Monday, 9 January 2017

A brief encounter with the beers of the North East

Between Christmas and New Year, I spent a few days in the North East visiting relatives, giving me a little bit of time to explore the area’s beer offerings. I thought I'd take the opportunity to indulge in the super-basic “I went here and drank this” style of beer blogging, a form I love reading and have only ever applied to trips abroad. So, simply enough, here’s what I found.

Our first stop was The Boat House Inn in Wylam, a beloved real ale-focused pub located right next door to the train station and attracting beer-loving visitors from miles around. As a pub, it’s a slightly odd place – the bar room wasn’t exactly intimidating, but had an oddly still atmosphere, possibly as a result of the lack of music. By early evening, the place was heaving and the atmosphere lively enough that it wasn’t needed, but in the quarter-full pub in the middle of the afternoon, I almost didn’t dare speak out loud. It feels cosy, with an open fire at one end, but in truth was freezing cold, and the lounge next door was even colder and dark, too.

But you come for the beer, of course, and the cellarmanship on show here is second to none. The ambient temperature probably helped, but everything was served beautifully cool, with a picture-perfect sparkled head and gentle tingle of carbonation. I rarely come across poor quality cask ale, but such jaw-droppingly brilliant examples are even rarer. On top of this, The Boat House sells Walkers’ rarely-spotted Pickled Onion flavour crisps which I have previously evangelised here and had to buy, though they clashed horribly with my beer.

Pedants will note that the eponymous Wylam brewery was never actually based in the town, initially brewing in nearby Heddon-on-the-Wall before their move into Newcastle. According to a conversation on the adjacent table on which I was eavesdropping, The Boat House was once a sort of unofficial brewery tap, but this is no longer the case. There’s still a Wylam beer on the bar, though – 004 Palisade, one in a series of single-hop pale ales and showcasing an American variety I’ve never heard of. Pouring an attractive amber, it’s perhaps just a touch too sweet, with a red berry flavour leaning heavily towards strawberries and a building bitterness. 

The pub is now reportedly a flagship for Newcastle’s Hadrian Border Brewery, and their Tyneside Blonde was pouring. Another simple beer, all biscuity Marris Otter with a gentle lemon hop character, livened by an unexpected sulphurous aroma. I’d like to meet this one again. There was also Trade Star from Firebrick in Blaydon, which was billed as an amber ale with New Zealand hops but drank like a slightly metallic English bitter with a very gentle background of tropical fruit. Pleasant enough. Best of all was Fyne Ales’ Jarl, from across the Scottish border – peachy, with a hint of oily, dank hops - simply superb, and far superior to the already very good kegged and bottled versions.

In Durham, we had lunch at the Head of Steam, one of a chain of Belgian-focused beer bars now owned by Hartlepool’s Cameron’s brewery. Stonch recently praised their Sheffield venue as an example of how craft and ‘normal’ beer can co-exist, and the same is true of the Durham branch, which was doing a roaring trade in San Miguel on our visit. The cask offering is top-notch here, too – I went for Reindeer Porter from Leeds Brewery, a relatively straight-up offering despite its festive name. It was delicious, mind – smooth and rich, with a big dollop of sweet caramel, milk chocolate, some mild coffee roast and red berries. And just for fun, I followed it with a St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. Though served too cold from keg, it was lovely, generous helpings of nutmeg and clove lightened by strong banana esters and zingy citrusy lemonade finish.

Sadly, I had time for just one stop in Newcastle, which was Wylam’s majestic brewery tap in Exhibition Park. The fifteen minute walk from the town centre was simple enough, but it was dark, and the council might consider installing some lamposts before the inevitable consequence of placing a drinking establishment on the edge of a poorly-lit duck pond occurs. Anyway, it’s a beautiful building and an amazing space inside, close to what I imagine the larger US brewery taps to be like – spacious, with drinking areas stretching over multiple rooms, and with a separate event space as well as the brewery itself. Even arriving three minutes after opening, we were far from the first customers, and it was heaving by the time we left, with a diverse crowd – a couple of young lads glued to iPads at one end, and my 87 year old grandma keeping it real for the older crowd. She loved her half-pint of Galatia. Most importantly, the brewery tap showcases the Wylam beers at their absolute best, which ought to be integral to a tap room’s purpose but isn’t always the reality.

I was desperately thirsty when I arrived, so opted for Solar Terminator, an unfiltered and dry-hopped pilsner. It has a beautiful tropical aroma, all mandarin and melon, and the flavour is clean as you like, allowing those fruity hops to shine. It’s also hugely bitter, which I may not have enjoyed if I’d had it in isolation, but led me into my next selection nicely. Nomi Sorachi is probably the best use of Sorachi Ace I’ve yet encountered. It’s very pale, minimising interference from the malt, and utilises all the tropical fruit flavours the hop can bring – tons of clementine, toasted coconut and lemon drops – whilst largely avoiding the savoury, herbal edge.

Almost everyone seemed to be drinking Jakehead, the brewery’s flagship IPA. I’ve tried this before, leaving a positive write-up as I checked it into Untappd, but had somehow misremembered it as overly sweet in the meantime. I figured it would taste best directly from the source, so ordered it anyway, and it turns out I was quite wrong. There’s a little residual fruit-chew sweetness, but it’s certainly not overbearing, and doesn’t prevent a big whack of pine and lemon zest from registering, with a little mint in the finish. Although it’s obviously far less intense, there’s a juiciness about it that reminds me of some of the Cloudwater DIPA series – high praise indeed. Finally, 3000 Gyles from Home, a cream porter. Some fun cocoa, caramel and chocolate milk flavours here, but the finish is a little metallic and the body a touch thin.

I'm well aware that Newcastle deserves at least an entire dedicated day of beering, but it wasn't an option. Next time, I hope, because it seems like a great city for drinking as well as being a great city for just about everything else. And in general, the North East seems to be in fine fettle for beer - besides the likes of Wylam making a name for themselves on a national scale, there's a healthy population of small local breweries, and not one but two relatives told me about the new micropubs in their towns. You can keep your Newcastle Brown Ale.

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