The Bow Bar, Edinburgh, Scotland: Top of the Table

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The Bow Bar is a classic single room ale house that uses traditional Scottish air pressure to dispense its ever changing range of cask ales. There is often a mini-cask fest on tap, as there was when I was there, causing me to attentively watch the chalk board when one ale was being rubbed out and its replacement cask name and style was chalked-in. Cairngorm IPA and Trade Winds come to mind as a splendid pints of real ale.

It is a friendly upright bar, meaning there are only a few table and chairs scattered about. On my first of several visits a couple obligingly gave my wife and I seats near to the bar before they departed.

Crime novelist Ian Rankin can sometimes be found here, as I am quite sure he can be spotted at any number of other great pubs in this fine city, such as the Oxford Bar, where he is known to frequent when he is not on tour promoting his latest crime novel. I didn’t see Rankin at the Bow Bar but I did meet him a few months later in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he autographed a book for me following a lively question and answer session, which was live to air.

We had a laugh when I said: “Ian, when I was in Edinburgh in the summer I didn’t see you at the Oxford or the Bow Bar.”

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Cask Conditioned Ale Making Its Mark

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Real ale, or cask conditioned ale, in the U.S. and Canada is still catching on but not to the same extent as in England, and for good reason. There isn’t the cask conditioned ale heritage in the U.S. and Canada that there is in the U.K., and in North America, brewers and pub owners are still learning the intricacies of handling and serving real ale. The English never totally lost real ales, as had happened on this side of the Atlantic, though cask conditioned ales were in serious decline in Britain when the Campaign For Real Ale, CAMRA, began the turnaround in the early 1970s.

Pubs on this side of the Atlantic, even the pubs imported lock, stock and barrel from the U.K., never seem to quite come up to being a real English pub. Is the real ale good on this side of the Atlantic? Yes, some of it, very good, actually. And it would seem brewpubs offer the best way for a brewer to ensure cask conditioned ale is properly maintained from brewery to glass. As an example, The Granite Brewery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, deserves to survive and thrive because it unerringly offers fine pints of cask conditioned ale. Indeed, some English visitors agree, the Granite sells some of the best pints of real ale they’ve had, outside of England, that is. And to me that’s high praise coming from the Brits.

Admittedly, real ale has latched on to my palate. I prefer the more rounded, full flavour of a cask conditioned ale to a gassed-up filtered beer, though, of course, there are always exceptions. I always drink best available, whether it is cask or keg. If I don’t like a malty brew on offer on cask, I will turn to a hoppy keg or craft beer.

But certainly not all real ale is good. Muddy beers passed off with the ubiquitous, ‘that’s the way it’s supposed to be, or taste’ have ruined a beer experience for more than one adventurous beer drinker in North America. For example, at Chicago’s Goose Island Brewing Company a cloudy, yeast laden IPA with no hope of the much anticipated hop bitterness surfacing, caused me to quickly switch to Goose Island’s Honker’s Ale, a fine pint of filtered ale.
I remember seeing but did not chance drinking a muddy, unfiltered HefeWeizen served in a Portland, Oregon, brewpub that could have floated a sand barge and yet this identical beer populated many nearby tables. I accept the haze factor for this style of beer but not to this extreme. The same brewpub did a credible job of fining its real ale, a slight haze was not uncommon, but my friend, a brewer who once brewed real ales at the former Godson’s Brewery in London, England, preferred the filtered version of the same cask ale I was drinking.

Disappointment also came from the cask conditioned Scottish ale offerings from the much heralded Highland Brewery in New York City, obviously before it closed, where, after a light refreshing 2 Penny Ale and a somewhat thin 60/Dark Mild, which had hints of underdeveloped character, a persistent graininess in the Ben Nevis 80/Brown Ale and a cardboard staleness in the Highlander Special Bitter followed. Is it any wonder the public did not take to these unappealing and ill kept beers? Is it that surprising that the brewery closed? And yet, hardly anyone wants to talk about the downside of real ale and the microbrewery industry.

Will real ale catch on in North America? In time it will find favour with some, a niche product for those beer drinkers lucky enough to be situated near a place where the beer is kept in good nick. Certainly, groups such as CASK! Toronto have helped to make in-roads in that city for the brewers who are willing to go the cask ale route.

But for me there is still nothing quite like visiting an English pub for the right atmosphere for having a pint of cask conditioned ale. Call me spoiled or spoiled for choice, it’s all fine by me.

Allen’s: A Nod to Ontario Craft Beer Week 2015

DSCN0975Allen’s on the Danforth in Greek Town, Toronto, Ontario, one of my local haunts because of its completeness of offerings, is situated amid a plethora of restaurants featuring all manner of world cuisines, from Greek to Japanese.

Allen’s is a long narrow American style bar and restaurant with a few booths facing the sturdy polished oak bar at the front of the house and at the back an eclectic scattering of wooden chairs and tables that are draped in fresh blue and white gingham tablecloths. The erudite proprietor John Maxwell runs a good house with crisp service.

Chalkboards list a good range of interesting beers on tap with, for example, the hop-driven Hoptical Illusion Almost Pale ale from the Flying Monkeys Brewery in Barrie, and the finely crafted crisp King Pilsner, a Czech style pilsner brewed in Nobleton, and the crisply hop-driven Rhyme and Reason from Collective Arts Brewing of Hamilton as the featured Ontario microbrews on tap, with the always excellent Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic,as well as some 100 diverse offerings in bottle. There is also an excellent selection of around 200-plus single malts available for tasting, as well as superb Ontario VQA wines cellared by Maxwell.

Here in summer you will find a fabulous naturally shaded backyard featuring good food such as barbecued rack of lamb, steaks, burgers and ribs, all served with several creative side salads.

The Horse and Groom: A True Village Local

271Overlooking the mellow village of Bourton-on-the-Hill in Gloucestershire, The Horse and Groom is a Grade II listed Georgian building made of honey coloured Cotswold stone. It has fine views from its back garden and five tastefully furnished rooms to let. The main floor of the interior is divided into a pub, accessed by the front door, and a dining room beside that. This pub serves memorable meals freshly prepared such as Asiatic salmon or pinkish duck breast with suitable vegetables. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable. The private parking lot, however, can get busy and crowded.

On the beer front, there are three cask ales, with the malt-accented Jouster from Goff’s Brewery usually on, with two rotating taps from such local notable brewers as the North Cotswold Brewery, Cotswold Lion Brewery, Prescott Ales, Stroud Brewery, Butcombe, Purity and Wye Valley. 262

I’ve been coming to the Horse and Groom for a good few years now, though maybe not all 10 years it has been in the very capable hands of the welcoming Greenstock family, and I have never been disappointed with the impeccable food and fresh ales. This is a pub of and for the people, whether you are a lucky local or a yearly visitor, the high standard of hospitality is served up in equal measure, making it a true village local.

Munich, Germany: Beer and Surfing

When you think of Munich and Germany, beer comes quickly to mind, but not so surfing. I went to Munich for beer and stumbled upon the surfing. But first the beer, priorities being upheld.

Munich is the capital and largest city, population 1.5 million, of the German state of Bavaria. It is located north of the Bavarian Alps on the banks of the River Isar.

Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, Schwemme, the main beer hall

Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, Schwemme, the main beer hall

I went first to the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, a Munich institution, to sample German beer on draught in
Schwemme, the main beer hall and the heart of the Hofbräuhaus, which has seating for around 1,300 drinkers and diners. Festsaal, the ball room, has a further 1,500 seats, and other more private rooms hold another 1,000 people. And there is seating for another 700 in the spacious and well-treed beer garden.

Wherever you land in this glorious beer emporium, try one of their best summer beer offerings, Hofbrau Munchen’s Munchner Sommer Naturtrub, which is an unfiltered bottom fermented draught beer hitting 5.1 percent abv. It is a veiled amber in colour,Munchner Sommer Naturtrub at The Hofbrauhaus Chinesischer Turm beer garden showcasing a refreshing hop character upfront and a pleasant hop bitterness underneath a refined malt base. Its crispness on the palate makes for perfect summertime drinking, especially so outdoors in one of HB’s many beer gardens around Munich.

The large warm pretzels and spicy German mustard make for a fine accompaniment to the beer.

Later I set off to visit, in the heart of the Engslischer Garten, The Hofbrauhaus Chinesischer Turm beer garden, (Sommer Naturtrub pictured left in beer garden) which is the second largest beer garden in Munich with some 7,500 seats in the open air. Steins of HB brands are happily served in quantity to ever-eager consumers, many in large groups of friends or with extended family members.

Surfing in Munich!

Surfing in Munich!

Along the way I came upon canal surfing in the heart of Munich, which is quite something to behold. I may have read about it in a guide book but it didn’t make any sense until I actually saw men and women in black wet suits skimming over the surface of hundreds of gallons of water forcefully gushing and frothing from a closed canal into a wider open channel. And then it did make sense. Boy did it ever. Inner-city Munich is a most unusual surfing destination but it really was quite a brilliant spectacle.

But, alas, there was more beer to be had in Munich, much more, and to that end I set my feet in motion.

The Snowshill Arms–Another Cotswold Gem

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The Snowshill Arms, in the tidy village of Snowshill, Gloucestershire, built of the luscious golden Cotswold limestone, sits adjacent to an eclectic manor house held by the National Trust. By all means visit the manor if you are thus inclined but I usually walk uphill the 2.5 miles from Broadway for the local Donnington Brewery ales on cask at the Arms alongside fine food.

The landlord, Dave, can often be spotted having a ‘sharpener’, the first drink of the day or starter beer of the day, at 11 am at the Crown and Trumpet in Broadway, Worcestershire, before starting his day at the Snowshill Arms.

291 - CopyOn a recent visit I was pleased to see that Donnington had introduced a sharp tasting golden ale with a citrusy flavour, a big change from the more malt-driven brews in its stable such as BB and SBA. I had a ploughman’s lunch and a few jars on cask of Donnington Gold, nicely balanced and easy drinking at 4 percent abv.

Somewhere around the middle of the pub is a painting of a local poacher painted by a former Broadway-based artist, Dawn Cookson. Some of her art can be found at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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Some years ago I met Dawn Cookson through my wife’s grandmother who used to travel with her on painting expeditions to Italy. And it was here to The Snowshill Arms that Dawn drove us for lunch all those years ago.

On the way out, I said hi to Dave, who was just arriving from Broadway. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me from the Crown and Trumpet sightings but I had another walk ahead of me, this time downhill, before I could get more refreshment.

Heavy Hitters Score With Big Beers

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The Smuttynose Brewing Company of Hampton, New Hampshire, USA, has brewed a wonder beer in its Smuttynose Imperial Stout. Weighing in at 10 percent abv, it presents a pitch-black colour and a nose of chocolate nibs nudged forward by darkened toast elements and a solid hop bitterness, and from beneath, there is a gentle release of alcohol. The finish is dry, hoppy, roast, chocolate and a hint of dark licorice, oh, and very moreish.

After a tasting, I often, especially so if I like the beer, pour the remainder of a sample into a pint glass sleeve, my preferred vessel for drinking beer, just to see if there are any nuances I may have missed or undervalued.

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Old Ruffian Barley Wine brewed by the Great Divide Brewing Company of Denver, Colorado, USA, gallops in a 10.2 percent abv, which is backed with a solid 90 IBUs. Pouring a burnished reddish-brown in colour, it releases aromas of hops and malt that happily co-mingle. The malt flavours succumb to a potent rush of hop bitterness on the palate. Malt, however, does not give up, pushing the hop quotient into balance. The finish has more of the continuing tussle between hops and malt, with no clear winner. A very fine brew for sipping or drinking!