Friday, May 23, 2014

Pomp(ey) and Circumstance

For my most recent dip into the waters of the ale world, I experienced something that had somehow passed me by in recent years despite it apparently being a more or less regular thing. The event of which I speak is none other than the Portsmouth Beer Festival, held in the cavernous interior of Portsmouth Guildhall. What followed taught me a lot about the benefits of choosing your timing wisely and also about the disadvantages of having friends and family who happen to be lager drinkers.
This year's Portsmouth Beer Festival took place over the 16th and 17th May and, for a change, the gods of English weather were in a good mood as the sunshine was rampant and the temperatures were blistering. The basic agenda for the day had been decided by my drinking companions for the afternoon, namely my dad, my uncle and a few of their friends. It just so happened that May 17th was also the day of this year's FA Cup final and so it made perfect sense to get to the pub for the game and then venture to the beer festival when it was all over (or at least when we thought it was). This turned out to be a good idea in theory as we witnessed one of the best cup finals in recent years with Arsenal coming back from 2-0 down to beat Hull City 3-2 in extra time, win their first trophy in 9 years and keep a certain stoic Frenchman in his job.

Anyway, with the football out of the way and a few pints down us, it was time to embrace the delights of whatever the beer festival could throw our way. Whilst I had never experienced a beer festival in my home town, I was on considerably better footing than my dad who had never been to a beer festival in his life and, based upon how much he enjoyed this one, probably never will again. At this point, it makes good sense to describe the venue.

Portsmouth Guildhall was completed in 1890, having been designed in the neo-classical style by William Hill (not that one), who also designed Bolton Town Hall. Local architect Charles Bevis directed the construction and added to the design when Hill died prior to the building's completion. It was originally the town hall but was renamed Portsmouth Guildhall when Portsmouth was granted city status in 1926. The capacity of the building, a popular entertainment venue, is around 2000. On 10th January 1941, the building was struck by incendiary bombs and gutted. The interior and roof were destroyed with just the outer walls and tower remaining, albeit fire-damaged. It was rebuilt at a cost of £1.5 million and re-opened by Her Majesty the Queen on 8th June 1959. The interior was altered from the original and the external style is missing much of the original detail. The bell tower contains 5 bells known as the Pompey Chimes. The biggest of these is named after Queen Victoria and inscribed with her name. The remaining four were named by public poll and 3 of these were initially called Nelson, Victory and John Pounds. The official naming was stalled due to the popularity of the vote for Harry Redknapp, the former manager of Portsmouth, who left shortly before voting started. Due to the council suspecting foul play, the bells have since remained unnamed. The building itself is one of central Portsmouth's key landmarks and I'd show you a picture but the 'upload' option appears to be lying to me............. The chimes of the Guildhall bells also provide the tune to one of the most famous chants in the football world (at least in League 2), namely 'Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up'. We're nothing if not poetic us Southerners.

Anyway, back to the beer festival. Upon entry, having bought our tickets in advance for £10, we were all issued with a commemorative pint glass and two beer tokens, with a nearby price board advising us how to buy more and how much that would cost. I bought a further 8 tokens for £11 as I thought this would be a good place to start. The pricing of beers was reasonable as well; 1 token would get us a half with pints worth 2 tokens. Clutching my program/beer list, I headed into the main room where the beers were all laid out. It was at this point, that I had to instruct my dad as to how a beer festival actually worked, firstly by explaining why the beers were arranged in alphabetical order by brewery, something which I didn't feel needed as much explanation as I was forced to provide. I also then had to explain why he would be unable to find any lager, despite being convinced by my uncle that there would be some, with the simple argument that lager isn't beer in the same way that ice cream isn't soup. With the shame rising inside me, I decided that to continue drinking would be a good idea. The next few minutes showed me the importance of forward planning. This was the final of 3 sessions for this beer festival which, as aforementioned, had started the previous day. This meant that a lot of first choice options for myself and others were no longer available. I didn't look too badly on this though as it means that the beer festival was successful. After a couple of changes due to low stock, I finally settled on Cascadian Black (4.8%) from Yorkshire' Saltaire Brewery. This was a black IPA (a term that still baffles me) with the roast malt flavours of a stout supported by the bitterness, fresh pine and citrus grapefruit flavours of the Cascade hops. It turned out to be a good place to start, even when I returned to the group to find that Dad was still complaining. Myself and Andy, one of my dad's friends were at least enjoying ourselves though, even though I had to guide him through the beer list because he didn't have his glasses. My next choice was something totally different. I opted this time around for Sunburst from Dark Star. At 4.8% again this had a hint of initial sweetness that added to the fruitiness and grapefruit tang without detracting from the clean flavour and rich hop aroma.    

This being a beer festival, there was live entertainment on offer and it was at about this point that the next act started up. I can best describe them as a band of (presumably) students who wanted to sound like Mumford & Sons despite being nowhere near as talented and considerably more annoying. However, it was not my fault but theirs (ba dum TISH!). Next on my list of stuff to try was a beer from Derbyshire's Thornbridge brewery. Again with a strength of 4.8%, Jaywick started with a powerful, zesty flavour of grapefruit hop but this was followed by floral rose petals and then a smooth malty taste that balanced the sharp citrus flavours. I enjoyed this one the most at this stage as the random mix of flavours was the equivalent of being caressed with a lemony thorn bush, although a lot more pleasant than that analogy probably came across. Dad and I have a running joke that every time we go somewhere in Portsmouth, I bump into someone I know. This theory was confirmed when I bumped into my old best friend from junior school, for the first time since we went to college together nearly a decade ago. Still reeling from this unexpected but not unpleasant blast from the past, I decided that more beer was needed, at least to drown out the sounds of the band finishing their set with a cover of a song by Mumford & Sons. I stepped down the percentage for my next choice and segued back to Dark Star for a taste of their Partridge Best Bitter (Aha!) at 4.0%. This best bitter is brewed in a traditional Sussex style using Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malts with East Kent Goldings hops. It went down very well indeed.

It was at this point that I sensed that Dad was getting frustrated with his surroundings and this was further confirmed when he began telling me to use my tokens up quickly. Not wanting to annoy him anymore than he'd already annoyed himself I did my best to oblige. My next beer was Sharp's Cornish Coaster (3.6%), weaker than I would normally have opted for but tasty nonetheless with fresh hop aromas blending seamlessly with light fruity-sweet notes. By the time I returned from collecting this beverage, Dad was finally drinking something that he seemed to be enjoying. I later determined that this was Sharp's Cornish Pilsner, winner of World's Best Lager.............. I'm not knocking Sharp's by any stretch of the imagination as their beer is fabulous. I'm just mocking my dad's lack of imagination. He might as well have smuggled cans of Carling in with him. I had time for one more pint before the departure that I think Dad was banking on. Whilst I decided what this was to be, the 'headline' act for the evening appeared onstage. The Southsea Alternative Choir consisted of 8 blokes, 4 of which played a variety of instruments whilst the other 4 just sang, not necessarily at the same time. They essentially came across as looking like the survivors of a fight between The Flaming Lips and The Polyphonic Spree. Make of that what you will. The beer that would turn out to be my final one of the evening was from the Tiny Rebel brewery and named Goldie Lookin' Ale. I gathered it must have been a relatively new brew as the program contained no mention of it. At 4.5%, this was a golden ale with hints of lemon and peach on the nose and a strong, dry malt taste that accompanied a smooth finish. I'm glad I went for a pint of it as it was definitely worth it.

And with that, it was time to go! It had certainly been an interesting day and I had thoroughly enjoyed it, even if the same cannot be said for other members of the Bulley family......... With the sounds of strangely executed trumpet noises echoing in our ears we departed Portsmouth Beer Festival in search of that other well known staple of the lads' night out -- Chinese food. Portsmouth Beer Festival is certainly something that I'd like to make a regular effort to get too, hopefully for longer next time though. It showed me that beer festivals can be done well wherever you go and this is good news, particularly as this represented my first beer festival outside of the Midlands. There are 1 or 2 important things that I took from it that I feel are worth sharing:

1) The earlier you get to a beer festival, the better. There's nothing worse than some of the best ones being sold out before you even arrive. Alternatively, if you would rather go later, don't be one of those people that complains when your first choice brew is gone. You've only really got yourself to blame.
2) This one is very important and I can't stress it strongly enough. Don't take lager drinkers unless they're willing to try stuff. And maybe not even then. They'll only get on your nerves and resort to drinking Pilsner.

All in all, it was a good day out and would recommend it to anyone that happens to be in Portsmouth in mid-May when the beer festival normally takes place. Southerners can do this kind of thing just as well as you weird Northerners.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Castles, Crows & Caves

I'm back! Once again, there are a number of reasons for my prolonged absence from these pages, most of which are too lengthy and too boring to go into here. However, I will be doing my very best to keep filling these pages in a more regular manner from now on. Firstly though, an apology. Many of you may be wondering what happened to my promised blog from the CAMRA Winter Ale Festival that took place in Derby back in February. I did attend said event and it was excellent however, in a moment of heavy handedness with my mobile phone, I managed to lose all of the notes that I had made documenting the afternoon. Doh! I'm inclined to blame the volume of beer consumed that day, not that I'm making excuses...........

Moving on though. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances I am currently very much a transient between the fair city of Nottingham and the considerably less fair but considerably more southern locale of Portsmouth, my aforementioned hometown. On a recent stay in the best city in the Midlands, I took time out from my busy schedule of cursing my own existence to explore some of the pubs in the area immediately next to Nottingham Castle and extending up the hill in the direction of Derby Road. I have visited a couple of the pubs in this area before but never for blog-related reasons so I decided that the time had come to set this right. My journey began on a temperamental Wednesday afternoon, at The Castle Inn. This is not the same Castle that featured in my trip around the Sneinton area. It is instead a much older, stylish building located opposite the gatehouse of Nottingham Castle. The frontage of the building is original brick and the building itself sits at the junction of the main thoroughfare and a smaller, narrower side street. To the front, the mocked up frosted glass boasts a date of 1980 for the current premises but the building, and its use as a pub, date back a lot further. To one side are mullioned windows. Internally, the pub is broken up into smaller sections by the use of small sets of steps. The seating is a mixture of chairs, stools and sofas. The bar is central and L shaped and boasts 6hand pulls, 2 of which are out of use at the time of my visit. The 6 options available are London Pride, Shipstone's Bitter, Doom Bar and Tribute. I decided that Tribute was a good option, being one of my favourite ales and I was pleasantly impressed when it was served in a jar with a handle. It was also in very good condition, which is always nice to see and the whole experience was made all the more enjoyable by the Johnny Cash being pumped from over the sound system. All in all, it was a good start to the day.

My next stop was unplanned on my original itinerary but I took a stab, out of curiosity more than anything else and I'm pleased to say that my faith was rewarded. Opposite the Castle Inn, is the Crafty Crow. I'm amazed that no-one had told me about this place yet, for reasons that will soon make sense but I get the sense that it hasn't been open very long as I'm fairly sure that it was being constructed/renovated the last time that I was in this part of town. Situated in the building that used to house BZR nightclub, Crafty Crow is the tap house for Magpie Brewery. In addition to this, they specialise in independent British brewers and craft beers. The large, open plan interior is filled with modern décor but with a certain artistic flair to add to the atmosphere. The bar is very large and located right in the centre of the room. Aesthetically it's impressive with empty kegs and an old brewing vessel incorporated into the design of the bar. A fridge to one side is chock full of bottled beers and there are more available on draught from pumps mounted onto the old brewing vessel. There are also 10 (count them!) handpulls, dispensing a variety of goodies. On this occasion, the offerings consisted of Magpie Pale & Nightbus, Flipside English Crown, Growler Suffolk County, Wentwell Jeremiah Mild, Copthorne Cherry Porter, Mallard Drake and Eden Challenger. I swung for a pint of Nightbus (4.2%). This ale was brewed especially for the Trent Barton bus company by Magpie Brewery and is a heavy hopped ruby ale with a base of caramel malt. It went down very well as did my experience of the Crafty Crow as a whole. I would urge anyone who hasn't ventured here yet to make an effort to do so as it is definitely worth it.

Further up the hill from the castle lies my next stop, The Roundhouse. As the name accurately describes, this is a tall, circular building in Royal Standard Place. The present building was built on the spot where, during the English Civil War, Charles I raised his standard and asked the people of Nottingham for their support. In more recent times, it was part of Nottingham General Hospital which I am unsure whether still operates. Any readers with a knowledge of hospitals, feel free to enlighten me! Inside, the décor is art deco which fits very well with the general feel of the place. The seating is incorporated well into the shape of the building and there are several really cool character features including some amazing ceiling art. The bar is curved and includes 6 handpulls, 1 of which is not in use at this stage. Available for the ale drinker are Mr Grundy's Pip, Squeak and Wilfred, Mr Grundy's Blighty, Dancing Duck Dark Drake and Round Heart and Tim Taylor Landlord. I took a chance here and decided to try the Blighty. At 4.5% this is a mild, with strong flavours of coffee, a caramel aroma and a creamy head all contributing to a smooth finish. I sat at the bar enjoying my mild, and taking in my surroundings. I have visited here on a couple of prior occasions, most recently on a date, and I never fail to be impressed by it.

Inevitably, because it's England in May, the weather was never going to hold out and the heavens opened as I was on my way to the next location. Even though this wasn't far, by the time I arrived I looked like I'd been for a brisk swim in the Trent. Or, probably more accurately, survived the sinking of the Titanic. I was now at Nottingham Playhouse to investigate Cast, the bar for the venue. The surroundings of the bar are very contemporary and the bar itself carries out some quite cool colour changing light effects. The handpulls, of which there are 3 are arranged at random points on and behind the bar and are made of chrome, which in itself is quite interesting. My choices here are Shipstone's Bitter, Flipside English Crown and Navigation Traditional. Navigation beers are always a good option and the Traditional was in good condition. I stayed here for a little bit in hopes of drying off and also had the time to take in the majesty of the Sky Mirror which does exactly what you would expect from the name. Eventually, with my pint glass empty and clothing slightly less drippy, I once again braved the elements.

Next up was a place that is well known as an excellent venue for ale in the local area. It has featured in the blog previously as part of an entry about a story telling evening. I am of course referring to the Hand & Heart. Built into the cave system and with a conservatory above, the Hand & Heart has built up something of a reputation for good food and great beer. It was quiet when I arrived here but this was Wednesday afternoon so that's almost to be expected. Of the 8 available hand pulls, 2 are out of use but the remaining 6 offer up a good mix of Black Iris Stout No.3, Mr Grundy's Olive Branch, Black Hole Aleien Invasion, London Pride, Maypole Little Weed and Dancing Duck Round Heart. I decided on the 3.9% Olive Branch and it proved a wise move. This ale is golden and heavily malted with hints of coffee and a smooth finish. It was almost a shame when I drained the last of it!

I had one stop left on this particular tour and, luckily, I only had to go next door to the The Hawksley. Though the interior of this premises is modern looking, you only have to look behind the back bar to see the caves that permeate the area. In this case the caves even permeate the nostrils as you can smell the damp coming from underground. It's not an unpleasant smell though thankfully. The seating throughout is mostly tables accompanied by either wooden chairs or red leather sofas, and the walls are decorated with photographs of local sporting legends. 1 of the 4 hand pumps is not in use but the others offer up a selection of Landlord, London Pride and Harvest Pale. I went for the latter and it was in excellent condition. I had plenty of time to reflect on my afternoon of exploration before I went back to my hotel and there was lots to reflect upon. The day had been productive, the venues interesting and the beer good. Generally, I have no reason to complain about a day well spent and a job well done. In future blogs, I may attempt a more far-reaching comparison of Nottingham ale pubs versus Portsmouth ale pubs in an attempt to see which city has it better off, although I have a hunch that I already know the answer. I shall be attempting to investigate as much ale-related in Portsmouth and its environs before my inevitable and glorious return to Nottingham (why fight it?) and I also hope to keep investigating the Nottingham area too. This should give a good indication of the key differences in different areas, not just in terms of breweries and beers available but also attitudes towards ale consumption around the country. Besides which, it's fun!
And it's not like I have much else to do.............

NB: My apologies again for the lack of photographs this time. The laptop I'm currently using has some issues. Hopefully these will be rectified in time for the next entry.