Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Another brief encounter with the beers of the North East

After a flying visit at Christmas, I was back in the North East recently for a family wedding, and again had a little time available for beer hunting. What follows is a kind of sequel to this post, covering a couple of the venues I missed out on last time.

But first, a return visit to the Boathouse in Wylam. The pub itself remains basic, and though a lot warmer than it had been on my previous visit, seems to have developed a problem with flies. The little dog sat opposite me was driving himself crazy trying to catch them. But as I said last time, you come for the beer (and the pickled onion crisps), and the atmosphere was pleasant as the sounds of the folk night drifted through from the lounge bar next door.

The pub showcases Hadrian Border brewery from Newcastle, and their beer dominated the bar. I was able to return to Tyneside Blonde which had impressed me so much last time, and it was superb. It’s the kind of simple beer that would be unlikely to make an impression if served in anything less than perfect condition. But it was perfect – cool, with gentle carbonation and a sturdy, creamy sparkled head, and each constituent ingredient positively sang. There’s a suggestion of Digestive biscuit from the malt, a gentle fruitiness from the yeast, a distinctive sulphurous snatch from the water and a subtle sprinkling of floral hops in the finish.

Its companion, Tyneside Brown was similarly simple and very good, too — quite intensely malty, like malt extract, with a hint of toffee and toast. The French Saison, also from Hadrian Border, started well, with suggestions of coriander and lemonade that really does recall a French biĆ©re de garde. Sadly, it didn’t sustain my interest and became bland and watery before I’d finished the pint. Continental farmhouse styles can work at sessionable strength, and can work on cask, but the combination of both of these concessions adds up to an underwhelming pint. A final Hadrian Border offering, Ouseburn Porter was far better, wonderfully creamy and full-bodied with a gentle coffee roast character backed with a little toffee and finishing with some grassy hops.

The wedding itself was, happily, at a brewery — High House Farm Brewery in Matfen, a charming little place and a stunning setting for a lovely wedding. The High House beers were fun, unchallenging fare, and since the focus of the day wasn’t beer, I enjoyed them without too much analysis. Matfen Magic, a brown ale, was a treacly, malty affair that benefitted from a satisfyingly full body and a beautiful creamy head, whilst Auld Hemp was a simple but effective bitter. Thompson’s Blonde, named in honour of the bride, was available from a self-service hand-pump along with the food. I think this was Nel’s Best rebadged, and was highly drinkable. The main excitement for me, though, was pouring my own pint, something I’ve never done before and was unjustifiably proud of, especially when a guest at the adjacent table remarked, “aye, decent head on that, like.”

The next evening, I had some free time, and decided to hop on the train into Newcastle to visit the Free Trade Inn. It’s a brilliant pub — properly pubby, worn-in and characterful and pouring a vast range of great beer. I made the most of the evening sun and soaked up the fantastic view of the Tyne, sipping a pint of Wylam’s Swipe Right. Whilst I associate Wylam with dry, bitter beer, this one is full-bodied and juicy and is amongst the best of the New England-influenced pale ales currently doing the rounds. There’s little bitterness to speak of, and it crams huge flavour — peach, mango, mandarin, melon — into a sensible ABV.

The cask selection leans quite heavily towards local beer, though there are sadly no sparklers here. Three Kings is a Newcastle outfit and a new name to me, but Lost Light is impressive. It's billed as a saison but doesn't really taste like one, coming off something like a cask equivalent of Duvel, if you can imagine such a thing. The fruity, distinctly Belgian esters are huge, oozing pear, rhubarb and bubblegum flavours, and the low carbonation makes these even more impactful. If I describe a beer as interesting, it might imply that it wasn’t enjoyable to drink, but Lost Light is both of those things. I’ve heard good things about Almasty, but Echelon, a pale ale, was disappointing. Though pleasantly dry and bitter, I couldn’t get past a savoury, grainy, wheaty note that spoilt everything.

The final stop is my grandma’s local micropub, the wonderfully named Wor Local in Prudhoe. Like many micropubs, it’s in what looks like an old shop, and in its sparseness and spiralling carpet slightly resembles a working man’s club. Nothing wrong with that, especially when the welcome is warm and the atmosphere friendly. Lager is frowned upon in many micropubs, but is on sale here — the mysterious Birra Quattro (I think), which doesn’t have a brewery name on its suspiciously homemade-looking optic. In this setting, offering lager strikes me as a wise, inclusive choice. It was selling well during my visit, as were a wide selection of gins, and presents an attractive alternative to intimidating Sky Sports-type pubs to those who’d rather not drink cask ale.

Toon Broon, from Blaydon’s Firebrick brewery, hit the spot with a big comforting smack of treacle and toffee and just a hint of tart hedgerow fruit — a perfect rainy day beer. Also from Firebrick, Stella Spark impressed with a palpably fleshy pink grapefruit quality, finishing on a more delicate floral note, but the highlight wasn’t strictly local. Wild Gravity, from North Yorkshire’s BAD Co., reminded me of Punk IPA, though weighted more towards caramel malt. On further analysis, I suspect generous doses of Simcoe are what the two have in common, and I think it’s this hop that is responsible for the suggestions of woody herbs and dank forest floor.

I haven’t done enough drinking in this part of the world to come to any grand conclusions, but I will say that in the Boathouse and the Free Trade Inn, the area boasts two of the best pubs in the country and I thoroughly enjoyed this brief, beery trip. I look forward to my next visit.