Category Archives: Bars, pubs etc

Holler Brewery Taproom, Brighton

Holler Taproom Brighton

Life’s too short for bad beer. I don’t drink that much these days and when I do I want it to be something notable, preferably local. Luckily, here in Sussex we’re blessed with some great breweries. These days I favour anything that’s been brewed at Missing Link in the Weald – Unbarred, Kiln, Lost Pier and of course the excellent Beak – and Holler. I visited Holler (then Holler Boys) just as they were starting out in Sussex in early 2017. Now Steve Keegan (pictured, below) and the team have made a move to the big city, opening a new taproom just off London Road in Brighton in a fabulously converted shed. Or “two sheds with storage and squatters”.

According to Steve, they’ve more than doubled their brewing capacity with the new site, producing 150 casks a week now where in their rural site at Blackboys they were doing about 80 casks.1 He’s also joined by Gary Brandon, former head brewer of another Sussex outfit, Long Man.

Steve Keegan, Holler Taproom Brighton

The move has come about through Holler’s success and through Steve’s working relationship with Rupert Davidson and Dav Sahota, founders of Brighton pizza group Fatto a Mano. Steve knew Rupert and Dav previously but wanted to get things up and running in Sussex first. Once Holler reached a certain level in the Blackboys incarnation, they got together and came up with a business plan for the expansion. Thus the Taproom was born. Furthermore, as Fatto a Mano’s London Road branch is mere minutes away around the corner, drinkers at the Taproom can order their quality pizza.

Holler Taproom Brighton

Five vats – “the Jackson Five” – line the back wall; a mural by Billy Mather (who does the distinctive Holler branding) adorns one wall alongside; and there’s both outdoor and indoor seating, the latter at handsome yellow-topped tables, part of the design scheme by Steve’s other half and Holler collaborator Bethany Warren. The all-important bar has space up to 11 drinks. When we visited there were 10 beers, a mix of cask and keg, and one cider. I sampled about six. I already know I love Holler brews such as Fog Cutter Session IPA and Cheat Mode Pale Ale, but my new favourite is the rich, accessible Bevy Beast, a 4.2% Red Rye Ale.

Holler Taproom Brighton

Overall, it’s a great space. The open-plan layout and lack of barriers between bar and brewery are really important for Steve as his mission isn’t just to offer great beers, but to communicate about them. He says, it’s “really important for me to meet customers. To break down barriers between the beer and the customers”. Indeed, they have a motto – “Beer for all”2 though he’s also keen they operate as a “local brewery”.

Steve was understandably busy as this was their first night with a crowd, but I’ll try and ask him more about this at some stage. Personally, I prefer local as it just makes more sense. Beer is, after all, mostly water – made exciting through the alchemy of yeast, hops and sprouted grains – so transporting it around the world is madness, another of those pieces of modern human behaviour that’s questionable in an era of increasingly scary climate change.

I’m really excited about this venue. It feels looks great, feels great and offers great beer. Even the loos are a memorable experience. Steve is not just a great brewer but a canny businessman. He doesn’t rush things – a sensible policy in brewing and in business. But he did muse about a next move: perhaps Hastings, Haywards Heath or Lewes. Selfishly, I hope it’s the latter. Much as I respect tradition, we could really do with a dynamic, young, community oriented, accessible beer brand here, especially at the rate our pubs are dying. But in the meantime, I encourage anyone to get to the Holler Taproom in Brighton.

19-23 Elder Place, Brighton BN1 4GF

hollerbrewery.com

 

1 For those who don’t speak British brewing weights and measures, 150 casks is nearly 11,000 (imperial) pints or 55 hectolitres.
2 All Holler beers are also vegan. The only people excluded by this all are, presumably, teetotallers.

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The Patch beer café, Lewes

The Patch window

Anyone who knows Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, will know it’s a good beer town. Historically it’s had a dozen or so breweries, though now there’s just the stately Harvey’s left. It’s also had dozens of pubs, many of which have fallen by the wayside over the years and continue to do so, with the recent closures of The Crown Inn at the top of School Hill and the Trevor, over the hill at Glynde. So I’m pleased to report the opening of a new venue: The Patch, which has taken over the unit formerly occupied by Fillers sandwich bar opposite the Market Tower.

Lewes is a great town if you like more traditional beers, if you’re of a CAMRA bent and favour cask bitters and suchlike. Indeed, you can get some great, well-kept cask beers from several venues around town: notably The John Harvey Tavern (Harvey’s tap room), the Brewers, the Gardeners. But while the Snowdrop and even the Elephant & Castle have long offered a reasonably varied selection, the town hasn’t had a venue dedicated to craft beers.

I don’t like this traditional vs craft distinction but for convenience I’m considering craft beers as those from smaller breweries using more modern blends of hops (from the US West Coast and the Antipodes) and playing around with different yeasts, wild yeasts, fruits and other adjuncts, and aging in wine barrels. Like Burning Sky in the nearby village of Firle. I had a few bottles of theirs over Christmas, and Les Amis du Brassage, a collaboration with Fork Brewing in Wellington, NZ, featured rooibos tea, pink peppercorns, rosehips and not just malted barley but also wheat and oats. Not exactly traditional brewing. (BTW, I enjoyed some other Fork beers when we were in Wellington a few – or five – years ago.)

The Patch, Lewes

Patch, owner of The Patch, has a long relationship with Burning Sky, and in his opening line-up on his 10 keg taps, two are Burning Sky. He also has two from another Sussex brewery, Gun, as well as one from Wild Beer Co (Somerset), one Beavertown (London) and two from Wild Weather Ales (Berkshire). “The first line up is crowd-pleasing,” says Patch, and it certainly pleased me, as it’s always fun to try Wild Beer, Burning Sky is a local favourite, and Beavertown’s Gamma Ray is the quintessence of English craft beer from the past half-decade or so, a big, feisty APA replete with fab sci-fi artwork.

Patch says he plans to rotate the beers, and is sticking with kegs. This may horrify some – but it’s not like they don’t have plenty of other options in Lewes. And Patch has good reasons. One is wastage, “Particularly wastage,” he says. “Cask has a very short shelf life.” His second reason is more personal.  “To be honest, all my favourite beers are kegs,” he says, adding “I think brewers are putting their most interesting beers out on keg.” Kegging is simply a more viable option for young, smaller breweries, and it’s such outfits who tend to be more experimental.

I started with Wild Beer’s Pogo, which is one of those slightly dangerous brews that tastes like some kind of citrusy soft drink, though thankfully it’s only 4.1%. It’s a pale ale that has added passion-fruit, orange and guava. Adding fruit can make beers a bit sickly; an award-winner at the Great British Beer Festival a few years ago made with apricot juice still makes me feel a bit queasy. Thankfully this is finely done.

The Patch, Lewes

Next I had a Vermont Pale from Gun, a 4.4% New England style pale made with malted oats and wheat. It’s neither too sweet nor too bitter, despite a lot of hopping. It was OK, but a bit eclipsed by the boldness of the other beers I tried.

Drinking with my friend Alex Larman, things started to get a bit muddled as he has twice my capacity, but I also had Gamma Ray then a Curse of Threepwood from Wild Weather, a pleasingly sour 5% experience made with rhubarb and hibiscus. Love a bit of hibiscus. Had one on our balcony in Rome. I also sampled Burning Sky’s 7% Pretty Mess, another big, fruity experience.

Patch has taken years to bring this project to fruition, and I met him in his previous guise at the Snowdrop. His taste isn’t exactly in line with mine but I’m happy to report that everything we tried was good, well kept, at a good temperature, and featured some fun fruitiness and sourness. All good cheering beers for post-Christmas, the arse-end of the year in England.

Pintxos at The Patch, Lewes

Anyway, Patch says he’s been trying to get a project underway for about two years. He hoped to open at Bonfire, but things only fell into place around Christmas. He continues to use the existing facilities of Fillers, and indeed will operate as a sandwich takeaway and daytime café, as well as offering pintxos ­– the Basque equivalent of tapas – on Friday and Saturday evenings. We tried some pintxos, snacks where a topping is pinned to a slice of baguette with is cocktail stick, and they were good. I especially enjoyed the deep-fried mackerel balls with a dill dressing. It’s quite ambitious but hopefully the combination of services – snacky lunches for nearby workers and tourists, quality beers for drinkers – will take off. Bit by bit he’ll tweak the venue, starting with a “proper bar” that’ll hopefully go in this month, January 2018. I look forward to my next visit. Though I do need to work out a better rounds system with Mr Larman.

For more information about The Patch beer café, 19-21 Market Street, Lewes BN7 2NB, check out Instagram and Facebook.

The Patch, Lewes

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Mail, ale and the movies in Lewes

The Depot building site

For years, people arriving by train1 in Lewes, the county town of East Sussex in southeastern England, were met by a sign that said “Welcome to Lewes, Home of Harveys Brewery”. This sign is in the yard of the former Harveys Depot, which sits just to the north of the railway station. Currently, the depot is a building site, the sign, and much of the building, swathed in scaffolding. In Spring-Summer 2017, it will open in its new incarnation: the three-screen Depot cinema.

The very name of the cinema is a nod to the heritage of the building, and indeed of Lewes itself, so synonymous with Harveys Brewery. Though interestingly, the site was originally owned by the Royal Mail. The current depot was built in 1937, replacing a 19th century one.

I was lucky enough to have a tour of the site last week with Carmen Slijpen, whose passion for cinema is at the heart the Depot cinema project. The site is certainly changing fast, though the finished Depot will reflect its past in several ways, notably by keeping several of the features that look older, but were in fact fitted by Harveys in the 1990s, such as the Harveys signs and the clock tower2.

Clock tower and hoardings, featuring film characters - including one of my favourites, Princess Mononoke

A town needs a cinema
In a former life, I was a film journalist and I have a master’s in film and TV studies, so the Depot cinema is enormously exciting for me. Not only does it revitalise a neglected corner of Lewes, it connects my loves of cinema and ale, albeit loosely!

Lewes hasn’t had a cinema for years. Cliffe, at the bottom of town, lost its Odeon in 1971, with the building sadly demolished in 1982 (another, the Cinema de Luxe on School Hill, closed in 1963; an even older one, the County Electric Theatre, didn’t even make it into the sound era!). And while Carmen and others have been running the Film Club, with screenings in a theatre and a former church the past decade and a half or so, a town of Lewes’s status needs a proper cinema. Furthermore, the Depot will be a kind of community hub. Alongside three state-of-the-art auditoria, there will be a café, bars, education facilities and an editing suite, as well as outdoor terraces, and a publically accessible garden. Indeed, the garden will hold even older echoes of the site’s history. Prior to the post depot, it was an orchard, and Carmen says they will be planting some fruit trees, alongside various other intriguing schemes, such as structures with climbing plants (I suggested they plant some hops).

Finding the Depot
Carmen, who trained as a projectionist in Amsterdam before becoming a film programmer, embarked on her quest to create a cinema in Lewes in 2011. Within a few weeks, she found a funder in the form of Robert Senior, a local with a love of cinema. Senior established a charity for the project, Lewes Community Screen.

Finding a suitable site was a challenge, as cinema auditoria have particular requirements, notably height. They considered the former magistrates court, but it wasn’t right, and has since been demolished. Carmen says that, strangely, the nearby Harveys Depot site had “become invisible”, despite its central location. Harveys had moved to their new depot in Malling Brooks, and it just sat there, empty. At the end of 2011, Harveys were looking to sell the site. There were plans to build a Travelodge there, or a Tesco Metro with flats above, but luckily all fell through and Lewes Community Screen was able to buy the whole site.

London-based architects Burrell, Foley, Fischer, who had previous experience with other cinemas, were chosen from six who pitched. Plans were drawn up and, by 2014, Lewes Community Screen got planning permission.

It sounds a close-run thing though, as, bafflingly, Lewes Town Council voted against it, despite how much such a project will offer the town and community. Even the Highways Agency had concerns. The three auditoria will be 140 seat, 130 and 37, the education room is for a maximum of 40, and the cafés etc will have a total of about 100 seats, so the Depot will have a theoretical capacity of nearly 500. The Highways Agency panicked that all these people would be arriving simultaneously, individually, by car. Which is patently absurd. For starters, cinemas stagger their screenings. Never mind the fact that the Depot is centrally located, and within walking or cycling distance for most Lewes residents. Furthermore, there are bus stops nearby – and the station!

Red brick 1930s walls being reformatted for the new Lewes Depot cinema

Thankfully, the South Downs National Park Authority saw sense.

Indeed, several aspects of the project are entirely suited to celebrating a town at the heart of a precious national park. Not only will the Depot be powered by ground-source heat pumps, using heat transfer from 200m below the surface, it will have a living roof – planted not with generic sedums but with flora found in the South Downs. Such details make the Depot special.

Old and new
Aside from bureaucracy, there have been other challenges. Not only did postal then brewery storage have very different requirements to a cinema in terms of how the space is used, but the site is at risk of flooding, so the cinema has effectively been raised 800mm.

It’s been a test to retain the history of the buildings while converting them to new usage. Much of the old red brick structure is being retained, to be visible through new glass walls. It’ll form a handsome contrast to the advanced elements. Carmen talked us through the high specs they’ll have in the auditoria, with screen 1 having 4k digital and Dolby Atmos with 36 speakers in the ceiling; screen 2 having 2k digital with 3D; and screen 3 also having 2k digital. Screen 3 has a small bar adjacent, which Carmen says will have a “dark, private members’ bar feel”.

Looking from screen 2 into screen 1

What’s on
Carmen says they’ll be screening “a healthy mix of arthouse and mainstream cinema.” Certainly, screen 1 sounds like it’ll be able to handle anything a modern movie with elaborate digital production can throw at it, while the more intimate screen 3 will be a delight for smaller films or rep. Carmen says, “We’ll be running lots of strands, which are series of films that run alongside the main programme – the main programme being films that we book on a weekly basis and are the newly released films.”

Indeed, the Depot sounds unique on a number of levels, not just for the site’s heritage. As Lewes Community Screen is a charity, it does “not exist to make a profit necessarily (but will strive to, as that will give us options for further, more exciting programming).” This may also mean they have a slightly different relationship with distributors, who can be quite, shall we say, demanding when it comes to big releases.

Carmen continues “If we don’t do what is stipulated by distributors we will often have to wait for one or more weeks before we can get hold of a film. We will have to see how our audience responds to that. I think it is realistic to expect it will take us two years to understand how [people] will react and respond to having an independent cinema in their vicinity.”

I imagine running a truly independent cinema is very challenging3. But if it can be done right anywhere, it’s Lewes.4

Oh, and just so this post doesn’t seem too far outside the normal remit of my blog I’d like to reassure Lewesians that Carmen tells me the Depot bars will be serving Harveys. And though she says most of all that “I want to be selling films”, a quality ale and a good film is a perfect evening out for me.

Steel and ply

Lewes Depot Cinema, Pinwell Road, Lewes
lewesdepot.org
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Footnotes
1 Currently a grotesque proposition as rail operator Southern (Govia Thameslink) continues to abuse and disrespect its customers with a cavalcade of late, delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains, while continuing to charge absurd prices for tickets.
2 The clock itself is being restored by local mechanical wiz John Downie. I love a public clock myself, and this one is a far more handsome proposition than the other one in Lewes I use regularly, which adorns the increasingly tired looking Tesco supermarket on the Malling side of the river. Funnily, another public clock adorns the Market Tower, where I used to do my biscuit stall, but I rarely look up at it as it doesn’t have clear lines of sight. I don’t believe it works. Another Lewes public clock  that does work sticks out from St Michael in Lewes church at 158 High Street, in the Bottleneck. A place of worship for 800 years apparently, though the clock is a bit more modern than that.
3 The UK has proportionately few independent cinemas these days; most of our cinemas aren’t even British. We all grew up with the Odeon chain, but that’s a subsidiary of the US AMC chain, itself owned by the Chinese Dalian Wanda. Vue is Canadian owned. Cineworld is owned by Cinema City International, which is based in the Netherlands. Cineworld also owns the superficially more indie Picturehouse chain. Everyman Cinemas are owned by Everyman Media Group PLC.
4 Though Uckfield, just up the road, also has an independent cinema, it’s not quite as diverse a venue as the Depot will be. Plus, I live in Lewes and dream of being able to walk or bike to the movies on my own or with my family. I’ve almost always lived in places where I could do this – London, Newcastle, Rome – so it’s something I’ve really missed. Indeed, I can’t wait for my kids to be old enough to start properly enjoying the cinema too.

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Walking from Lewes to Winchester on the South Downs Way

Mist in the Weald, South Downs Way

Winchester, in Hampshire, is my home town but now I’m living in Lewes, in Sussex. Between the two is the ridge of chalk hills known as the South Downs, along which runs a path: the South Downs Way.

When we moved to Lewes in summer 2011, we walked a section of the Way to the southeast of Lewes, but since we moved back here this year, I’ve been wanting to walk to Winchester. We finally found a time in September to escape the building site and do the walk, happily coinciding with my birthday. After a cool, wet August, the summer came back in September and we had great weather. Three of the five mornings had thick mists, but these generally burned off leaving sun and views along the hills and north over the Weald, the lowland area between the South Downs and the next set of hills, the North Downs.

The south of England has been populated and manipulated by humans for millennia. The landscape of the hills was defined by centuries of sheep farming, which resulted in a unique ecology, plagioclimax communities featuring amazing selections of wildflowers and other wildlife. Much of this downland has been lost in England with the mechanisation of farming, but there’s still plenty along the Way. The human influence is also evinced by numerous hill forts , old industrial buildings, castles, tumuli (prehistoric burial mounds) and many, many cross dykes. No, not angry lesbians, but prehistoric earthworks that may have been territorial boundaries

Nature, history – and pubs
The other good thing about a walk in a long-populated part of the world is that you can go to the pub, something that’s not so easy on a backcountry hike. There were some great pubs along the way, and some great beers. A few pints of which, I would say, are well-earned after walking 20 miles (32km). We also stopped in a few nice tea shops, which, along with pubs, are – when done well – one of England’s great pleasures.

England’s B&Bs, on the other hand, can be less of a pleasure. There are some great B&Bs out there, and we stayed in a few lovely places, but they’re not the greatest examples of our hospitality. Aside from small, rubbish showers, my main grievance is the so-called “full English breakfast”. It’s all very well to pile a plate with sausages and beans and toast, but when all of that food is industrially produced, it just turns my stomach. Luckily, we stayed a few places that had their own chickens, ducks and pigs, so the eggs and pork products were good, but among the five places we stayed, only one served real bread, and only one offered homemade granola. The other four provided toast and “cereal” made from industrially used and abused grains. These are not good foods for your health in general and preparing to walk long distances specifically. B&Bs of Britain – make the effort! Serving real bread would be a great start.

In total we walked 88 miles / 141km, linking, the old-fashioned way, my current home and my childhood home. Here are some pics.

Day 1: Lewes to Steyning (21 miles / 34km)
Misty morning. Though this dew pond – one of many along the top of the Downs – with its one solitary tree looked handsome and moody.

Dew pond near Ditchling Beacon

Already done a few miles. I love topographic features with devil-related names. The Dyke is the grandest of them along the South Downs.

Finger post, one of many

Tea stop at the Hiker’s Rest, Saddlescombe Farm, before climbing up the Devil’s Dyke. A unique arrangement involving a small food truck serving cakes etc parked in a farm yard, with seating both outside and inside old feeding sheds.

Cake and coffee at Saddlescombe

Cup of tea at eminently cute Steyning Tea Rooms. Yes, it’s green tea with lemon, not your normal British black tea with milk. Cos that’s how I roll. Sometimes.

Tea at Steyning Tea Rooms

First pint of the walk, Long Man Pale Ale from Long Man Brewery, further east in Sussex, near the Long Man of Wilmington. We stayed at the Chequer Inn. Although it was a pretty standard pub, the beer was well kept – they have Cask Marque and SIBA signs – and the 15th century building had a lot of character.

Long Man American Pale Ale at the Chequer Inn, Steyning

Steyning has a very handsome high street, which remains fairly unspoiled except for that most reliable of taints on the modern human environment, the motor vehicle.

Steyning High St, evening

Day 2: Steyning to Bury (13 miles / 21km)
Started the day getting supplies from the Sussex Produce Company, which has this excellent selection of local beers.

Local beers, Sussex Produce Company

These hops were growing semi-wild on the edge of Steyning.

Hops - and convolvulus - Steyning

Wild chicory on the ridge above Steyning. If you like chicory and are interested in the various cultivated forms and their relationship with this wild one, I wrote about it here.

Wild chicory

Paths in the mist – or possibly fret, as a sea mist is known in Sussex dialect.

Tracks in the mist

An unusual WW2 bunker on Highden Hill, just after crossing the A24 London Road. It was apparently built by Canadian forces 1940-42, and was dubbed the “Tin Castle” by local schoolchildren.

World War 2 'Tin Castle', Highden Hill

Stopping at The Bridge Inn at Amberley (or more accurately, Amberley station / Houghton Bridge) for a few halves of  Hip Hop – a hoppy blonde ale – from West Sussex’s  Langham Brewery and some live bluegrass.

Hip Hop and bluegrass at the Bridge, Amberley

There used to be a ferry across the River Arun between Bury and Amberley. Walkers be warned – there isn’t a ferry any more, but there is a fine new foot and cycle bridge.

The old ferry crossing, Bury

Nice little village Bury. We had dinner at the Squire and Horse gastro pub where the food was good and the service very hospitable, so much so that I forget to take photos. I was drinking Sussex Gold, from Arundel Brewery, suitably enough, as it’s just down the River Arun. This light, smooth 4.2% ABV ale, which combined subtle lemon and caramel flavours, was just right for a warm evening, sitting outside watching dragonflies flit. (It really has been an amazing year for dragonflies here in southern England.)

Day 3: Bury to South Harting (20 miles / 33km)
Another misty start coming out of Bury, but it cleared very suddenly when we got back up on the ridge.

Another misty start

The Devil’s Jumps, one of the many wonderful prehistoric sites along the route. They’re a series of five bell barrows, a type of tumulus: that is, a grave (or not) created with a stone construction covered with earth. Fran had been having a bad day with blisters but a game pie cheered her up as did the amazing sight of a hare which ran across the path near the Jumps, closely followed by a stoat.

Devil's Jumps

This memorial is just near the Devil’s Jumps, and another fascinating bit of history. The South Downs Way official trail guide shows its weakness when author Paul just says “A German pilot killed during the Second World War perhaps?”. In fact, it’s a memorial to a 25-year-old airman who was on a Ju88 bomber, shot down by a British fighter on 13 August 1940, “Eagle Day”.

German airman memorial

We spent a very pleasant couple of hours enjoying beautiful late afternoon/evening weather – and Upham Brewery beers, from Hampshire, though we were still in West Sussex – at the White Hart pub in South Harting.

The White Hart, South Harting

Day 4: South Harting to Corhampton (18 miles / 29km)

The day started with mist again, beautiful as we headed back up to the ridge through these woods.

Sunlight through the morning mist in woods, near South Harting

I’m assuming this enigmatic bollard with a length of chain attached marks the county boundary between Hampshire and West Sussex. Why the chain?

Sussex-Hampshire county boundary I believe

The English hedgerows in September are things of great beauty. Among the many plants in these tangled, frequently ancient field boundaries is black bryony, Dioscorea communis. This is Britain’s only native member of the yam family, though unlike its African staple food relative, it’s not edible.

Garland of black bryony

After seeing a 20-year-old book about the Way illustrated with aerial photos, I was intrigued about the landlocked naval base known as HMS Mercury. Sadly, by the time we arrived, it’s all a building site for massive houses in a weird pastiche 18th farm cottage architectural style. This is Fran changing the plasters on her blisters just nearby.

Blister rest stop near the old HMS Mercury

This was our lunch that day. Local Sussex cheese and bread, though the latter was disappointing. My water bottle is a growler from Estes Park Brewery, which we visited almost a year ago.

A lunch

View of Old Winchester Hill from the east. Quite why it’s called Old Winchester, when it’s 18km from Winchester (itelf pretty old, with its own hill fort) is a mystery. One local legend says the Romans tried to build Winchester (Venta Belgarum) there, but every morning they returned to the site and found the stonework they’d laid had been rolled down the hill. So they chose Winchester instead.

Old Winchester Hill, Iron Age hill fort

Quick break on Old Winchester Hill, most of which is a wild flower meadow at the moment, helping mantain species that need grazed chalk downland and also helping the much-ravaged bee population.

Rest on Old Winchester Hill

The villages of Corhampton, Meonstoke and Exton all blur together. Two of them have pubs and ancient churches. Corhampton church dates from 1020. This yew tree may be even older.

Thousand year old yew, Corhampton Church

Exton’s church, St Peter’s and St Paul’s, is slightly younger, 13th century. This is apparently a gravestone (now located in the nave) showing the Angel of Death summoning a scholar from his books.

Angel of death visits scholar, Exton church

We arrived about 4.30pm. The pub, appropriately named The Shoe, didn’t open till 6pm, dammit. So we hung about in the churchyard until it did, then I had a pint of Wadworth 6X. Wadworth is in Wiltshire, so relatively local as it’s the next county to the  northwest of Hampshire. It was a solid, medium-bodied, malty, caramelly ale. Fran had Swordfish, a similar malt ale given a bit of bite with the addition of rum.

Pint at The Shoe, Exton

The Shoe is a great food pub. Desserts included that essential British (gastro-) pub classic, sticky toffee pudding. It wasn’t the best sticky toffee I’ve had (it wasn’t warm enough for starters) but the main coarses we had – venison and scallops – were excellent so we were in a forgiving mood.

Sticky toffee pudding at The Shoe

Day 5: Corhampton to Winchester (15 miles / 25km)
Leaving the lovely Corhampton Lane Farm B&B, where they both grow and clean grain, we scrambled down the back of their property. This vineyard was across the valley. The South Downs are becoming increasingly significant for wine production. I don’t know much about it, but apparently chalk and limestone are particularly good for producing sparkling wines – and that’s what this estate, Exton Park, does.

Vineyard near Exton

Not far to go now, getting back in the countryside I explored as a kid on my bike and on family walks.

Winchester 10

For those who know me, they’ll know I got a bit obsessed with dead bikes while living in Rome. This was a nice variation on a theme. What it’s doing alongside a path on Gander Down I don’t know.

Dead bike, Gander Down

Some more hedgerow bounty. It really has been an amazing year for sloes and blackberries. If we’d been medieval pilgrims of a lowly caste or abstemious bent, we probably could have walked the whole route feeding ourselves on blackberries and hedgerow apples.

Amazing year for brambles.

Reaching Winchester, we stopped at my favourite home town pub, The Black Boy free house, for a quick early afternoon drink. I had a Saxon Bronze from Alfred’s Brewery, founded in 2012 and named after our 9th century Saxon king, Alfred the Great. Winchester was his capital and from there he built the foundations of modern England. The Saxon Bronze is one of those new generation English ales that has the maltiness of a traditional bitter, but is informed by the crisp New World hoppiness so associated with the craft beer revolution.

Black Boy beers

And here is some serious caskery outside the Black Boy.

Casks outside the Black Boor

The end of our walk, on the steps of my folks’ place.

Made it

Now, I absolutely loved this walk. So much history and beauty. Fran had a wobble when her blisters were getting to her, but overall she enjoyed it too. My only regret is not doing one extra mile at the end and going to the Hospital of St Cross, a Norman church and almshouses, where you can request the “wayfarer’s dole” at the porter’s lodge. As we were genuine old-school wayfarers, it would have made sense, but as I grew up just near there, it felt weird to go there to blag a piece of bread and mouthful of ale.

Instead, we paid a visit to this wonderful gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. Thomas Thetcher was a soldier who died in 1726, apparently because of his beer choice: “Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, / Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, / Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall / And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”

Small beer memorial

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Wellington: ugly buildings, splendid beards and fine beer

Havana and block md

We’re big fans of train travel, but NZ seems to have decided it’s a novelty, not a basic, logical sensible part of a sustainable transport policy: so the train from Auckland to Wellington only runs every other day. And is a tourist attraction, not really a quotidian mode of transport. So instead of a stately cruise down through the North Island on two rails, put in at great expense and manpower in the 19th century, we headed south in a coach instead.

We arrived in Wellington, NZ’s pint-sized, hill-and-ocean-hemmed, notoriously windy capital around 8.30pm after 12 delightful hours in the combustion engine behemoth that is the InterCity coach.

The wind – which had kept the first European visitors to NZ, Abel Tasman and James Cook, out of the harbour – wasn’t blowing, which is probably a good thing, as we found ourselves on the 22nd floor (actually the 14th or something, after all the superstition non-floors – 13 etc – have been factored in) of the generic chain hotel we’d accidentally booked. If the place had been being gusted it would have freaked Fran out even more; as is she was already worrying about what this elevation would be like in the event of earthquake.

Earthquakes are of course no joke in NZ. Christchurch, the South Island’s principle city, was terribly mangled by quakes in 2010 and 2011 and as a result building legislation has been revised. Now Wellington is a city that boasts fascinating topography, with craggy bays and hills, but it’s also defined by plentiful dull modern architecture, notably, but not exclusively in the CBD, and piss-poor town planning. The fact that the only characterful historic areas, notably the idiosyncratic Cuba Street, will probably get a massive makeover due to the combination of the new legislation and your predictable developer greed (lack of vision, aesthetic insensitivity etc etc) means the city will probably look very different if we come back in a few years.

In the meantime, we enjoyed trying to find interesting eating and drinking places, scrabbling through our hefty NZ Rough Guide, pottering up and down Cuba Street, round into backstreets, where older buildings are just about hanging on amid the identikit modernity. Having slept badly in our air-conned eyrie of blandness, we fancied the comfort of a cinema, so bought tickets to go to the Light House on Wigan Street. (Great little cinema, which even had some local craft beer like Tuatara; profoundly manipulative film One Chance.) Beforehand, however, we managed a quick beer across the street at the Havana, a bar, or pair of bars, in two old huts dwarfed by depressing modern buildings.

At the Havana we had a couple of beers from ParrotDog, a local brewery. Both – Bitter Bitch IPA and Flaxen Feather Blonde – were bottled, too cold straight from the fridge, very carbonated, but featured a decent amount of tasty NZ hops.

Angry Peaches beer and dinner at Olive, Wellington

After the film, we went to dinner at Olive on Cuba Street. This was a really nice restaurant, one of the best meals we’ve had for ages. It felt kinda posh, and I felt kinda scruffy, and I agonised about what wine to have (I settled on a very pleasant Milton Te Arai Vineyard Demi Sec 2009 Chenin Blanc) before changing tack after a glass and deciding I’d much rather try a beer from Garage Project, another Wellington brewery, a micro operation based in an old petrol station. The eccentrically hospitable waitress accommodated this with aplomb, as did the amiable waiter with his stupendous beard (if he’d had a black t-shirt showing off tats he’d look like a classic craft beer hipster). Jeepers, I’m getting serious beard envy. I’d love one of those dense lustrous beards, but unless I glue one on, I know I’ll go to my grave without every having that experience.

Anyway, the Garage Project beer was called Angry Peaches and was it great. The scent was fruit, cranberry, lemon and “Fairy Liquid” (Fran) and it was pleasingly not over-carbonated, mellow (despite the name) and sweet.

Fran Malthouse bar

The following day we went to the Malthouse (Courtnay Place), a great beer bar with an impressive selection, including more from Garage Project. There was even another guy with a great beard, damn him. We were served by a helpful, knowledgeable barmaid (no beard) who gave us several samples before we both alighted on the two beers on the hand pumps as an alternative to all the carbon dioxide on other taps. Our choices were from another local brewery, Fork & Brewer: Moon Blink Black IPA (5.8%) and Base Jumper (6.3%). The latter is a really smooth, surprisingly mild APA, with caramel and cereal tastes, and several hop varieties (Simcoe, Cascade, Centennial from the US; Orbit and Motueka from NZ) while the former is floral and blackcurranty.

Afterwards, we went to Chow, a kinda pan-Asian tapas place, with more good food – and, shock horror, actual spiciness, something that was very elusive in NZ a decade ago – and good beer. I had another ParrotDog, Dead Canary Pale Ale (5.3%), a gingery, orangey, malty ale while Fran had a Stoke Amber Ale. Stoke is part of the sprawl south of Nelson, original home of Mac’s, and Stoke is the McCashin family’s new brewery’s new brand. It was a delicious beer too, smooth but crisp. Good to see the McCashins back in business. Be interesting to see if they sell (out) this brand in a few years too, or keep it a microbrewery.

Beers in Chow, Wellington

So all in all, Wellington hasn’t disappointed on the beer or food front. Oh, and that thing I mentioned in the last post comparing its food options with NYC – the Rough Guide 2012 actually says “Wellington has more places to eat per capita than New York and the standard is impressively high.” Yep.

Now we’re on the ferry taking us across the Cook Straits to the South Island, aka the Mainland, aka the Middle Island. This route seems to be where old English Channel (and other European) ferries go when they retire. Just a week or so ago, one of these veterans dropped a propeller. Hopefully ours will make it, as at the other end, Picton, we get a smaller boat back up into the Marlborough Sounds to meet my wonderful old friend Nadia, who was one of my principle baking (and cooking generally) teachers and has a wood-fired oven with a view of the sea. Hopefully we’ll do some baking together, and I can get some bread back onto this blog, which has, I know, become somewhat ale-focussed of late.

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Filed under Ale, beer, Bars, pubs etc, New Zealand beer, Restaurants etc, Travelling

Go west, middle-aged man!

Done so much, seen so much, eaten so much, drunk so much since last post, hard to know where to start.

How about some of the amazing wildlife we’ve seen?

So, in vaguely chronological order: mule deer and a bald eagle, from the window of the California Zephyr, the train that took us on an amazing 25 hour journey from Denver, through the snowy Rockies and mud deserts of Utah, to Truckee; en route I enjoyed Pale Ale from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the Californian operation that’s one of the US’s biggest craft brewers.

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A red-tailed hawk skimming low over our heads in a frosty meadow in south Tahoe; we saw bear prints in the woods nearby, before arriving back at our friend Cameron’s street to see a black bear and her cub just over the street. In Tahoe, I drank Moose Drool from Montana.
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Then Great Basin’s Icky IPA, named after Nevada’s official state fossil the ichthyosaur (delicious, but served too cold as usual, so I had to warm it in the sun); “Distinct not extinct”.
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We also visited The Brewery at Lake Tahoe brewpub and sampling all nine of their delicious wares.
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I also ate a serious cinnamon bun from Sugar Pine Bakery to give me a sugary-carb hit before we went and lost money on the blackjack (aka 21) tables in a casino over the Nevada state line and got our money’s worth from a House of the Dead III machine.

Lake to sea
After a few fabulous days in Tahoe, we continued our westward journey, towards the California coast. As Cameron drove us towards her hometown of Carmel, we saw our first coyotes. I know these are pretty common in the western US, and considered a nuisance by many, but Brits like me get excited about such large fauna as we killed off such impressive animals as bears, wolves and lynx centuries ago. Plus, well, I love foxes, and coyotes are their big canine cousins: real survivors.

In Carmel we saw hundreds of cormorants and pelicans (again, common there but pretty exotic for us), as well as my first ever (sea) otters, all during a walk on the glorious Point Lobos. The latter were especially engaging – six or so, all snoozing in the kelp beds, floating on their backs and holding hands.

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In Carmel, I drank sundry beers, including Laguinitas Little Sumpin’ Wild Ale, which was strong (8.8%) and pleasingly, crisply bitter; Brother Thelonius from North Coast Brewing, a strong (9.4%) dark ale, reminiscent of slightly charred toffee apples; and Devotion Ale from The Lost Abbey, a sweet blonde; amongst others.
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We also tried to visit Post No Bills in Sand City, but were too early. Phooey, thwarted!

Big Surring
Somewhere we did visit, however, was Big Sur. This is a really special area that reminded me a bit of one of my fave places: the north of New Zealand’s South Island. Both have a rugged beauty, partially shaped by humanity but mostly defined by ocean and forest. On a hike in Andrew Molera State Park we saw more red-tailed hawks as well as another iconic American raptor, the turkey vulture.

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Beforehand, I’d fuelled up with the biggest, most amorphous almond croissant ever, from Big Sur Bakery. It was mighty good with a filling that was more crunchy than the usual almond paste.

Afterwards we had lunch at Nepenthe, a restaurant in a location once fleetingly owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth that has incredible views but food that needs a bit of an injection of energy.

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They had some great beers though, including the wonderfully named Eye of the Hawk from Mendocino brewing, another strong (8%) ale, this time coppery and warmly malty.

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Later on, we even fitted in a quick visit to Big Sur Taphouse, in the same stretch as the bakery.
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Pictures on the walls and a flag were Italian, but we drank local beers before buying some bottles from the amazing selection in the general store next door. Jeez, I wish British corner shops had such enthusiasm with their beer stock.

Oh, and I know I’m straying even further from my remit, but an honorable mention to Lula’s Chocolates for their Dark California Toffee: toffee, coated in dark choc, sprinkled with almonds. Best chocolate we had, and we we’ve been sampling a lot.

A bigger city
We’re now back in the big city, San Francisco, having said goodbye to Cameron, our ever-generous California host, on Wednesday night. We drove up via Santa Cruz, having a quick stop at the likeable Companion Bakeshop (handsome piles of breads, cookie far too earnest and 1980s-Cranks, tomato and onion tartlet underseasoned and soggy bottomed).

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As Cameron and I met at the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, it was fitting that our final dinner together was at Chez Panisse, the restaurant founded by Alice Waters, who also set up the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the Academy.

I must admit the food couldn’t quite live up to the hype (things rarely do), but I did have an excellent beer as an aperitivo: Proportional Response from The Rare Barrel. This brewery – also in Berkeley, like the restaurant – specialises in oak-aged sour beers. I usually loathe oakiness in wine, but this stuff was great – smoothly sharp, acidly mellow.

Having seen a few photos recently in which my 40-something-not-getting-enough-exercise-belly is coming along nicely (tall skinny man with a beergut – never a good look), I managed to go a day with our bread, cakes or ale yesterday (almost – had a cookie), but we did have a great walk around the city.

I’m loving California, but I do struggle with a car-oriented lifestyle; I just love to walk around and SF is a perfect place to do that. Cameron’s mum had kindly given us tickets for the de Young Museum’s David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition. The show was largely about Hockney returning to his native Yorkshire after 25 years living in California and as such provided a perfect connection between dear, soggy, verdant old England and this magnificent state.

http://hockney.famsf.org/sites/default/files/styles/big_preview/public/preview/08A01_cropped.jpg?itok=cfHMSYWU

We’ve got a few more days in SF now, before heading to NZ. I meant to get up early this morning and go to the much-praised Tartine, but I suspect we’re too late now as I’ve been doing this blog, having the usual fight juggling three devices and trying to sort all the pics and links.

We’ll see what the next few days hold. Sadly, I was way too late to get on a tour at Anchor Steam Brewery (thwarted again). Shame really, as I’m really keen to ask a US craft brewer about the whole issue of serving their brews at fridge temperature (4C, or 39F) compared to “cellar temperature” (8-10C, 46-50F).

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Down from the mountain

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We left Estes Park, and the elk, busy rutting by the road and slightly nonplussed when we slowed the enormous Dodge beside them to take photos, yesterday morning. The sun faded away behind a wall of cloud and drizzle as we got back to Boulder – itself still a mile (1600m) above sea level. It was flippin’ cold. Seriously, after two years in Rome we’re totally de-acclimatised to anything even vaguely near freezing.

Another immediately bizzarro comparison with Rome arose when we entered a café – and found everyone sitting in silence, on laptops. In Rome, people, you know, talk to each other in cafés. Still, the beer bars are decidedly more sociable – indeed, we’ve just been to Falling Rock Tap House in Denver and a note on the back of the menus scolds people for being on their phones.

Yesterday’s lunch was sociable too – we were still with Fran’s bro and family, though the Mountain Sun (1535 Pearl Street) was very welcoming to us all, including slumbering Angry Girl (19 months, in giant buggy) and hungry Brisket Boy (aka British Captain America, aged five). It was a really great spot, where the waiters were enamored of Brisket Boy’s accent and eager to please the slightly older beer drinkers among us by providing a superb selection of samples before we chose our pints.

These beer bars all have a serious emphasis on fried food though so we really enjoyed finding Bones in Denver today. This isn’t just an excellent fusionish noodle bar, with some splendid suckling pig steamed buns.

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They even had a few craft beers. Served far too cold (a bit of an issue here in the US methinks), but we still enjoyed our dark ales – especially my Ellie’s Brown Ale. It not only tasted good but it was named after a chocolate Labrador, reminiscent of the in-laws’ dog, Baxter, who we said goodbye to last week.

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After a bit of cultcha at the Denver Art Museum (Impressionism, US landscape art, the generation and consolidation of the myths of the American West, a giant dustpan and brush; not as cool as the giant blue bear though), we went to the Falling Rock. Where the serve beer at the right temperature, have an impressive selection, but slightly undermine the whole “no-phones-they-distract-from-the-beer”- ethos with bloody great screens. Still, at least it was basketball (Miami Heat beating Chicago Bulls), the most fluid, dynamic and engaging of the US’s three major sport obsessions.

Tomorrow may well be a craft beer-free day as we’re re-ascending the Rockies, this time by train, overnighting on the Amtrak California Zephyr before meeting our chum Cameron at Lake Tahoe.

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New York City, jetlagged, blind and spotted

Last week we were in Rome, a few days ago in my home town, Winchester, then we had a night in Hounslow, way west London. An unprepossessing area, perhaps, but we had a great curry at a place called Mantra, all enormous chandeliers, mirrored walls and lighting that phased through various colours, disconcertingly changing the pallor of Fran and our friend Nick as we chewed and chatted. I’ve never before experienced this blend of south Asian kitsch and east European mob (the waitresses were intimidating eastern blondes).

Now, however, we’re in New York, one of the greatest cities in the world despite the ennui of the guy in the Saint James stripy Breton shirts shop and the strange sense of synthesis and deadness in parts of Greenwich Village where no one seems to live anymore but you can spend $700 on a Barbour jacket that would cost you half as much in London.

We started the day yesterday with the worst croissant I’ve ever had and coffee Fran said was “vile”, but it got better. Before going to a Swedish shop playing 80s British music (Joy Division and Sisters of Mercy) in Little Italy, I had a good sfogliatella at Cafetal Social Club. This was a nice bit of continuity as I’ve enjoyed these pastries in Naples (their home) and Rome the past month or so.

The rest of the day involved a visit to an excellent produce market in Union Square and walking the length of the High Line, the wonderful linear park that rehabilitates a section of old raised railway, and a younger cousin to Paris’ Promenade Plantée. Along the way, there was even a stall that sold Zuppe and Biscotti, two of the books from the American Academy in Rome’s Rome Sustainable Food Project – another nice bit of continuity from the life I’ve just left behind.

Elsyian Hop Squash, Kuka Pumpkin Porter at the Blind Tiger Ale House

We subsequently got down to the serious business of sampling some US craft beer. The Blind Tiger Ale House in the West Village was having a Pumpkin Fest with Elysian Brewing, in Seattle, celebrating the new season’s pumpkin ales. Pumpkin ales are a big deal in the US, but previously the only one I’d tried was Italian brewery Baladin’s Zucca; I’ve never seen them in the UK, though British craft brewers are also getting in on the act now.

We tried four, and I must say, I found three of them a bit tricky, and one of them borderline disgusting. It was a great bit of cultural learning, but Elysian Night Owl, a 5.9% ABV pumpkin ale was just too nutmeggy for me, too much spice, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, to the point where both the more typical flavours of beer – hops and malt – along with any sense of pumpkin were obliterated. Fran identified a smell that recalled tea tree but I can’t say this made it any more palatable.

Blind Tiger

Fran tried a couple of the dark pumpkin ales, Elysian Dark Side of the Moon (6.5%) and Kuka Pumpkin Porter (7.6%). The latter was from a lot more nearby, with the Kuka Andean Brewing Company being based in Rockland County, New York state. The former had a lot of the Christmas pudding spice flavours going on, along with liquorice, orange chocolate (like Green & Black’s Maya Gold), ginger cake. The latter meanwhile, she said, smelled “a bit like garbage”, rotting veg, cabbage, but was much more balanced flavour-wise, with some pepper, liquorice and smokyness but not so heavy on the Xmas spices.

A helluva lot nicer was the Elysian Hop Squash, where any Christmas pudding spice overload was replaced instead by a serious floral, crisp hoppiness from Sorachi and Motueka hops. The pumpkin came through in a touch of buttery body. Of the four we tried, this one was much my favourite.

I’m not sure about this whole pumpkin ale lark – if there was more overt vegetably pumpkin flavour, sure, maybe, but they all seem much more like pumpkin pie ales, with a lot of sweetness and some serious heavy-handedness with the nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger etc.

Before the jetlag totally floored us, we headed further west again and went to The Spotted Pig, a notable location for its coat of plants and trees, potted along the pavement, cascading from the windows. I really liked this place – it successfully combines the feel of a transported, tweaked British pub with a New York restaurant. Whereas when many British pubs get gastrated, the results lose the quintessential pubbiness, this place gets the balance just right. Feels like a pub, but offers you a (not too formal) restaurant experience.

spotted pig bitter

They even have a decent selection of beers, bottled, keg and cask. The latter – served in handles – included their own Spotted Pig Bitter, which Fran said “smells of new shops”. It’s a sweet, malty, fruity brew, with very low carbonation, no head and a medium body. It’s pleasant, but a kind of stereotype-confirming version of flat, warm English bitter, brewed by Brooklyn Brewery. The other cask ale was Snake Dog IPA, from Flying Dog Ales in Maryland. This was much hoppier, with an almost metallic taste and something that made me think of (delicious, nutritious) stinging nettles.

The Spotted Pig also came with another connection to our old life in Rome. The chef and co-owner, April Bloomfield, is English and trained at The River Café in London before also doing a stint at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, famously founded by Alice Waters – who also set up the Rome Sustainable Food Project.

We continued the local, seasonal food theme with our lunch today, at Cookshop on 10th Avenue, not far from the midpoint of the High Line. I’ve been becoming increasingly passionate about local, seasonal food the past decade and a half, but after my stint at the Academy, and living in Rome generally and trying to buy as much of our food as possible from the farmers’ markets, I feel strangely freaked out now when I encounter out of season produce: it’s just started to feel so profoundly wrong. I can’t quite explain it, but imported out of season, produce has started to repulse me as much as heavily industrially processed food. My mind and body react badly, crying out why, WTF is this? It’s Autumn, why are they offering asparagus (or whatever)? How far has that travelled?!

Really, if you genuinely care about food that’s healthy for you and healthy for the environment, local, seasonal food is the only option. (I’m no saint though, so of course I eat badly sometimes; plus, well, we’re off to the Midwest in a few days, and I get the impression it can be quite hard to find real food there, so I’ll either go hungry or have to eat stuff from the industrial food chain.)

Ales at Cookshop, 10th Avenue

Anyway, the food at Cookshop was excellent, but they also had some great craft beers. I had a Resin from Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn. I was slightly disconcerted by the can, being more used to bottle-conditioned real beer, but heck, why not? This was a great beer – a celebration of the hop, and hop resin, at 9.1% ABV and 103 IBU (International bitterness units; broadly, 30 IBU could be considered an average bitterness). It was both intensely floral and warmly earthy, with a very crisp, dry mouthfeel.

Fran, meanwhile, had Scythe & Sickle from Ommegang, based in Cooperstown, upstate New York. If the US Midwest these days is defined by its industrial maize production, the Autumn 2013 seasonal Scythe & Sickle (5.8%) is a celebration of the old world grains traditionally grown in the northeast: it contains not just barley, but wheat, oats and rye too. It’s lightly malty, with a smooth sweetness that… despite the wholesomeness of this endeavour perversely reminded me of 1970s childhood sweeties.

So, all in all, despite not knowing NYC, and being half-dead from the cumulative effects of moving house, flying, London, home, then flying across the pond, never mind being increasingly unequivocally middle-aged, we’ve managed a pretty good few days of food and booze.

Oh, and excuse me if this is even more rambly than usual. My own laptop is too big to take travelling, so I’ve been bodging this copy together trying to get used to a tiny keyboard for my tablet, as well as getting my head around Fran’s infuriating old Mac (seriously Macaholics – iPhoto? Really? Can you really, honestly and genuinely make an argument for that software exemplifying Apple’s purported ease of use and intuitiveness?! And enough Ken Burns already!)

Info
Cafetal Social Club
285 Mott Street, New York, NY 10012
+1 212 966 1259 | cafetalsocialclub@gmail.com | cafetalsocialclub.com

The High Line
West Side Manhattan, New York
+1 212 500-6035 | info@thehighline.org | thehighline.org

Blind Tiger Ale House
281 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10014
+1 212 462 4682 | blindtigeralehouse@gmail.com | blindtigeralehouse.com

The Spotted Pig
314 W 11th Street, New York, NY 10014
+1 212 620 0393 | info@thespottedpig.com | thespottedpig.com

Cookshop
156 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011
+1 212 924 4440 | cookshopny.com

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Croce di Malto Temporis at Le Café Vert, Monteverde Vecchio, Rome

Croce di Malto Temporis at Cafe Verte

Le Café Vert is a small place that opened near us in our Rome neighbourhood of Monteverde Vecchio a year or so ago. It’s something of a gem actually, as it manages to be cool for breakfast, a reasonably priced snacky lunch, and for an aperitivo in the evening. They’re into KM0 too – that is, food that’s not travelled too far – and they stock a decent selection of real bottled beers.

The latter is important to me, of course, but it also indicates they’re taking their principles seriously, and extending them to not just the coffee, or the milk they use (organic), or the food, or the wine, but also to the beer. This morning we went for a coffee at the café in Villa Doria Pamphili Park, Vivi Bistrot, and while it also seems to be into natural and organic foods, it frustrates me that they don’t extend their principles as far as the beer. Their fridges are still stocked with all the generic industrial lagers favoured by Italian beer drinkers in less enlightened places (Ceres, Becks, Peroni, Tenants and whathaveyou).

I did an excellent wine-tasting last night, and talked with the sommelier, Hande Leimer, about why Italians drink so much of these acrid, metallic lagers. Sure, it’s partly marketing and mindwashing, as it was in the UK when industrial lager took over in the 70s and 80s, but here, Hande suggests, it’s also because these tastes are preferred when having a drink without eating. Italians always drink wine, on the other hand, to accompany and complement food, where the relationship calls on differing qualities of drink depending on what is being eaten. Something that tempts me to write “of course”, but many Brits just aren’t aware of this, as we don’t have a strong, traditional viniculture, and beer, on the other hand, was traditionally “liquid bread” and safer to drink than water. A practical drink.

Okay, chiaro, but there are also now Italian craft beers that can fill this niche, of something to be drunk without food: there are plenty of crisp, light options, particularly the summer golden ales (eg Baladin’s Gold One, or Birra del Borgo’s Cortigiana, or Lambrata’s Ortiga). These are in some ways akin to lagers. Except they’re generally better: they taste better and more interesting, they’re more naturally produced, not pasteurised, not filtered and, most importantly, they’re not rushed. They’re real beers.

So come on Vivi Bistrot – make that leap, be more holistic with your principles, and support your local craft brewers! (Such as Birra del Borgo, or Birradamare/ʼNa Birretta, or Turan, or Free Lions, all in Lazio.)

Le Cafe Vert, Monteverde Vecchio, Rome

Anyway, we stopped by Le Café Vert again the other night for an aperitivo. It’s just two blocks from our place, and not only that, their tabletops are decorated with a map of the neighbourhood. And not only that, when we sat down, I noticed that our very street was located just under my elbow. We’re leaving Rome in about three weeks, so this was a slightly emotive bit of synchronicity.

Le Café Vert seems to rotate its beers, after a fashion, and this time they had a whole shelf filled with bottles from Croce di Malto. I’d had one Croce di Malto beer, the English bitter-like Acerbus, at Fermentazioni 2013 the other day and was keen to try more. They’re not a local, Lazio brewery though – they’re in Piemonte*, west of Milan. Indeed, Piemonte is the Italian region with the highest proportion of craft breweries, all radiating out from Baladin, the mothership of the Italian craft beer scene.

Croce di Malto Temporis at Cafe Verte

I chose a Croce di Malto Temporalis, 6% ABV. It was straight from the fridge, so a little bit cold, but I was too impatient to leave it in my armpit warming. (Hande scolded me at the wine-tasting for holding my glass by the bowl, but I’m constantly trying to warm up beers to the right temperature, in this case 8-10C, which has resulted in bad wine-tasting habits.)

Considering it’s the end of summer  at the moment, it was perhaps not the best choice as apparently this is a beer “dedicata per la primavera” – dedicated to spring. It’s certainly a fresh, lively beer – even when drunk a little too cold. The scent is floral and orangey, while the taste is crisp and citrussy, sweetly malty, slightly herby. It’s got a medium body. It’s a bright, orange-straw colour, with some mistiness and a nicely foaming head.

Although it’s a saison, it’s at the more drinkable, accessible end of that spectrum – complex, but subtly so. As one critic says on Beeradvocate, it’s “lacking in saisony funk” – but that’s fine by me; there are plenty of other more challenging saisons, and this was a perfect accompaniment to Le Café Vert’s delicious aperitivo snacks. Blimey, their panelle (Sicilian fried chickpea pancake) is good. One of the many things I’m going to miss about Rome. Fried chickpea goodness and a crisp saison two blocks from home.

Addendum:
Went back again the other night and tried another Croce di Malto beer. This was Triplexxx (7.8% ABV), a slightly unfortunate name with connotations of dodgy Australian lager and, well, porn.

It was a slightly strange beer too.

I was intrigued as the three Xs refer to its use of barley, oats and wheat, as well as “spices” and zucchero candito (“candied sugar”, presumably candi sugar) but overall the abiding smell and taste is banana. Isn’t chemistry bonkers? How can those incredients, when combined and brewed, produce molecules that give such a strong flavour of a totally unconnected fruit? Though I’d say the smell also had some bubble gum too, and the taste some toffee: so maybe it’s bubble-gum-banoffee-pie beer. Strange.

Info:
Via Anton Giulio Barrili 47-47/a, Monteverde Vecchio, Rome
+39 06 588 0065 | lecafevert.it | info@lecafevert.it

Croce di Malto brewery
Coros di Roma 51A, Trecate, Piemonte
+39 0321 185 6101 | crocedimalto.iti | info@crocedimalto.it

* Why do we anglicise this as Piedmont? Are anglophones so lazy we can’t say “pee-ah-mon-tay”? Is saying “pee-ed-mont” really any easier?

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Birra del Borgo’s BdBi(g)BodyIBU at No.Au, Centro Storico, Rome

Birra del Borgo's BdBi(g)BodyIBU at No.Au, Centro Storico, Rome

Back at No.Au again the other night, one of our favourite little places in Rome’s Centro Storico (and in Ponte, rione V, if you read my last postʼs comments about the different Roman neighbourhoods).

One of the beers I was introduced to by the always friendly and helpful girls who work there has perhaps the most impossible name I’ve ever encountered. It’s Birra del Borgoʼs BdBi(g)BodyIBU.

The name, apparently, is a play on Disney-Cinderella’s “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo” song, but once you get past its strange coding – which is easier to read than say, after a few pints, in a mixture of Italian and English – its implications are clear.

Birra del Borgo's BdBi(g)BodyIBU

This is a Birra del Borgo (BdB) experiment in making a bitter beer with a serious IBU, that is a high International Bittering Units figure. The brewery site says, “Its main feature is the massive use of hop, a mix of different varieties that gives an extraordinary aroma and a remarkable bitter side, with 100 IBU.

If you check out the handy table (below), other 100 IBU beer include Russian Imperial Stout, Imperial IPA and American Barleywine. Most beers clock less than 50 IBU.

And yet, surprisingly perhaps, it is a really balanced beer, not simply defined by its bitterness or its strength (7.1% ABV). It has a nice copper-red colour, middling head, and fruity aromas, with some grape and wine-iness. Taste-wise, it is bitter, yes, but also very malty, with a nice broad cereal flavour.

Very pleasant drinking alongside our vast antipasti platters of cheeses and salumi (cured meats).

IBU International Bittering Units chart

Info
No.Au, Piazza di Montevecchio 16A, 00186, Rome
No.Au blog / noauroma@gmail.com / 06 45 65 27 70

Birra del Borgo brewery (English site)

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