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/// BEAUMONT'S JOURNAL
 
JUNE/JULY 2002 » BACK TO BEAUMONT'S JOURNAL INDEX
 
Beaumont's Journal
On the Road in the U.K.
There are seemingly several hundred thousand pubs housed on the broad stretch of land that separates southern England from southern Scotland, and a noble goal would be to visit each and every one of them. But the two-week period I had for the journey between the English and Scottish capitals didn't allow for quite that much ambition. With brewery stops included, I was aiming for about four or five a day.

I was on the road with my travel buddy, fellow writer Janet Forman, and the rules we had decided would govern our trip were quite simple: (1) I would drive the greater distances so that we would make it from point A to point B in an expeditious manner, since Janet has this thing about speed limits; (2) Janet would drive after pub visits; and (3) I would select the pubs.

This being Britain, and my main mapping tools being two publications put out by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) — the Good Beer Guide 2002 and Good Pub Food — I supped cask-conditioned ale the entire way. (There was one dinner in Burton-on-Trent taken by necessity at a Thai restaurant where Singha was the only beer on the menu. After toughing my way through a glass of the lamentable house white, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised by its relatively generous malt and depth of flavour.) Seldom was I disappointed.

For the uninitiated, cask-conditioned ale is simply ale that undergoes its final fermentation, or conditioning, in the barrel from which it will be poured. Once this process is deemed complete by the cellarman, finings are added to settle the yeast to the bottom of the cask, and the beer is tapped. Unlike a typical North American draught, however, a cask-conditioned ale is either poured directly from the cask or pumped out of it by a suction device known as a “beer engine.” In neither instance is external pressurized gas employed.

This being Britain, I supped cask-conditioned ale the entire way. Seldom was I disappointed.

As simple as the process sounds, the resulting ale — when well-made and well-handled — is a wonderfully complex brew, although admittedly one that does take some getting used to. (Even Janet was only beginning to fully appreciate it halfway through our trip.) At its best, cask-conditioned ale is the kind of beer you never want to stop drinking once you start.

And I started almost immediately upon arrival. Being more hungry and thirsty than tired after my overnight flight, I deposited my bags in my room and set off straightaway for the Fuller’s Ale and Pie House, conveniently located on the main floor of my hotel. This convenience was no accident, as in addition to being a good, city-centre value, the Sanctuary Hotel in London is also a Fuller’s property. It was not the last brewery-owned hotel I would patronize on this trip.

Many of the other pubs I visited in London will be familiar to beer aficionados who have spent time in the British capital: the famed beer oasis on Parson's Green, the White Horse; the Samuel Smith–owned Cittie of York; The Eagle, London's original “gastropub”; and the ornate Blackfriar. But the one that really caught my attention this trip was a rather nondescript Young's pub called the Calthorpe Arms. Unassuming but friendly, it sits on a corner of Grey's Inn Road and offers everything a good local should: well-kept ales, simple but flavourful lunches and a “community club” atmosphere for the regulars. The rugby match on the corner television might have put some off, but we just joined the punters in cheering on England.

In the coastal town of Southwold, home of Adnams, we stayed at The Swan, a beautiful, centuries-old hotel owned by that brewery. (You know you're staying at a brewery-owned inn when the water glasses in the bathroom are half-pints.) There was fine ale on cask in the lobby bar, of course, but we preferred the Lord Nelson, known as the “Nellie,” just a block or so down the road. There, as off-season visitors, Janet and I were curiosities for the locals, as well as new people to ply with their tales told a thousand times. If ever it were doubted that a well-turned-out pint of Adnams Broadside Bitter is the ideal conversational lubricant, a few hours at the Nellie would quickly put all skepticism to rest.

Our next stop, the legendary brewing town of Burton-on-Trent, was once home to 26 breweries, 104 malt houses and 20 cooperages. Today only five breweries remain, and in three days of wandering I failed to spy a single cooperage, but the ale is as good as ever. At the Burton Bridge brewery tap, Janet and I enjoyed wonderful pints of the balanced, leafy Bridge Bitter and the almost-as-impressive, full-bodied and faintly sulphury Gold Medal Ale. Later, I supped a tremendous pint of Marston's Pedigree at that brewery, as fresh as possible and full of the dry, almost flinty and sulphury qualities that make it such a classic ale.

However, what was perhaps my most impressive Burton beer came from the unlikely confines of the Bass Brewery pub: the cask ale known as Draught Bass. While it may surprise those who, like me, believe that bottled Bass is but a shadow of its former self, the rich sulphur aroma and full-bodied flavour of the pint I enjoyed positively set me on my heels. I was later told by a Bass employee, trained by the brewery as a taster, that the brewery pub is the only place where Draught Bass tastes that way; by the time it reaches other pubs, the sulphur character has all but vanished.

We visited a pair of other breweries during our trip, one by design and the other by chance. The former was the Samuel Smith Brewery in Tadcaster, where such delicious beers as the Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Nut Brown Ale and, in my opinion, the much under-appreciated cask-conditioned Old Brewery Bitter are crafted. I wanted to see for myself the famed Yorkshire Squares, those 100-year-old Welsh slate open fermenters that are reputed to contribute so much to the taste of the Sam Smith ales. And see them I did: They're black and a couple of inches thick all around. But I was more impressed by the Angel & White Horse, the Smith-owned pub adjacent to the brewery from which you can watch the shire horses in their stables while enjoying the freshest possible pints of OB Bitter.

Heading north towards Edinburgh and, I might add, some excellent pubs, including the city-centre Cask & Barrel and the Johnsburn House in nearby Balerno, I passed a sign for Masham and was compelled to turn off the main highway. Masham is home to the Theakston family, past owners of the brewery that bears their name, but more important, the family that sired Paul Theakston, who runs the appropriately named Black Sheep Brewery.

Black Sheep is one of those breweries that not everyone has heard of but which everyone should know. Tremendous ales are brewed there, including a lightly minerally, perfumey Best Bitter and a splendidly balanced and assertively hopped Black Sheep Ale. The brewery also offers a visitors centre that is well worth the 15-minute deviation from the highway. Had I the time, I would most assuredly have hung around for a few pints. But I had to settle for tasters from half-pint glasses because, after all, Rule Number One said that I had to get us from point A to point B, and there was still a lot of road left between Masham and Edinburgh.

Beaumont's British Breweries & Bars

Sanctuary House
33 Tothill St.
London SW1H 9LA
(020) 7799 4044
sanctuary@fullers.co.uk
fullers.co.uk

White Horse
1-3 Parson's Green
London SW6
(020) 7736 2115
whitehorsesw6.com

Cittie of York
22 High Holborn
London WC1
(020) 7242 7670

Blackfriar
174 Queen Victoria St.
London EC4
(020) 7236 5650

The Eagle
159 Farringdon Rd.
London EC1
(020) 7837 1353

Calthorpe Arms
252 Gray's Inn Rd.
London WC1
(020) 7278 4732

The Swan
High Street
Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6EG
(01502) 722 186
swan.hotel@adnams.co.uk

Lord Nelson
East Street
Southwold, Suffolk
(01502) 722 079

Burton Bridge Brewery
24 Bridge St.
Burton-on-Trent, Staffs DE14 1SY
(01283) 510 573

Marston, Thompson & Evershed
Shobnall Road
Burton-on-Trent, Staffs DE14 2BW
(01283) 531 131

Bass Brewery
(now owned by Coors)
137 Station St.
Burton-on-Trent, Staffs DE14 1JZ
(01283) 511 000

Samuel Smith Old Brewery
High Street
Tadcaster, N. Yorkshire LS24 9SB
(01937) 832 225

Angel & White Horse
Bridge Street
Tadcaster, N. Yorkshire
(01937) 835 470

Black Sheep Brewery
Wellgarth, Masham, Ripon, N. Yorkshire HG4 4EN
(01765) 689 746

 

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