Thursday, 15 February 2018

Pub Culture Songs: The Copper Top

Music is hugely important to me and so I thought this new series of blog posts could reflect that passion from a pub culture point of view. The thing is, most legendary songs are written in pubs. On the back of beermats, on torn up cigarette packets, noted in a phone, or just half-thought of and remembered in a haze of hangover the next day, these songs are the lifeblood of modern culture, and as real to us as our own lives. And they're not just written in pubs, they exist in pubs and they emulate them, taking personal experience and transplanting it into a shared one, so we can all enjoy its deeper meaning. We've all sat around a table, peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray, changing the world with our deep conversations, or avoiding life completely. Pubs are part of our lives. Understandably, there are a lot of songs about this.

The first track I've chosen isn't an easy one, but it's wrenched from a place that's easily and instantly understood but still unique in its own way. It's a song about new grief. There's no euphemism I could write to make it sound more chart-friendly, I'm afraid. It's about gently beginning to surface into reality in the hours after a funeral, and coping in the only way you can. Death and pubs, our two certainties.

The Copper Top by Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat and jazz musician and composer Bill Wells is a song that arrests the world around you. Since I was little I've always loved story songs; songs that have a start and a middle and an end, that take you on a journey, no matter how mundane. Songs were the first place where I heard about what went on in pubs. I was the only kid who read the lyric booklets. The only 7 year old in Morecambe with a well-worn tape of Different Class. Like Jarvis, Aidan Moffat's storytelling is always breathtakingly on the nose, and I couldn't write about his work without mentioning the first time I heard his 1996 track "The First Big Weekend". It was a full transportation into his world. Deadpan delivery and hyper-realism the likes of Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen would be proud of. No room for psychedelia. The real world's fucked up and unbelievable and boring and wonderful and depressing enough.

The Coppertop, Falkirk

The Copper Top is a bar in Falkirk, now offering European food and good beers, in 1996, it might have been a very different place. Immersing myself in Moffat's world, it seems that way.
The bar's busier than it should be on a weekday afternoon as the door swings shut behind me, but I'm the only one wearing a suit. No-one seems to notice my entrance though, I suppose they must be used to mourners in the nearest pub to the crematorium.
In two sentences, he sums up the strange out-of-routine sensation and the general heaviness of time that comes hand in hand with an unusual day off work. After the funeral, he's headed to the nearest pub for a quiet pint. His own private wake.
 I buy a pint and sit down.
The thing about escaping to the pub is that as well as being a place of enjoyment and togetherness, it can be a refuge. Moffat's sought out solitude in a busy bar, knowing he can enjoy the peace of a pint in comforting surroundings, where there are people but none of them will bother him while he drifts off into his own disparate thoughts. As he notes - they're used to seeing mourners in their local that they'll never see again. Like jetsam passing over their reef.

If you listen to the song you'll see that despite the gruff spoken-word monotone of Moffat's voice, the musicality of it is really magical. There are slight moments of reflection caught by brass and piano I really couldn't explain to you in words. All I can say is that they'll sound familiar, because you too have been sat deep in thought, mulling life over with a pint glass in your hand. After a brief interlude, Moffat interrupts himself.
Halfway through my pint and a text message from John says he's waiting outside, sooner than I'd expected. I down what's left and step out into the bright afternoon and get in the car. I look up and see the pub's once brilliant copper roof has oxidised over the years and it's now a dull, pastel green. Everything's getting older.
 A boring description of an everyday action. He steps into the street, slightly surprised by how light it still is, and gets into the car, his last moment of insular reflection resting on the now green roof of the pub. In his open and emotional frame of mind, it's a sign that although old and corroded, it's always been there for those customers inside, and it was there for him. A local that's always busy. A hideaway for crematorium escapees. One of our many immortal pubs.

Friday, 9 February 2018

You're answering the wrong questions about craft beer

If you follow me on Twitter, you might already know that I successfully completed my first bar shift in more than 7 years recently. No mean feat, considering my customer service and mental arithmetic skills have been made slow and lazy by desks. I'd been tentatively excited about it. Working behind a bar is something I remember with extremely pinkish lenses, despite knowing in my heart that, much like the fond memories of comradery I assume the Deer Hunter chaps felt about their first days in Vietnam, the fun and games were short-lived and tinged with tragedy, injury and lifetime-lasting scars. But that's working at Leeds Train Station Wethers for you.

As it turns out, working a cash till and pulling pints is like pulling on a comfy old pair of boots. The best part of working in a local pub is the conversation and the people watching, but this particular pub - The Ale House in Clitheroe - has a magical combination of folks from all walks of life. You'd be hard-pressed to spot a millionaire in there, or a sheep farmer, but I'm just saying, you'll probably pass both on the way to the loos.

Obviously, most of the conversations taking place centred around the range of beers on offer. When you've got a tiny bar and a clientele who demand only the finest hand-pulled ale, there's not much room for any other sort of talk. I'd brushed up on my knowledge of the stock we had in before my shift like a right old nerd and was expecting to get into one or two barneys about sexism on tap badges or the haziness of unfined IPAs. What actually happened was a bit of a surprise.

Yes please, what y'avin?
 It turns out, outside of the craft beer bubble, nobody really gives a shit. I'd learned the wrong facts. I was ready to have the wrong conversations. 30 miles north of Manchester, craft beer is just beer. How weird is that?

Marketing a product to people who already love that product is about trends and loyalty and surprises. Finding new fans is a more difficult endeavour, especially if you're so far down your own rabbit hole that you don't know what they don't know. A large percentage of drinkers aren't invested in the breweries you care about/you are. Many people don't understand what they're buying. A lot of drinkers aren't actually sure what the difference is between cask and keg. And yes - some drinkers, to our constant unfair derision - truly believe that cloudy beers are off. It's time to admit it: we're answering the wrong questions about beer.

These basic misunderstandings keep the craft beer scene separate from the average drinker, and whether the intention is to add mystery or superiority or not, the truth is that most find it off-putting. I spent long, long transactions attempting to convince beer lovers that yes, all craft beer is for them. And bear in mind, these are people who stepped into a craft beer pub by choice. I felt guilty for being so heavily invested in a culture that relishes being so "other," that people who'd actually enjoy being part of it feel they're not knowledgeable, or cool enough, to join in. Call me sad, but I like it when everyone is included.

So, I collated a little list of the actual questions I was asked during my shift, from real punters, who genuinely wanted answers. Whether you pay attention or not is up to you, but what I want to do is show the disparity between beer fans and beer drinkers (which includes the Song of Ice and Fire that is CAMRA v The Craft Beer Folk) and maybe foster some sort of truce. If we can be a little less insufferably keen, maybe everyone will get along a little better?

What's the percent of that?

I would say around 80% of customers were concerned with the strength of the beer on offer, and most who weren't concerned about taste (we'll get to that) chose their drink based on ABV and nothing else. NOTHING ELSE. Not who made it, not what it looked like, not the hops, not whether it was light or dark, even. Strength, or weakness, was their sole priority. Make U think.

What's the strongest beer you've got?

Sensing a pattern? Most visitors who asked this were the after 8pm crowd, and they didn't want to waste valuable catch-up time drinking session pales. Some, it has to be said, quickly changed their mind when it turned out to be an 11% Noa Pecan Mud Cake Imperial Stout at £8.70 a bottle, however we did still sell one based on a combination of strength and colour. Happily, the customer who ended up with it told us later that it was the best beer he'd ever drank. Now that's customer service.

Which beers are local?

That's right - I got asked on more than one occasion which beers we had on from nearby breweries. I liked this question because supporting local breweries is obviously a great thing to do. It did seem that people didn't care much about what the beers were like though, just that they were from the village over the hill.

Is it like Magic Rock?

People have started deciding that they like beers based on the brewery. I heard somebody say the words, "You can really taste the Beavertown in that." I was modifying my recommendations based on brewery, rather than type or taste of beer. I can understand it, every brewery has their own style, but we all know that you can't really gauge whether you like a beer you've never tried from a brewery you've never tried based on whether they make beers like Magic Rock. This phenomenon is strange. It's exactly like when I was really into drum and bass and talked about music by label rather than artist. Is Beavertown RAM Records? Is Verdant Shogun Audio? Who, apart from me, would really get this analogy? I should quit while I'm ahead.

Why is this £5 per half?

A common complaint. Explaining the ins and outs of brewing expenses falls on deaf ears at 9pm in a small rural town and the best thing to say is, "It's just really nice. Would you like to taste it?" My only thought is to create a written menu people can look at if they want, that explains what's in each beer, to try and foster some sort of interest in the craft (and therefore cost) of making specialist beers for anyone who's interested. But not many people will be, because in all fairness, if one pint is £2.70 and another is a tenner, and you don't really know what you're drinking, which one are you going to go for?

Can I have a half?

Biggest surprise of the evening - a lot of people drink halves. It's not a fancy hipster pub I work at either. Northerners both male and female drink halves by choice and nobody mentions it. I need to do more research on this because I'm not sure if it's because people need less alcohol or if they just don't like drinking whole pints of liquid.

Can I try that?

Punters are ready to give things a go. They are open to guidance too - as long as you're not patronising about it. Even the stoniest-faced Lancashire auld boy wanted to test the liquorice porter.

"Oh, those are just the hops they used. Want to give it a go?"

Is this it?

Four cask pulls and two draft pumps looks like nothing when you compare it to the number of taps in a Wetherspoons, for example. I learned quickly that people are too hard-pressed to want to spend time looking in the fridges for something that takes their fancy, particularly if they don't know what they're looking for. One person wasn't interested in the cans because they didn't want anything "fruity." None of that mango shit. Again, totally understandable, the fridges at our place are home to a lot of weird and wonderful things but I didn't realise how offputting a wall of unfamiliar products is. They're just a customer, standing in front of a bar, asking for something delicious to enjoy on their night off. I think the key here is to be as approachable and helpful as possible, and not go into too much detail. I lost someone once I started talking about hop profiles. Down girl.

I'd be interested in hearing from you on this subject. It's hard to balance knowledge and passion with genuine helpfulness. There's a lot to be said for complete immersion in something you care about and trying to get other people to care just as much is only natural. But what if most people just aren't that into it?

Friday, 2 February 2018

Pubs of Dublin

Visiting Dublin was a revelation to me. The city breaks I normally take are in places where the sun shines and impromptu fiestas block roads and rouse plaza drinkers to take their tiny saucers of cubed snacks into the streets. To visit somewhere less than 200 miles away midwinter seems counter-productive - what for? Why not just stay in Manchester? - but it was my 30th birthday and I'd been told it was a special place.

It turns out that Dublin is the only place I can stand the drizzling rain. For two days I walked down sandstone and cobbled streets encased in hanging droplets of Atlantic Ocean with the worst hair I've ever had, without a care in the world. And it isn't that Dublin has some sort of whimsical charm about it - that's a myth. Dublin is a modern and vibrant city, bursting at the seams with independent retailers and exciting artistic diversions, as well as street after street of some of the most perfect shopping you've ever seen. If you're into that sort of thing. It's not so much a clash of old and new as a total reassessment of what a proud, old, historic city can be and it works. It just does.

Of course, in two days there's only so much you can do, and as a burgeoning beer blogger, it seems befitting to centre this post on pubs. You don't need me to tell you anything about Dublin's drinking scene, except perhaps the re-affirmation that it's very much alive and kicking, and far less staggy than you'd expect. Against the Grain, the first place on my list and the first place I visited, was a complete delight, offering craft enough to excite us even after a day of diazepam (bad flyers) and amazing quantities of Lebanese food. Dark, friendly and yes, okay, expensive - I'll happily pay it if I'm on holiday though - I blazed through my first-night birthday cash with abandon.

Before you visit, people talk about the Guinness as though it has miraculous properties. Their eyes mist over as they try to grasp the fading memory of it, before taking your hand to make you promise, hand on heart, that you'll have a pint for them. I thought it was all melodrama but the Stag's Head showed me that yes, Dublin Guinness is a joy, and yes, I can drink more than five in an afternoon and still be fit for a decent tea. A Victorian bolthole in Temple Bar, The Stag boasts aged brass chandeliers, stained glass and floor-length mirrors aged cosily with pipe-smoke-and-wear patina. I spent a long time in the snug looking at reflections bouncing around the room, thinking about the smartly-dressed men who would have checked their sideburns for accuracy in them more than a hundred years ago. It's that sort of place. I went back twice more during my stay.

Apologies for the wonky photo, I had had 16,000 pints of Guinness

During my stay, walking past pubs in Dublin became a hobby of mine, and I hope I return soon to continue the series of photos I started. I take photos of pubs in England too, but there's something about the places I saw there - including the The Temple Bar itself, even - that make even a late person sure they've got time enough in them to have a swift one. Because who hasn't got ten minutes for a short conversation?

I did commit one cardinal sin though, and it was that I didn't visit one single brewery or distillery. We just didn't have time. We walked to Jameson's because there was a church with crypts I wanted to see nearby, but instead of touring, we sat in the bar opposite and had a beer. Mine was a zingy dry-hopped lemon sour by The White Hag, based out of Ballymote, Sligo.

Maybe we'll try harder next time.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Fear Beers

For avid travellers, both Tom and I are massive scaredy cats. You'd think an aeroplane engineer would be fine in the sky, but he's not a fan of aviation once it leaves the ground. I'm much worse - arriving at Manchester Airport train station fills me with dread and things don't get much better until I arrive at my destination. If you ever have the misfortune of finding yourself sat beside me on a flight, just ignore me. I'll be crying silently for the most part but essentially, I'm fine.

The one and only thing you can do to make yourself a pro plane user is to do it more often, and with alcohol, so we were brave and for a joint birthday present caught a cheap Ryanair to Dublin. To ease our nerves, the owner of The Ale House in Clitheroe gave us three fortifying beers on the proviso that I review them for him. So that's exactly what I'm doing.

Birthday beers are the best beers (there are also some excellent Cissy Green pies in the white bag. I get the best birthday presents!)

Beavertown x Verdant - Shut Up and Play the Hits Double IPA 8.8%

The first thing I said after taking a sip was "Ooh, it feels silky." And I wasn't making it up, it really does have a smooth and silky mouthfeel, like good red wine. I'm understanding that this is because of the oats involved in the brewing process, please correct me if I'm wrong.

A fresh, green (Tom says not to use the word green as it's a beer insult? But I am using it in a purely artistic fashion to denote young shoots and unfurling leaves, touched by light droplets of rain. So please don't take offence,) slightly resinous and sappy beer, mossy and fragrant. I'm taking a liberty here but I'm guessing all of these naturalistic, earthy plant-based flavours and aromas are Verdant's influence since all of their beers have a whiff of the outdoors to me. It also kindof reminded me of Dobber by Marble Brewery, which can only be a good thing. It also holds its ABV really well, with sweetness that was definite but not overpowering.

Can I just say as well, what an excellent can this has. Skeletons playing beach ball and having loads of fun, which for me is a perennial mood. Don't ever change, Beavertown!

Roosters - Scrambler Watermelon Pale Ale 4%

This is, as any self-respecting 1970s northern darts player would say, a bobby dazzler. Before I cracked it open I half-expected it to be a thick and oozy juicer, but it turned out to be an almost sarcastically refined, light and delicately fruity helles-style pale lagery delight. My bad, I know, it says "pale ale" not "dank af westcoast IPA," but it was still like seeing Dimebag Darrel sitting down to a baby grand to play mellifluous cocktail jazz. We kept passing it back and forth on the train for tiny sips, doing equally tiny laughs at this magic drink we'd discovered.

It's not all watermelon though. There's a fun level of hoppy complexity, with a crisp, dry aftertaste. No doubt it'll be in the running for my favourite beer of the summer. (Would it make a good michelada? Now that's a good and valid question.) 

Roosters x Magic Rock  - Northern Powerhouse 4.5%

Tom, not scared, outside Manchester Airport T3

Of course having these two breweries clubbing together is an obvious marker for success, so there's not much to say except this is really nice. It's a lovely easy drinker with a good level of bitterness that nips at your tongue and perceived sweetness from the hops that makes it all-round a very good egg indeed. Tom said I had to put "perceived sweetness" because he vehemently disagreed with me. He said it's not sweet. I say it isIt's quite a lot like Neck Oil, which is by no means a criticism on my part. Neck Oil is one of the best craft beers of our time imo; any recipe coming close to it deserves a pat on the back.

By the time we'd finished it, it was time to check our bags in and head to the frankly awful bar in Terminal 3, so its lingering memory tasted all the sweeter. Our final drink before heading over the top, to no-man's-land. Goodbye world.

(We arrived safely and on time in Dublin three hours later. I can be quite dramatic about airports.)

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Purity, Truth and Love - Mr. Fitzpatrick's lasting reminder of Lancashire's dry heritage

As far as I know, there's no person more virtuous than the designated driver. A selfless individual who puts others' pleasures ahead of their own, they and they alone ensure the safe homeward journey of their inebriated friends and colleagues. They take drunken conversations in their stride and never roll their eyes at the suggestion of another lime and soda. Their joy is drawn not from the depths of a keg, but from the vibrant melee of human interaction, frothing with comradery and grateful offerings of pork scratchings. A knight, a king. A saviour.

At least, that's how I feel now that I've decided to play the role more often. It feels good, being a martyr.

This warm feeling of self-righteousness is no-doubt what drove the Temperance movement to set up a lobby against the demon drink, here in Lancashire of all places. Keen to rid the world of hangovers, the men and women of the Temperance Society - mainly Methodists - took to the streets with a message of purity and abstinence. To their minds, alcohol was the root cause of laziness, crime, avoidance of religious duties and moral degradation. Booze had a lot to answer for in the post-industrial world.

(EDIT: Steve from Beer Nouveau - a brewery on Temperance Street, Manchester, no less - has helpfully shared an article about the current wherabouts of the Temperance movement. Spoiler alert - they're not quietly minding their own business.

To tempt booze-loving Lancastrians away from their favourite inns, the society began to take hold of the high-street, remodelling tea houses, corner shops and chemists into Temperance Bars. Branded as the sort of places children could be safe in, these year-round #dryjan temples sold health and vigour in thick, sticky syrups, pushing homeopathic medicines and the goodness of fresh air and cold water to a Northern nation of overworked lower classes. It took decades for the halo to tarnish, and in fact there are vestiges of the movement clinging to our left shoulder still: Vimto was created to compete with American Sarsaparilla, and was still bestowing nondescript "vim" and deliciousness to me in my Nana's kitchen in 1993.

One such last vestige of the Victorian Temperance society is Mr. Fitzpatrick's Temperance Bar in Rawtenstall, East Lancashire. It's quite a famous place, featuring periodically on food and drink programmes as a sort-of historical curiosity. It's the last remaining Temperance bar in the UK, and was owned by the Fitzpatricks until 1980. Now, it's a well-visited hotspot, held up by a strong loyal patronage from the local community. It also has some pretty iconic branding; vintage, but authentically so. Dandelion and Burdock pretenders, take note.

The collective cultural memory of Rawtenstall and all the towns exactly like it in this, my area of the country, is one of damp cobbles, leaking drainpipes, hardware shops, old ladies in long tweed coats, steep lines of terraced houses, endless bus journeys and limited hours of sunlight. I mean, you're not wrong, but you're also a little bit patronising. The North as a cliché exists for a reason, admittedly, but on stepping out into Rawtenstall on a frankly frigid January Saturday, we weren't met by a colliery band or an army of old men in flat caps. Instead, a brand new town centre development (costing upwards of £20 million, according to several hysterical local news stories) commanded our attention. Involving a new bus station, bars, a cinema and even, perhaps inevitably, a microbrewery, it was quiet but undeniable proof that no matter how deep you travel into the valleys of Lancashire, redevelopment is happening everywhere. Yes, the chimneys still loom over us, but now they're sandblasted and Grade II listed.

Turn away from the town centre, and you'll soon come across the Temperance bar. Don't be fooled by its tiny frontage - the owners here will go to overwhelming lengths to accommodate you and your parched throat. Plus, there's more seating hidden upstairs.

You'll be given a full explanation of the menu and offered tastes of everything that interests you. A pair sat beside us had a tabletop full of shot glasses and a distinctly Black Forest herbal aroma. Despite appearances, their poison wasn't Jaegermeister but Sarsaparilla and Root Beer sipped undiluted. Takes all sorts.

Mr Fitzpatrick's OG mixtures have been brewed since 1836 and as far as anyone is willing to reveal, the recipes haven't changed since the family moved to England in 1899. The menu is extensive, with these fabulous Fitzpatrick cordials at the centre of it all. Served hot, cold, fizzy, as an ice-cream sauce or in a float, it's actually hard to miss the booze. They've even got a draft tap, albeit for soda water.

The table to the right was a group of kids, who drank a milkshake each and argued bitterly about who was allowed to pay the bill.
I chose a cold fizzy Rhubarb and Rosehip, which was unreasonably delicious. Yes, it would be sensational with a dash of vodka, but alone it was totally passable as a social drink. I also picked a Hot Temperance Toddy, which is Blood Tonic, lemon and honey. I was immediately cured of every illness  known to Western medicine and could suddenly sing in a perfect soprano. (In case you were wondering, this gruesome sounding drink is actually a blend of raspberries, rosehips and nettles, among a good few other secret and no-doubt beneficial ingredients.)

As well as a cheap round, you can buy cakes and snacks at the bar. I was led astray by a blackboard and ordered a strawberry jam butty, to which the proprietress exclaimed "Good on yer, lass!" and everybody in the room eyed me jealously while I basked in the glory of an order well made. If there's one thing I love, it's being highly commended for eating. My lunch arrived cut into triangles - perfect. Cynics would call this the commodification and fetishisation of normal, quaintly wholesome activities like eating a jam sandwich. All I know is that I bought a big jar of strawberry jam yesterday so I can live off them at home.

My favourite thing, about Mr Fitzpatrick's is that it's historical without going on about it. You're not sat in a mini apothecary, surrounded by faux artefacts or bombarded with over-the-top vintage decor based on a theme of moustaches and penny farthings. There's a brightly-polished copper hot water dispenser from the old Rawtenstall Astoria Ballroom and authentic bits and bobs here and there. There's no bunting. The sweets are for eating, not display. The toilet is a Victorian-style chain flush at the top of a wonky staircase. It's pleasingly real, charmingly old-fashioned and genuinely fun to be in. And what more does anyone ask of a local?

Although Mr. Fitzpatrick's was once a chain of Temperance bars found across the North West, the Rawtenstall location I visited in this post is the only one that remains. Visit to find out more.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

A refuge

What's in a pub that makes it a pub?  There are hundreds of odes to the warm, inviting local, a shelter from the tumultuous skies of life, a welcoming place to anchor yourself to in the aftermath of a bad day. There are pubs as worn as your oldest pair of docs and there are pubs with doorhandles bent to the shape of your grip. There are pubs refurbished and awkward and eager to please and there are pubs that threaten to close at 11 but never get around to doing it. All of them have their own minor impact in our lives as beer drinkers.

One day recently, the hours passed with a tragedy each. Nothing worked, everything was stressful and I was too far from my sofa. No matter how awful I felt, my bad luck was eclipsed over and over again, by the awful misfortunes of others. Christmas is a hard time for many and this is starkly apparent in London where we were for a weekend, stopping on each corner to give change to those without a place to sleep, wishing them well, hoping they'd afford at least one pint somewhere warm that day. On the last day, when a person was hit by the train we were due to travel home on, the second poor soul to meet this fate during my short trip to London, it became a bit too much to bear. The thoughtless overheard conversations of irritated commuters aimed at this unknown individual sent the early afternoon into a spin. I realised I don't have a single good memory based in Euston Station. We left quickly in search of a pub. It's what we do.

I don't want to talk about a quick sit down somewhere disappointing to quell a panic attack. Let's skip forward two hours.

We stepped off our alternative train in Leeds. Working in the Wetherspoons in the train station during my uni years means the dead centre of the city feels like looking into the creases of a friendly face, no matter how many revamps and rejeuvenations it goes through. I made a promise to come back soon before we even left the station. It's a ritual, I never keep it. Leeds and I are growing further apart by the day. One day I'll have to admit that I'm no longer a local.

Ignoring the new pedestrian layout, I strode confidently to a place I knew would comfort us, Tom towed behind in my wake of enthusiastic, know-it-all buoyancy. I had forgotten the side-street I needed to find it, knocking my confidence slightly, but after a U-turn and a look at Harvey Nick's Christmas displays, there it was, our temporary port - Whitelocks. A white building in a flagstone yard, standing exactly as it did when it was known as the Turk's Head a hundred years ago or more. It was as if it didn't realise I'd not been back since I'd last taken my empties to the bar some three years ago. Sometimes it's jarring to realise the world carries on without you.

Bustlingly busy, but nowhere near intimidating or loud, Whitelocks remains one of the most actively welcoming bars you could visit. Not a single familiar face stared back at me - it has been three years after all - but people moved to accommodate us and our clumsy overnight rucksacks.

We ordered halves - we only had twenty minutes - and I chose Leeds-based Eyes Brewing's Barbe Rouge. Intriguing branding (I work in marketing) sold it first, but learning that the brewery's mission statement is to continue a foray into wheat-focused beers brewed in the UK made me warm to them even more. I like a USP. (Did I tell you I work in marketing?) Despite not being on the "current beers" list at the brewery itself, the beer tasted fresh enough and had a pleasant pepperiness, underlining a classic Belgian white ale style.

As is always the way when you're drinking to a short deadline, our house floated into view just over the horizon. No time for another. We had to head home.

Why am I telling you all this? I suppose I wanted to try and put into words how I choose the pubs I love. For me, the measure of a pub is in its comfort. A place I feel able to walk straight into ranks much higher on my ratings list than a place that's overwhelmingly unfamiliar. A pub should be somewhere you can step into and feel undeniably relaxed, no matter what rarities they stock, no matter their famous clientele, no matter which fashionable postcode they sprang up from. I can be in another town, another country or on the other side of the world and my pub requirements remain the same - to be welcome, and to be comfy. I'm sure I'm missing out. But what if I told you I didn't really mind?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Kirkby Lonsdale's got a tap room!

Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery has a tap room. Did you know that? I didn't. I go to Kirkby Lonsdale pretty often - maybe twice or three times a year, maybe more if it's a good summer and we want to look at the bikes - and I had no idea.

Kirkby Lonsdale is a place I love. A small town, tiny really, it sits on a meandering curve of the River Lune next to the borders of North Yorkshire and Cumbria, and was in fact part of the ancient county of Westmorland once upon a time. This means it's in the best place in the world - my homeland. The Lune valley is consistently beautiful and whether you're looking into the peat-tannin water rushing under Devil's Bridge or walking alongside the Crook and Bull Beck in the full force of a rare 28 degree August day, it's the type of place that feels like it's doing you good, somehow, right down into your bones.

Nostalgia is a helluva drug.

Grey day, still lovely.
I decided to take a new friend on a walk beside the river to Kirkby Lonsdale to show her my childhood stomping grounds. From Tennessee, I'm fairly certain the rivers and forests she knows are far more exciting and astoundingly beautiful that the sleepy Lancashire ones I know, but Ruskin's View is pretty nice and worth the short haul up the hilariously-named Radical Steps. She agreed, you'll be happy to know.

After the usual mooch around town (and to the Army surplus shop, obviously) we tried to think of a place to eat cake, and that's when we came across the sign for The Royal Barn.

Inside an imposing door with an upbeat handwritten sign stuck to it, the place is a beautifully restored barn, once part of the large coaching inn behind. Oiled wood beams sit mellow and cosy over raw limestone walls and artfully-placed "found" items - a cartwheel, a huge old pub sign, milk crates used as ingenious little shelves. I really liked it.

What really welcomes you in is the smell. Over in a far corner sit three gleaming tanks, including one glorious copper-topped mash tun, doing their job quietly and diligently, pumping out vigorous malty smells. Occasional plumes of steam gave a pleasantly industrial feeling about the place, as though you weren't skiving off but actually part of a very important day's work.

The bar itself is pretty. Two rows of cask pulls offering the full range of Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery ales and two cask ciders sit in front of an impressive range of bottled beers - including several Schlenkerla Rauchbier - and then on top of that, a row of keg taps for an ever-changing flow of craft choices. Oh, and there's a bunch of gins they bring out on ticketed gin nights and a good coffee machine. I particularly liked the keg taps because they had objects on them rather than badges - a camera, a bike pedal, a cog. Again, winning me over with industrial appropriation. According to the friendly barlady, the tap room has been open for about a year, but took around four years in the making. Chalk signs around the bar top talked me into a pork pie with piccalilli.

Sat with a pint of Ruskin's Best Bitter my friend laughed at me because I apparently was smiling like an idiot. What I enjoyed was that, clearly, even a small place like Kirkby Lonsdale has an appetite for a tap room. Even Kirkby Lonsdale has the space for interesting tastes and even a small maker like Kirkby Lonsdale Brewery has the bravery to say "fuck it" and do it with new artwork, high ceilings and reclaimed furniture instead of tartan armchairs and brass stag heads. We know we live in the countryside. Please, no more brass stag heads. It's made me excited for the future of bars and beer in rural communities up here in the North, where places like this aren't welcomed as you'd expect they might be. Especially, it has re-ignited a not-so-secret dream of my own. Time to dig out that old business plan.

I am bad at taking photographs but I promise I'm going to practice and get better.