Category Archives: Pints

Where The Wild Hops Are

In the backyards of at least one terraced street in Cambridge, wild hops grow. The mature bines outside the back door of our nineteenth-century cottage look well-established, and I like to think they’re remnants from the city’s brewing industry that once centred around this area; less than a hundred metres away the Fitzroy Brewery, rented out to customers for brewing under the supervision of the owner, was one of many that survived into the last century, and at the other end of the street stood a maltings and, to this day, two pubs.

Hop bines

At the beginning of March, the first shoots appear and we trail them along the trellis, towards a well positioned buddleia, which they reach by May before launching vigorously up through the branches, winding over 15 feet to the top, spreading out to cover the canopy within a month.


In September the heaving bunches of hop cones, luminous light-green in the early morning, late summer sun, were almost ready for picking. As we were admiring them and wondering what to do with them, we noticed Adnams brewery had made a call for wild hops

“We are making a plea to members of the public to let us know if they have hops growing in their garden which they are willing to donate, or if they know where wild hops are located… the new beer – which is set to be an amber pale ale – requires hops that are freshly-picked.”

On closer inspection many of the hops were still a bit young, so we left most of them to continue ripening, but nevertheless filled a few bags of hops for the cause. The Suffolk brewery is a two hour drive away, but Cambridge is home to Adnams’ Castle Inn, so we arranged to drop the hops off there, to be collected by dray when it next made a delivery.

A week later the hops looked just ripe for picking, and we spent a day pulling them down (our arms shredded by the bines, as if they were protected by an invisible clowder of angry cats) and sorting them so only the finest were selected for brewing – the rest we hung throughout the house, the aroma drifting about, with us lifting our noses to inhale it like Bisto Kids.

Ah! Hops

The next dray to the Castle Inn would have been too late for the hops to reach the brewery in time for the proposed brewing date, so instead we were directed to another Adnams pub just over the Suffolk border in Great Wratting, about twenty miles east of Cambridge, where the hops were enthusiastically received by the landlord of the Red Lion.

Red Lion, Great Wratting

The beer was brewed on September 18th and began appearing in pubs last week. As luck would have it, we had booked a night in Southwold just as Wild Hop was being served in the town’s pubs, so we were able to spend an enjoyable evening in the Lord Nelson drinking a few pints of it.

Wild Hop

It was probably wishful thinking, but we were sure we could taste our hops in the beer – the familiar aroma, and earthy hop flavours with hedgerow berries in the aftertaste – even though we only contributed a fraction of the hops (a hat tip to @recentlydrunk who foraged the Cambridgeshire hedgerows and sent bags of hops to Adnams). It seemed remarkable that Adnams had managed to tame so many varieties of wild hops and make a beer that was the “true taste of East Anglia” that they were aiming for.

Thanks to Adnams for making good use of hops that would otherwise have never reached their true potential, to Belinda for co-ordinating our deliveries, and to Louise who endured the wrath of the hop bines to help harvest them. The bottled beer should be in the Adnams shops in November, and in a nice touch of serendipity, rumour has it that an Adnams Cellar might soon open in Cambridge.

Beery goodbyes 2012

Many pubs and breweries closed this year, so here are some fond farewells.

Beers we have known and loved

Northcote Brewery

Jiggle Juice was one of my favourite beers at the Cambridge Beer Festival 2010, a cracking Citra hopped IPA. That was the first Northcote beer I tried, but soon after that I enjoyed Sunshine Jiggle and from then on would stock up on bottles of Northcote beers each time I visited Norfolk – my parents even called in at the brewery to pick some up and said they were really friendly there. So it was sad when at the beginning of the year they announced they were closing. I was lucky enough to come across what was probably their last beer when I visited the Euston Tap in January – ‘One for the Road’, a collaboration with the Tap. I grabbed one last mixed box of Northcote beer when I next visited Norfolk and I still have a couple of bottles of the El Salvador IPA, an IPA brewed with NZ hops and fresh coffee, that I’ve yet to get around to opening.

Northcote Brewery
Northcote Brewery
Northcote El Salvador IPA


Another Norfolk brewery to close this year was Blackfriars from Great Yarmouth, just a few minutes from the seafront near the Pleasure Beach. Although the brewery has closed, it is now in the hands of JV Trading who are also “Custodians of the Lacons brand and associated trademarks, who are extremely committed to re-establishing this much loved former Great Yarmouth brewery.” (Lacons Memories). So far, Great Yarmouth Brewing Company has been established, with Wilbur Wood, who had been Head Brewer at Fyne Ales and brewed at Oakham Ales for years before that, already having brewed three new beers – ‘D.N.A.’ a 3.8% pale ale using Citra, Centenial and Perle hops, ‘Identity’ a 5% bitter, and ‘Fingerprint’ a 4.4% Golden Ale which has already been on at the Alexandra Arms, Cambridge.


St Judes

I enjoyed St Judes 14% strong ale ‘Negro Mortis’ at last winter’s Bury Beerhouse Festival and was sad to hear the Suffolk Micro Brewery ceased brewing this year, although the St Judes Tavern in Ipswich recently reopened.

Back from the dead

Buntingford Silent Night

Good news, that despite Buntingford‘s announcement last year that it would be ‘quite possibly the last year’ for Silent Night, it reappeared this winter – although as they ‘change the recipe each year, just to confuse people’ I suppose it was really only the name – that said, it did taste pretty much as I remember, a really nice citrusy bitter.

Closed pubs:


There has been good news with some new or reopened pubs (in Cambridgeshire, the newly opened ‘Bank’ at Willingham, the refurbished Mill and Alexandra Arms in Cambridge) but a lot of closures with many more under threat. The Flying Pig faces an uncertain future and is threatened with demolition to make way for more offices – the neighbouring Osborne Arms was demolished a few months ago despite being in a conservation area – the developers simply demolished it then afterwards claimed they were ‘unaware of the need for conservation area consent’ and were then invited to apply for retrospective consent – so that’s okay then?!

Osborne Arms, Flying Pig

Cambridge’s Newmarket Road, which in 1878 listed nearly thirty pubs along with several breweries, this year saw the closure of The Seven Stars and Bird in Hand, which after the closure of the Zebra last year, leaves just three pubs (the Burleigh Arms, the Corner House and the Wrestlers) along the length of the road and currently not a single brewery in the city itself (although this is set to change in 2013 with the January opening of the Cambridge Brew House on King Street). I keep looking at certain pubs and wondering if the next time I pass they’ll still be open. The proposed Cambridge Tap seems very unlikely to happen now, which is a shame as Cambridge could do with more variety.

Seven Stars


I lived in Norfolk and regularly visit family and friends there so I’ve noticed the closing of many pubs which have been familiar landmarks, such as the 17th century coaching inn the Green Man in Rackheath on the road from Norwich to Wroxham. In Wroxham itself, the Shed closed and although it may reopen as a private members club or bistro, it’s unlikely to be a pub again.

Wroxham Tap

A toast

So as the year draws to a close, I’ll crack open a Northcote El Salvador IPA and raise a toast to beers and pubs known and loved. Cheers

ABV – How l’eau can you go

Since last October’s cut on the rate of duty for beers of 2.8% abv and under, a new range of lower-strength beers have appeared – earlier this year Tesco began to stock a set of 12 new or reformulated beers, all at 2.8% abv. Unfortunately the duty on beer of 7.5% and above was raised. The difference in beer duty is significant and it’s no wonder brewers have been quick to take advantage of the lower rate.

If you release a batch of 5 hectolitres of beer of a strength 8.0 per cent ABV, your Beer Duty liability is £928.40… for beer of 2.8 per cent ABV, Beer Duty liability will be £130.06

I wasn’t enthusiastic about 2.8% beers, prefering stronger beers, often those above 7.5% now under threat. I’d also been burned by my experience with the 1.1% Brewdog Nanny State, a beer I bought 12 bottles of before finding it was an undrinkable gimmick. The only low strength beer I could recall enjoying was Manns Brown Ale. Oh, and bitter shandy.

Then I had a pint of Redemption Trinity – not a 2.8% beer, but one packing an impressive punch for its 3% abv, citrus hoppy with a good body yet at a strength perfect for going the distance on long summer days – and I was keen to know how the new range of lower strength beers would compare to it, or to Manns Brown Ale, a beer brewed in Britain since 1902.

Lower strength beers:

Tolly Cobold – Tolly English Ale 2.8%
Tolly English AleBrewed by Greene King, evident in the familiar yeasty aroma as the beer is poured, it is uninspiringly described as ‘full flavoured’ and ‘brewed using a complex mix of hops’. Like many of the Greene King beers that seem to be variations on their IPA, it’s an amber coloured beer, malty with some caramel flavour, not much carbonation but fresher than the often stale tasting IPA, and although it has a thin body, that’s forgiveable in a beer of this strength and it’s not the thinnest of these beers. Not a bad beer, not a particularly inspiring one, but drinkable. That said, I left half a glass of this to stand for an hour and there was very little taste left. I didn’t finish it.

Marston’s – Pale Ale 2.8%
Marston's Pale AleThe label carries the equivocal description ‘traditionally brewed for flavour and taste’. It smells like beer, looks like beer and tastes like beer that’s been left standing overnight and needs pouring away. It’s slightly creamy with some bitterness and malt evident, but I found this to be soapy and unpalatable and could only get through a half before tipping it. This beer has just appeared on the shelves of my local Waitrose with Skinners Betty Stogs making way for it – a move as unwelcome as if Cadbury Roses replaced the Golden Barrel with Turkish Delight.

Fuller’s – Mighty Atom 2.8%
Fuller's Mighty AtomThis is more like it – I can actually smell and taste hops! Not quite the ‘floral grapefruit and plum notes, with a spicy overtone’ mentioned in the blurb, but hops nevertheless.

After pouring the head dissipates quickly, the bitterness softens and the flavours soon fade but it maintains carbonation and some citrus flavour to the bottom of the glass. I’d try this again – the first of these beers I finished a pint of.

Cains – Calcutta Pale Ale 2.8%
Cains Calcutta Pale AleAn immediate metallic twang faded over subsequent mouthfulls, but never really disappeared and I found it hard to enjoy. If water has memory, some of these lower alcohol drinks are like water with a vague recollection of beer. This one did seem to get better, brief traces of hops and malt as the beer warmed but I think I’d have preferred a shandy.

Maybe that’s what I should be trying here – which beers make the best shandy – rather than searching in vain for a tasty lower strength beer. Would I drink this again? Probably, but only because it came in a 4 pack.

Adnams- Sole Star 2.7%
Adnams Sole StarAt last! A lovely hoppy bitter with flavours that aren’t held back by the low alcohol. At 2.7% it’s lower in strength than many of these beers but this cascade hopped ale holds its flavour and body. My enthusiasm for this beer could have been in part down to the setting – the Queen’s Head in Newton, a fine 18th century ale-house that has apparently appeared in every edition of the Good Beer Guide – or maybe because it was served straight from the cask. Certainly it has an unfair advantage over the canned and bottled beers I’ve tried so far, but really this beer is in a different class. I’d choose this over the other Adnams ales that were available too, because it’s just perfect for a lunchtime drink, especially when visiting a village pub means driving afterwards.

Oakham Ales – CB 2.8%
Oakham CBA beer that came about from a competition to ‘design a concept and brand for a new beer’, brewed by Oakham with two students from Cambridge’s Anglia Ruskin University “specifically to attract young female drinkers to the ale category”. The 2.8% beer, using Pacific Jade and Galaxy hops to give ‘hints of peach and passion fruit’, launched at the Cambridge Blue this week. It has a reassuringly familiar Oakham Ales hoppy aroma and plenty of the tropical flavours promised, along with a lasting bitterness. I gather they were aiming for a sweeter beer, but the bitterness worked for me, a very light but moreish beer. It’s a shame this is to be a one-off brew, I can imagine this being perfect for a summer daytime session.

Manns – Brown Ale 2.8%
Manns Brown AleManns Brown Ale is a beer that’s been brewed in Britain for over 100 years, albeit a stronger beer then of at least 4% abv. Still, it has quietly offered a low strength beer long before the recent brews appeared.

A very sweet beer, deep red in colour, creamy and surprisingly rich. Especially for a beer that cost only £1 for a 500ml bottle (from Asda – a local beer shop has delisted it). Every time I have this beer I enjoy it.

This beer seems to be best known as the one Mr Creosote orders in Monty Pythons Meaning of Life and is shown on his table.

…and the usual brown ales?
No – I can only manage six crates today

Younger of Alloa – Sweetheart Stout 2%
Sweetheart StoutThis beer is like a home-brand cola – flat, sugary and makes you wish you’d paid extra for the real thing.

The label is what makes this stand out. Apparently the same picture of Venetia Stevenson has been used for over 50 years.

I drank a whole can of this at a barbeque last summer before opting for a shandy. I couldn’t even finish more than a few sips of it this time.


In a word, thin. Unsurprisingly, many of these beers are weak and watery with not much flavour, but there is reason for optimism. The Adnams Sole Star and Oakham CB2 are a pleasure to drink and have lasting flavours, and old favourite Manns Brown Ale still delivers. None of these beers quite match the Redemption Trinity, but then at 3% that beer is not eligible for the lower rate of beer duty. That said, Redemeption Brewery themselves seem to think the answer is Trinity shandy…


Since writing, I’ve had another notably good lower strength beer, Brentwood BBC2, a 2.5% beer voted Beer of the Festval at Cambridge Beer Fest in May.

Fort St George

A new beer was served at the Fort St George yesterday. The beer is named after the pub, owned by Greene King. According to @fortstgeorge, it was brewed by John Bexon, Headbrewer at Greene King and “it’s like a fine Yorkshire best bitter”. I tried a pint and thought it was similar to GK IPA, but an improvement, certainly more drinkable. Apparently they ran out after 288 Pints were sold in 5 hours.

Fort St George Beer

One of Cambridge’s oldest pubs, claiming to date back to the 16th century, but much altered inside, the Fort St George has river views and a large outdoor patio that overlooks Midsummer Common. It stands on land that was once a river island served by a ferry, with locks on one side where tolls were collected. The locks were filled in and the pub was joined to the common in 1837 when the present sluice was built further upstream at Jesus Green.

Fort St George In England

Because of its location, on sunny weekends this pub gets busy and a queue of over 10 minutes is not uncommon. When we visited the guest ale was St Austell Proper Job and the wait was enlivened somewhat when the Caius College women’s rowing club capsized on the river outside the pub.

BlackBar on St Amand’s Day

St Amand is the patron saint of Brewers, Innkeepers and Bartenders. I didn’t know this until the Cambridge Blue held a ‘meet the brewers’ night to celebrate St Amand’s day on February 6th. It seems a good reason to celebrate and both BlackBar and Bartrams had new beers for the occasion – Bartrams ‘Cambridge Blues’ and BlackBar’s Black Economy.

Black Economy is only the second beer from this new Cambridgeshire brewery. A black ale, brewed with Willamette and Cascade hops along with some chocolate malt, it’s a moreish dark beer that seemed just right for the freezing winter evening.

Their first beer, BlackBar Bitter, was also on. It was launched in January this year at Cambridge Winter Ale Festival. Apparently that was Gyle 0003, some of which also made its way to the Blue and the recipe was tweaked for this Gyle 0004.

BlackBar Bitter BlackBar Black Economy

Speaking with them and hearing the passion from brewer Joe, I have a feeling there’ll be plenty more good beer coming from BlackBar…

A good evening of beer and conversation was enhanced by some great live acoustic music being played by the fireside.

Cambridge Blue Jam

Here’s the BlackBar Blog about Gyles 0004 and 0005

Fond farewells to some beers

I’m sure many beers reached the end of the line this year but I’ll miss three in particular:

St Austell Tinners

St Austell TinnersFew will mourn the passing of Tinners. It was a copper coloured bitter of 3.7% that was a bit biscuity, a bit nutty, a bit unexciting. But I have fond memories of Tinners from holidays in Cornwall. Around ten years ago it was available in cans and I once bought some from a shop in Tintagel to take on a picnic. We took a disposable barbecue out onto the cliffs overlooking Bossiney Cove and barbecued some peppers, onions and courgettes, washed down with cans of Tinners. You wouldn’t call that ‘gourmet’ food or Tinners ‘fine’ ale, but at that moment in that setting, they were perfect.

Tinners has been replaced with Trelawny a beer brewed with Galaxy hops. St Austell brew some of my favourite beers – Proper Job, Proper Black, Admirals, HSD – but I don’t suppose I’ll ever warm to Trelawny, I’ll always see it as the beer that prompted the end of Tinners.

Buntingford Silent Night

Buntingford Silent NightIf my fond memories of Tinners are largely to do with the setting, then Buntingford’s Silent Night must be down to the season, for the recipe changed each year. It was a beer brewed each Christmas with a festive label that was “the only truly traditional seasonal aspect of the beer. Everything else is just a cynical ploy to cash in on the festive season”. So no festive spices then, but a surprisingly hoppy and absolutely delicious beer. It must have been 7 or 8 years ago that I first encountered the beer which at the time was available in bottles from Cambridge Wine Merchants. We bought several bottles and I recall when we went to replenish supplies, having an enthusiastic conversation about the beer with the assistant who was also keen to acquire more stock. Alas, it wasn’t bottled again and I didn’t encounter the beer on draught again for years until earlier this month in the Empress in Cambridge. According to Buntingford, it’s ‘quite possibly the last year we’ll be doing it, as we are bored with the idea now’.

Oakham White Dwarf

Oakham White DwarfThis pale yellow beer (originally a wheat beer) was regularly seen at festivals around here – I definitely had this several times at Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair and the festivals on Parker’s Piece over the years. It was a very likeable, refreshing beer and at 4.3% was a good summer session beer. Oakham replaced it this year with Scarlet Macaw, another good Oakham ale, but for me a little too sharp to be as quaffable as White Dwarf.

It’s just possible these beers may be brewed again at some point in the future…

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp!
and surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Oakham Ales Baby Belma

Oakham Ales launched not just a new beer, but a new hop variety at the Cambridge Blue today. According to the press release, Oakham are ‘the only brewer worldwide to have access to the Baby Belma hop’ and were given enough hops for one brew only, so it was great to try it while it lasts. The hop variety, ‘Grown in the North West of the USA in the lower Yakima Valley’ was used to create a beer Oakham describe as:

4.1% A.B.V, light copper in colour with a subtle orange fruit aroma. The initial taste is a fresh fruit zestiness which softens to reveal some sweetness from the malt combining with orange peel flavours giving a delicate dry finish.

The Head Brewer tasted it at the bar before it was put on sale and he declared… “That’ll do”

I then had what I suppose was the first public serving of this beer. I really enjoyed it and the second pint was even nicer, always a good sign. There’s a subtle burst of citrus that’s more clementine than orange and quickly dissolves into a light malt flavour. The hops are less prominent overall than in many of Oakham’s beers and I think would be much more enjoyable over a session than say Citra.

It’s remarkable that an East Anglian brewer got exclusive use of a North West USA hop variety, and that they chose to debut it here in Cambridge at the Blue. That’ll do.

Oakham Baby Belma

That'll do

Cambridge Beer Festival 2011

Now in it’s 38th year, the Cambridge Beer Festival, the UK’s longest running CAMRA beer fest, is in the 11th year at it’s current home on Jesus Green. From a choice of more than 200 real ales, over 80,000 pints are expected to be served.

Batemans Dark MildIn light of these impressive numbers, it seems fitting to start with a beer which may have made more appearances than any other, Batemans Dark Mild. By 1997 it was recorded as being ‘the only beer to have been available at all of the summer festivals‘ since 1974, and it has certainly appeared several times since, winning best Mild at least 4 times (and 3 times winner at the Great British Beer Festival). A decent mild with a buttery and lightly roasted flavour (roasted butter?), brewed less than 90 miles north of Cambridge.

Milton Brewery is the closest brewery to the festival, just over 2 miles away, and several of their fantastic ales are available, most notably Proteus, a 6.2% pale ale which may be one of their most recent brews, and Pegasus, the first beer they brewed when the brewery was founded in 1999.

Next a beer brewed 6 miles west of Cambridge in Dry Drayton, Lord Conrad’s Hedgerow hop. This is made with wild hops from nearby Swavesey. Local wild hops would once have been commonly used, so it’s an interesting step back in time to taste this, even if it’s not ‘hoppy’ in the way of say the ‘intense hop explosion’ of Kernel/Redemption No. 2, a new beer from a collaboration of two London Brewers.

Potbelly Crazy Daze

One thing that puzzles me is why the brewery bars seem to get less trade. Often the bars serving Potbellly, Bartrams, Woodfordes and Elgoods have few punters while the rest of the bars are busy. Are drinkers suspicious of their more commercial looking prescence? They shouldn’t be; there are some cracking beers to be had from these breweries – in particular Potbelly Brewery Beijing Black and Crazy Daze (pictured) brewed 40 miles NW of Cambridge and Bartrams Egalitarian Stout, brewed 30 miles east – and the people serving know their own beers.

Paler, hoppier tasting beers seem to be most prevalent. The beer festival programme has a key for the beer types available. Of the 200+ beers only 1 is categorised as a Best Bitter, Winter’s Revenge from Norwich (confusingly Harveys Sussex Best Bitter is categorised as a Bitter not a Best Bitter) and only 2 as Strong Bitters (Premium Bitters were in the Bitter category). But that’s splitting hairs when the programme notes and the beer selection are so good overall.

Thornbridge Kipling, voted beer of the festival last year, is not here this year, but their Jaipur and Lord Marples are, and for me the latter beer is the better.

The 2011 Beer of the Festival winner has now been announced – Elgoods Attila the Hen, described in the festival programme as:

Attila the Hen 4.5% The beer is very pale, brewed using Pale Ale malt only. The hops used are English Fuggles, Progress and Goldings, and an American hop, Willamette. Brewed in memory of Brenda Law, a stalwart volunteer at this festival.

So here are the beers that made my top 6 this year:

1. Potbelly Beijing Black / Crazy DaysTwo very different beers I just can’t choose between
2. Hopshackle Resination – An absolutely superb IPA. Pure class
3. Blue Monkey Ape AleA pale ale that doesn’t overdo the American hops
4. Northcote Jiggle Juice – Another fine IPA, deceptively drinkable for 5.8%
5. Hopshackle Historic Porter – A rich, mouthwatering porter
6. Peerless Red RocksBloody lovely ruby ale

Cambridge Beer Festival previous winners

Raining Beer


PGI beer

Three English beers have Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI) status, meaning they must be produced in the particular region.

Rutland Bitter
Kentish Ale
Kentish Strong Ale

Rutland Bitter

Rutland Bitter was formerly brewed in Langham by the Langham Brewery (Ruddle Way now marks the spot). Brewing in Langham ceased production when Greene King closed the brewery in 1999, but in 2010 the Grainstore brewery in Oakham resurrected Rutland Bitter. I’ve had the pleasure of drinking this 3.4% session bitter at the Grainstore tap where it is brewed in a converted grainstore next to the Rail Station. I wish it was available even closer to home.

Bishops Finger Spitfire Kentish Ale

The Kentish Ales are brewed in Faversham, near Canterbury, by Shepherd Neame which claims to be Britain’s oldest brewery. The origins of Shepherd Neame may go back at least to 1527. I’ve not had the pleasure of a Kentish Ale served in Kent, but the bottles are widely available; I particularly enjoy the stronger, raisiny Bishops Finger. (see also Lancaster Bomber vs Spitfire)

Newkie Brown

Newcastle Brown Ale no longer has PGI status. It was brewed at the Tyne Brewery from 1927 to 2005 but lost its status when the brewery closed and production moved to the south side of the river Tyne. It is now brewed in Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, about 90 miles south of the original Tyne brewery.

Oakham Black Baron

Oakham Ales Black Baron at the Cambridge Blue

This is a mighty 8.8% Imperial Stout, black and bitter with a splash of blackberries, warming as whiskey after one mouthful, an outstanding beer.

Presumably named after the feared German Panzer tank commander, killed in 1944, probably by a Sherman tank gunner from the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, in Northern France during an ambush.