Category Archives: CAMRA & beer

Brussels weekend: Summer 2011

I spent last weekend in Brussels. I love the city – this will be my fourth visit. The last 3 times I have visited, we have stayed in the Ibis hotel just off the Grand’ Place,  because it’s a nice hotel in a very nice location. Stepping onto the Grand’ Place in Brussels is like stepping into a different world, and this hotel is a few minutes walk away. The photograph below shows the Grand’ Place, with the Hotel de Ville on the left.

There is no doubt in my mind that the best way to travel to Brussels is by the Eurostar service from St Pancras. It takes just over 2 hours, and you arrive in the centre of Brussels. From Brussels Midi Station to the Gare Centrale (the closest station for the hotel and the Grand’ Place) involves a journey on the metro with one change, but as long as you check your route in advance (particularly the change), it isn’t difficult.

I like Brussels for several reasons. The first is its laid back and relaxed nature, which you feel as soon as you arrive. The fact that it is a bilingual city makes it interesting as well. I speak reasonable French, but hardly any Flemish/Dutch, but English is widely spoken. To avoid a diplomatic incident, I only speak French if I am addressed in French! I also like it because of its interesting architecture, with buildings from all ages co-exisiting harmoniously. Then there’s the food, and of course the beer!

My favourite bar in Brussels is A La Mort Subite. This rather alarming name derives (according to the web site), from a card game that used to be played in the bar. The bar serves a wide range of Belgian beers, including my favourite, Lambic Blanche. The picture below shows me enjoying another beer served there, Affligem Blonde:

 

But I wouldn’t want (perish the thought) to give the impression that I spent my entire visit in bars! Well, 50% maybe, but we also visited some other places.

Mini-Europe is a park situated by the Atomium, which has scale models of buildings representing all the member countries of the EU. Thus you can tour the whole of the European Union in an hour or so. It is easily accessible by metro (nearest stop is Heysel on line 6). The picture below gives an idea of what it looks like:

 

A post about Brussels would not be complete without a mention of the iconic Mannekin Pis fountain. Of course we went to see it, although it is mobbed by other tourists virtually 24/7 making a photo hard to get, so I will leave you to look at the above link if you haven’t seen it. The link also gives the various stories that explain the statue’s origin, and mentions the fact that the statue is dressed in a wide range of uniforms at various times, some of which are on display in the City Museum on the Grand’ Place.

Finally, one of the most memorable experiences of the weekend was the ‘Son et Lumiere‘ display on the Grand’ Place which is held at 22:30 every day from 1 July to 30 September. This was amazing: imagine standing in the Grand’ Place, and all the normal lights go out, to be replaced by a show with different lighting and sound effects. It really has to be experienced! The photograph below shows the illuminated Hotel de Ville:

 

In conclusion, Brussels is recommended for a visit. It’s easily accessible, is interesting and welcoming. I’m already planning our next trip!

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Digitising my beer list

The Great British Beer Festival starts next week, and I’m trying to get more prepared than usual. The first thing I’ve been doing is typing up my list of beers, which goes back to 2000! Apart from being a definite memory trip, it also serves as a reminder of how many brewers have closed in the last 11 years. Fortunately others have replaced them, but some icons have gone forever. For example, Ind Coop Burton Ale, and Ansell’s Bitter, to name just two.

The Champion Beer of Britain will be announced on Tuesday 2 August. I’ll tweet the winner as soon as it is announced.

‘Stone Banker’ from the Lymestone Brewery (Stone, Staffordshire)

‘Stone Banker’ is a beer specially brewed by the Lymestone Brewery to mark Stoke City FC’s appearance in this year’s FA Cup Final. The name comes from a remark by Stoke’s manager, Tony Pulis, made during a game against West Ham.

I had the good fortune to be able to sample the draft version of the beer in the Gaffer’s Row, Crewe (a Wetherspoons pub) yesterday evening.

The beer is 4.0% ABV. It has a reddish colour, and is clean on the palette, with a touch of dryness and a slight aftertaste of molasses. It is very easy drinking and refreshing, and there is a hint of malt sweetness in the flavour.

There is also a bottled version, which I’ll be seeking out.

It’s one of the nicest beers I have tasted for some time, and I congratulate Lymestone’s brewer, Brad, and the owners Ian and Viv Bradford, on an excellent creation.

Wetherspoons Real Ale & Cider Festival, March-April 2011

Wetherspoons have been holding 2 real ale festivals a year for some time now. I haven’t always been able to try many of the ales on offer, but at this year’s spring festival, which ran from 23 March to 10 April, I was more successful. Most of the ales were sampled at the Hanley Wetherspoons (The Reginald Mitchell), but I also had several visits to Newcastle (The Arnold Machin), and two London branches, The Montagu Pyke (Charing Cross Road), and Lord Moon of the Mall (Whitehall).

There were 50 ales in the list, but of those there were several that I didn’t see in any of the venues. The one I most missed trying was the Green Jack Orange Wheat Beer, which was apparently available in Hanley on the night I was playing in a concert in Middlewich! I’ve only been able to try that once before, at the GBBF a few years ago. Let’s hope it appears in the future.

The ales that really stood out for me were, in descending order:

1. Feral the Runt (4.7%), brewed at Wadworth by a brewer from the Feral Brewery in Western Australia, which I described in my tasting notes as just ‘wonderful’

2. Robinson’s Ginger Tom (4.3%) which is a superb ginger flavoured ale, and also very refreshing. I tried it on 2 separate occasions, and found the degree of ginger flavour to vary, probably depending on how recently the barrel was opened.

3. Freeminer Deep Shaft (6.2%), which was quite simply the definitive stout, leaving all other stouts in the ‘also ran’ category.

4. Lancaster Kingmaker (5.0%), which was very easy drinking and smooth considering its strength.

5. Thwaite’s Bloomin’ Smoky (5.0%), although this was another one which varied over two tastings, with more smoky quality the first time than the second.

A couple of the more unusual ales which I tried were Wychwood Elderwych (3.8%), which promised much, but didn’t have enough elderflower for my liking, and Hydes Plum Treat (4.0%), of which I wrote ‘very good although it could be more plummy’. The message here is that if brewers are going to market an ale with a specific fruit or flower in the name, don’t short change us by not having enough fruit or flower flavour!

One ale in the festival was very disappointing, and not to my taste at all. It was the unusually named Ballast Point Calico Amber (5.2%), brewed at Shepherd Neame by a brewer from the Ballast Point Brewery in California. It is described in the tasting notes as having ‘rich complexity’, but to me it was simply too complex, with too many flavours fighting to emerge. I found it hard to finish a third of a pint of that one!

All in all, it was a good real ale festival, and I look forward to the next one in the Autumn.

Favourite beers at GBBF2010

Last week I posted a blog on the GBBF. This is a follow-up where I’ll mention the 3 beers that I liked the most. If you are able to try any of them, please do, and let me know what you think!

My favourite was the amazingly named Liquorice Alesort (5%) from the Ashover Brewery in Derbyshire. If you like beer and liquorice allsorts, this is one for you!

A close second was Strawbeery (3.8%), from Lees in Manchester. A refreshing, low alcohol take on a Belgian fruit beer.

My third favourite was Sharp’s Honey Spice (4.2%), from Cornwall, which combined refreshment with honey and spice tones.

There were many others, but these 3 were particularly memorable …

The Great British Beer Festival 2010

As well as my scientific and musical interests, I’m a CAMRA member and a fan of real ale. Each year, unless I’m out of the country, I make a pilgrimage to the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), and this year was no exception, with the festival taking place last week from Tuesday (3 August) until Saturday.

The festival showcases real ale from all over the UK, and also has an excellent section for ale from elsewhere in the world. There are plenty of food outlets, and entertainment (including musical entertainment) is provided.

I first attended the GBBF in 1983, when it was held in Birmingham, and it has used a number of venues since then, including Brighton, and for many years, Olympia in London. The move to Earls Court a few years ago was made as a result of needing more space, but I preferred the slightly more intimate aspects of Olympia. However, the festival becomes more popular each year; this year attracting nearly 67,000 visitors, so the move was clearly justified!

At the festival, the Champion Beer of Britain is announced, and this year it was Castle Rock Harvest Pale, from Nottingham, which was already a favourite of mine. It is good to see this particular type of relatively low alcohol (3.8%) and very refreshing beer doing well.

This year the distribution of beers and breweries was changed, and whereas previously there were bars representing different parts of the country, this year it was done in alphabetical order of the brewer’s name. In my opinion this system didn’t work as well, and meant that in practice it took longer to find a particular brewery or beer. But if this is repeated next year, I suppose I’ll gradually get used to it! This however is only a minor, cosmetic criticism.

In conclusion, it was another great GBBF, and I look forward to GBBF2011!