Something stirring in the attic – Part 2

Derby CAMRA 1979 Beer Festival ProgrammeIn the first part of this article I explained how when exploring the deepest recesses of our attic I came across my programme of the Derby CAMRA Beer Festival of 1979. And that, for me, reading the programme highlighted issues very relevant to the current world of British beer and brewing. Part one went on to talk about changes in beers and breweries. Here, in part two, I want to address the thorny subject of the cask verses keg row that is troubling CAMRA today, and how the festival programme’s introduction notes provide a perspective on the debate.

Part Two: What’s it all about?

After the nostalgia trip reading the festival programme’s brewery notes and remembering the beers and atmosphere of 1979, I turned to read the CAMRA Derby Branch’s introduction page.

Derby CAMRA 1979 Beer Festival Programme Introduction

Naturally, the author wrote about CAMRA as an organisation, what it was doing locally, and how readers could join the campaign. What I see as a key point is how the piece describes CAMRA as fighting ‘to preserve and promote real ale in real pubs especially in areas which suffer from a surfeit of keg beer’. The piece also refers to the Derby Branch producing its own Good Beer Guide ‘to publicise the pubs selling traditional cask conditioned beers in our area’.

The above comments are important as they describe very clearly what CAMRA was already know for and, I believe, has consistently been best known for since its creation in the 1970s.

There are arguments in and around CAMRA at the moment about how the organisation should recognise and respond to the revival of kegged beer (often associated with ‘craft’ beer). One case made for allowing the new keg beers into the CAMRA fold is that CAMRA was originally set up as the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale to promote high quality in beer. The argument follows that whereas in the seventies beer quality could be defined easily in terms of cask conditioned as opposed to mass-produced kegs (pasteurised and carbonated), today things are different as many brewers now brew nice tasting keg beers, and some cask conditioned beers are not kept or served well.

There are many ways to answer this argument, but here I’m going to go back to the comments from the 1979 festival programme. Despite what some of the founders of CAMRA may have originally intended back in 1971, from 1973 CAMRA has been the Campaign for Real Ale. And, despite whatever nuances the founders saw in terms of the campaign’s role, I suggest it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t always been widely seen as promoting cask conditioning as the key feature of British brewing. Therefore, it seems completely consistent that CAMRA should focus on cask conditioned beer and work towards highlighting and encouraging good cellar and bar management, in tandem with discouraging all less than good examples of both.

Today there are keg beers that taste nice and there are keg beers that offer a variety of experiences that attract a modern consumer; just as there have always been excellent foreign beers to compete with British real ale. The new wave of keg beers don’t need CAMRA to thrive and it benefits no-one for CAMRA to try and hang onto the coat tails of this current fashion. I believe it is completely justifiable, and valid, for CAMRA to campaign strongly for GOOD cask conditioned beer without bringing the new keg beers into the mix and so muddy the waters.

Campaigning for the survival of good pubs and for good real cider and perry, alongside good, well delivered, cask conditioned beer seems completely in keeping the organisation’s ethos. Can campaigning for keg beer really be said to have any connection, purpose, or relevance?

Some of those that want change worry about CAMRA losing its relevance in the face of the new beer revolution. CAMRA will lose its relevance if it dilutes itself and looses sight of what its always been famous for.

Good cask conditioned beer is a wonderful part of British tradition, heritage, identity, or however you want to put it. Surely it’s important that CAMRA concentrate and focus, clearly, on ensuring we all have access to the best of this national treasure!

Something stirring in the attic – Part 1

During a recent trip into the deepest recesses of our attic I came across a box of souvenirs from my younger days. The box contained a large quantity of old football programmes which, of course, I had to flick through to avoid getting on with the task in hand. As I relived the football memories something different dropped out of the pile and caught my eye. I’d found my programme of the Derby CAMRA Beer Festival of 1979.

Derby CAMRA 1979 Beer Festival Programme

Given my life-long love affair with cask conditioned beer, and my recent return to CAMRA membership, this was a special discovery. I re-read the programme from cover to cover and took myself back to that April evening in the King’s Hall, Derby when I was in my early twenties. I still remember much of the experience of that festival, and although the modern-day city festivals are much bigger, and brasher, I don’t think they’re any more enjoyable than that early example.

Aside from pure nostalgia, reading the festival programme highlighted a couple of issues salient to the current world of British beer and brewing. In order to look at these issues properly I’ll split this article in two. Here I’ll talk about the changes in beers and breweries demonstrated by the line-up at the festival. In part two I’ll spend some time on the more thorny subject of the cask verses keg row that is troubling CAMRA today, and how the festival programme’s introduction notes provide a useful perspective on the debate.

Part One: Where have they gone?

Layout of Breweries at the 1979 festival
Breweries at the festival. Ticks show those sampled during a busy Friday night!

1979 saw the second annual Derby Beer Festival. There were twenty breweries, each providing from one to four different beers. Most of the beers were Bitters but there was a good selection of Milds and a few Strong/Winter Brews. For readers of this article under about, say, thirty five I think I ought to point out that beers that were categorised as Bitter in the seventies ranged in style from what is still called Bitter to the less exotic end of modern-day Pale Ale spectrum. In those days one didn’t turn one’s nose up at a Bitter, as many do now, one relished the seductive body, mouthfeel, and aftertaste!

It’s sad to count how many breweries at that festival no longer exist. Even some of those whose names live on it is only their names, and their beer is now brewed many miles away by one brewing conglomerate or other. The fact that only eight out of twenty breweries still brew beer is, unfortunately, not surprising. And, as someone raised in the East Midlands, I find the changes that have taken place in Nottingham a good example of brewery troubles of the seventies and subsequent decades.

By the time I started drinking, my hometown of Derby had already lost all its indigenous breweries, but neighbouring Nottingham still had its three relatively big local players. Hardys & Hansons (known as Kimberley’s), Home, and Shipstone’s breweries supplied a wide area around Nottingham and even had pubs in Derby, where I got to know them. Each of these breweries was at the 1979 festival but relatively soon afterwards each was lost to take-over and subsequent closure. I have to say that these breweries produced quite idiosyncratic brews that took getting used to, but ‘local taste’, different from region to region, is something I feel we’ve almost lost today, and that really is a great shame.

As in most cities, new breweries have set-up in Nottingham over the last couple of decades, especially as part of the recent new wave brewing renaissance.  And, late last year a new Shipstone’s brewery began brewing in Nottingham after a determined individual, Richard Neale, bought the Shipstone’s name and original recipes. Richard’s objective seems to be to revive the traditional taste of the old Nottingham favourite. I wish him well and look forward to checking if their Bitter is as I remember it!

The list of lost breweries from the 1979 festival line-up includes Ward’s from Sheffield, which many in the city remember with affection. Ward’s brought both Sheffield Best Bitter and Best Mild for their stall; and the selection of Milds offered from across the breweries there is indication of how tastes were quite different to those of today. Yet, it strikes me that it’s not just simply tastes that have changed over the last forty years; the current developments in beer stem from evolved attitudes to not only beer as a drink but also the entire role of pub drinking. Mild drinking had been shrinking for very many decades, into its industrial and regional strongholds (especially the Midlands), but it seems to me that modern demands for certain strong and varied areas of taste (and lots of them) in beer have finally consigned Mild to a museum piece ‘heritage’ style for special occasions.

Looking into the marginalisation of Mild can lead to a wider exploration of the changing role of beer, but I think that is best kept for a future article where I can give it the room it deserves.

Another now extinct brewery from the Derby festival was Pollard’s, from Stockport, who especially grabbed my attention when research for this article uncovered an excellent piece in Boak and Bailey’s Beer Blog entitled ‘Only a Northern Brewer’. Little did I realise as I sampled Pollard’s John Barleycorn Bitter back in 1979 that I was enjoying a drink from a forerunner of modern-day micro-breweries. Pollard’s didn’t survive far into the eighties but their model took root and, thankfully, lives on.

Brewing your own beer successfully

If you’ve read previous articles on this site, such as ‘Me?….I’m not bitter’, you’ll know that I’m not altogether satisfied with the selection of beer styles that are generally available across my home city of Sheffield. Modern equivalents of traditional bitter beers are not as good as they ought to be, especially given the current enthusiasm for real ale brewing. So, to provide a enjoyable drink when I want an alternative to the readily available hoppy pale ales in the Sheffield pubs I’ve found I need to brew it myself.

I dabbled with homebrew when I was a lot younger without any great success, but a few years ago when I decided to leave my day-job for more satisfying pursuits I looked into commercial brewing as an option. I attended a Brewlab ‘Start up Brewing’ course (similar to their current ‘Professional Craft Brewing’ course), and although being an extremely good course it did show me that setting up a brewery might be a step too far. Despite bringing me to my senses as far as taking up brewing as a business, the course did give me a good grounding in much of what’s important in actually brewing beer. So, last year I decided to set about homebrewing seriously and use of the experience of the Brewlab course, and its excellent documentation, as the basis of my procedures and recipes.

Anyway, enough preamble, I’ll describe, in bullet points, my process and highlight some of its strengths and weaknesses.

  • I use a Peco Mashing/Boiling Bin to heat the water (liquor), and as Sheffield has very soft water I treat it with calcium sulphate (gypsum) and, sometimes, calcium chloride to suit the type of beer I’m brewing.

  • I believe the main reason for my recent success with homebrewing is that I now use our Coleman Coolbox as a mash tun. This very effective coolbox is great at keeping its contents (the mixture of malted grains and liquor, called ‘wort’) at 65ºC to 66ºC for the 90 to 120 minutes needed to mash successfully.

  • I have an improvised false bottom and straining bag to help when it comes to draining the mash tun back into the Peco Boiling Bin for the boiling phase. Sparging is very rudimentary so this is certainly an area for development.

  • Boiling with the bittering hops takes an hour and a half. I use Irish Moss (seaweed!) towards the end of the boil to help clear the beer. Just before the boil ends I add extra hops to add flavour and aroma. These flavouring hops are left to do their work for ten minutes after the heat is switched off.

  • The resultant wort is drained into a fermenting bin and cooled as quickly as possible (another area for improvement). Once cool (below 25ºC ) I add the yeast (at the moment I’m using a packet yeast called Safeale S-04).

  • I keep the fermentation bin in a room where the temperature only varies between around 16ºC and 20ºC. Fermentation takes about four days during which time a lively, yeasty, head grows and then subsides.

  • When fermentation has slowed to the extent that the yeast head has disappeared I syphon the beer into a conditioning bin that can be sealed with an air-lock. The beer stays in the conditioning bin (at a cool room-temperature) for from a few days to a week or so depending on how quickly its specific gravity is approaching the desired level.

  • After conditioning I syphon the beer into a sterilised pressure barrel where I carry out a final check on the specific gravity prior to adding a small amount of priming sugar solution. Once the beer has been primed I syphon a small amount back out of the barrel into four to six sterilised pint bottles. The barrel and bottles are then sealed and stored in a cool (but not cold) room. I put a very small amount of carbon dioxide into the top of the barrel to sit on top of the beer and stop it being in contact with oxygen whilst it creates its own conditioning carbon dioxide.

  • I check the beer in the barrel after a day or two to ensure that conditioning pressure is not leaking (and re-seal if it is). Then I leave the beer for a week or two to develop fully (longer if possible). I leave the bottles for at least three to four weeks to ensure they have conditioned well. In reality I leave the bottles until the barrel is empty in case I’ve been slow brewing a replacement barrel and have nothing left to drink!

This article is very much an overview of my brewing process. In this ‘Home Brewing’ section of my blog I intend to expand on some of the detail areas of the process, the recipes I develop, and the ingredients I use. The next article on ‘Home Brewing’ will focus on the choice on malt and hops, and how they are balanced in recipe formulation.

Homebrew in the community

Being a bit of a homebrew enthusiast myself, I was intrigued when I heard that Sheffield’s On the Edge Brewery was having one of its own beer festivals in a community centre just a mile away. On the Edge Brewery is the passion of one man who has taken homebrewing to a level where he can supply casks to pubs and organise his own mini-festivals to publicise his produce. The brewery’s fifth birthday was a perfect reason for a celebratory festival and so Tom, the brewer, prepared nine pins (four and a half gallons) of different beers and set-up in the hall of the Old Junior School in Sharrow. This was an unmissable opportunity for me to experience a very inspirational venture, and, of course, taste a few beers.

Walking in to the old school hall I was struck by the really good atmosphere. There was very much a local community feel about the place, with groups of all ages and families with children all enjoying a relaxed night out with good beer……and cake. Being a birthday celebration friends of the brewery had baked a range of lovely cakes to give a party feel to the evening. Unfortunately, we’d been slow getting over to the festival and missed the early evening pie and peas, which was quite a shame as it’s always such a perfect accompaniment to beer.

My wife and I tried almost the full range of beers. My wife having those advertised as wheat beers or ‘spicy’, whilst I kept mostly to the variously hopped pale ales but making an exception for one of the dark offerings.

Tom, and his partner Lu, were great hosts and I could see everyone, like us, really enjoyed the evening. Tom was also good enough to give me a few useful homebrewing tips which I’ll be thinking about next time I set about a brew.

Whilst, I really admire Tom’s brewing skills and passion, I came away from the festival a little sad that I hadn’t found a bitter beer in his range. On the Edge Brewery appears to follow the widespread trend towards beers with little bitterness but heavily hopped for ‘fruity’ flavours. I know this is a national trend/fashion but it seems to be one that is particularly prevalent in the Sheffield area. Elsewhere in this blog (Me? I’m not bitter) I write of the lack of good bitter beers in Sheffield, and it is a real concern for me. That being said, I don’t want to detract from the obvious skill and enterprise of Tom and On the Edge Brewery. I look forward to the next mini-festival, and I suggest any Sheffielders reading this should do the same.

Shock of the new and then a classic old theatre

Over the May-day bank holiday weekend my wife and I found we had the perfect opportunity to visit and interesting part of Sheffield’s heritage. Abbeydale Picture House is a grand old cinema from the 1920s that, although showing its age, is a gem of a building and was running a three day beer festival to open its theatre to the public. We were very keen to have a look inside as to our shame we’d not explored it before. As we expected to sample a few beers we thought we’d balance that by walking there and back (roughly a mile and a half each way). I’ve always found a good walk after a night on the beer really helps and gives you the best chance of a reasonable morning after.

As we approached the Picture House we came across one of Sheffield’s ‘craft’ beer shops which also acts as a tasting room, or in other words a very small micro-pub. I had heard a great deal about the Hop Hideout but was suspicious about its real ale credentials so I’d not personally checked it out. As we passed the shop my wife grabbed my arm and dragged me in with a list of reasons why I shouldn’t be such an old fart. Once inside I found that there were five keg taps but, I was politely informed, no cask beer. I was in a cask conditioned dessert with a very thirsty wife; there was nothing left to do but treat it as research and try out a couple of the keg offerings. My wife immediately chose a sour beer as she likes sourness in many forms. I chose what looked to be the best option in terms of strength to kick off a long night on the beer. The shop serves glasses in sizes from one-third pint up to one litre, so we were able to have thirds to give us an introduction to the new world of keg. Research dictated I try a second beer from the range, and I also managed to pinch a sip of my wife’s sour ale so I could see what was making her so happy.

There was an excited buzz in the shop from the group of young men chatting about the nuances of the the various hop flavours on offer and I must admit I liked the informality and the atmosphere of the place. However, despite my wife’s new found love for sour beer, I wasn’t won over by my drinks and also found them, surprisingly, rather flat; not what I expected from new generation keg. So, my conclusion is that the Hop Hideout is well set-up and run, and would attract me for return visits if there were at least one cask conditioned beer on offer.

After our keg detour we move on the Picture House via an accidental visit to the Picture House Social Club underneath the old cinema. The Social Club seemed a very good venue with good pizzas, good beer, and on that Friday a really good DJ. However, we realised we’d entered the wrong door so after a pint and a pizza left to find the correct entrance to the Picture House cinema and the target beer festival. With objective achieved we had a great night marvelling at the old cinema theatre and sampling the range of cask conditioned beers (although my wife found the Hop Hideout had a pop-up keg and can bar at the festival too!).

A slow walk home capped a really good Friday night out. So much so, we decided to repeat the whole experience on the Saturday (bringing friends)…..when I even had a bit of a dance in the theatre aisle to the festival’s headline band! Maybe there is life in the old dog yet.

We do NOT have WARM beer!

A couple of summers ago my wife and I spent some time at a beautiful agriturismo (le mole sul farfa) in the Sabine Hills north east of Rome. Stefano at the farm was a wonderful host, guide, farmer, and chef but he blotted his copybook whilst driving us to the station for our train back to Rome. As we chatted in the car about this and that the subject of beer came up and immediately he joked about British ‘warm’ beer. This myth has always been something of a ‘red rag to a bull’ for me, so I had to politely correct his misunderstanding and do my bit towards a wider appreciation of British ale drinking tradition and culture. I’m glad to say Stefano and I stayed friends and I’m sure if ever Elisabeth, Stefano’s Belgian wife, mocks English beer over the dinner table he’ll be able to defend our corner for us!

British beer should only be warm if it has not been kept properly, or if it’s an unusually hot day in a pub garden and a drinker hasn’t supped his or her pint quickly enough. More seriously, the argument is really over the definition of what is warm, and that is why it’s such a bad word to use in this context. It’s always annoyed me that we don’t properly challenge the use of the term warm, and sadly, there are even those from our islands that use the word themselves. No-one says that red wine is served warm, yet generally wines are drunk a few degrees above beer’s traditional ideal range. Warm is far too subjective a term; the same can be said for ‘room-temperature’, although given Britain’s weather this is probably a slightly better description to use for our beer. Better still is ‘cellar temperature’. Cellar temperature will, of course, vary a little from pub to pub and season to season, but far less than the average pub bar-room and so works better. To my mind, a cool beer brought from the cellar via a hand-pump to a British room-temperature glass in a British room-temperature pub usually provides the perfect temperature pint for a traditional British drinker.

Readers may not think exploring the use of the word warm in relation to British beers is very controversial. However, I do think it’s a relevant introduction to comment on a worrying current trend. Much as I really do not want to be offered truly warm beer, I dislike even more being presented with a glass with condensation forming on the outside that threatens frost bite to the touch. Unfortunately, I’ve come across a growth in the practice of cooling ale on its way to the pump. Of course it is often necessary to cool barrels when they’re in environments where the ambient temperature could cause the contents to be too warm, in real terms. But there have been times in a several pubs, especially one very close to me, where I have had to wrap my hands around my pint for 5 minutes or more before I could take a sip of the chilled ale. One, progressive, local brewery appears to lean towards cold ale; although some of its pubs seem to serve colder than others. I’m sure the argument is that the new style ales benefit from being drunk cold. Maybe it’s true that many of the beers have moved so far from the traditional British drink that they need similar treatment to lagers. Whatever is behind the trend it’s not something I welcome. There’s a time and a place for a cold lager, but in my local pub I need my local ale at a temperature that allows all the flavours and aromas to come to the fore, and that doesn’t anaesthetise the back of the throat on its way down. British beer should not be warm but, please, let’s keep ale from getting too cold!

And as for putting bottled ales in the fridge……well, let’s not go there (for now).

The Spanish call it ‘el tapeo’

When we visit Spanish towns and cities one of the cultural highlights that I know many of us love is the evening ‘tapeo’. Tapeo does not have an exact English translation but it’s the name for a quite simple concept. To ‘ir de tapeo’ is to spend an evening moving from bar to bar having one or maybe two drinks in each, and sampling the speciality tapa each bar has to offer. It’s quite often the case that bars will have a few signature tapas and so it makes a great night out to tour an area trying what’s best in as many bars as time or hunger allows. One could start with a fino sherry with some prawns, move along the street to have a small beer with some tortilla or empanada, then a stroll across the road to have red wine with a little ox-tail stew….and so on, and so on.

Looking back a few decades, I remember nights out with friends where I could describe the evenings as being English ‘tapeos’. Of course, we British have always missed the link between good food and good drink, except perhaps for a stomach filler before we set off or a curry to end the night. But, I used to enjoy the option to move pub to pub to sample the beer each one specialised in. In Derby in the early 80s this might mean starting in the Exeter Arms (then a Marston’s house) with their Pedigree, moving on to the Shakespeare for some Ind Coupe Burton Ale then to Ye Olde Dolphin for a pint of Bass (and so on). Portsmouth during student days in the 70s would be a crawl from Gale’s house (HSB), to Eldridge Pope house (Royal Oak), to Whitbread house (Pompey Royal). Each evening we could choose to drink our favourite beers in varied locations with useful breaks of a walk between pubs to rest the stomach and clear the head!

I doubt many would argue that the tied system had a lot to answer for and many pub managers struggled to make a living whilst trying to attract and keep a good customer base. However, for me, it was ideal to be able to choose what I wanted to drink and then make for an old haunt I knew served it well or, if away from home, to an attractive pub that advertised the brewery on its sign.

Today we have a rather mixed bag. Some areas are rather monopolised by one giant brewer (see article ‘Pompey…or is it Southsea?’ with its repeated reference to Fuller’s), whilst others have many free-houses that serve ever changing beers from near and far. The free-house model seems to offer a wide choice but I do question whether a bar displaying 6 or 8 or 10 pumps with ever changing obscure brews is really the drinkers’ paradise. Many’s the time I’ve gone into a lovely pub and had to scan the bar looking for something I know, or something of a similar style to what I prefer, only to have to compromise to avoid a range of either too strong or too weird offerings. It seems choice can mean different things to different people. A lot of options on the bar doesn’t necessarily mean real choice, and I worry that this is often not appreciated by today’s brewers and pub owners.

Here in Sheffield we now have a great variety of good pubs and many carry a dazzling selection of beers. Fortunately, some of the best do offer regular beers from local breweries so the customer isn’t forced to try their luck with a leap into the unknown. Good examples are the Fat Cat and the Kelham Island Tavern at Kelham Island, the Sheaf View at Heeley, and the Rising Sun at Fulwood. Modern-day pubs that cater for those who want to choose a beer they trust, as well as for people who enjoy the excitement of something ‘different’. However, I have to say that despite enjoying the best of the new era pubs, I do still miss walking from one brewery’s pub to another’s knowing what I’m going to have in each and being very comfortable with that.

Pompey…..or is it Southsea?

I thought I’d write a piece on a recent trip to Portsmouth (aka Pompey) where I checked out how things had changed since I trod its streets as a struggling student back in the 70s. I booked myself into a sea-front hotel, bought a ticket for the football, and planned my own mini crawl around the area I knew so well in my first year at Poly. in 1976.

To support this article I was keen to get a good feel for today’s beer drinking culture in Portsmouth.  But with only one day free I focussed on the north of Southsea and the tight-knit residential streets between Albert Road and Fratton Park.

I travelled down on Saturday morning hoping to explore a little before the match (v Exeter). Traffic delays made time a bit tight but I did managed to find the first pub on my target list for a quick pint…and what an experience it was. The Nell Gwynne was a very good street corner local and was packed with a really interesting pre-match crowd. Let’s say the clientele and the atmosphere took me back to pubs close to football grounds in the 70s or 80s. Many of the blokes looked as if they dated back to those times (as I do) and although I didn’t advertise my northern accent I really liked the buzz and warmth of the place.

Saturday evening provided the serious research and I kicked off by visiting a favourite haunt of student days, the 5th Hants Volunteer Arms. To a great extent the pub hadn’t changed much at all except for the unfortunate presence of a TV and the even more unfortunate loss of the Gale’s Ales I remember with a passion. Gale’s were sold to, and closed by, Fuller’s of London. Fuller’s provide the beers for the 5th Hants and offer a version of the old Gale’s Horndean Special Bitter, but it’s an unexciting reproduction so my visit was a little sad. The pub was good but not with the feel of the old days!

Albert Road was unrecognisable from the 70s. Then it was quiet and work-a-day, now it’s lively and buzzing. My second stop was the Duke of Devonshire which had a selection of beers and a really good atmosphere. The local brewery I’d been looking out for was on the bar so the Duke was a perfect stop-off on the tour. Portsmouth’s Irving & Co. Brewers have an attractive range of regular beers (each with a Naval theme) and the one I sampled was Invincible (named after an aircraft carrier). Invincible was very good although, despite it claiming to be a full-bodied premium bitter, I would have liked a little more body myself. Still I am being picky and I’d certainly look out for Irving’s beers again.

Pub number three needed a trip into the backstreets north of Albert Road. The Red, White, and Blue is a welcoming street corner local. Another good mix of customers (young and old) and another very friendly feel. Again Fuller’s replaced the the original Gale’s, and their London Pride was excellent. A couple of streets away was the Golden Eagle. Again nestled on a street corner and again Fuller’s. Inside was lively with what turned out to be a rather good Status Quo tribute band (Stated Quo) playing in the bar. The London Pride went down nicely and the bouncing crowd made for a great short stay.

Finally a return to Albert road and yet another beautiful street corner pub. The Leopold may be an old pub but it’s been up-dated inside and done so in such a way as not to crush warmth and cosiness. At the bar there was a modern selection of beers too. Older breweries and modern breweries sat side by side. Plenty of variety on the pumps and the mixed crowd were very happy, as was I.

The Leopold was a comfortable place to sit and assess my tour and the state of Portsmouth today. Albert Road is a brilliant night out area. Something for everyone and everything close at hand. What is particularly good about the area, especially if I compare it to home in Sheffield, is the survival of many (but not all) of the small street corner locals. The ones that I came across seemed to be thriving with people popping out for a quick one, two, or maybe more. The friendly atmosphere of these local pubs was really warm and showed that a pub can still be what it should be… a great community resource.

Me? I’m not bitter.

Sheffield is a great place to drink beer. Many small, independent breweries and many excellent pubs serving a wide selection of local, and not so local, beers. When I came to Sheffield the drinking scene was dominated by Tetley’s, Ward’s and Stone’s Bitters and depending on where you went each of these could be good (occasionally very good). Now those beers have all gone and Sheffield’s new breed of breweries are very keen on their Pale Ales. The changeover to Pale Ales has come alongside the very welcome boom in the availability of Real Ale not just in traditional pubs but also in bars and restaurants across the city. Kelham Island and Abbeydale are two of the most long standing current Sheffield breweries, and their flagship brews of ‘Pale Rider’ and ‘Easy Rider’ (Kelham Island) and ‘Moonshine’ (Abbeydale) are Pale Ales that stand out as delicious examples of the local offerings.

However, for me, there is something missing in the beers that are coming out of the local area. It may be that the move towards the new generation Pale Ales is (to varying degrees) a national trend, but I have found that other regions still develop good traditional style Bitters to provide a balanced range of options at the bar. Looking beyond classics such as Timothy Taylor’s ‘Landlord’ and focusing on small breweries, a favourite Bitter of mine is the excellent ‘The Usual’ brewed at the Brunswick Inn in Derby. Further afield, ‘Gem’ from Bath Ales in Bristol is a good Bitter beer from a modern-day brewery. Coming back more close to home, I’ve recently tasted very good Bitters that are part of the range from the Marble Brewery, Manchester (e.g. ‘Manchester Bitter’ and ‘Pint’). In fact, Marble provides a good example of how a modern brewery with innovative ales for the modern trend can still provide high quality more traditional options for the likes of me.

I know most of the local breweries that supply the Sheffield area do brew Bitters, but to me it seems as if their hearts are not really in that style of beer. At best the local Bitters are uninspiring, and it’s sad that there isn’t as much enthusiasm in getting Bitter right as there is in experimenting with blending hops from around the world for a new tang to a Pale Ale variation. Sorry if a little bitterness slipped out there but it would be nice to have access to a good Sheffield Bitter rather than having to look out for the likes of Marble’s ‘Manchester Bitter’ guesting at my local!

The coming of Micro-Pubs

I’ve lived in Sheffield for over twenty five years and I’ve seen many developments, both good and bad, in the local beer drinking scene. The creation of so many new breweries in the city has been a very positive change; with so many of them being excellent they provide Sheffield with a vibrant beer culture. On the other hand, the loss of Ward’s Bitter with the closure of Ward’s Brewery in 1999 was sad, and many good pubs across the city have been either knocked down or converted into anything from supermarkets to flats. Some of the remaining pubs have been ruined through unimaginably bad internal modernisation, but fortunately there are also many that have been given very positive new leases of life. The Sheaf View at Heeley is one of my favourite pubs, and as I remember how it used to be I can’t give enough praise to those who bought it and transformed it to what it is now.

The latest exciting development, to my mind, has been Sheffield’s adoption of the micro-pub concept. A micro-pub is generally a small, simple drinking venue set up in what was a shop or similar outlet, with basic but adequate facilities and food limited to snacks. Sheffield was a little slow on the uptake; micro-pubs had already started popping up in other towns and cities around the country from late 2005. Some years ago I picked up on the micro-pub association and had been planning to check out the format in my home city of Derby where the Little Chester Ale House opened in 2012. For one reason or another I’ve still to make it to the Little Chester, but 2015 saw the opening of the Beer House on Ecclesall Road, Sheffield and I’m completely sold on the idea. It’s probably fortunate that the Beer House has been designed and run so well, although the two micro-pubs that have since opened in the city are both good in their own ways too. I do think the format is just what has been needed for a while. Simple comforts whilst ensuring high quality beer served by informed and friendly staff seems such an obvious recipe for success. I really hope life does continue to be be successful for the micro-pubs in Sheffield and especially the Beer House which as my closest ‘boozer’ could almost have been designed just for me!