Friday, October 21, 2016

Festival Thursday

Last week it was time for an event that has effectively become an annual pilgrimage and one which I am determined never to miss. I, of course, refer to the Robin Hood Beer & Cider Festival held, once again, at Nottingham Castle. This is the 41st year of the event and my 5th consecutive visit since I first made an appearance there in 2012.
Image result for robin hood beer festival
This year we did things slightly differently to prior visits. Unable to get the Saturday off due to work commitments, Amy and I opted instead for the Thursday session which, as well as being considerably quieter, led to the chance of more beer and an always welcome opportunity to meet up with George and Claire. Sadly, Matt couldn't make it any earlier than the Saturday so he was unable to join us. Nevertheless, what followed was an excellent experience that well and truly reinforced that this is the best festival of its type anywhere in the world.

We arrived at the castle fairly early, around 11.30, with Amy meeting me following an early delivery shift at work (for me, not her). We were immediately surprised by the lack of a queue, especially given that we hadn't procured tickets this year and were buying on the door. This was not an issue at all though as we were inside almost instantly, clutching our commemorative glasses and beer tokens (as usual, 5 extra for me due to CAMRA membership).

Our first destination, after a brief exploration of the relatively unchanged layout, was the lower area near the bandstand which, although smaller than the main marquee further up, was easier to access for now and offered an interesting range of beers to choose from. As usual, the beers were arranged in alphabetical order of brewery with a larger choice in the main marquee as well as a number of dedicated brewery bars and the lower tent which features lots more! My first tipple of the day was highly seasonal. With Halloween just around the corner, I was instantly drawn to Fright Night, the solitary festival beer from Pennine Brewery, based out of Batley, West Yorkshire. At an easy drinking 4%, this is an amber ale with a roasted bitterness and a slightly spiced aroma. It was a very warming beer and a great start to the day that certainly got me into the mood. Using this first beer as a palate cleanser, we made our way up towards the main tent where we got our bearings and worked out what our next move would be. As it turned out, another beer was our next move and we found just the thing at one of the brewery bars, specifically that operated by Laneham based Springhead, whose beers I am more than familiar. Following recommendations by the very knowledgeable barman, I was drawn to the Blind Tiger (4.5%), an aromatic pale golden beer with full oranges added to the brew, which provided the whole thing with a slightly cloudy appearance and citrusy flavour. All in all, it was very nice indeed.

Things were progressing nicely now and, determined not to spend too much time in one area, we once again made our way down to the bottom marquee. Following a quick examination of the beers on offer, I was surprised to see a single beer from St. Austell brewery. The aptly named Bucket of Blood (4.5%) is a spicy, classic red ale with a malty toffee palate and a very nice flavour that went down much more quickly than I was expecting. It was back to the main marquee next and straight to a local brewery that I have all the time in the world for and who, once again, boasted their own bar at this year's festival. I speak, inevitably, of Blue Monkey brewery. Some serious decision making went into my choice this time. In the end, Amy and I both went for a third of Nuts (4.6%), a nut brown ale with a fruity flavour and smooth bitter afternotes. It was different to a lot of Blue Monkey beers and certainly a departure from what I expected. Blue Monkey is still flying the flag for excellent local beer and long may it continue! Continuing the back and forth that had so far been the theme of the day, we soon found ourselves back by the lower bars again and drawn to the bar of a brewery that I always make the point of visiting at every beer festival, due to both the quality of their beers and the quirkiness of their bar. Funfair Brewery had once again outdone themselves, last year's steampunk themed BBQ was now an Alice in Wonderland themed caravan, reflected admirably in their beers. My choice was Cheshire Cat (4.9%), a dark, malty, and very easy drinking strong bitter. The novelty value of this bar was once more enhanced by the serving of some of the beers (regrettably not mine) out of a teapot.

At this stage, we were at something of a quandary. We were very tempted to head back up to the main marquee, whilst also being very aware that George, Claire and Rich's arrival was imminent. In the end, fate (or something like it) intervened. As we were debating our next move, the advanced party, namely mutual friends of both myself, George and Rich (whose names are too numerous to mention) arrived and immediately headed for the Traffic Street bar. Thinking it rude not to get involved, we quickly did the same. An offshoot of Castle Rock brewery, Traffic Street specialise in speciality beers, many of which were in evidence here. Initially unsure where to progress next, I was finally swayed by the Rat Race (4.7%), a rich and biscuity red ale. Despite the relatively low ABV, it tasted a lot stronger but, thankfully, did not have too much of an adverse effect. Absorbed into the sudden increase in numbers of our group, who then decided that buying novelty traffic cone hats was the best idea in the world (it was not), we once again ventured to the main marquee which by this stage was considerably busier than it had been early doors. My beer exploration next me to the offerings of a new brewery, namely Brew York from, er, York which amongst its portfolio offered Viking DNA (5%), a very dark porter which packed a hell of a punch and was certainly worth giving up tokens for. My initial quantity of tokens was almost exhausted by now so I resolved myself to finding a decent beer to get a half of before I purchased further tokens. George and I had a discussion which led to a mutual interest in beers with amusing names, not that we weren't already fans of unfortunate/rubbish puns. To that end, the only place to really go by this stage was into the realms of Staggeringly Good Brewery, from my home town of Portsmouth!! At 6.5%, Velocirapture was worth a taste for the hilarious name alone. This strong (very strong!), American IPA was delicious, hoppy and smooth as well as adding another notch in the belt of a city that already boasts Charles Dickens and a football team on the verge of a return to greatness.

Our next step was to purchase more tokens which took next to no time and then it was straight back to the brewery bars. I was intrigued to see what Grafton Brewery had to offer this year. Renowned for their use of unusual flavours in their beers, they had been responsible for the excellent green beer last year. Between the small group of us, we opted for a range of the beers that were being proferred our way this year with myself being drawn to the Chocolate Mint Delight. This 4.8% stout was flavoured with peppermint, chocolate and coffee/cocoa flavours and was deceptively delicious. Fair play to Grafton for daring to go against the masses and produce beers that aim to be different. At this stage, Amy, George, Claire and myself once again headed back down to the lower area, making a bee line for the tent which was shared by Black Iris and Totally Brewed. Torn between the 2, George and I eventually opted for beers from the Totally Brewed stable, with my choice being 4 Hopmen of the Apocalypse (5.2%) with its piney, citrus hop character and caramel note. I have to confess that I hadn't previously tried many of Totally Brewed's beers but, if this is any indication, then it's clear that I've missed out. The main marquee once again held the day's next delight, in the form of a very interesting beer from Lincoln Green, which had one of the largest selections of any brewery at this year's event. The wonderfully named Gin and Beer It (5%) is infused with juniper berries, orange, lemon peel and coriander seeds, tasting for all the world like a gin and tonic, in every way that that is a good thing.

The sheer range of beers on offer this year was truly staggering and, the longer the day went on, the more I remembered how much I love the beer festival and how empty my life was before I first experienced its wonders. Still in the main tent, it was time once again to crank up both the ABV and the flavour, this time with Monster from Edinbrew, from Edinburgh in case you hadn't guessed. At 5.7%, Monster is a golden IPA packed with lychee, mango, lime, grapefruit and orange along with some big hop flavours. Monster is about right! Continuing the theme, the next beer was straight out of Somerset, courtesy of Electric Bear from Bath. Their Livewire is a big American IPA with a massive hop kick, all at a surprisingly drinkable 5.4%. Time was definitely getting on by this stage but there was still more beer to be drunk before the day was out. The taste for high strength beers was definitely catching on by now as my next choice was the 5.6% Aurora from Lewes based Burning Sky. A pale ale with big citrus and hop flavours, it went down far too easily and it became clear that I probably had 2 or 3 more beers in me before it was time to call it a day.

As it would turn out, the lower bars would be our destination for the remainder of our visit. It was time to pop in to the Castle Rock tavern to see what they'd brought with them this year. Baptism of Fire (4.8%), a ginger infused amber ale, instantly caught my eye and drew my attention away from the hardcore band on the bandstand who were struggling with their sound levels. Too much guitar and not enough vocal in my unprofessional opinion. Getting their mixing desk completely wrong was Amy's very educated verdict. Time and tokens wearing on meant that there was time for 2 more beers before we departed for home. The penultimate beverage for me caught my eye from the description alone. Out of New Mills, Derbyshire, Torrside Brewery have produced Late to the Party (5.5%), a black IPA (I'm still not sure how that works), with a healthy dose of New Zealand hops and roasted dark malts.

It had come to that time of the day. The last beer. The point where you have to decide carefully exactly what you want to do with the last of your tokens. It's always a tough decision, especially when the alcohol haze sets in and you don't want to make a snap decision for fear of regretting it. Thankfully, I'm a seasoned pro at this by now and I'd been eyeing up a suitable candidate for a while. Completing this year's beer festival journey was Werewolf. Brewed by Windswept in Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland, this is a 6% dark, strong ale infused with chilli. All in all, a worthy climactic brew for what had been, once again, an excellent festival. The weather had held out, the beer and company had been excellent and everybody involved should be very very pleased with themselves. Once again, the Robin Hood Beer Festival has shown everybody how it should be done. It's no wonder that so many people, including myself, go back year after year. It's a one of a kind experience and one that other festivals can definitely learn. Will I be there next year? Obviously. Should you be? Definitely.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hopping around Hucknall

Last week, I decided to make my way out to a destination from which I was unsure of what to expect. Taking advantage of Nottingham's excellent tram network, I used a pleasant Thursday to head out to Hucknall for a bit of an explore of the local real ale scene.
Hucknall, formerly known as Hucknall Torkard, is a town in Nottinghamshire, in the district of Ashfield. The town was historically a centre for framework knitting and then for mining, but is now a focus for other industries as well as providing housing for workers in Nottingham. The town is notable as the site where Rolls-Royce made the first demonstration of vertical take-off (for a plane). It is also the final resting place of Lord Byron and his estranged daughter, the mathematician and pioneer computer programmer Ada Lovelace.
Hucknall is 7 miles (11 km) north-west of Nottingham on the west bank of the Leen Valley, on land which rises from the Trent Valley in the south to the hills of the county north of Kirkby-in-Ashfield. The Whyburn or 'Town Brook' flows through the town centre, and Farleys Brook marks its southern boundary.
The town’s highest point is Long Hill, (although Beauvale estate has a higher elevation and is situated at the base of Leivers Hill, commonly mistaken for Misk Hill) at 460 ft (140 m) above sea-level, with views over the city and Trent Valley, which descends to between 22 and 24 metres AOD, flowing just beyond most of the city centre.
The town is surrounded by farmland or parkland. To the north-west lie Misk Hills and Annesley. To the north-east town are the villages of Linby and Papplewick beyond these two is Newstead Abbey and its grounds, once the residence of Lord Byron. To the west lies Eastwood, birthplace of D. H. Lawrence, and the inspiration for many of his novels. To the east of the town is Bestwood Country Park.
The contiguous settlements of Butler's Hill and Westville often appear as distinct entities on maps, but are generally regarded as part of Hucknall, and are part of its historic and present-day Church of England parish, although the town itself has no civil parish council, however the identity is reinforced by being part of the post town and by being shared wards of Hucknall.

Hucknall was once a thriving market town. Its focal point is the parish church of St. Mary Magdalene, next to the town’s market square. The church was built by the Anglo-Saxons and completed after the Norman Conquest, though much of it has been restored during the Victorian era. The medieval church consisted only of a chancel, nave, north aisle and tower but it was considerably enlarged in the Victorian period. In 1872 the south aisle was added and in 1887 the unusually long transepts, while the rest of the building apart from the tower was thoroughly restored. The top stage of the tower is 14th century as is the south porch. There are 25 fine stained-glass windows by Charles Eamer Kempe which were added mostly in the 1880s. There is a modest memorial to Lord Byron.
From 1295 until 1915, the town was known as Hucknall Torkard, taken from Torcard, the name of a dominant landowning family. Signs of the old name can still be seen on some of the older buildings.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, coal was discovered and mined heavily throughout the Leen Valley, which includes Hucknall. This brought increased wealth to the town along with the construction of three railway lines.
The first was the Midland Railway (later part of the LMS) line from Nottingham to Mansfield and Worksop, closed to passengers on 12 October 1964 though partly retained as a freight route serving collieries at Hucknall, Linby and Annesley. The Hucknall station on this line was known as "Hucknall Byron" in its latter years. In the 1990s this line was reopened to passengers in stages as the Robin Hood Line, the section through Hucknall in 1993 with a new station on the site of the old "Byron", though simply called "Hucknall".
The second line was the Great Northern Railway (later part of the LNER) route up the Leen Valley and on up to Shirebrook, serving many of the same places as the Midland south of Annesley. It closed to passengers on 14 September 1931 but remained in use for freight until 25 March 1968. The Hucknall station on this line was known as "Hucknall Town".
The third line was the Great Central Railway (also later part of the LNER), the last main line ever built from the north of England to London, opened on 15 March 1899. The stretch through Hucknall closed completely on 5 September 1966, but the Hucknall station here (known as Hucknall Central), had closed earlier, on 4 March 1963.
From 1894 until 1974 Hucknall was the seat of the Hucknall Urban District Council. Upon the abolition of the UDC, local government of the town was transferred to Ashfield.
In 1956 the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Hucknall was built to serve the area of west Hucknall.

Hucknall was recorded as Hokeuhale (n.d.) and Hokenale (n.d.), suggesting “nook of land of Hōcanere” (a tribe), from Old English halh (haugh). This same tribe’s name occurs in Hook Norton, Oxfordshire. It has been suggested that the name Hucknall once referred to a larger area on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. Two other settlements in the locality are called Hucknall; Hucknall-under-Huthwaite, in Nottinghamshire, (known today as Huthwaite) and Ault Hucknall in Derbyshire. It is likely that Hucknall Torkard marked the Southern Boundary of this larger Hucknall Area.
In the Domesday Book (AD 1086) the name appears as Hochenale (volume 1, pages 288-290).

Hucknall had already proven itself to have more history than I had ever realised so the question now was in relation to the quality of its pubs and beer. Leaving the tram station upon my arrival in the town, I headed towards the main street through the centre, where the majority of the drinking establishments are located. Despite arriving in Hucknall before midday, I was pleased to see that my first intended stop was already open. Without further ado, I got the day underway at the Plough & Harrow.
Image result for plough and harrow hucknall

Now owned by Amber Taverns, the pub was extensively renovated and improved in September 2015, with the one year anniversary scheduled to take place 2 days after my visit. Carpeted throughout, the pub is essentially a single room but has been cleverly arranged to create several snug-like drinking areas. Several TVs are located throughout and there is a heated patio and smoking area to the rear. The bar is opposite the main entrance and features 4 handpulls, 2 of which are in use at the time of my visit. Facing a choice between Tetley's Gold and Doom Bar, I opted for the latter and took a seat in one of the aforementioned snugs as I looked forward to the day ahead. The Doom Bar was in top quality condition and very refreshing. It went down very easily, so much so that I decided on a second pint. This was partly driven by an annoying email from an estate agent so extra alcohol was definitely needed so I could calm down.

Feeling calmer and optimistic about the rest of the pub trip, I moved on to my next stop, which happened to be just opposite. It was now time for the obligatory trip to a local Wetherspoons. This one is The Pilgrim Oak.

Image result for pilgrim oak hucknall

The origin of this pub's name links back to Lord Byron. He is buried in St. Mary's Church, which lies close to this pub, named after a famous tree that once stood outside Newstead Abbey, Byron's ancestral home, which isn't too far away from Hucknall itself. The interior is the standard Spoons décor with old pictures and local historical information displayed on the walls. The bar is roughly central to one wall and slightly curved with low tables throughout and a number of booths along the opposite wall. There are 12 handpulls present, all of which are in use, and these represent doubles of the 6 beers that are currently on. My options on this day are Abbot Ale, Bradfield Blueberry Ale, Magpie Six For Gold, Dukeries Bolt Out of the Blue, Lincoln Green Available Soon and Kelham Island Pale Rider. I'm an enormous fan of Bradfield and their beer portfolio so it was no time at all for me to choose the Blueberry Ale (4.4%). This is a delightfully refreshing session beer with fruity, spicy overtones and an interesting blue tint to the head. It's like Christmas in September! This was a very tasty beer and a pleasant atmosphere to enjoy it in, as I sat in one of the booths and watched the lunchtime regulars go about their business.

Next on my list, was a pub that was just down the street. I made my way to the Red Lion.
Image result for red lion hucknall

In the 18th Century, the Red Lion Inn was the rent house of Lord Byron. Refurbished and reopened in 2013, it is laid out as a series of 'living rooms' that act as separate drinking areas, as does the rear beer garden. The bar is small and sits just to the side of the main entrance. The single handpull offers Lion's Pride Bitter, which is rebadged H&H Bitter. I took my pint and moved into one of the adjacent rooms and took a seat at a small table near a window that looks out onto the junction of the high street and an adjacent road. The beer is malty and smooth and goes down well considering the low ABV. Hucknall was proving to be an interesting place and I was intrigued to see what else was in store as I reached the halfway point of the day.

My next stop was on the corner at the end of the high street at a place called the Half Moon.
Image result for half moon hucknall

Originally a Shipstone's pub, the building dates back to 1868. Reopened in Spring 2014 after a lengthy period of closure, it has been extensively refurbished to make it light and open. One side of the central bar has tables and chairs for diners and drinkers, with the other side housing the pool table. At the back is a small raised area with comfortable seating. 3 handpulls occupy the bar, 2 of which are in use whilst I'm there, offering H&H Olde Trip and Greene King London Glory. I decided on a pint of the London Glory (4%), a traditional bitter with flavours of burnt toffee and caramel and a fruity finish. I took a seat at a table just opposite the bar and enjoyed my beer as I took in the décor with its promotional posters for upcoming DJ and karaoke nights.

I was very excited to get to my next location as it was the premises that I'd been most looking forward to when researching this trip. Located around the corner from the Half Moon, on the corner of Derbyshire Lane and Watnall Road, is Hucknall's very own micropub, Beer Shack.
Image result for beer shack hucknall

Formerly a shop, this is now a friendly, TV-free beer and cider pub where the emphasis is very much on good conversation. The unique Flying Bedstead pub sign, from a nearby pub that closed before Beer Shack opened, adorns one wall. In addition to its 5 handpulls, 12 real ciders are available and high quality pork pies are available to eat in or take away. The pub was awarded the accolade of East Midlands Cider Pub of the Year in 2014. I'm immediately given a warm welcome by the bar man and the small group of regulars a I peruse the beers on offer. The choice is certainly interesting: Cottage Honey Bunny, Spire Whiter Shade, Brentwood Summer Virgin, Everard's Tiger and Nightingale Tres Bien. I opted for the Summer Virgin (4.5%), a summer seasonal beer from Essex's Brentwood Brewery. This beautiful blonde beer is packed with refreshing grapefruit and citrus flavours. I took a seat on a comfy sofa at the back of the room and was instantly befriended by a small, cute dog called Yoda who made me welcome by climbing onto my lap. I engaged in conversation with the regulars where I could but sat and listened for the most part as I drank my beer. The atmosphere here is so friendly and the beer so good that I could easily have stayed here all day but, I had 2 more pubs to visit and time was getting on.

Thankfully, my next location was just around the corner, next to the training centre for Nottinghamshire Police. I was now at the Green Dragon.
 Image result for green dragon hucknall

Tastefully renovated in 2012, the pub has both bar and lounge areas despite its open plan layout. The bar contains the pool table and dartboard whilst the lounge is split level, with the emphasis on comfort. A number of pictures of past Hucknall adorn the walls. A tarmacked patio area is at the front and there is a separate function room at the side. The pub is rumoured to have ghosts but I've been unable to find any further information about this, more's the pity. The bar features 6 handpulls, 3 of which are in use offering Pentrich Death Valley, Castle Rock Green Dragon and Ringwood Forty Niner. After a moment's deliberation I decided on the Death Valley (5.5%), which turned out to be an American pale ale with vibrant citrus flavours from a cocktail of US hops. It's heavy hitting and very hoppy and I was certainly glad that I'd decided on this beer. The soundtrack in this pub was also rather good, as I was treated to an unexpected bit of the Offspring.

There was one premises left to go and this meant making my way back towards the tram stop and visiting the nearby Station Hotel.
Image result for station hotel hucknall

Built between 1892 and 1893, this former Home Brewery pub was refurbished in March 2015 and consists of a traditional bar and a large, comfortable lounge. The lounge wall displays a series of old Hucknall photographs including one of the pub from the 1920s. The opening hours have recently been extended and so the hotel is open daily from midday and has recently made a commitment to stocking real ale continuously. This is something that is still in the early stages as there is currently just the single ale available. At the time of my visit, this is Caledonian Best Bitter, which is in very good condition and the perfect accompaniment to live coverage of the England v Pakistan ODI.

The beer was finally done and my list of venues was exhausted for the day so there was nothing else for it but to jump back onto a tram and make my way home. What were my impressions of Hucknall? It had certainly provided more than I had been expecting and the variety of pubs was an interesting mix. Whilst some of them were the standard town centre fare with a small variety of beers, there were others that stood out, specifically the Green Dragon and the excellent Beer Shack, to which I will most certainly be returning. Hucknall is doing its best to keep real ale working and with the number of pubs that are situated in the town, I can see no reason why it should end any time soon. Hucknall is one of those places that will keep ticking over, striving hard and doing its best. Things aren't so bad in this small corner of the county!