Monday, October 12, 2015

Third Time's A Charm

The nights are drawing in and the temperature is starting to dip. There is more than a hint of winter in the air, which can mean only one thing: it's that time of year again! The time of the annual pilgrimage to the Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival.
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This was my 3rd consecutive trip to one of the UK's largest and most popular beer festivals, itself celebrating its 40th anniversary. Accompanying me on this year's adventure was a fine cast of close people: Amy (obviously), Matt (who journeyed up from Bristol), Sarah, Emili and Chris from work who was experiencing his first trip to Nottingham's finest beer fest. The day was dry and warm for the time of year as we began the day the way that every beer festival should begin: with a Wetherspoons breakfast and a fortifying pint. Once we had eaten our fill, it was time. Clutching our tickets and with anticipation and excitement etched on every face, we joined the not unimpressive queue outside Nottingham Castle and waited patiently for the gates to open. Finally, just before 11am, the gates were opened and we were in!

The first task was receiving our tokens upon entry which was a quick and easy job and Matt and I relished in receiving extra tokens due to having our CAMRA membership cards. With our tokens and commemorative glasses at the ready, we were all set to begin the days festivities. We decided to begin at the bandstand area in one of the smaller marquees set up for the event. The tough task at any beer festival is working out which beers to try and in what order. My tactic is always beers with interesting names and/or interesting ingredients. Chris and I were instantly rewarded in this respect, thanks to some helpful questions from another festival goer, a girl who had asked for a 'girlie beer'. She was recommended a beer that Chris and I ended up partaking in as our first for the day, Golden Bounty from Sperrin a brewery based in the Warwickshire village of Ansley. This ended up being an excellent choice to start the day. At 4.8% this is a summer ale with hints of chocolate orange, coconut and white rum. It's a superb mix with the orange to the fore and the rum obvious underneath. This first beverage was enough to spur us all on.

Matt, Amy and Emili had started the day on cider, with Matt and Amy opting to begin on Wilkins, a cider from Matt's neck of the woods that packs quite a punch. We made a group decision to make our way up to the main marquee or, as I call it, heaven. Chris was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the event, something that I can relate to from my first visit. As I was drinking 3rd pint measures, I was already in need of further refreshment and, after further perusal of what was to offer, I went for a beer from Three Kings, based in North Shields. Devil's Advocate (4.3%), as well as being excellently named, is an English pale ale with delicate, mint, grass and floral hop tones. It's certainly very refreshing and everyone is starting to get into their stride as we head outside to enjoy the sunshine whilst it lasts. Chris and Matt had already started on heavier beers such as porters and Emili was hitting the higher ABV beers, no doubt influenced by her job at BrewDog. My next choice of beer for the day was a foray into the realms of darkness, something I've been getting more use too on my recent excursions. From the Summer Wine brewery in Holmfirth, my next beverage was Teleporter (5%), a rich, dark and creamy porter. This was surprisingly drinkable for a heavy beer and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Upon returning from this trip to the bar and once again congregating outside, we came across something marvellous. A gentleman near to our group was drinking green beer. Green beer! Green! Beer! Naturally, we had to find out where this had come from so Chris made some enquiries and we were informed that it came from one of the brewery bars. The search was on! Frustratingly, we didn't appear to be able to find where this unusual concoction was, until Chris and I decided to apply a reverse psychology approach. Needless to say, as soon as we stopped looking for it, we quickly located it. Brewed by Worksop brewery Hale's the beer was being served from a bar shared with Grafton brewery. At 4.6%, the beer is a special brew to celebrate the festival's 40th birthday. Called We're Firkin 40, it is a medium hopped beer with its characteristic green colour making it a surprise hit. It's really easy to drink and the subject of much discussion amongst our group as well as other festival goers.

The day was progressing well by this stage and we were all thoroughly enjoying this year's visit. My decision to drink only thirds was a good one as it meant that I had more vouchers left than anyone else already. I decided to give up another couple on an interesting sounding beer from a relatively local brewery. Attracted by the name, I went for a beer called Lost Time from Torrside brewery in New Mills, Derbyshire. All of the brewery's beers are vegan friendly and this particular one is a 4.8% wheat beer made with trans-Atlantic hops. It's traditional cloudy appearance is matched by its sweet, smooth flavours. I'm a big fan of wheat beers so this was something of a treat. We were waiting for Sarah and her housemates Dom and Sam to arrive so, for the time being, we stayed put in the main marquee. We had only been here for a couple of hours or so, so we knew there was still plenty of time. I had already decided upon my next beer as I had spotted it earlier as was immediately intrigued by it. Brewed by Mid-Glamorgan's Hopcraft brewery, Spanish Main (5.9%) is a Jamaican stout with heaps of piratical character stemming from its base ingredient of rum. I'm definitely getting a stronger taste for dark beers and this would become a bit more of a theme throughout the day. Sarah and co had arrived by now, so we decided, after a brief break to regroup and recuperate, to head back down to the lower bars again. The bandstand was in the process of being set up for the day's entertainment. This happened to be directly opposite the tent that was being operated by Castle Rock. With that in mind, it seemed rude not to check out what they were offering. With Halloween around the corner, I couldn't help but ask for Most Haunted (4.4%), a porter brewed with pumpkin and spices. It has a very festive feel to it and the sweetness of the pumpkin is balanced nicely with the spicy infusion.

We hung around in this area of the site for a little while as we were enjoying the atmosphere of the open air. My next incursion into the smaller marquee reintroduced me to a brewery I am familiar from a couple of excursions, most recently my Cardiff trip. Heavy Industry is based in Henllan in Clwyd and I was immediately drawn to their Freak Chick (4.5%), a red, malty brew with an earth, spicy and zesty character. It was upon retrieving this particular beer that I bumped into people I was not expecting to see, namely Jade's mum, stepdad and brother. Thankfully, the atmosphere was jovial, there was no awkwardness and everyone was pleasant. We regrouped outside of the tent and decided that more food was probably a good plan. Sam opted for a Cornish pasty (his first ever!) whilst Chris and I were tempted by an authentic bratwurst which was an excellent decision. Refuelled, it was time for yet more beer and I was drawn to the offerings from Q Brewery, out of Queniborough in Leicestershire. I opted for the 1630 (5.5%), a strong, dark ruby ale bursting with fruit flavours. We were all in the mood for another walk at this point so we wandered back up to main marquee and gathered near to one of the side entrances, where conversation turned to experiences with mental patients as both Sarah and Matt swapped stories from their respective jobs in mental health care. There are some things that should not be shared!

I made a conscious effort to sample a few local breweries at this year's festival and I'd already managed a few before I got to Milestone, based at Cromwell. Intrigued by the name, I opted for the Springbok (5%), a collaboration brew with Robson's of Durban in South Africa. It was certainly a delicious coalition of flavours and nations and well worth 2 beer tokens. I took a gamble on my next beer and went further afield and significantly stronger with Stockport's Deluded IPA (6.5%), a classic IPA with a generous blend of US hops which give this a heady, fruity kick. Casual conversation was in full swing amongst the posse although it had thankfully moved away from slightly distressing workplace stories. Instead, we were all embroiled in general catch up stories and relationship chat. There was then a mutual decision amongst myself, Amy and Emili to have a crack at the offerings from Blue Monkey, who had a bar set up in the corner of the main tent closest to where we were currently located. As tempted as I initially was by their Big Blue, I instead went for the weaker Junior Ape (4.4%), a pale ale with an assertive profile of American hops and big flavours.

I was already well into a newly purchased set of tokens having exhausted my initial supply so the task now was to find interesting beers on which to spend them. Having had a break to go back to paler beers, it felt like the right time to move back to the dark side of the beer spectrum. This quota was filled nicely by Madhouse from Worksop's Double Top brewery. At 5.2%, this is a modern style porter, silky smooth with hints of coffee. The flavour is intense and delicious and certainly maintains my feelings that dark beers can be very good indeed. The time had come to move on again and the festival was now very busy so we wandered back down towards the bandstand where a very good covers band were halfway through their set. We needed beer to accompany the music so Matt and I made a dive back into the marquee for some further liquid sustenance. I was drawn to Twisted Dragon (5.8%) from Wrexham's Sandstone brewery. This is a premium ale with 5 hops, giving it a truly unique flavour.

Following a good old sing along to, amongst others, Mustang Sally, Sex on Fire and Livin' on a Prayer and with the evening drawing in, we were content to stay in the same place for the foreseeable future. A stone's throw away was the bar of another local brewery, Nottingham Brewery. Deciding it couldn't hurt to look at what was on offer, I had a quick peruse and discovered a couple of beers that I was unfamiliar with. One of these, Spoon & Arrow, ended up being my next choice. This is a hoppy, malty golden ale with a modest strength of 4.5% and very refreshing. The next band had begun by this point and we watched with amusement as we tried to figure out whether they were as good as their predecessors before deciding that this was not the case. Still with some vouchers left, I had plenty of time to pick my next beverage, eventually settling for Rocky Mountain from Shropshire's Big Shed brewery. At 4.8%, this is an American-style pale ale, one of the 'in beers' of the moment with an emphasis on big hop flavours and fruity finishes. The sun was going down by now and the night was getting chilly but thankfully there were enough people around that nobody felt particularly cold. The best designed bar of the festival was definitely that of Fun Fair brewery with its steampunk theme and costumes and a steam-powered meat smoking machine. It was certainly quirky and an interesting change from the marquees and caravans seen elsewhere on the site. Their beer is good too and I was able to partake in  Ghost Train (5%) a very dark, scary but tasty stout.

By now, we were all beginning to feel a bit worse for fear, mostly through tiredness than through alcohol consumption. The crowd was the biggest it had been all day but, for now, we weren't deterred and I picked an absolute belter for my penultimate beer of the day. From the Dewsbury based Partners brewery, Tabatha (6%) is a Belgian-style tripel beer, fruity with hints of coriander and bloody gorgeous! Time was ticking on and we'd been here for around 8 hours by this stage. With only a couple of vouchers left and a number of the group beginning to flag, the remainder of us decided to make our departures. Emili, Sam and Dom had already left so Amy, Chris, Sarah, Matt and myself began to head for the exit. I still wanted a final beer. 'One for the road' you could say, and I found it in a beer with an apt title: Stark Reality from the Reality brewery based, I was surprised to learn, in Chilwell. At 4.5%, this is a nice amber bitter with a good malt and hop balance. It was certainly a good climax to the day and, thoroughly impressed with the day as a whole, we made our weary way out.

This year's Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival was again an enormous success. Much beer was drunk, friendships were cemented and much fun was had by all. The thing that is always wonderful about this event is the fantastic atmosphere, the sheer quantity of people, all there for the same reason and, most importantly the scale of the thing with an unprecedented range of beers of all kinds, of high quality and significant quantities. 40 years on, the momentum shows no signs of slowing. Long may this and other events continue to fly the flag for the real ale movement and long may we all have the privilege of enjoying these for years to come. I don't intend to miss one for as long as I live. Praise goes to all of the breweries, the hundreds of staff and volunteers and, more than that, all of the visitors who made the effort to ensure that the festival is still going strong after 40 years. As a wiser man than me once said, 'If you build it, they will come'. Point definitely proven.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Misspent Youth

For my most recent excursion, I changed my normal tactics slightly and opted to move away from my standard formula of investigating the pubs in a specific location. Instead, I decided to have a go at visiting pubs that appeal to a certain type of clientele, all within the confines of Nottingham city centre. The obvious choice on this occasion was to delve into some places that attract the people who perhaps make Nottingham so well done for its drinking establishments, namely it's thriving student population. Nottingham has a vibrant student set, with its 2 universities and, as this was this reason that I first moved to this fine city 9 years ago, it seemed like a good opportunity to see what was on offer for any of this year's influx that happened to have a good taste in beer.

My timing was impeccable as the day of my trip coincided with the first proper day of Nottingham Trent University's Freshers Week. There didn't seem to be a massive number of students around at the time, which I put down to the fact that not all of them had arrived and those that had were asleep/hungover/confused or a combination of all 3. I had an easily accessible itinerary of pubs lined up for the day, all of which are in relatively close proximity to each other.
My journey began just across from where my bus stops on Market Square at a place where lots of students get their first introduction to Nottingham nightlife: Yates's.
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A well known site in most cities across the UK, this particular branch of Yates's occupies the site where a drinking establishment first stood hundreds of years ago. The first recorded pub on this site was known as the Bull's Head. In 1590, it was owned by the Talbot family and its name was later changed to the Talbot, a name that can still be seen on the high external arch of the building. Talbot is also the name of a hunting hound which features on the coat of arms of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was then a significant land owner in the county. The overall layout is similar to that of the Talbot, originally opened by local tycoon Edward Cox, to the genuine alarm of the locals. The present building is the latest incarnation of a building which has been demolished, rebuilt and refurbished several times. It was originally bought by the Yates brothers in the 1920's and added to their portfolio of premises from other north. Over the years, the Yates's brand has become synonymous with being a trendy venue for younger drinkers. Inside, the pub is expansive with a downstairs and upstairs bar (open at weekends) and a high, skylit ceiling. Much of the emphasis is on food and standard draught drinks. The décor is functional with some unique touches including a wall covered entirely in small mirrors. The long bar is well stocked and also features 3 handpulls. 2 of these are in use on my visit offering Pedigree and Trooper. I immediately opted for a pint of Trooper and, when I was eventually served, it was excellent.
Following a leisurely time spent enjoying one of my favourite beers, I then moved onto my next destination, situated on Parliament Street. Another well-known student haunt, my next stop was the Blue Bell Inn.

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Although primarily situated on Parliament Street, the Blue Bell has 2 entrances, the second of which is on Forman Street, opposite the Cornerhouse. Although on the same level, the front entrance is slightly narrower whilst the rear has an ornamental blue bell hanging above the windows. The Blue Bell is something of a student haven with 2 bars and a host of DJ nights throughout the week. The internal layout is divided into sections of different sizes and there is a snug-like alcove tucked away to one side. I haven't been here too many times in the past but, on my last visit I distinctly remembered there being ale. I was rewarded with the sight of 2 handpulls upon entering but my hopes were quickly dashed when it became clear that neither were being utilised. This was a disappointment but perhaps I'd caught them on a bad day. I was very nearly the only person in the pub at this stage so I hold out hope that the handpulls are used more during busy periods.

I knew my next location like the back of my hand. Situated on Goldsmith Street, directly on the tram route sits my former place of employment and one-time residence, The Horn In Hand.

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Despite not having worked here for many years, I still frequent the Horn (as it's colloquially known) on a regular basis as I still know a few of the staff and regulars. I'm also privy to a fair bit of the history surrounding the place. In previous years the pub was known as the Spread Eagle and Fagin's before becoming an alternative/metal bar known as Speak Easy, an identity it had when I first worked there. It had previously been known as The Horn In Hand before this relocated to the larger premises next door (now Spanky's, more on which later) and then reverting back to the smaller premises it now occupies. Speak Easy sadly no longer exists, something which a lot of older drinkers still feel sad about. The pub is operated by Stonegate and was part of the recently disbanded Scream brand. The manager at the time of the reversion back to The Horn In Hand is now running The Phantom in Loughborough (see previous blog). A small flight of steps leads up to the entrance and it is decked out with student friendly décor with lots of seating including benches and sofas, lots of TVs and a smaller upstairs area that houses a pool table. The small, J-shaped bar boasts 3 handpulls which, in quiet periods such as during my visit, offers a single brew, a special edition rugby-themed beer called Ruck N Roll, courtesy of St. Austell Brewery. This is a 4% amber ale with a full, dry palate and a fruity hop balance. It is certainly a delicious beer and I was persuaded enough to have a couple of pints here whilst, as per usual, I reflected upon my time working here.
Although it isn't well documented, I have first hand experience of unexplained things happening in this building. When I first started working here, I heard rumours that members of staff had experienced strange things in the cellar area, including an unknown figure seen at the top of the cellar stairs. The cellar in particular has a strange feel about it, particularly late at night or early in the morning and I once heard a small child giggling behind me whilst collecting stock one evening. When locking up after a shift, myself and another member of staff, both alone and independently from each other, heard the sound of a groan or a cough from the area of the male toilets and the pub kitchen. Strange things also occurred in the staff accommodation above the pub, which I lived in for a while along with the aforementioned staff member. I distinctly heard my name being called from the office when I was the only person in the flat, another phenomenon that other staff have reported. The sound of a cat was often heard, before any such animal lived on the premises. Add to this to the fact that the motion sensors in the pub would randomly go off for no reason and that the pub has survived at least 3 fires (1 that was very serious) and I can testify that something strange was going on. The original building is listed and hundreds of years old so perhaps this is not a surprise.

Moving away from spirits of the human variety, it was now time to relocate myself once again. Luckily, my next stop was just next door at what is now known as Spanky van Dyke's.
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Like its neighbour, this is another premises that has been through numerous lives in its long history. It first began life as a music hall and performance venue, something that is commemorated in the dome on the roof, harking back to its origins. Following this, it became an American-style diner before becoming Horn in Hand, before this relocated with the closing of Speak Easy. As part of this change over, the building became what it is now, billed as an 'eatery and funhouse' and operated by a coalition between Mitchells and Butler and Project Tokyo. The premises is part of a chain of similar premises in cities around the country and Spanky's has the added bonus of being the official Freshers Week HQ. Inside, the décor is quirky and arty with dimmed lighting and a mix of furniture. The pub hosts regular music and theme nights and, especially at weekends, is rather busy. The bar has 4 handpulls, during my visit featuring Old Rosie cider, Purity Ubu, Doom Bar and Hop Back Summer Lightning. I decided on a pint of the Ubu, which was very well kept. Of all of the premises visited so far on my trip, Spanky's had the strongest range of ale but this is largely due to it being busier more often outside of term time.

I had deliberately left the next pub until last as it is my favourite pub in Nottingham, largely due to the atmosphere, the style and its fantastic juke box. Around the corner, in Wollaton Street, I give you The Tap N Tumbler.
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Essentially a resurrection of Speak Easy in all but name, the Tap is a long-established venue with a history of catering to the rock, metal and alternative scene in Nottingham. It has just celebrated 2 years since the refurb that has given it its current look and feel and is operated almost as a freehold, despite being owned by a large pub company. Inside, the bar is large and curved, featuring 4 handpulls. The walls are decorated with rock memorabilia and drawing, paintings and photos of famous rock stars. The food menu is rock themed and the ales (brewed by Nottingham brewery and rebranded in-house), have names like J'ale Break, Nine Inch Ale, Rebel Y'ale, you get the picture. The pub tends to be quiet on weekday daytimes and so the full range of ale is not normally available until weekends. Indeed, during my visit, only Greene King IPA is available but this is well kept and delicious. The pub also normally features Trooper as a guest ale. I spent my time here enjoying my beer and participating in an obligatory juke box raid as well going back over the day's activities.
The student pub scene in Nottingham is certainly thriving, even though real ale often doesn't get much of a look in. The ones that do it tend to do it well and successfully. The ones that don't are probably responding to trade trends based on their normal circumstances. What has become clear is that it would be unlikely that you would have found ale in this many student pubs a years ago, and also that, whatever your background and whatever your tastes, Nottingham still has much to offer each new influx of students without alienating those who have been in the game for a lot longer. Why do you think I've never gone home?