all begin to taste the same – such was the case at this event – until we sampled this fantastic brew. The massive whack of hops really set this ‘new generation’ IPA apart from the rest of the ales up until that point – and thereafter to be honest. It’s just a shame that we’ve not seen it since in a decent boozer served through a diffuser at the right temperature. No doubt we will before long though.

3. Moor Pacific IPA (6.0%) – The Red Lion, Northgate St. (No. 85)

What’s this ? An ale from ‘darn sarf’ !! Get out of town ! What was it doing ‘in these parts’ then ? Well it was on the Nicholson’s rota for their national IPA festival – and the Red Lion on Northgate St. being their sole representative in Chester is where we found it. Bit dark for an IPA I thought – maybe more of a strong golden ale. It’s gloriously complex though and several pints would be required to figure out all the nuances of flavour. I had a half – at 6.0 % and mid session, mid week, that was sufficient. Must re-visit this one and/or any other Moor ales at the earliest opportunity.

2. Marble Dobber (5.9%) – The Pied Bull Beer Festival (here)

Great name for a great ale – the ‘dobber’ was the biggest marble in any northern kid’s collection, right ? And ‘big’ flavour is what this fantastic IPA delivers – nice malt underlush but with approximately one English ton of hops per pint, incorporating massive citrusity with highly dominant grapefruit. Grapefruit is the daddy flavour in this hooligan assault on the palate in fact. Dry as well. Nice and dry. A wonderful ale – and on this occasion, served by it’s creators under proper pub conditions during a fantastic ‘meet the brewer’ night at the Pied Bull.

1. Thornbridge Jaipur (5.9%) – The Little Oak Beer Festival (here)

I’m afraid there was only ever going to be one winner in the strong ales section, for this is the perfect beer. A beer that cannot be surpassed. Hop flavour, hop aroma, sweet malt, spice, tropical fruit, long bitter finish and a lethal combination of high strength and drinkability. This is a beer that will seduce you and will kill you. It’s that good. My advice would be to steer clear of it completely.

That's all for now folks - stay tuned next week for CBP Best Ale Pt.2 - the Quaffers.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

CBP Worst Ale

It will be obvious to readers of this blog that we like ale. Specifically, we like cask ale, provided of course that it’s kept properly and served at the correct temperature. Unfortunately however, many pubs still don't provide such a product and we had to drink a lot of really bad beverages during 2011 in order to complete our task. The following is a list of ales that were so poor that they even rank below Mexican bottled beer and ‘cocktails’ in our completely arbitrary rating system. So starting with the fifth worst and finishing with Chester’s worst ale, here are the bottom five ales of the CBP:

5. Tetley Keg Bitter – Off the Wall (No. 54)

A mid brown heavily carbonated fluid that was ice cold and served in a plastic glass. At least it didn’t taste offensive (it didn’t taste of anything) and that’s why it’s only fifth. At £1.50 a pint, it’s less than half the average price of ale in Chester – but still a rip off.

4. John Smith’s Keg Bitter – The Wheatsheaf (No. 90)

I guess most people who visit this place drink ‘Carling’ or ‘Fosters’ – actually, that’s not true. Most people who visit this place drink Coke or Fanta because they’re taken there by their parents. Anyhow, for whatever reason, the bitter must lie in the keg and the pipes for months, because it tasted almost stagnant - like a flat beer the morning after a party that you might drink as a ‘hair of the dog’ before realising someone’s stubbed a fag out in it.

3. Black Sheep Bitter – The Handbridge (No. 7)

When real ale goes off, it’s horrible - particularly when your starting point is Black Sheep Bitter, which even when it’s kept well is one of the dullest and most uninspiring beers available. We’d have asked for it to be replaced, but there was no alternative. Couldn’t wait to leave this place anyhow.

2. Tetley Keg Bitter – The Westminster Hotel (No. 115)

A reminder of the original tasting notes – “loose change, earwax and hamsters - as bizarre as it was repulsive”. Can’t add a lot to that to be honest. It makes me feel ill just thinking about it. Beer for Beelzebub.

1. Marston’s Keg Bitter – AbarMC at the Abode Chester (No. 61)

Original tasting notes – “utterly putrescent”. Ironically, one of the ponciest establishments in Chester provided the only beer in the entire city that we found to be undrinkable. Cap doffed to Mr. Caines then – that’s quite an achievement. Maybe he should stick to selling over-priced champers to idiots.

So there you have it – five Chester ales to avoid at all costs.

Stay tuned next week for the best ales of the CBP.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Brahms & Lizsts

Happy New Year folks and welcome back to the twilight world of the Chester Beer Project

As we now know more about the pubs of Chester than anyone else, we thought it appropriate that we should put together some sort of a ‘hit parade’ of both ales and pubs, covering the best and the worst of what’s on offer in the city. Therefore, over the next couple of weeks, the following will be appear on this site.

CBP worst ale

A list of the Bottom 5 most lamentable, offensive and/or downright rancid examples of the innkeepers art that we’ve had the misfortune to sample over the last year.

CBP best ale

A list of the Top 5 ales we’ve encountered, in each of two categories.

- Strong ale
- Quaffer

CBP worst pub

A list of the Bottom 5 pubs in Chester – in contrast to the Top 10, this will be easy to figure out. There’s a clear group of 5 boozers in the city that are absolutely dire with no redeeming features whatsoever.

CBP best pub

The eagerly awaited list of Chester’s Top 10 pubs – including the ‘CBP PUB OF THE YEAR’. We reckon there are between 20 and 30 excellent pubs in Chester, so the Top 10 will be very difficult to decide. We’ll probably have to append a number of ‘honourable mentions’ in addition to the ten that make it to the list in fact.

So there you have it.

Unfortunately, former Chesterville MP and woolly jumper wearing ‘bon viveur’, Gyles Brandreth isn’t available to present the CBP PUB OF THE YEAR award to the winning landlord as promised. We were then dealt a further blow when we heard that TV’s Oz Clarke, who we had hoped might ‘step into the breach’ fell victim to a shark attack whilst on holiday in SE Asia over Christmas and is now sadly deceased. On the plus side, we already had Chester’s most famous minor celebrity, Lucy Meacock lined up as a reserve, but it seems that even she is now beginning to waver.

We’re currently trying to contact Bob Carolgees.