A Day Trip To Stockport – 18/05/2013

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I’m quite nosey me! (Bolton speak!) So when I picked up that Jaz and a group of his colleagues were planning a group tour of Robinsons (henceforth, Robbies) Brewery in Stockport, it set the limited grey matter working. I hadn’t been drinking in Stockport since the mid 80s and this struck me as an ideal opportunity to fill this knowledge gap (at least partly). Jaz made the right noises and I was in!

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Now, this also brought me within the gravitational pull of a certain Mr Jay Krause, Owner, Brewer and all-round hop alchemist at Quantum Brewing – I just had to ask! Didn’t I? Being the ‘good egg’ that he undoubtedly is, he invited Jaz & myself round. Whoo-Hoo! Two breweries in one day. Bargain!

So, I find myself on the train (for a change) and (meeting Jaz at Piccadilly) we set off on the 11:15 Virgin train to London Euston and a mere 10 minutes later, we’re walking up Wellington Road. Bugger me, but that is a hell of a gradient! It’s hardly the Col de la Madeleine, but I was bloody knackered before it levelled off on Hempshaw Lane where the aforementioned Mr Krause weaves his magic.

Let’s say, I struggled to find Quantum, initially! Then I remembered something Jay said about location, retraced my steps and lo! There be casks!

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(Anyone for beer barrel Jenga?)

Jay started this operation in 2011 and has quickly gained a reputation for full flavoured beers with often unusual ingredients – his Blood Orange Pale Ale has entered into legend! (And was the first beer Jaz asked about!) I first saw him at the Leeds International Beer Fest last year behind the bar and enjoyed his Stout hugely. Since then, I’ve had several of his beers and they have all been excellent, in particular his Keyworths Early using an old hop variety that could well make a comeback.

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(LtoR – Hot Liquor Tank and Copper)

Anyhoo! Located in an industrial unit off Hempshaw Lane, just outside (and UPHILL of) Stockport centre, Jay is unmistakably a one man band. I fail to comprehend how I can find so much of his beer in the Manchester area, with the size of his operation. He looks like a hell of an engineer having adapted his own mash tun to suit his own needs. 

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(Self built Mash Tun!)

He dispenses his beer in a variety of formats, Cask, KeyKeg and bottle. The bottles aren’t bottle conditioned, which will certainly help when it comes to chilling them slightly!

A 5 Bbl plant means that he can brew up to 1440 pints per brew, that’s 20 9 gallon firkins (cask) or nearly 1500 bottles! It’s good to hear that he’s making it pay, though he’s some distance off being a ‘beer baron’! This is his day job and he makes it pay by producing excellent beer which is showcased in some of Manchester’s best bars (Port Street, Joshua Brooks and Font, to name but 3!)

I was intrigued to see some of his wooden casks used for some specials. Smoked Porter aged in Caol Ila whisky cask anyone? (Trust me to miss THAT one!)

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As mentioned earlier, he produces a wide variety of tasty beers. In that vein, he allowed Jaz and myself to sample a Saison that is about to be released into ‘the wild’. This is one lovely beer! Slightly hazy and golden in colour with a lovely fruitiness and dry finish. This may be making its way in the world this week. Jaz & I both loved it. The knowledge that it’ll be served in Joshua Brooks was gratefully received. (James’ll tip us the wink, won’t you?)

As stated, Jay’s is a small, true Micro Brewery and he does all the key tasks himself, even down to the bottling. He’s one busy boy and we were really grateful that he took time out to chat with us and answer my idiot novice questions with good grace and a smile! (And a HUGE thanks for the CCC and American Amber! Reviewed soon – as long as Jaz doesn’t drink them first – they’re stored at his flat!)

A genuinely nice bloke running a human scale brewing operation. Look out for his beers, you will NOT be disappointed! (A collaboration brew is in the offing with Allgates, Jay, Tandleman & Tyson The Beerhound – Two top brewers and two fables tasters – I may even sit in the bleachers and watch the fun! Watch this space, it’s gonna be superb!)

Now, for the polar opposite?

But first, we had a bit of time to spare before our 13:30 appointment at the brewing behemoth that is Robinsons, so we strolled along to the market place to have a look at the High Peak Beer Co.

I didn’t expect such a small unit! But a superb selection of beers from near and far. Had a bit of chat with (who I presume to be) the owner. Certainly knows his beer this man! Aims to snaffle himself a pub in the peak within the next 5 years with maybe a brew plant out the back. I like it! Said he’d be looking at a bit of a camping facility as well. I’m there already! Picked myself up a bottle of Axe Edge by Buxton Brewery. A cheery wave and we were off to meet our fellow beer tourists in the local Wetherspoons)

Had a nice pint of GWB Meerkat Mild here. Big ol’ Spoons, huge floor area, but 3 milds on, including George Wrights and Titanic. More later.

A short walk from Wetherspoons and we find ourselves at…..

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(Shiny new Visitors centre!)

We were given a few minutes to gather ourselves together (and, no doubt, peruse purchasing opportunities!)

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20130518_133834(Putting the cart before the – absent – horse!)

The Visitor Centre is fairly new. Lots of interactive displays around the walls with an accent on the history and heritage of the brewery. Lots of merchandise for sale from chutneys to t-shirts with most of Robbies bottled beer available to purchase, including the new “collaboration” beer with Iron Maiden, Trooper, which featured prominently as you would expect.

We were gathered together by our tour guide and shown the highways and byways of this, quite large, brewery.

Being a ‘tower’ type brewery (the process flows down with gravity!), there were a LOT of steps. If you have fitness issues (like me!) be prepared for recovery time!

There was a big accent on a recent major brewery refurb, with lots of new, efficient, kit being bought from Germany at great expense. Bright and shiny it was indeed. Industrial. This is a big business. They retained examples of most of the old kit too, which made for a nice contrast, starting at the old and new grist mills (grain grinders). Here we were shown samples of the various malts and encouraged to taste. I loved the bitter coffee flavours of the chocolate malt (surprised?)

We were also encouraged to smell sample a variety of hops. In Robbies case, mostly British with one jar of US (Amarillo). Robbies predominantly use Goldings in their beers.

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(Grist to the mill!)

The Mash Tun and Lauter Tun were next and from this point, you get an idea of the sheer huge scale of this operation. These vessels are HUGE, like icebergs, you only see what’s on the surface.

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(Old & New)

Onward to the brewing vessel (or Copper) where the hops are added to impart their aromas and bitter characteristics. Again, think of icebergs!

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Via the Hop Back room (where the spent hops are removed – like the spent grains at other stages – and sent to farms for animal feed) we were taken to the fermenting vessels. Robbies have loads of FVs and again, they are HUGE! I had to take snaps of working FVs and empty to give you the scale. The FV is where the yeast comes to the party, shakes its booty and turns all those lovely sugars into even lovelier alcohol. There were some gorgeous fruity smells in here with maybe 4 FVs at work. (Robbies also have separate vessels used to brew Fentimans botanic drinks)

20130518_144655(The yeast having a party. Check out the patterns!)

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(An empty FV. That must be 15ft deep!!! That’s a whole lot of happy juice!)

With a quick peep into a Control Room, which looked like the tidiest, cleanest office you’ll EVER work in, we were pretty much done. This is a high-tech, leaner, more environmentally friendly operation than ever.

Then were off to the bar to spend our “tokens”, each of which equated to a 1/3rd of beer. I chose a 1/3rd each of Uncle Sams pale ale, Trooper (The Iron Maiden beer) and Fredericks on keg at 6.5%. If I’m honest, I wasn’t overly struck by any of them. A slight preference for the Uncle Sams which was reasonably hoppy and bitter. The Trooper was a maltier brew and fine for what it is. The Fredericks was overly cold and, for 6.5%, I didn’t get much at all.

The bar/restaurant area was quite a nice space. If open to the public (aside from tours) this could be a nice little earner. The beer is in good nick (as you would expect) and the food (limited to sandwiches today) looked quite good.

A couple of observations –

1. This a slick tour around a grand old institution which has been brought bang up to date. The tour is pretty much pitched at the curious novice with little or no knowledge. For that market, it is a fabulous lesson in the chemistry of beer. I spoke to a couple of people afterwards who found it really informative. For me (a relative novice with a modicum of knowledge), I would have liked more detail. For one thing, I asked a basic question about the cost of the refurb. The guide didn’t have the answer to hand. Things like that should be standard. With just a little extra polish, what was quite a good tour, could be a lot better.

2. Robbies are obviously on the rise, both nationally and internationally. The hook up with Bruce Dickinson and Iron Maiden is VERY astute. This could help Robbies penetrate abroad with that HUGE Iron Maiden fan base and also into live music venues. There has been a big push with Trooper and in all likelihood, it will pay off. Massively.

Moving onwards and (literally) upwards, we popped back into the Spoons to meet up with some more people and (after a nice pint of George Wrights Mild & a sour pint of Titanic Mild – taken off on mentioning!) we were off to….

The Crown

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(A Stockport Institution)

A lovely old pub. Lots of leather and wood inside with a vast number of handpumps (too many to count!), I plumped for a pint of Millstone Stout and we eventually settled our, now enlarged group into the room to the right of the bar – where lurked two handpulls dedicated to real cider.

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(rear room)

The Millstone Stout at 4.5% was lovely. Creamy full texture, slight coffee in that nice roasted flavour with a dry finish. A really good stout. and just what was needed.

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(Nice & busy on a Saturday afternoon!)

The consensus was to move on at this point. So that’s what we did!

The Magnet

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Another pub after my own heart. Multi-roomed with a plethora of handpulls. Busy again with chatter the order of the day (as well as Tittertons Pork Pies!). Well behaved dogs allowed in as well, which was a nice touch. Busy at the bar, I plumped for a BlackJack Canasta Mild at 3.8% abv. Dark, buttery roasted aroma with a nice texture, lots of roasted malt flavour with a nice dry finish.

20130518_173826(Busy bar – lots of handpulls!)

Ina slightly lower level was a pool table, where we settled our rabble down to a game of killer. I lost (as you would expect!). The pub has a lot going for it, lots of good beer and choice of rooms with different atmospheres. The only slight issue I had, was there was a little wear and tear showing, especially with the plaster work. I wonder if the money is available to do this work? Not to take away too much from what is an excellent boozer.

We stayed for one more here, so I had an Oakham beer. Sock Monkey at 5% abv. Golden and bright, a citrus grapefruit aroma from what I thought was citra hops, a lovely mouthful of biscuity sweetness balanced with a grapefruit hoppyness. Typically Oakham, typically excellent. If we hadn’t stayed, I probably wouldn’t have spotted the nice decking area outside!

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(Well. Summer IS on the way. Isn’t it?)

Back to Manchester on Northern Rails’ finest. A quick snack from Sainsbury in Piccadilly station and off to a pub I’ve not been to in yonks!

The Bulls Head

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Judging by the beer selection, this is a Marstons pub. Fortunately for me, Jaz had chosen wisely and got me a pint of Marstons Single Hop Amarillo at 4% abv. Pale, gold and with abundant fruity hop aroma. Nice and refreshing. 2nd Single hop Marstons I’ve had recently. Enjoyed both.

Last time I came in, the pub was two roomed. Now it’s one open space with the large bar to the rear. Nice leaded windows, muted dark colours, reds and browns, quite warm feeling. Nice slightly elevated are to the front with (what looked like) a real fire range.

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It was here that the group split up. Some for home, some for food and some (guess who?) for Joshua Brooks! (Via Jaz flat to drop bottles off – amazed they got back!)

Joshua Brooks

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The magnet that pulled us in was the Baby Belgian by Offbeat Brewery. At 8% I bottled it (not literally – I’d have spilt some!), the indefatigable Jaz went that way, I went for the Last Porter Call by Titanic. Fruity, very fruity. Damsons or plums. Not much discernable roasty stuff going on. But then, it WAS late in the day! A nice beer at 4.9%.

Oakham Brewery Bishops Farewell was next. 2 Oakham in one day. Yay! Again, pale, hoppy and balanced with sweet biscuit malt. Another Oakham, another excellent pale bitter brew!

One more for my baby and one for the road. The baby in question, being another Baby Belgian for Jaz the Indefatigable (now looking rather fatigued!), the one for the road being Obsidian black IPA by Hop Studio from York. As far as the stuff in bars goes, the beer of the day. Both citrus AND coffee on the nose with bitter hops in the mouth and a slightly bitter coffee in the aftertaste. REALLY good this!

I know what to expect from Joshua Brooks (as should you, by now!) Tonight was fairly busy again, with a few coming in just before I left, for a beer prior to going downstairs to the club. More excellent beer.

At this point, I had to dash for my chariot. Past lots of young things on their way to JBs

An excellent day out, finished off nicely. The Old parts of Stockport are actually rather pretty, nice town. Hope to be back soon to explore more.

Beer of the day. Unfair really, but it was the taste of Saison from Quantum. Lovely. In the pubs it was Obsidian by Hop Studio. An excellent Black IPA. Last beer of the evening as well. How weird is that!

On that note….If you, like I, are at the BlackJack MTB at Port Street on Monday, say hello! If not….’til next time…

Slainte!

Wetherspoons International Beer Festival – Bulls Head, Walkden 14/04/2013

Wetherspoons. take ’em or leave ’em, eh? Travelling the country frequently in the early noughties, I went in dozens of the blighters. Converted cinemas, converted banks, converted offices. Conversion after conversion. To be frank, the majority served one purpose. Cheap food. That’s because (other than a few isolated instances) the beer was mediocre. I learned which ones to trust and which to leave alone.

I can count the ones I trust on one hand. However, sometimes, you overlook what’s closest to you. So, using the Wetherspoons International Beer Festival as an excuse, I found myself entering The Bulls Head on Manchester Road in Walkden. A mile from my front door. And, to me at least, a rarity. A restored pub by JD Wetherspoon!

The Bulls Head

the-bull-s-head(Courtesy of  TripAdvisor)

In my mid to late teens, I had quite a few friends in Little Hulton, but, being a Salford lad, the Bulls Head was something I passed on the bus. I can only recall actually entering the pub once. It was a fairly grim place. A Whitbread plaything (from memory), it followed ‘fashion’ and was even named – at one point – “The Amsterdam Bar (with Sound and Light – I kid you not!) Some years later, after a stabbing in 2011, the pub was shut. It wasn’t the greatest of boozers, but Walkden could ill afford losing another pub.

Wetherspoons were rumoured to be having a presence in the newly developed Ellesmere Shopping Centre. To my surprise, they took on The Bull, spending a reputed £1.3 million on a total refurb.

They did a superb job.

It’s a large single floor space. Whilst – technically – a single room, it has the feel of multiple areas. Lots of area given up to eating, but a number of different areas within gives a bit of choice of where to settle. Lots of local history pieces on the walls. A map on the floor depicting the ‘hidden canals’ that were used to transport coal underground to the Bridgewater Canal for distribution on the canal network.

Being the International Beer Festival though, gave us a chance to sample some imported cask conditioned beers. So, what did I start with?

Marstons Single Hop – Pacific Gem!

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(That surprised ME as well!) A pale beer at 4% abv. This had a gentle lemony citrus aroma and maybe a hint of candied grapefruit. The flavour was light and subtle with more than a hint if citrus hop. Not had a Marstons beer for ages due to previous disappointments, but this was such a refreshing pint.

Devils Backbone Brewery – American Amber 4.8% abv

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The first of 3 ‘International’ beers this evening, from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (but brewed for the fest at Adnams)! This red beer (or ‘deep copper’ if you prefer!) had a lovely American hop citrus aroma. This was a beltingly (new adjective?) lovely balanced beer with a big malt body offset by distinctively citrussy American hops. Lovely.

Good George Brewing – Pacific Pearl 5.5% abv

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Described in the tasting notes as ‘The Brewers take on a Black IPA’ – From Hamilton in New Zealand (but brewed in the UK for the festival by ex-Thornbridge brewer Kelly Ryan), this was a deep ruby to black coloured beer. A gentle fruity hop aroma to this one, but in the body there lurked a licorice like hop torpedo! Really nice this. So good that I had to have two!

Vasileostrovsky Brewery – Siberian Red 6% abv

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(forgot to snap!)

From St Petersburg (but brewed at Banks Brewery in Wolverhampton, this is a deep red coloured beer. Some blackberry on the nose. A full-flavoured fruity malt beer with some hoppy dryness in the finish. Red beers aren’t usually my thing, but I gave this a go for my sleeping draught and found that I really enjoyed it!

To sum up. The Bulls Head may not be everyone’s idea of a great pub. For my money though, ‘Spoons did a really good job with this and brought a much-needed variety of ales into this area. The inside of the pub is really well done with some unusual high-backed chairs.

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They have, in the process of renovating this lovely building, created a fabulous space to the rear. Col had been in The Bull on many occasions and the back was never this spacious! Nice tables, comfy seats, nicely lit. It was needed tonight as the pub heating was set to sub-tropical!

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(Just a small section of the outside space!)

I wouldn’t ordinarily have written this single pub visit up, but the festival is on until next Sunday. Whilst I know that ‘Spoons aren’t everyone’s cup of lapsang, some of the beers on offer look superb (Ionian Coffee Porter anyone?) and it would be a shame to let prejudice get in the way of some really good beers that we may never see again!

Having been in three or four times now, The Bulls Head may be entering into that rare club. Wetherspoons that I trust!

On that note…..

Slainte!