Beery Goings On At North Bar

A quick note here and my usual plug for the day job.

North Bar, in Leeds, is probably my favourite drinking in den – and one of my all time favourites. They’re great. Friendly staff, quality music, and best of all, a brilliant assortment of quality beers from around the world.

They’ve got some special stuff going on at the moment.

Firstly, there’s a Belgian Beer Festival from 1st-15th April. In anticipation I had a special tasting of the Drie Fonteinen Kriek and Smisje Wostyntje Torhouts mustard bier (yep, mustard beer, it’s loads nicer than you’d think).

Read all about that here: http://www.leedsguide.co.uk/review/boozeflash/north-bars-belgian-beer-festival/13931

They’ve also got a rather nice art exhibition on too. I didn’t write about it, but the great Sophie Haydock – our art editor – did. Read about that here: http://www.leedsguide.co.uk/review/preview/charlyghundoos-skewiff-/13859

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An Aside That Want Awry: On Michael Jackson (the Beer Hunter, not the singer)

This was going to be a post about Crown Brewery’s Smokin’ Oktoberfest with a lengthy aside. Now the aside has become a ramble, so I’m going to give this a post of itself, and give you the beer notes later. Carry on.

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Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium

Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium

I’m going to start with an aside, maybe two, or even three. In short, I’m going to have a bit of a babble here. Why? Well because it’s my bloody blog and I don’t have to worry about reader numbers, sales and all that (apart from Wikio rankings, natch, check out my proud #65, right at the bottom of the pack).

I’ve recently been reading a lot of the great Michael Jackson’s (the drinker, not the singer) Great Beers of Belgium book, on top of that, I’ve been reading selected prose by Woody Allen. I know that Jackson is held in great regard, nay, reverence, by much of the beer writing community, but I’m not sure about this book.

Ok, so that’s quite a bold statement (tantamount to heresy for some, I’d wager). Sure, he was one of the first people to really write about and promote great beer, to talk extensively about food and beer pairings, and he may have introduced a lot of us to the wonders (for they are many) of Belgian beer. But, for a man with such a passion for that lovely stuff, this book doesn’t really display it.

The reason I mentioned Woody Allen before, is because his writing is vivid, lurid and flies along (and I was reading it on the bus just before I started writing). He’s a man with a love of words and language, and you can feel it, but The Great Beers of Belgium reads more like a text book with a few nice emotional touches than the words of a man filled with lust and desire for all the astounding delights available in Belgium. Sure, it’s a better text book than most, and still a pretty good read, but I just don’t feel any emotion from the man as I read it. And that’s what I wanted.

But maybe he’s not the one to blame. There are so many of us buggers writing about beer today that we’re spoilt for choice. When Jackson first wrote this book, I’d wager that tasting notes for beer were scant and seldom read. Now the internet’s full of the bloody things and only a few people with a pizazz for the writing of them can make them shine as thrilling works of journalism (NB I’m NOT including myself in this list), others, while very good and enjoyable, would not make a must read book if printed out, stapled together and sold with a nice cover.

Now I’m going to hold my hands up here and admit that I’ve not read any thing else by Jackson, yet. I have seen some of his ‘Beer Hunter’ TV series though and love that. Maybe elsewhere what I find lacking in this book may be apparent. Or maybe the world of beer writing has hurried along and left Jackon’s books a bit dated. Please tell me, recommend me pieces of his to read, I will happily retract the above if I just need to come in from a different angle on his work.

Anyway, enough upsetting of Jackson and every blogger who reads this, I’m off to write some tasting notes on Crown Brewery’s Smokin’ Oktoberfest, and yes, I know, I’m kinda contradicting my argument up there by running off and doing some tasting notes. But I don’t care. I like doing it.

A Blonde Barley Wine? Piraat

Piraat

Piraat - a beer to share

My lovely girlfriend picked us up a bottle of Piraat from Beer Ritz a few weeks back. It was on sale (probably because it passes its sell-by date this week, not that that really matters) and looked very appealing. A nice 750ml bottle, caged and corked and advertised as the closest that beer gets to white wine (I can’t quite remember what Zak’s actual wording was, but it was something like that).

We were planning a Friday night in, with food, talking and perhaps a couple of episodes of ‘Mad Men’, so we decided to crack open the Piraat – brewed by Van Steenberge – and see what it was like.

It’s very much a sharing beer, see. It weighs in at 10.5% and even half a bottle comes in at just under 3.9 units, which means that if you drink it, you officially become a dangerous drinker and will definitely assault someone and cost the NHS money. Or something like that.

The cork pops pleasingly as I remove it and it pours an amazingly vivid amber/gold colour with a vicious white head. You can smell it before your nose even gets that close. It’s a proper yeast funkiness that hits you, spiced and citrussy.

It’s described by some as a blonde barley wine, and you can see why. It’s as strong as a wine, its blonde and it has that vicious punch that is synonymous with the barley wine. It tastes bloody good too. It’s dry, it’s refreshing, it packs a real yeasty flavour that’s associated with Belgian beers, with loads of other flavours bubbling away underneath.

You get a bit of cereal flavours – almost a little bit like cornflakes, even, then that powerful punch from the level of alcohol. You stick on top of that some more wine-ish notes – grapes, lemon, orange, followed by more spice from the yeast. The finish even throws in some dried fruits, just as a pleasing farewell.

I’ll be popping open another one of these next time I’ve got an evening of beer sharing planned.

Festive Drinking

Things have been quiet round these parts for sometime now. Almost an entire fortnight infact. What with Christmas, traveling around the North of England to visit various friends and relatives and a general laziness that comes from having ages off work, I didn’t get round to any blogging.

I did, however, get round to some mighty fine drinking. Again, it being Christmas and all that, the drinking was largely social and often in the kind of quantities beyond normal responsible levels (especially if the people who inspired Pete Brown’s latest blog are to believed [they really shouldn’t]), means that some beers are remembered just sketchily, others very well, and none have any kind of notes to be taken with them. So I’m going to bash through December and the start of 2010 at pace. Here we go.

Christmas Eve started well. Well, it didn’t, we were meant to go up to Burnley for a party but the never ending bloody snow foiled that. Solution: a trip to North Bar. As we were preparing to order, the splendid manager there, Matt, informed me that Crown Brewery’s Django Reinhardt – a damson porter – was about to come on tap. I instantly ceased my plan to order a Stille Nacht and waited with baited breath for the recommendation. It was worth the wait, rich in fruit flavours, warming and powerful it’s a perfect winter tipple and it got me all ready to settle down infront of the telly with a DVD of Bugsy Malone.

My Christmas Beers

My Christmas Beers

Next up, inevitably, was Christmas day. Drinking-wise today was all about Bucks Fizz (a bottle of Champagne was polished off between the two of us, before lunch, naturally), loads of muy dulce sherry from Beer Ritz. This stuff, Valdivia Pedro Ximenez, is, as the tag in Beer Ritz says, “nectar of the Gods”. It’s honey and treacle and currents and pudding and all the sweet tastes of Christmas rolled into one. I did, however, break out a Chimay Bleue to accompany our vegetarian Christmas dinner of mushroom pie. A great beer, packed full of complex flavours, it went down a treat.

The real beery treat on Christmas day, though, was two of the presents my thoughtful girlfriend got for me. Having taken advice from Zak at Beer Ritz, she’d been out and bought me corked 75cl bottles of Flying Dog Wild Dog Schwartz and Victory V Saison. I’ve not dared drink these yet – I’m waiting for a special occasion.

Gouden Carolus Noel

Gouden Carolus Noel

Boxing Day meant more of that heavenly sherry, and visits to family, all finished off superbly by Gouden Carolus Noel a special Christmas beer that was just that – special and Christmassy. The dark brown beer was heavy, spicy and figgy and a superb nightcap.

The 27th was another family day and as soon as my driving was over, I indulged in a Dark Star Espresso Stout. For a 4.7% beer it’s surprisingly rich in flavour and manages to pack in a really rich coffee flavour without overwhelming that comforting warmth you’d want from a stout. The beer presents continued here, with my folks getting me a Yorkshire ale box (two Copper Dragon beers and a great Sam Smith’s Taddy Porter) and my brother getting my two beers from Sheffield’s Kelham Island plus a cheese washed in the curds from their Pale Rider, which was interesting. A real taste experience which took some getting used to (cheese and beer work well eaten and drunk side-by-side, but combined in one is a little more acquired) but eventually kept my palate very happy indeed.

From there, it was days in Lancashire centered around the wedding of two friends. I shan’t go into details but it was an amazing do, complete with dancing, surf rock, great food and, most importantly, a lovely couple getting hitched. As an aside they also provided a cask of very local Hen Harrier by the Bowland Brewery. As you’d want for a wedding (and a subsequent NYE party which it lasted for) it was easy drinking, crisp and pale with some nice citrus flavours.

New Year’s Day (aka my birthday) was a day to break out a couple of quality beers, namely the aforementioned Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, really amazingly rich with roasted barley flavours, and even better the BrewDog and Mikkeller Divine Rebel. This beer, a collaboration between two very impressive craft brewers, is partly aged in whiskey barrels and the taste tells you that straight away. It’s full of toffee and caramel flavours and packs a mighty punch.

An even better beer-related occurrence on that day, however, was another present from my wonderful girlfriend. This time it wasn’t beer, but the ability to make beer (give a child a fish and he’ll be able to feed himself for a day, give the child a net and he’ll be able to… and so on). Yup, she signed me up for a two day homebrew course in February. I will report back on that in good time.

Which brings me to my final subject. My homebrew. I made some back in November. Because my house is cold it took ages, but it’s ready to drink now, and also in hands of numerous friends and family members across the country. What’s it like? Well, it’s from a kit called Old Homewrecker, but it’s only around 4.5%. It’s a darkish winter ale and, like all novice homebrew, it’s just about ok. It’s drinkable, but as it has no hopping to speak of, it likes anything like a real depth of flavour. Plus, it’s got a fair bit of sediment in. We don’t have a name for it yet.

I expect my next brew, post-course, will be far better.

A Trip To Belgium: the Bars and Beers

In Three Sheets To The Wind, Pete Brown decides that the Belgian people are committing some kind of massive practical joke on the rest of the world. Perceived wisdom seems to be that Belgium is a tedious country with nothing to see beyond the wonderful beauty of Bruges (if you haven’t been to Bruges, go. If you can’t afford to go, watch In Bruges, it’s very funny and makes the city look as stunning as it actually is).

This, as Pete Brown attests is very wrong. Not only are Belgian people, almost to a man (or woman) very entertaining, but their cities are fantastic and, most of all, the make the most interesting and diverse beers you can dream off (the legendary beer writer Michael Jackson wrote a great book all about the range and brilliance of Belgian beers).

My affection for Belgium brought me back to the country (via a quick trip to Lille, which is in France, but was once a part of Flanders, which is in Belgium) for the third time and coincided with drinking a fair few fantastic beers.

So, the holiday starts with leaving the Eurostar (a truly great way to travel) and arriving in Lille. This being a beer blog, I’m not going to go into detail about the architecture (partly because I can’t), the historic points of interest or the culture I’ve seen. Rather, I’m going to launch into the beer, bars and occasionally the food (the three are intrinsically linked).

So Lille, we hit a bar called Les Trois Brasseurs. It seems like a lovely little micro-brewery and brasserie (although it turns out it’s actually a small French chain with micro-breweries in most of it bars, but Lille is the original site). We start off with a tasting platter of four of their beers, before I pick out their stout (smokey, malty thick and chocolatey) and my girlfriend goes for the blond (a strong, Belgian style blond ale, crisp, simple and refreshing). We wander the streets, doing some culture and that, getting food, before returning for a 75cl bottle of their speciality beer, La Belle Province, a dark red beer which is refermented with maple syrup. It’s good, but far from stunning. An ample warm up for the treats of Belgium though.

Antwerp Train Station

Antwerp Train Station - not bad, eh?

Lille being very far North in France, and Belgium being tiny, Belgium can be travelled around at very little cost and in very little time, so we start with two nights in Antwerp (0r Antwerpen, if you’re being Flemish). Antwerp is very wealthy. They have the biggest diamond market in Europe, a fair few champagne bars and a thriving fashion scene. It’s a great city for wandering around and gawping, with magnificent squares, some amazing imposing architecture and a giant sculpture of a hand in the middle of the main shopping street (Antwerp means thrown hand, apparently).

That doesn’t mean it’s all swanky, fancy beers here though. We start our Belgian drinking at De Vagant, an old-fashioned style bar that specialises in Jenever (a kind of Belgian gin) but also stocks a good range of beers. Plus, they do hearty portions of soup and bread for a mere €3 and have a lovely old cat milling around. It’s a classic old style bar, long wooden benches, stone tiles, candles and quiet classical music piped across (all the best bars play classical music, it’s probably why drinking here is so placid with no hint of aggression). We have a couple of beers, including a sweet and dark Grimbergen, and De Konnick, a good, but unexceptional pilsner brewed in Antwerp. It’s the local brew of choice, apparently.

It’s actually surprising how many people drink pils here, instead of the richer, stronger abbey-style beers. But then if you spent every night on beers that range between 7% and 12%, your liver would struggle, I guess.

The real highlight, drinking-wise in Antwerp comes in Kulminator that night. A small, crammed smokey bar with strings of sausages flopping around the bar, two cats dancing around the window front, loads of cheese (including aged stuff from the Rochefort and Orval breweries) and shelf-upon-shelf and crate-upon-crate of beer. What’s really noticeable is the ancient, dust-laden bottles on the top shelves. See, while Kulminator do a great range of standard bottles, and some amazing draft beers (we take two very strong, dark, Christmas ales, a Stille Nacht and Bush Noel) and, most interesting of all, lots of very old beer.

The back of the menu is selling beers for beyond €30 a bottle, and it’s because they deal in vintaged bottles of beer. You can, if you ask nicely and have the cash, get 25 year old geuze, or two year old Chimay, or, just about any Belgian beer you can ever want.

An old guild building in Ghent

An old guild building in Ghent

One way to tell an especially strong beer, is a warning at the bottom of the menu that they will only sell you three of said beer. Thus was the case when we visited Ghent and Het Waterhuis Aan De Bierkant. This lovely canal-side bar (Ghent, like Bruge, is full of canals. In fact, Ghent is like a larger, more lived in Bruge. But not quite as beautiful). In this bar, one of their house beers (or Huis Biers – Flemish words often look and sound like English word spoken in a childish tone, thanks lot is “dank u well”), named Klocke Roeland – named after a bell in the city’s Belfry, the middle of three big towers in the city – is rich, strong, slightly red and full of aniseed and banana notes. It’s gorgeous, heavy and kicks in at over 11%.

In retrospect, a beer that strong wasn’t the best thing to drink before going to t’Velootje. Velootje (meaning small bicycle) is, by far, the strangest bar I have ever entered. As you reach the bar there is nothing, other than an Orval plaque, that suggest you are at a bar. The stack of bikes pilled outside the bar, the stiff door that needs a real shove to open, the long curtain than you’re then faced with, then the dim, smokey darkness, don’t scream ‘this is somewhere you would be welcome’.

As your eyes adjust to the gloom, it doesn’t get any easier to get your head round. The ceiling is full, absolutely packed, with hanging, rusting bicycles. The walls carry old beer posters and religious imagery. The tables (two long wooden tables with matching benches either side) have paper and packaging piled around them, alongside a pail holding archaic beer mats (all of them filthy) and religious artifacts and tat. In a corner an old man in shorts and sparkling tights skulks by a fire. A computer sits by him with a cat curled up nearby.

After a few minutes, the tight wearing man comes up to us. “So, you want a beer, he asks?” “Yes”, we reply. That the last option we’re given. He heads off to the back and returns with a beer called Kerst Pater, a 9% sherry-ish Christmas beer, complete with a deep, curranty flavour. We get no glass, and don’t really want to ask.

While we chat with the drunken locals (who work through Duvels and Monty Python quotes at speed), the owner approaches us. “What are your names?” he asks, and we tell him. “The police might arrive, if they do, we are friends, and you are not paying for your beer.” Ok, we nod in agreement and take his name, Leuven, for surety.

Sure enough, the police do arrive (the locals give us a mixed bag of reasons, a trouble neighbour, the open fire, the lack of fire exits and ventilation, the fact it’s an anarchist bar) and stick around for a fair while filling in forms, while we do our best to appear like friends enjoying a few beer in Leuven’s open front room.

Thankfully, the police soon leave, and we ask Leuven for one more beer. He returns with a monster that I know was 12% (my head told me that much the next morning), again with no glass. We drink it willingly, singing along with Leuven’s choice of music (60s psychedelic pop, 50s rock’n’roll, great stuff) as well as some Flemish drinking songs, and, odd enough, Abba’s ‘Thankyou For The Music’.

That’s definitely the last beer of the night. We leave our new friends and head off back to our room. “Will you be open tomorrow?” we ask. “Maybe,” he says. “I might clean”. We somewhat doubt that.

There’s one more city left, our favourite and two more bars to tell you about. Bruges, as I have already mentioned, is magnificent. Beautiful canals, nothing but gorgeous old architecture, grand town houses and old arced bridges. It’s all you could hope it would be, especially if you avoid the two bustling shopping streets and all the tourists.

The bars are good too, if you leave the obvious places and tourist traps. De Garre is, probably, the best. It’s hidden down a narrow alley between two famous old squares. You would barely notice it was there, but after one visit you’d be heading right back. The small, two floor bar is fancy, but not pretentious or too expensive. It’s rustic-feeling, with old wood tables, wonky twisted stairs and a squat bar. It’s table service done with aplomb and the real treat is their own beer Tripel Van Der Garre. A proper, powerful Belgian Tripel that, like the rest of the beers at the bar, comes complete with a small portion of tasty cheese (truly one of the best things about drinking in Belgium).

Dulle Teve in t'Bruges Beertje

Dulle Teve in t'Bruges Beertje

Perhaps the biggest draw for beers lovers though is t’Bruges Beertje (aka The Bruges Bear). You can tell the Bear is a beer-lovers haven because it has a photo of Michael Jackson (the writer) above a mantelpiece, a thick, bound beer menu and loads of people in it all drinking great Belgian beer.

Like Kulminator, there’s plenty of aged stuff here, and loads of Christmas beers too. I go for Straffe Hendrick though, a tripel beer brewed by Halve Moon brewery within the walls of Bruges. It’s actually not as great as I had hoped (having tried and enjoyed the brewery’s blond beer Bruges Zot and its dark sister on a previous visit to Belgium), strong, certainly, but lacking any distinctive flavours. Much better is the Dolle Brewer’s (literally, mad brewers) Dulle Teve (aka Mad Bitch), it packs a massive punch and comes with flavours of tropical fruits and licorice in its golden sheen.

A fellow Brit recognises us from our trip to De Garre and indulges in some serious beer one-up-manship with us. ‘Oh so you like Rodenbach? Have you tried the Gran Cru?’ ‘Yes, yes we have’ and so on. His beery tales and experiences far over shadow ours though, and we give up. His parting shot is to recommend the Christmas beer by Gouden Carolus. When he returns to our table a little later, he’s upset to see we haven’t tried his suggestion. Lucky for us, he vanishes for a moment, and returns with a glass of the stuff, a deliciously thick, malty, treacly beer that’s a perfect Christmas warmer. What a nice chap.

And with that, we bring a close to my commentary on Belgium. This is obviously nowhere near a full account of the holiday. We visited museums, churches and galleries (including an Anime exhibition in an old monastery in Ghent), saw some really famous paintings by the Belgian masters (all of them deeply religious), loads of amazing guild buildings, walked along canals, trod the streets of the city and caught up with a Belgian friend. Oh, and ate a fair bit too (plenty of cheese’n’beer, plus the obligatory soups and, best of all, a beef stew made using Leffe).

If you’ve read this and not visited Belgium before, I hope you might reconsider now.

A Tale of Two Cities: Drinking in Leeds & Sheffield

A pictureless, detail-scant blog (I made no notes while drinking, I feel odd doing that in bars, with friends – it’d just be rude) from me to sum up my drinking experiences fron the last few days – in Leeds and Sheffield (hence the witty name of the blog).

We begin on Thursday night, in Leeds. A friend comes up to visit and we have an invite to the first birthday of Veuve Bar de Champagne in Chapel Allerton, Leeds. On our way to the bus, we pass North Bar and just can’t resist popping in (it being the favourite bar of me and my girlfriend).

It’s Christmas time, which means North Bar are doing their advent calendar beer. So, for each day of Christmas the first person into the bar gets a free beer from the calendar. Then for the rest of the day that bottle is available for cheap. I’m lucky, for when I go in the beer of the day is Goose Island Matilda – an American craft beer brewed with a heavy nod to Belgium.

It rich, dark gold in colour dry and very easy drinking for a 7% beer with slight wild, spicy notes that recall that king of beers that is Orval.

We went on from there to Chapel Allerton and Veuve, where we enjoyed a free glass of prosecco and more than our fair share of canapes (we’d had no dinner, see) but left when we saw that no more sparkle was going to be offered.

Luckily, just up the road is North Bar’s tiny sister bar Further North (cleverly named because is pretty much exactly in line with North Bar, but further north, see). What to order was a no-brainer when I spied that they had Marble Brewery‘s Ginger on tap. It’s light in colour and, surprisingly very gingery to taste. But, unlike a lot of ginger beers, Marble’s offering doesn’t allow the sweet spice to overwhelm their beer. While it’s very definitely there, the bitterness and alcoholic kick still packs a punch in the background. I finished my night with a half of Roosters Outlaw Stout that I don’t remember a great deal about, it was nice though.

Friday night was Sheffield (after a half of Elland‘s powerfully hoppy Nettle Trasher at The Reliance [which has some link to North and Further North]) and firstly Richard Hawley live at The Crucible. It was good, slow, sonorous and powerful – with some good Northern wit from the one-time Pulp man. But this ain’t a music blog, so I will move on.

I was up in Sheffield with my brother, a friend of his and my brother’s girlfriend (who lives in Sheffield). Post-gig it was decided that we’d go to Champs. It sold, I was told, real ale at amazing prices (with several Kelham Island brews for as little as £1) but it was a sports bar and a regular pre-club bar. Sounds odd, I thought, and I was right.

Champs does not look like a place that should be selling great real ales. Its walls are full of sporting memorabilia, the clientele are mainly enjoying lagers and spirits and the staff seem positively pissed off that they have to spare you (they’re much more interested in creatively stacking shot glasses in interesting patterns). When we finally get served, I get excited by spotting Thornbridge‘s Jaipur on tap, and persuade two of my companions to join me in a pint. I’m shocked as our bartender yanks it out of the pumps with no grace or care at all and passes it up far too cold.

It didn’t stop the beer tasting great though, powerfully hoppy but with an underlying honey-d sweetness, and very suppable, despite being 5.9%. Where it weaker, I would have had another half, but I stopped myself and went for a pale ale from Thornbridge whose name escapes me, it was light, a little sweet and with a nice hoppy finish, mind. Then midnight came along and we were swiftly kicked out with little grace. Suffice to say that, if it weren’t for its great beer selection, I wouldn’t darken Champs’ door again. If I do go back it will be during the day when, so I’m told, it’s much quieter and the staff are nicer.

So then, Saturday. The day starts well with a trip to Elland Road for Leeds v Huddersfield. We draw 2-2, but it’s a good game, even if Town are dirty buggers. This bears no relevance to anything else in this blog.

That evening, my girlfriend and I decide to head out to Cross Keys (thus making it four out of four of the North Bar-associated drinking holes in three days) for a slap up dinner. It’s a great pub, all roaring fires, exposed brickwork, beams and brilliant service. The food, traditional English grub done to an astonishingly high standard, was superb, as always. I had a great smoked haddock fish cake with a poached egg and tartar sauce followed by duck breast with chesnut stuffing. I washed that all done with a couple of pint of Saltaire‘s Winter Ale a slightly toffee-flavoured dark winter ale, a real warmer for this time of year. My girlfriend enjoyed a couple of bottle s of the splendid Flemish red Duchesse de Bourgogne – it comes with a sour kick at first, then a sweet, strawberry-esque finish.

In related news, I decided to use the NHS iPhone app for tracking your drink intake. Suffice to say that if I want to stay averaging 4 units per day (the recommended amount for me) I’m going to have to have a relatively sober week.

Find out about North, Further North, Cross Keys and The Reliance here. I’m sure you can find out about Champs somewhere if you want, but I don’t really recommend it.

STAGGING IT! And the Shropshire Union Canal Beer Club

Assorted beer club beers

Assorted beer club beers

As I write this blog post, my body seems to be in some kind of post-barge stress disorder. I may have been firmly on dry land for well over 24 hours (and I was only on a boat for two nights), but still my mind is still gently rocking me back and forth. When it will stop, I know not. But I hope it’s bloody soon.

So, what am I on about? Well, this week was a STAG DO! but not in the way you think. We didn’t hit the nearest swanky town, fill ourselves full of beer and then call into the nearest strip club. Oh no, for this was a classy, sophisticated, well behaved affair. This was a barging trip, between Bunbury (there were two English graduates on the trip, and neither of us made an Importance of being Earnest joke, indeed, I only just noticed the link n0w) and Chester on the Shropshire Union.

Our relatively sober, good behaviour was partly due to us all being sensible grown-ups with self-control and a knowledge of our own limits, and partly down to the worry that a hangover on a barge could be about as pleasant as being in a furnace with a temperature, or on a building site with a migraine.

However, this being a stag do, there was obviously going to be some drinking. But this wasn’t normal drinking. It was beer club. The stag do organiser had told us all to bring some interesting beer with us. That beer was going to be shared, tasted and rated. This was beer club.

Now, most beer tasters would be horrified at this tasting. Our scores were out of 10 for each beer, with no real criteria. We were tasting our beer out of plastic cups with a skull and crossbones on (their was a slight pirate theme upon the barge, we even had a Jolly Roger before some Chester bastard nicked it in the night), the beers were drunk roughly in order of darkness and most of the beers were just from the supermarket. A sophisticated beer tasting this was not. But, it was a laugh. And that’s what matters.

Our  barge was called the Speckled Hen, so, we started we Old Speckled Hen. It came straight in at 7 out of 10, mainly for being inoffensive, yet pretty tasty. If unspectacular, our tasting then took us to a few more beers whose notes have been lost in time. We had an Abbot Ale that was far too cold (again, this wasn’t a very scientific tasting) a bottle of St Peter’s Best that scored a lowly 1.87 (“stylish bottle, but fizzy and too shallow” said our shared notes). We had a Ginger Tom which seemed to go down well, and moved on to a Barbar honey ale, which promised much, but disappointed us with a strange mash of flavours (“strong, bitter, sweet and smooth a confused ale that doesn’t know what it wants to be: 3/10”) and a Wells Banana Bread Beer that tasted like that nice medicine you get as a nipper.

After The Banana Bread Beer, we moved on to darker, stronger things. We started with Duchesse de Bourgogne, the Flanders red ale. Many of my drinking colleagues hated the vinegary kick and the sweet flavours. I, however, have been a fan for years, and happily finished off the spares. A Westmalle Dubbel was strangely lacklustre, lacking any depth of flavour, bu Grimbergen Dubbel abbey beer wowed us all, although our notes seem to say “salty and liquoricey. Deliciously hollow – 8.3/10”, which is an odd turn of phrase.

Next up was the dark stuff. Old Tom’s Strong Beer showed initial promise with a nice meaty kick, but then failed to give anything in the finish. Old Growler looked a bit suspect, despite scribbling that it was “like an angular wet dog”, we all declared it “malty, drinkable, really gets in your mouth” (whatever that means) and gave it a mediocre 6.5/10. My beer for the tasting was Meantime London Stout. I loved it, but my companions found it a little bland. Which was odd.

After stouts, some unwise drinker had decided to bring a load of chocolate beers with him, to largely dreadful affect. Meantime Dark Chocolate Ale faired better than the rest, but even that only got the following response: “like alpro soya milk. bleurgh. 4.2/10”. The rest, though, Old Tom’s Chocolate Beer and, worst of all Flors Chocolate got 1.3/10 and our notes just said “nauceous”.

Foolishly, we left the lagers until our palates were well and truly baffled and we had ingested a load of salty snacks. Lucky Beer came in a Buddha-shaped bottle, and was slightly limey and sweet. We quite liked it. Our last beer, Kastell Cru faired less well, the standard one being far too unremarkable to be worth the price, while the Rose version really unimpressed and had us somewhat un-PCly declaring it “quite possibly one of the gayest beers”.

Yes, this was a massively unscientific beer tasting, yes, it might tell you very little about the beers, but it was bloody fun. After that we hit Chester, found a few nice pubs and, it true stag fashion, finished the night on a barge, with cups of green tea (decaff). Wild.