Monday, 19 September 2011
THE ALE OF TWO CITIES.
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known’ – Charles Dickens
We at t’CC, like a drop of ale, and what better way to whet your whistle than visiting a couple of medieval Northern cities, Chester and York, to sample such fine wares and drink in a miscellany of contrasting establishments too. A pilgrimage for the Grail ale at the start of autumn was to be undertaken, this due to my thirst for ale and, a pastime that I take somewhat seriously. Also, it were a break for the mundane working week that was needed. All very geeky/anorak/nerdy to some, the real ale twats that we are?
Many observe middle aged blokes enter the bar with haversack over shoulder and then squint at pump clips while stroking their beards. Order halves of ale; sometimes two. Hold the glass up to the light and inspect the glasses contents for cloudiness. Take a sip; liken to a connoisseur wine buff. Hold the glass back up to the light. And then, scribble intensively into notepads; and once again stroke their beards. The aforementioned isn’t all necessarily true (I’ve recently shaved my beard off!). I would say I/we are after something different to sup than your run-of-the-mill shite keg bitters or piss tasting lagers. Yes, we appreciate craftsmanship just has we do with our clothes and life’s other finest trappings i.e. books, films, men of outstanding achievement, etc etc. We practice Bohemianism at t’CC; male ‘boho chic.’
The title does say, ‘The Ale of Two Cities’ but, really it’s three. On the Friday before my mission I’d arranged a trip to Hart of Preston Brewery, that proudly brews in Preston, for 15 of us North Enders prior to a night game verses Yeovil at Deepdale. I also sorted the visit out to see if I could organise a piss up in a brewery? It was a success, so I can! John, the proprietor, gave us a brief tour and the lowdown of the brewery and its history, we then hit the bar. You were free to serve yourself as John had laid on three 36 pint pins for us to quaff: the deal was for a bargain price of 150 quid. Dishy Debbie were my personal favourite tipple of the three on the night. And while it was my time to play landlord, you always had service with a smile. You should support your local brewery just like your local team and spread the word to other nonbelievers/real ale drinkers. *I must add that some lads didn’t make the 4-3 thriller later on*
So, dusting off the coats, layering up and setting forth on a rite good sesh, the rattler were caught from Preston early one Sunday morning across to Chester. Over the coming days I drank in a plethora of alehouses but, with not wanting to bore some readers rigid, I’ll briefly mention the ales drunk and the drinking holes I drank them in; I would rather let the pictures do the talking.
Around the wall in eight and - definitely – more ales: Mounting Chester’s city centre Roman fortress walls at the world famous Eastgate Clock, and grinning like a Cheshire cat, I were soon descending them for the Marlborough Arms. This quaint one roomed boozer had 4 different locally brewed Stonehouse Brewery ales on; they also had shelves brimming with whisky, whiskey and bourbons. Next up is the eccentric Victorian pub, the Albion Inn. It’s a gimmicky gaff with clear overtones of the Great War, only the ale let it badly down. I wouldn’t go out of my way for the place if in Chester again, apart from if you just want a gander of its great interior. Skipping along the walls, with the River Dee to your left, the Bear & Billet comes in to view on your right. The black and white half timber building is very majestic indeed. Beatle fact fans may also know that it’s the birthplace of John Lennon’s Grandmother. If you didn't, you do now.
The public house is owned by Isle of Man brewer Okells, only I opted for a Titanic Plum Porter; a nice drop it were too. Just up the road is the Brewery Tap – my kinda bolthole. This drop in point belongs to local microbrewery Spitting Feathers. There is no one-armed-bandits, no music blaring out of a jukebox but, they’ve a host of handpumps. Their beliefs are real ale for real people because, they quote/use as a motto, “Life’s too short for crap beer.” They also have an impressive menu of real pub grub. The Brewery Tap opened its doors in late ’08 and is situated in the Gamul House, a old Jacobean grand hall and the original fireplace houses its sprits. A brisk walk were then on the cards past the racecourse to Telford’s Warehouse. This quirky Georgian warehouse, on Tower Wharf, is situated in a canal basin where fishermen fished while swans, geese and ducks paddle by the beer garden – chillaxing. They’ve got live gigs two or three nights a week and a up-and-coming beer festival on the cards. Amongst others that I tried was the Weetwood Cheshire Cat, a lovely blonde, fruity ale.
Last up, well one that I’ll tell you about is, the Pied Bull Inn, CAMRA’s Cheshire Pub of the Year and it is also the oldest coaching inn to serve ale in Chester. Built in 1155, it has its own on site brewery, the Pied Bull Brewery, and its resident ghosts. Their golden session ale, Bull’s Hit, were a hit with me. I sunk that much ale over my stay I began to have hallucinations and delirium tremens that I thought I’d seen pink elephants while stagger back to the hotel come last orders? I even thought I rode an elephant back to the digs one night too! But it was actually just a local statue in situ.
I boarded the train to York, a city steeped in history on Tuesday, following a good emptying of the bowels, and enlightened onto York Train Station just gone dinnertime when the heavens open. Making haste to The Maltings, I threw my holdall into a corner and scanned the bar; a tremendous local selection greeted me. Great pub, great beer and seemingly thrown together decorative guts. I purchased a York Brewery Guzzler and settled down for a few as my room wasn’t ready until three bells. The landlord let me try samplers, which were all well kept, before making my next decision on a ale and he also gave us a map off the city’s 79 diverse pubs – there are others too – within or just outside the city walls that are worthy of recommendation. Most of these pubs are in the LocAle scheme – they serve beer brewed within a 25 mile radius of the city. Thanking the landlord on leaving two hours later I clutch the map tightly in hand along with the York Real Ale guide for further reference in the coming hours, and days. The coming days blur into one...
Here’s what I considered some of York’s best of the best: Brigantes Bar & Brassiere; a modern, clean and well stocked haven. Brigantes had not only eight pumps to hand but, they’d a selection of stronger continental beers and ciders in bottles, if they float your boat. They’ve also had an infinity of ever changing ales on over a short period. I’d a Dark Star Summer Meltdown, a golden refreshing ale, plus others. The Golden Fleece gets a mention only because it were on the ‘Most Haunted’ programme on TV. The pub were to dark, I suppose for effect, the Copper Dragon Golden Pippin were flat, and the glass were dirty. I also wanted a pic to see if I could catch a ghoul on the photo – I didn’t. I hope I don’t get haunted for slagging the place off though.
Next, is The Yorkshire Terrier which is owned by York Brewery and situated in the centre of town. The buildings bar is housed in the back of a former shop that was converted and given a licence in 2004 - only they did retain the shops frontage which sells their beers in bottles. A very mishmash of a drinking establishment, but it works. The Victoria Hotel just t’other side of the wall sells Old Mills beers from Selby and they were fine and dandy when I tried a couple. The false, brightly painted and decorated olde worlde look inside lets it the pub down, though. Next on the list are two watering-holes brimming to the gills with a wealth of ales and traditional ciders and perries. The Wagon & Horses has been smartly refurbished and offered half-a-dozen ales, that were all bang on. And over the road, a pint pot throw away, was The Rook & Gaskill. 12, yes 12, handpumps were all dispensing on a midweek teatime; bitters, milds, stouts and porters . They’d also a further two ciders on draught and boxes of perry. And, they host regular beer festivals, plus bands sporadically play there. The young lad behind the bar poured numerous samples and was very informative – a credit to the under 25 real ale drinkers. He also recommended where to dine later once the belly were full to busting with ale. I would be hard drawn to call which out of the final two I’ll review to be crowned ‘best of the best’, they’re both belters: The Blue Bell in the heart of York is a red, glazed brick alehouse with its interiors wood panelled throughout. There is two wee rooms, front and back, and a serving hatch in the corridor with one fixed seat - it could hold 30 at a push I’d say, nose-to-nose, that is. I’d a Ossett Silver King and a Bradfield Farmers Blonde; both were pale, dry citrus beers that quenched a thirst on a warm afternoon. The Swan, which a good walk out of town, but well worth the effort, has been a beerhouse since the 1860’s. Only in the 1930’s it had a complete remodelling that is near intact to this day – it takes you way back when pubs were pubs and men were men. There’s a lobby bar area and two hatches serve the ‘best’ room to the front and the now ‘non’-smoking room to the back. I’d several tuned-in brews on offer over the coming hours...
Finally, on the Thursday night, I caught the bus to the outskirts of York, adjacent to the racecourse, for the York Beer & Cider Festival. On, that night, were over 250 beers, and also 50 ciders and perries. A good time was had, so I think, and a bratwurst sausage smothered in mustard were devoured too.
Leaving late Friday evening heavy headed, blearily eyed and empty pocketed, I’d drank in nigh on 50 pubs, I bet. I severed and drunk in a brewery. And, had a rite good go at the 250 beers, in thirds, at a beer fest. Not bad going that in a week, is it? Only my liver is telling it wasn’t, as I type these notes up. But, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Keep it real, keep it real ale and keep it to real pubs but, drink sensible, please. Spread the word, brothers.
For a more in-depth historical read on ‘A Tale of Two Cites’ visit, This is Our Culture.
Bill, your Northern Monkey correspondent.