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Micropubs in Kent

For a few years now, we’ve spent a week or two somewhere in the UK to enjoy the local beer. This year, we first went to London to visit the Great British Beer Festival and Fuller’s Brewery, and then moved on to Whitstable for a week in Kent.

We had initially chosen Kent and Whitstable simply because we had never been to Kent before, and because Whitstable looked nice enough to stay there. Kent is often called the garden of England, and it is nowadays not only a place with a significant fruit and vegetable producing industry, it is also the largest hop growing area in the UK. When driving through Kent, it became noticeable for us that there were a lot more oast houses to see than hop gardens. Oast houses are very distinct buildings with a round tower with a conical roof, often tipped with a distinct white cover. These were used to dry freshly picked hops, and the large amounts of them bear witness to a much larger hop industry than there is nowadays in England.

A few weeks before we left for our holidays, fellow Stammtisch goer Joe told me about how Thanet in Kent, in particular Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs, is micropub central, and so we started looking closer into that, only to discover an aspect of British beer culture we’ve never witnessed before.

So what are micropubs? Essentially, they’re tiny, independent pubs that focus on their main product, beer, and often cider as well. It’s often just one room for customers, a back room with casks of beer and boxes of cider, and a customer toilet, though some may be a bit larger. The beer is often served straight from the cask, so most micropubs don’t even bother with handpumps.

And from what I could see, that straight up attracts the beer nerds: during our visit of different micropubs, I’ve heard many people discuss the specific beers being served, or other general beer-related topics. Whenever people learned that we live in Germany, the topic of German beer often came up, and people are genuinely interested in hearing about and discussing the finer details of German beer culture, and just love talking about the local beer and their preferences.

Publicans of micropubs also very much put an emphasis on good quality ale, often focussing on local breweries, and therefore are very much behind the idea of serving just great beer. In one instance, we’ve overheard two micropub employees and a regular discuss a particular firkin that had been delivered three days ago and hasn’t dropped bright yet, but instead developed a slight vinegar note, and whether they should return that firkin. So quality is a hot topic, and it’s openly being discussed to a certain extent. This is a refreshing difference to some other pubs that may serve you a slightly off pint with hints of vinegar, either due to economic pressure of having to sell the whole cask, or because they simply don’t care.

But even outside the topic of beer, I found all micropubs to be more communicative than any other pubs I’ve been to before. In the majority of places, we just casually struck up conversations (well, my wife did, I’m too socially awkward) with either the publican or other customers, and people were much more open to just having a casual chat. For me, that was noticeable as the biggest difference compared to most other pubs.

The biggest contrast in Whitstable for me was the local ‘spoons versus a micropub close to it, the Black Dog. For those who don’t know, J.D. Wetherspoons (often abbreviated to just ‘spoons) is a British pub chains with well over 1000 pubs all over the UK with attractive prices for both their beer (which is usually reasonably well kept but mostly consists of big, national brands) and their food (which is often pinged in the microwave or deep-fried). People we met in a micropub in Ramsgate recommended to us to visit the Peter Cushing (the ‘spoons in Whitstable, named after the actor which some of you may know as Grand Moff Tarkin) for its grand interior. It’s in a former theatre and is decorated in a art deco style which I found looked very good and much better than most other ‘spoons which are usually a bit trashy and scruffy. Even the pattern of the carpet, which is unique for every Wetherspoons pub, matched the whole art deco theme. But while the pub itself looks beautiful and serves cheap drinks (I paid GBP 2.09 for a pint of bitter from a local brewery near Maidstone), it’s not where I would go to relax or meet people.

Now contrast that with the Black Dog. It’s a micropub in Whitstable probably a minute away from the Peter Cushing. It’s quirky-looking on the inside, the bar features faux handpumps which are just there to hold the pump clips of what beers are on, but it’s so much more inviting than the ‘spoons. The beers were mostly local, and with pints of GBP 3.00 to 3.50, the prices were higher but still okay and seemed to reflect a fairer pricing towards the brewer (Wetherspoons is known for not paying a whole lot to brewers for their casks). The raised benches and tables on both sides of the room may not be quite as comfortable, but provided an environment that just allowed you to chat to the people next to you.

And I think that’s exactly what attracts people so much to micropubs: the conversation, the social aspect, the – as you would say in Ireland – good craic, paired with usually a good selection of beer and cider curated by people who are deeply passionate about the pub and the beer they serve in it. The “micro” in micropub in my opinion not only refers to the size of the pub itself, but also to the minimalism of the whole concept: minimal infrastructure for people to buy pints of cask ale, hang out and have a good time, accompanied by a few bar snacks and maybe games, but that’s it. No free WiFi, no (or only very quiet) background music, no annoying slot machines. And that’s all you need to provide people with an experience they can enjoy.

Since the first micropub, the Butchers Arms in Herne, opened in 2005, about 300 micropubs have spawned in most parts of England, and a few in Scotland and Wales. I would like to see even more places like these, not just in the UK, but also in Germany. In Berlin, the place that I know that comes closest to a micropub is probably Försters Feine Biere: it’s very small inside (though you can sit outside during the summer), has no noticeable disturbance through background music, the food is limited in choice, simple and well-suited for a beer pub, and the owner is deeply passionate about the quality and selection of beer he serves. Due to the focus on German beer and in particular quality German lagers and regional beer styles, the choice of beer is different from your English cask-ale-serving micropub, but the quality beer is still central to the place.

But back to Kent: we didn’t just go there so that I could analyze and disect the concept of micropubs, we actually went there to enjoy the beer. And to do that, we went to plenty of places. Since that holiday house we rented was located in Whitstable, we first checked out the local pubs.

The instantly liked the Black Dog on Whitstable’s High Street. As I said earlier, it’s quirky on the inside, and the beer selection has been great all the time we were there, so definitely a place I can recommend. The Tankerton Arms in Whitstable was a bit further away, a good walk along the beach side, but equally nice.

In order to get a good overview over the triangle of Margate, Ramsgate and Broadstairs that Joe had recommended, we decided to split our visit up over two days: the first day we visited Margate, while on the second day, we went to Ramsgate and Broadstairs.

Our initial impression of Margate was not great: it looked like your typical tacky English sea-side town. Only on second impression, it turned out to be better, but I guess that’s just a resonation of our particularly bad experience in Scarborough last year.

Our first stop in Margate was the Harbour Arms out on the stone pier. From there, you had a great look over the town. It was nice to sit outside and enjoy the sun, though we were put off a bit by a woman who turned out to be a Ukiper that talked about indigenous people in England (her mother was Irish, she didn’t get the irony), alleged riots in Ramsgate the day before, her claiming that the movie Whisky Galore was filmed on the Irish-Northern Irish border (it was not, we double-checked), and finally a bizarre monologue about subterranean worlds underneath Israel and Sinai and why there’s still hope for humanity because of them. And she wasn’t even drunk!

We then moved on to the Little Prince, which was hard to find in the first place and then turned out to have run out of real ale. Due to very limited space, they usually only had bag-in-box real ale and two keg beers on draught. We had a half pint of Leffe and a bottle of Peroni out of pure politeness.

The next stop was the Two Halves. Now that was a micropub with a view! Very bright, a great view towards the harbour, and of course, good beer. The casks were prominently displayed behind a large glass window, so you could see everything that was going on.

After a quick stop at the Bottle Shop, a craft beer bar, where we had a To Øl Sur Mosaic and a Thornbridge Lukas to cleanse our palates, we went to the Fez, another quirky micropub full of old beer-related signage. The beer there was great, as was the atmosphere. We had a conversation with a group of older men who, after they learned we were from Berlin and here on holidays, wanted to know about all the good beer places in Berlin. I also asked them why they specifically went to this micropub, the Fez, and they said, “oh, we go to many pubs”.

One of them emphasized though that they enjoy micropubs because they are the quintessential pubs for them: good beer and a good place to hang out with friends. They also recommended to us two more pubs, one of them being a micropub we had on our list, but we eventually decided to return to Whitstable since we were hungry and time had passed a lot quicker than we had thought.

The next day, we took the train to Ramsgate, where we first visited the Hovelling Boat Inn, which was okay but not too exciting, from which we moved on to the Conqueror Alehouse. There we met a couple which we had seen in the Hovelling Boat Inn earlier, and together with the publican and another couple that came in shortly after us, we had a nice and fun conversation. It was pork pie day, so slices of pork pie were served, which went perfectly with the well-kept beers. We then decided to move on to Broadstairs, since it was already getting a bit late and we still wanted to visit two more places.

From Broadstairs train station it was a few minutes of walking to our next stop, the Four Candles. The Four Candles isn’t just a micropub, the owner brews his own beer on a 2.5 bbl (about 400 liter) kit, but also serves guest beers and sells some of his own beers in bottles. And the brewery logo are two fork handles. In the unlikely case you don’t get the reference:

The atmosphere in this place was different, very vibrant, a bit loud, very welcoming and friendly locals, lots of them coming to the pub with their dogs, so we decided to stay for a few more and skip the second micropub in Broadstairs. All the house beers were good, solid bitters, nothing too crazy, but refreshing, hoppy beers for average non-hophead beer drinkers. The place also served cheese: they had a huge box with shrink-wrapped local cheeses, you picked the one who wanted to have, you got a plate with the cheese, a good amount of crackers and a lovely home-made onion chutney, and were charged based on which cheese you had chosen. A great deal, and tasty!

We eventually had to get our train back to Whitstable. All in all, visiting all these micropubs was a good experience. None of them was outright bad, some of them were just okay, but a lot of them had a great atmosphere, and didn’t just serve good beer, but were also passionate about it. It gave me the feeling that what I had witnessed there represented how lots of people want pubs to be, a place to socialize and meet friends, a place to enjoy a few drinks, a place to relax and people-watch. I’m not qualified to say that this is how pubs were originally meant to be, but it’s certainly a type of pub I would love to see more often, and not just because of the great variety of local beers.

Bakewell from a Beer Perspective

My wife and I are currently spending our holidays in Bakewell, Derbyshire, England. Even though I usually primarily blog about homebrewing, I’d like to share a few quick notes about good beer here in Bakewell.

The first impression was that the pubs are dominated by Peak Ales, a microbrewery near Chatsworth house. Unfortunately, I find all of their beers rather unremarkable, the stereotypical “boring brown bitter”. Which is unfortunate, because Bakewell is home to another brewery, Thornbridge, which has produced some fantastic and exciting beer over the last 11 years. It was surprisingly hard to find any pub that has Thornbridge from cask. Impossible, in fact. What the locals told us, most of the Thornbridge pubs are in Sheffield, and the only local Thornbridge pub we found, the Horsepack Inn in Little Longstone, had really odd opening hours. Don’t expect to be able to get a pint there on Thursday at 4pm.

Manchester is only 2 hours away from Bakewell by bus, so if you have plenty of time, it’s worth visiting Cloudwater Brewery. They’ve recently created a large hype with their rather unusual one-off brews and fantastically juicy series of Double IPAs. You need to reserve a seat beforehand to be sure to get served on Saturdays when their tap room is open. We were lucky to reserve just for the weekend after they started releasing their v4/v5 DIPAs.

If you find the trip to Manchester too boring, a good time-waster is to count pubs and what breweries run them. It looks like Robinsons totally dominates around that area, but I managed to see a seemingly defunct-looking pub with an old Boddingtons sign just before Stockport.

Talking about the better beer in Bakewell itself, we enjoyed going to a particular pub, The Manners. It’s a Robinsons pub, their food was good, and the beer was well-kept. From cask, they had five different Robinsons ales (Trooper, Unicorn, Wizard, Bonjeuros, Dizzy Blonde), from keg, the usual lagers, Robinsons Smooth (nitro keg ale) and Robinsons Dark (keg mild). My personal favourite has been Bonjeuros, a dry, hoppy, citrusy, zesty golden ale, which was quite refreshing.

Our opportunity to drink more Thornbridge beer was Peakender beer festival. It’s Thornbridge’s very own festival, so of course, many of their core range beers were available, and a good selection of other breweries’s beers. What we didn’t know beforehand: the location was extremely muddy. It’s more of a 3-day camping&beer festival. But on the Sunday when we were there, the weather was rather sunny, and a rare opportunity to get a proper sunburn in England.

Another day, we also visited Thornbridge brewery itself. It was quite interesting to see the size of the operation, which was actually smaller than I had expected, given their vast core range, and the amount of beer they sell nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, they’re currently undergoing some extensions, and thus not all parts of the brewery can be visited. We had the chance to sample one of Thornbridge’s latest releases, Serpent: a Belgian-style Golden Ale, fermented with the lees from a local cider maker and barrel-aged in ex-Bourbon casks (Four Roses), was a collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery. A pretty good beer, with the qualities of a dry, fruity white wine. I also managed to get two bottles of their sour red ale oak-aged on cherries resp. raspberries, for which Thornbridge recently won gold and silver medal at the World Beer Cup. I have yet to try these, though.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll be in York for a week. I’ll write about it next week, and I’d be grateful if anybody has any good tips regarding beer there.

A List of Yeast Banks and Producers for Homebrewers

Nowadays, homebrewers can choose from lots of different yeast strains from various producers and yeast banks. As a reference, I’m putting together all those that I know of and that explicitly cater towards homebrewers. I’m not including commercial or scientific yeast banks because they often do not sell their yeast in homebrewing quantitites for homebrewing prices. Also, if you know of any other places or companies that produce yeast for homebrewers, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll add them to the list.

Liquid yeasts:

Dry yeasts:

Update 2015-11-25:
Another dry yeast supplier I found: Brauwerkstatt

Update 2015-12-25:
Escarpment Labs has recently started making their yeasts available to homebrewers in Canada.

Tasting the Hefeweizen brewed in August

I was quite busy recently, so I didn’t have time to give you an update on the Hefeweizen that I brewed in August.

Fermentation went fine, but took a bit longer than expected to finish up. I then bottled the beer with Speise, and let it referment in the bottle. It carbonated properly.

I first tried the beer about 3 weeks ago. It pours fine. The yeast has formed a relatively hard sediment that took a while to swirl up. When poured, the beer forms a relatively dense foam that falls down at a moderate speed. Colour-wise, it looks a bit darker than your average Hefeweizen, in fact quite close to several commercial products branded as “Urweisse”. Definitely looks pleasant.

In the nose, you get a whiff of acidity, with hints of a phenolic character. It certainly smells like a Hefeweizen. When tasting it, you again get an acidity that almost gets too much over time. It is spritzy, and that acidic component makes it refreshing. The greatest disappointment are the other flavours, though: there is barely any banana coming through, maybe a hint of pear, even though I specifically optimized the wort for ester production. The phenolic side of things is… different. Yes, there are phenols, but it’s not the typical clove character that is so uniqie for the beer style. Not chlorophenolic, though, but still odd.

All in all, I’m a bit disappointed. It is an alright beer, but some of the flavour is just off for the style. I blame the yeast. 😉 I had had quite a few beers, even commercial ones, brewed with WB-06, which exhibited similar issues (high grade of acidity, very few esters and phenols), but I was a bit naive in thinking that I could do better. I wouldn’t mind brewing the beer again, but not with the same yeast. Wyeast 3068 it is next time.