Full Steam Ahead! – A trip on the East Lancashire Railway to Ramsbottom – 29/06/2013

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The genesis of this trip was when I popped to see Matt Holmes of Ramsbottom Craft Brewery. On the way home, I drove past First Chop and promised myself that I would be back soon. How very right I was! The second pull was the chance to arrive on a steam-driven locomotive. I’m no anorak, but there is something inherently romantic about steam trains, don’t you think? Anyway, when I mooted the possibility, a couple of willing victims (Oops! I meant volunteers!) identified themselves, so I set a course for the weekend after payday.

Arranging to meet Jaz & Jeff (my own craft beer Fresh Princes!) at 12:45 at Trackside (the bar at the Bury end of the ELR), I somehow found myself in Bury a full hour early! Now then, what’s a boy to do? A brief perusal of the Good Beer Guide (hereinafter GBG!) told me that there was a bar called Automatic in the building that was the old Derby Hall….Hmmmm……

Automatic

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I’ve been to the former Derby Hall (now Bury Met) 3 times. First, 07/04/1980. I was 14 and got myself to Bury to see Joy Division at a now legendary gig which was abandoned after 3 songs, one of which was fronted by Alan Hempsall (vocalist with Crispy Ambulance, one of the great unsung Manchester bands!). History tells us that Ian Curtis had a seizure that evening, meaning that the band tried to struggle on once he’d left the stage. Next thing I saw was a pint pot (dimpled!) hurtling towards Tony Wilson who was trying to calm a near riot. I never did get to see a full set by my favourite band. My major musical regret. It was my second gig.

Anyhow, I digress. Walking into Automatic, I had the feeling of walking into a posher small Wetherspoons. Looking every bit the eaterie, two distinctly separate areas here, with the Malt Bar being closed. The main room was all classy colours and wooden tables, clean lines (always handy in a pub, I find!), a bit “restauranty”, but nice enough.

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Noticing the rather scrummy looking Pork Pies, I ordered the “pie & pint” offer (value at £5) with the pint being the house beer, Silver Fox by Outstanding Brewery. The staff pulled a fair bit off (1st pint of the day, I presumed) and served me mine. Hmm…a bit hazy. Not smelling “off”, I gave it a go. Nope. Not as good as Outstanding beers are usually, I took it back and they swapped without quibble – earning some ‘Brownie points’. Next was a beer from a local brewery I had never tried, Steam Plate Bitter from Irwell Works Brewery, described as a Best Bitter at 4.3% abv. Pale gold, with a slightly buttery hop aroma. More like a blonde this for me, more butteriness in the mouth with a clean dry and gently bitter finish.

Nice bar. Local ales (Pennine and Little Valley completing the four handpumps) and a good-looking menu. Nice place.

By this point, Jeff had joined me and fancied some fodder, so we upped and headed off to our next watering hole…..

Trackside

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Located just behind the entrance of the ELR Station on Bolton Road (and accessed via the side road), another new bar to me. Housed alongside Platform 2, this single roomed pub, is long and narrow, with the bar to the rear and had the feel of an ancient English longhouse (read Beowulf) but with 10 handpumped ales.

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(One happy boy!)

So many beers, so little time! We were scheduled for the 13:30 to Ramsbottom, so chose swiftly, but wisely in my case! Allgates Gin Pit at 4.3% abv. A lovely clear golden beer, nice smooth and bitter with more than a hint of what I can only think was the juniper berries that are steeped in the brew. A lovely refreshing pint. Typically Allgates, typically excellent.

Next up, another brewery I hadn’t tasted previously. Hopstar from Darwen with their Lancashire Gold at 4% abv. Golden coloured beer (what else!) that was clean gently hoppy and really refreshing too. I’ll be back for more Hopstar.

20130629_132522(“The train now standing at Platform 4…..”)

The next leg of our journey now beckoned. With Jaz having now joined us (and wolfing his first beer down), we jumped platforms for the train to Ramsbottom. As did a seeming Stag Do dressed in a naval theme! Oh dear, won’t be the last time we see these jolly Jack Tars!

Not the longest of journeys this, but beautiful and scenic. Swiftly passing through Summerseat, where even the air smelled expensive, we were soon in Ramsbottom. Here, I will freely admit, I lost my bearings, being swiftly corrected by Jeff as where I thought was First Chop, was actually an Estate Agents!

First Chop

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(pic moblog.net)

With Jeff the Sherpa leading the way, we finally got there! Two room, with the other being below ground level, this looked like a smart contemporary bar which wouldn’t have been out of place in the Northern Quarter.

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With a slightly smaller selection than Trackside, 4 ales on handpull, with a real cider and a smattering of craft keg. More than enough for me to be getting by! First up for me was one of their own, FCB (First Chop Bitter ?) at 3.6% abv. A bronze colour, this had quite a floral hop aroma and was clean, bitter with a nice dry finish. Brewed at Outstanding in Bury, now that the First Chop Brewing arm have their own brewery (finally!) in Salford, will this now be brewed there?

Next up was another First Chop – well, ‘When in Rome’! AVA at 3.5% abv was pale gold with a lovely tropical fruit hop aroma. Flavour came through with lovely earthy hops and sweet pineapple notes. Superbly refreshing.

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(Would sir like the cask menu?)

Food time! A juicy and spicy Harissa Burger at around a fiver. Excellent.

More beer please! Allgates Pretoria at 3.9% abv. Golden, citrus hop aroma, refreshingly bitter with a clean dry and fruity bitter finish. A really good session beer this, and first time for me I think. (There’s me banging on about not finding Allgates in Freehouses, then 2 on the same day!)

My notes show another AVA….but moving swiftly on…..

I just wish I lived in Ramsbottom. A cracking bar this, small yet perfectly formed. Excellent looking food offering, 4 ales, and a substantial number of real ciders too. Yep, a belter!

A short walk away……

Irwell Works Brewery

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Some of my family have been raving about this place for a while. It was therefore an essential visit. A small side room as you enter (to the left) and up the stairs into the main open room.

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Busy as a chippy in here! As bustling as possible. 8 pumps, 1 of them a cider, 6 Irwell Works own beers and a guest from Bank Top. Once I saw a Stout, there was no looking elsewhere, was there? Let’s be sensible about this! Irwell Works Iron Works Stout at 4.4% abv. Sweet coffee aroma, lots of roasted flavour with a touch of residual sweetness in the mouth. In excellent nick and a cracking pint (or 2!)

20130629_163554(Juliet Balcony anyone?)

A nice busy bar, well worth the visit. Modern, lots of white walls, child friendly. Anything else you want to know?

The train was calling. The last service was at 17:10 and was disappointingly pulled by a diesel! Never mind eh?

Back into Manchester and an ill-advised (by me!) walk to…..

 Joshua Brooks.

You know my thoughts on this bar by now. Reliably excellent beer at an excellent price, with excellent tunes as well. My choice to take my firkin of Allgates Quaker House Oatmeak (or even Oatmeal!) Stout. Next Friday night people!

Hawkshead Lakeland Lager at 5%abv. Cask conditioned lager. Seem to be drinking this a bit recently. Pale gold, butter popcorn aroma. Slightly toffeeish flavour, bit of butterscotch with a clean dry finish.

Pictish Summer Solstice was next at 4.7% abv. A really nicely balanced pale bitter hoppy beer. My favourite of the two. Tune of the day in here, a cover of The Antlers’ “Parentheses” by Tricky, bit of a surprise!

We then nipped into The Font to round off the evening/day.

Rock The Kazbek at 4.0% abv by Redemption from Tottenham. Nice enough pale ale, quite bitter, good condition, but not exceptional for me. Next (and finally) came Cresta Black Stout by Tempest Brewing from Kelso. This was MORE like what the doctor ordered! Black, roasted and lovely stout. A nice finish to the day!

Yes, it was indeed a long day. Not been drinking in Rammy or Bury for years. Was hoping to meet Tyson The Beerhound and Darren from GM Ale News, but, sadly, neither were possible. Never mind eh? We’ll catch up another time (especially with the Quaker House “in the wild” this week!)

An excellent day. Good friends, great beers and great bars in which to drink them. “Back of the net” ass they say!

On that note….’til next time! (Friday night at Joshua Brooks!)

Slainte!

A Surprise or Two in Wigan! 13/03/2013

Having ventured out into Bolton on Sunday, I was in the midddle of my week off. I had done a few chores and was feeling content with my efforts. I’d even had a couple of (small) winners at my beloved Cheltenham Festival. So, it was with no guilt whatsoever that I stepped on the train to Wigan with my old friend Col.

I have been promising myself some Allgates beers for some time now. You don’t get them all that often in Manchester (I was to find part of the reason for that later on), so, after a chat on Sunday evening with Col, we decided – with us both having the week off work – to pop to Wigan on Wednesday. £3.80 and a 20 odd minute train journey later, we were walking up Wallgate in Wigan.

Now then, I have only been in Wigan town centre once. I hadn’t a clue where any place was. Col pointed to the left. Up a side alley was my first surprise of the day, Allgates Brewery. My but that place is tucked away! The second surprise was how close we were to the first recommendation I’d had from a number of people via Twitter (thanks Roy & Hannah!), this was……

The Raven

The Raven(pic courtesy – wigan.gov.uk)

Walking in, what a lovely pub! Staff were friendly, 8 ales on the bar (all from local micros), what a good start! I ordered myself a pint of Old School Brewery Detention and Col a Burscough Priory Gold. The OSB Detention was a nice fruity bitter with a gentle hedgerow fruit aroma and nice hoppy dryness in the finish. At 4.1% abv, a sensible and nice start. Especially at £1.95 a pint (Wednesday was a special offer on ales, all £1.95 a pint – yet another nice surprise!)

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(Nice selection – Three others inc two darks!)

Had a little look around the pub. Nice big dining room to the rear. Lots of period (ooh, get me!) features, loads of wood, a couple of nooks to sit in (which we did).

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(Dining Room)

Some nice food on offer in here. Feeling peckish, we both had a stew and dumplings at £8 for two. Really tasty, filling and nice tender meat with nary a saddle in sight! Col popped to the bar and furnished me with a pint of Burscough Mere Blonde. 4% abv, golden colour, sherbet lemon like aroma. Gently hoppy with some herbal notes. Nice refreshing beer.

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(Nice period fireplace)

From what I heard later, The Raven has recently re-opened after being closed for some years. It has had a bit of a refurb and from what I can see, they’ve done a grand job.

Well. Here comes Surprise #4!

Whilst in The Raven, I received a tweet from David Mayhall, partner/owner of Allgates Brewery – who was nearby – inviting me in for a look around the brewery! As previously stated, I share ONE trait with Oscar Wilde, being able to resist anything except temptation. In that spirit, Col and I headed off to The Anvil to meet him.

Located in The Old Brewery in Brewery Yard off Wallgate, this is a surprising building, with a VERY small footprint!

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(As Father Ted said to Dougal – “This is small…that’s far away!’)

If you want to read the interesting back story of the brewery, they can tell it better than I can, so visit http://www.allgatesbrewery.com/brewery/about_us/

Anyhow, the brewery is approached through a narrow alleyway directly off Wigan’s Wallgate and is about 2 minutes from the platforms of Wallgate train station.

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(As you can see, a bit narrow!)

As said above, this building isn’t huge, so every available square foot that they are allowed to use IS used, from sub floor level barrel storage to the higher floor level grist case and everywhere in between!

David introduced us to Jonathan (the Head Brewer) and they both explained that this is a Tower brewery with a 5 BBL (beer barrel – 36 Gallons) brew length and can brew several times a day. With 6 fermenting vessels and seven conditioning vessels, they are running at full capacity. Any further expansion of capacity would probably necessitate a move to a new location, which would be a shame, because this is an atmospheric old building!

Using predominantly Maris Otter malted barley for their pale beers and a variety of malts for the darker stuff they chiefly hop with US and (to a lesser extent) New Zealand hops, the New World stuff (as you will know) imparting sharper more tropical aromas and flavours. David explained that they are placing a greater focus on native hops and this year are brewing a series of monthly specials of single hop beers using UK varieties. 

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(Mash Tun)

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(The sugary/malty stuff then goes here. Where Mr Hop gets a look in!)

The nature and age of the Grade 2 building makes the entire brewing process reliant on this being a manual operation almost from start to finish, including hoisting the weekly ton deliveries of malt from ground floor up three floors via trap doors at each level.

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(2 of the 6 FVs)

Allgates brew a number of different beers a week (including some periodic seasonal and specials). Whilst we were there, the ongoing brew was All Black (a mild with NZ hops). In the Fermenting Vessels (FVs) were a variety of brews including Florida (brewed with Lubelski hops – a nice orange/tangerine hint, v refreshing), Pretoria and Double Espresso, with their own sourced Brazilian Coffee (lovely and smooth with a gloriously rich coffee flavour).

We tried a number of other beers at various stages of maturity and I was surprised when none of them were harsh. All were smooth and some had a lot of the hop character you would expect in a completely ‘tap ready’ beer!

20130313_145841(Conditioning Vessels/Tanks)

A quick look into where the ‘formal’ brewery tours end up, complete with bar. During the day this doubles up as the office, Cheryl , another one of the staff, was very friendly. She is the lady who puts the pump clips on their own ‘wall of fame’ (my term!), but she’s hardly Amazonian and can only reach so high! (There were still some to be put up, but she couldn’t reach!)

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(Now THAT’s a Pumpclip Parade! – With apologies to Jeff Pickthall!)

Finally, down to ground level. This is where there is a further FV and some conditioning tanks (they really prefer to condition in the brewery prior to casking and release to the pubs). In the back were returned casks ready for cleaning and- in a separate room, the casks of guest beers that they have ordered for their very own festival!

This festival starts in a couple of weeks and is to be held held across the Allgates estate of 7 pubs. I saw some of the barrels and there are some crackers lined up. I was really surprised to see a cask of Redwillow Faithless XXI in there. I didn’t know that they’d got past XIX! The line up (as you can see) is pretty much a ‘Who’s Who’ of the UK craft brewing scene.

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I also now know why I don’t see much Allgates in Manchester. Dave told me that they virtually sell everything they brew through their own 7 pubs! As I said earlier, brewing 6 days a week, they are virtually working full belt. This is – as they emphasise on their website – essentially keeping the product local. This works two ways. Firstly, it keeps the carbon footprint of the whole operation low, less transportation. It also keeps costs down (a point I will example later) which filters down to you, the customer.

Saying that, this is still run as business (unlike some of the 1k + breweries knocking about) and makes money, which is good to see. Some of this may go into a small amount of estate expansion in the future. (Can I have one in Bolton, please?)

Finishing up at the brewery, we got out of Jonathan’s hair and headed off to The Anvil (again, 2 minutes walk) where our gracious host bought us a beer. Allgates All Black for me and a Mosaic for Col. David is a really nice bloke with a hell of a handshake grip (be warned!), I really enjoyed our chat and thanked him for this most unexpected brewery tour and for the patience required in answering mine and Cols questions!

The Anvil

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(pic – qype.co.uk)

Located on Dorning Street just 2 minutes from the brewery. Substantial looking pub close to both bus and rail stations. Interior more recent, with an open plan layout, but 3 distinct areas (+ unvisited beer garden). Clean and modern with lots of notices and pictures on the walls, including their multitude of CAMRA awards (and others!)

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(bar area)

Now then. Whereas The Raven was reasonably quiet, this place was as busy as a chippy! Virtually all the seating was occupied.Luckily, thanks to one of the chatty regulars, a more senior gent named Harry, we got a seat near the telly (and the all important day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival!)

20130313_165404(The CAMRA and Cask Marque Awards – and there were more out of shot!)

There were 6 ales on the bar I think. 1 from Black Jack (nice to see), Hydes Original (popular it seems) 2 from Allgates, Phoenix Arizona and a beer from Abbeydale of Sheffield. I stuck with the Allgates. Initially, I had the All Black that David bought me. A superbly smooth mild at 3.6% abv. Nice tan coloured creamy head on a black body, nice latte aroma from the head leading to a smooth dark roast flavour with but a hint of bitterness from the NZ hop varieties used (hence the ALL Black!). A really nice beer, up there with Bank Top Dark Mild for me!

Next up was the Mosaic. A really pale brew this. Instant tropical citrus aromas from the glass, grapefruit and mango. Lovely and bitter with a nice smooth grapefruit tinge again, much more subtle and smooth than the nose hinted at. A really refreshing pint. Having a great chat with Harry (who was a dab hand with magic tricks!) Col showed him a couple of card tricks. Damned if I could figure out how he did it! Of course, with all this going on, I simply HAD to have another pint of Mosaic, didn’t I? Col had a Black Jack which he enjoyed.

Pricing? This is where keeping the beer local kicks in. The Mosaic  was about £2.30 a pint, the All Black slightly cheaper. Superb value arrived at by keeping your costs down (transportation) and passing the saving on. All that, whilst using premium ingredients!

We tried the John Bull Chophouse, on a couple of recommendations. It was empty. Just the smell of paint and a smiling barman. Just finished a refurb, the ale (2 from Thwaites – inc Wainwrights – and an Elgoods) weren’t quite ready. Pub looks nice though.

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(Maybe next time eh?)

Saying our goodbyes to Harry, we moved on back toward the train station, stopping in the Moon Under Water on the way. I had a 3Bs Honey Bee whilst Col had a Coach House Blueberry. The rest of the selecction was uninspiring, with no darks. The 3Bs was a nice (slightly sweet – from the honey) beer which was probably the best shout. With hindsight, should have stayed in The Anvil for another!

Whilst we only went in 3 pubs in Wigan, the day was full of surprises and highly enjoyable. A town to which I will return. My next mission? To visit all 7 Allgates pubs!

On that note….’til next time…

Slainte!